Isolated Tracks: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”

I don’t think that there’s a more iconic song than Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.” It embodies the sound of an era, to be sure, but it’s also a brilliant work on its own. Indeed, the songwriting, production, and performances of a band at its peak marked an indelible stamp on listeners everywhere when it came out, and even new listeners today.

Jimmy Page in the studio during the recording of "Stairway To Heaven"

We don’t often get a chance to peak inside such a masterwork, but I managed to find the isolated tracks to the song online. These aren’t the most pristine tracks that you’ll hear (thanks to the artifacts from the separation software used), but it does give you a rare look inside a song beloved by millions (and one banned in music stores everywhere).

Here are a few observations on things to listen for as you play the video.

Drums – The first thing that hits you in the face is the sound of the drums. Drummers always comment on what a great sound it is, but as soon as you dial it up in the studio (fairly easy in a good room), they always want to go back to the isolated mic-on-everthing approach. It’s kind of a 1 trick pony sound in that there’s not as much flexibility as how we do it today.

Tempo – Listen to the change of tempo during the different sections of the song, especially on the solo. This is not a case of Bonham playing out of control, it’s a planned tempo change from the start of the song at 73bpm, to 86bpm when the drums first enter, to 97bpm during the solo, to 100bpm at the very end. By the way, there’s some magic in that speed jump during the solo. I noticed the same thing happening during the solo on Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger.” The increase in energy and excitement is undeniable.

Bass – As was the custom of the time, neither the piano bass nor the Fender bass has any real high end on it. As a matter of fact, it sounds like it was filtered at about 1kHz or so. Also take note as to how much the bass part during the solo shows off John Paul Jones’ Motown influences.

Guitar Solo – The guitar solo starts at 20:27, and no matter how many times I hear it, I’m always amazed at its shear beauty. To me, what really makes the sound is the heavy 350 (or so)ms tape echo that gives it such an ethereal feel.

There’s a lot more going on in “Stairway To Heaven” that we could talk about, but I think you should probably have a listen to the various parts for yourself.

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