The Wonder of Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Elvis Presley would have loved to have taken advantage of today’s meticulous recording standards. Fact is, The King was very much a stickler in the studio, and he often came away from his sessions somewhat frustrated, yearning for a better performance and/or a fuller-sounding mix closer to what he’d hear in his head.

Elvis also had an affinity for orchestral arrangements, something his estate was able to realize last year with If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RCA/Legacy), which has sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide to date. It’s not hard to see why If I Can Dream was so successful, once you cue up and connect with the majesty of tracks like “Love Me Tender,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “How Great Thou Art.”

Helming If I Can Dream was the dynamic production duo of Don Reedman (Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford) and Nick Patrick (Plácido Domingo, Il Divo). Reedman first approached executive producer Priscilla Presley with the idea to marry vintage Elvis vocal tracks with the RPO at famed Abbey Road Studios in London, and it was an idea she wholly embaced.

“Elvis always loved the great, operatic vocalists,” Priscilla Presley said in a statement. “We often talked about his interest in recording material that allowed him to perform in that space, and it’s exciting to hear him on these recordings, performing with the world-class Royal Philharmonic Orchestra via the magic of Abbey Road Studios.”

Buoyed by the reception of If I Can Dream, the production Dream Team reunited to emerge with another stellar Elvis/RPO offering, The Wonder of You: Elvis Presley With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RCA/Legacy), a worthy sequel if ever there was. From “A Big Hunk O’ Love” to “Don’t” to “Kentucky Rain,” Wonder again fuses the spirit of Elvis’ impassioned vocals with an orchestra at the top of its game.

I reached out across The Pond to get Reedman and Patrick’s takes on the sonic differences between the two albums, how a certain mantra guided their respective hands and ears, and just what aspects of modern recording Elvis would have embraced. I just can’t help believin’ they’ve locked into some seriously amazing grace with the sweet sounds of this new series.

Mike Mettler: What was the impetus for undertaking If I Can Dream and The Wonder of You in the first place? Don, you go first.

Don Reedman: The initial impetus was a vision I had that Elvis’s versatile voice would be complemented by a richer, fuller quality production that would sit on the original feel of the tracks Elvis made back in the day. We have also raised the vocal level of Elvis’s voice slightly overall The Wonder of You from the If I Can Dream album.

Nick Patrick: The overwhelming desire for this record was to give Elvis unique access to the very best sonic and technological opportunities the world’s great artists recording today take for granted. One of the many challenges in approaching the recording of The Wonder of You was a lot more of the songs came from “live, in concert” performances. We had to bring the quality of those recordings up to the quality of the isolated studio recordings so that Elvis’s vocal sat beautifully in the orchestral setting.

There was a great deal of restoration work on those recordings, so you can hear the full sonic depth of his performances, which enhances the emotional depth. The initial impetus to take on these projects was driven by a dream to hear this incredible voice with all the drama and emotion imbedded in those performances, exquisitely accompanied by a symphony orchestra.

Mettler: Take me on the journey from when you first listened to tapes of Elvis singing to fusing that material with the RPO, and how you may have approached things differently for The Wonder of You.

Reedman: The first time we listened to the tapes, we were amazed by the quality of his vocals, and then we had to separate the vocal on many tracks and clean up the recordings so they would work with what we wanted to achieve. Once we started the recording in Abbey Road Studio 2, we knew it was going to work. The approach on the second album was very similar to the first.

Patrick: Listening to the tapes for the first time was certainly one of those great moments in my career. Feeling so close to probably the greatest popular artist ever, it was an overwhelming experience, which filled us with great excitement — and a degree of trepidation: “We better not blow this!”

We were immediately struck with the enormous range of emotion Elvis could take his audience on during a single song — the beautiful, sensitive, and tender moments that effortlessly transition into that fully operatic-like power, without ever pushing his voice too hard. He was always in control and always in charge, with his group of musicians responding to every tiny inflection in his performance. He conducted his band as if he were conducting a symphony orchestra himself.

In terms of our approach to setting Elvis’s vocal in with the RPO on this record, we did feel the songs were a little more uplifting and energized. We wanted the orchestral arrangements to reflect that, particularly with songs like ‘Big Hunk O’ Love,” which was a live performance from [1973’s] Aloha From Hawaii, and is faster and more energetic than that 1959 studio recording.

“I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” is a new, reworked version of the [1973] studio recording; again, it’s faster, with a completely new feel. We do, of course, still have the beautiful ballads too.

One significant difference between the recording approach of If I Can Dream and The Wonder of You is on the new record, we recorded all the new rhythm parts before the orchestra — unlike If I Can Dream, which was recorded the opposite way around. This allowed the orchestral arrangements and the RPO’s performance to respond to the energy and sonic quality of the new rhythm tracks.

Mettler: I understand your original If I Can Dream mantra was, “Listen to Elvis.” Did that still hold true the second time around? What did Elvis “tell” you to do as you worked on The Wonder of You material with the RPO?

Reedman: He told us the same thing, really — be guided by the emotion and feeling of the vocal.

Patrick: The mantra stayed the same. As I mentioned before, when Elvis made his original recordings, he was dictating the dynamics, energy, and emotional intensity of each performance. That is the clearest message he could tell us of what he wanted from each performance, and we reacted to that and tried to give every nuance of those performances added emotional weight.

Mettler: How did you know which Elvis songs were right for orchestration like this? What were the signs and characteristics that made you take those song choices to the next level?

Reedman: We wanted songs that were more upbeat in feel and more instant, yet have them be surprising to the audience with a little more imagination and positivity in feel — all the while capturing all the different styles that Elvis had to give.

Patrick: We wanted these songs to give the audience a real reason for owning both records. The Wonder of You feels a bit more “celebratory” — and, dare I say, commercial in feel while still retaining the beautiful, tender moments.

Mettler: What is it about Abbey Road Studios that makes it the perfect location for recording these albums? Do you have any personal favorite recordings from any other artist that were cut at Abbey Road?

Reedman: Abbey Road is a wonderful studio incased in history, and my favorite recordings from Studio 2 are those of The Beatles. I love the rawness of their first album [Please Please Me, released in the UK in March 1963]. It is simply the best studio for these type of recordings.

Peter Cobbin is a wonderful engineer who knows every microphone to use for whatever type of recording you are making. They have the best selection of valve microphones in the world, and the best backup team and equipment.

Patrick: Abbey Road is one of the very best orchestral studios in the world. We record in Studio 2, the studio The Beatles used for almost all their recordings. The studio recording room remains largely unchanged from those historic recordings. The sound is tighter than Studio 1 — and that suits the project better, as it enables us to shape the sound more in the mixing process.

They have an incredible range of microphones to choose from. We exclusively used vintage valve mikes to create a beautiful, warm glow around the orchestra. The room allows you to hear the orchestral sound breathe. Plus, you cannot ignore the incredible spirit of all the amazing recordings that have been made there, floating around every corridor of the building.

One of my favorite recordings from Abbey Road was Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon [released March 1973]. It’s dark, uplifting, and dramatic — one of the greatest records ever made.

Mettler: Were the RPO sessions recorded at 96kHz/24-bit or higher? Would you agree that high resolution is the best way to capture all of the elements of an orchestra of such magnitude?

Patrick: The recordings were all 96/24, yes. For this kind of project, it definitely makes a big difference. It gives you so much more air at the top end, and depth in the bass end. You need to hear the sonic architecture and space around the orchestra, and 96k allows that.

Mettler: Was there any thought given to doing a 5.1 surround sound mix of these sessions? Personally, I love listening to orchestral performances in surround sound because I feel I can hear the instrumentation in each section of the orchestra that much clearer, which leads to an even fuller appreciation of the music at hand, including the vocal performances along with it.

Patrick: I think it would sound amazing in 5.1.You would really feel like you were standing next to Elvis in the middle of the orchestra. But we have not had any discussions about doing 5.1 mixes. Maybe for something for the future.

Reedman: We have not yet discussed 5.1 sound mixes, no.

Mettler: Do each of you have one specific favorite performance on The Wonder of You? Me, I’m just as partial to the emotionality inherent in Elvis’s vocal on “Don’t” as Priscilla Presley is.

Reedman: “Don’t” [1958] is a favorite because I could hear the arrangement in my head, and was able to get it thru to Robin Smith, the strings arranger and conductor. It’s also a fantastic vocal of a very young Elvis.

I also love “The Wonder of You” [1970] and “Suspicious Minds” [1969]. They are very emotional, and show the wonderful fullness in sound of the RPO.

Patrick: I love “Memories” [1968], a beautiful song that really works with Robin Smith’s orchestral arrangement. And “Suspicious Minds” is one of my favorite Elvis songs, so that is a big favorite as well.

Mettler: What did you consider to be some of the challenges in terms of matching the “right” Elvis vocal with the “right” arrangement? Did any of his vocals have to be level-matched across the album or need any kind of technical enhancement to bring them up to a certain sound-quality standard?

Reedman: Nick will answer this better, but there was a lot of cleaning up and editing different vocal performances to achieve the great result we have.

Patrick: This album presented some real challenges in terms of matching the quality of the original vocal recordings from the live performances and those of the studio recordings. Much time was spent restoring the full bandwidth of those live recordings, so the vocal sound across the entire album was consistent. Many of the studio recordings had reverb already recorded on Elvis’s vocal track, so time was also spent on reducing that without in any way damaging the original sound. This enabled us to create our own acoustic space for him to work with the orchestra and other new elements.

Mettler: What do you feel is the best way for people to listen to The Wonder of You — on vinyl, on CD, or via high-resolution downloads? Personally, I feel the overall breadth inherent in these recordings is very much lost if you listen to any of these tracks via low-quality MP3s.

Patrick: To experience the full sonic experience, it has to be CD or high-resolution downloads, but this is mainly a physical CD audience. I do believe the emotional intensity of this album will be heard via whatever system or format it is played on, and that is very important to preserve in an age when so much music is listened to on ’buds or laptops. It still must touch and move you.

Reedman: Just listen to the album on the best quality gear you can. Play it loud and proud!

Mettler: It’s been noted that Elvis sometimes felt dissatisfied with the scope of what was captured on tape after certain recording sessions of his. How do you think Elvis would have embraced the higher-resolution recording options of the modern day? What do you think he might have attempted to do in the studio, given the advancements in recording in the years since he passed away in 1977?

Reedman: Elvis appreciated the development in engineering quality, and he mentioned this in the ’68 Comeback Special. I don’t think he would have changed his approach to the recording process from his own standpoint. He was all about the feel, and he was right about that. We have been very mindful of that fact in our approach to the recordings.

Patrick: Elvis was an artist who was always pushing boundaries, and I cannot imagine him not embracing every technological advancement that allowed him to push those boundaries. He would have loved the clarity and space that can be achieved now, and I am sure he would have used everything at his disposal to make his records the best they could be.

One thing I think Elvis would have loved, if he were recording now, is the ability to perfect recordings with the editing power of Pro Tools, while maintaining his unique sense of performance.

Mettler: Outside of what appears on these two albums in their orchestral form, what are your personal favorite original Elvis tracks, from any era of his recording career?

Reedman: “Hound Dog” [1956] — the raw feel of it.

Patrick: I think it would have to be “In the Ghetto” [1969] — one of his most beautiful vocal performances.

Mettler: Finally, will we see a third installment in this series in 2017? Do you have any ideas in mind for what you’d like to do next?

Patrick: We hope very much that there will be a third Elvis installment, yes. We are just starting a Roy Orbison album, which we are very excited about.

Reedman: We are making an Elvis Christmas album, and, like Nick said, are also in the process of working on a Roy Orbison album. Exciting times ahead!

Jackblues's picture

I have both of these albums. And I'm a bit torn between whether or not they should exist. The purest in me doesn't like the idea of tampering with music from the most important artist of our time.

If one can get past that, some of the songs are actually quite good from this collaboration. Even the duet with Helene Fischer on "Just Pretend" worked very well. That surprised me.

With the success of these projects there's bound to be more. Hopefully to those new to Presley's recordings, these will get them interested in the true Elvis music catalog. The music that changed all of our lives.