It's hardly a surprise that there's very little information available regarding the recording of the debut album considering they were still unknowns and keeping detailed information wasn't by any means their top priority. Liner notes don't specify any exact dates or who was in charge of which session, as that also seemed to have been quite chaotic to say the least: they'd go and work with whomever happened to be on shift that day. Some stories have also been susceptible to broken telephone and a few myths have spread all over the place without having been verified prior to sharing.
The album was done on sixteen-track analogue tapes and features all four band members performing on every single number. As it was customary at the time, backing tracks were recorded with at least three instruments simultaneously, resulting in a lot of bleeding (e.g. the drums could be faintly heard on the signal from the bass and vice-versa). Queen used their own instruments except for the piano, which was the one available at the venue - in this case, the famous 'Hey Jude' Bechstein, which by the way would not be the same one as the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' one, no matter how many articles and web publications repeat it.
Backing vocals seem to have been, for the most part at least, done separately, which resulted in each founding member being assigned a specific part to sing as it took place on-stage. And no, it wasn't always Roger singing the highest part, Frederick in the middle and Brian doing the baritone: it changed from song to song and sometimes from section to section, depending on the specific sound they were after.
A Billboard publication published in the States on Saturday the 10th of June 1972 has a detailed list of the available equipment at both Trident and the Music Centre at the time, although it lists a Steinway piano for the former rather than a Bechstein. Keep in mind that, back then, it hadn't reached its legendary status and Trident Studios didn't own a piano anyway, they just rented one when required. Still, there's a bit of visual evidence from those days strongly pointing at the Bechstein: the inner sleeve photo on Peter Hammil's debut album (recorded in late April 1971) and some surviving footage from Harry Nilsson's sessions in June 1972 (which were around the time Queen also went to the studios), where the Bechstein logo can be dimly visible.
No photographs have been officially published of the Queen recording sessions for this album, although the back-cover features one of John and Frederick in the control room. John is seen playing Brian's Hallfredh acoustic guitar, although according to the credits he didn't play guitar on the actual songs, only bass. Shortly before passing away, Norman Sheffield published a book telling his side of the story and he mentioned some details about this album, though nothing too specific for those interested in equipment or production.
There are two known photos from the Music Centre sessions in 1971: one of Frederick recording some vocals, and one of Frederick and in-house engineer Louis Austin. They've both appeared in some websites and docos including Days of Our Lives in 2011. I also interviewed Louis Austin that year and got some information regarding what was used and what those sessions were like. Some information regarding microphones and their uses has also been taken from Kenneth Scott's Q&A sessions on the Gear-Slutz forum; while he didn't work with Queen directly, he did some albums which were developed at the same time and in the same place, which increases the odds (without making it 100% certain) that somewhat similar approaches and protocols were followed.
No multi-tracks from these sessions have leaked, but there are stems from 'Keep Yourself Alive' which have been cracked from the videogame Rock Band 3, where it was part of the first Queen Extravaganza Pack, released on Tuesday the 7th of December 2010 for Play Station 3, Xbox 360 and Wii.
- December: Queen record some demos at the Music Centre in London. They were, reportedly, in and out for weeks and mainly used Studio 1, which had been originally built for orchestras. They use 16-track machines and even try out some synthesisers (but none of what they do survives to the final versions) and five demos are completed.
- April: Queen begin recording at Trident in London, even though their contracts haven't been signed at this point. They mostly focus on re-doing some (not all) of the demos they'd had from 1971, and try out some new songs as well.
- Tuesday 13th June: 'My Fairy King', 'Liar' and 'Keep Yourself Alive' confirmed to already have been at least partially recorded at Trident - though not necessarily completed and not necessarily the same versions that ended up on the album.
- Sunday 30th July: Album's been finished by then, but it'd still be a while before they release it.
- Wednesday 1st November: Two contracts are signed - one with Neptune Productions Limited (and it's agreed they'd paid them an advance of £6,000 in 'goods and equipment' by then) and one with Trident Audio Productions. The band members sign as Frederick Bulsara, John Richard Deacon, Brian Harold May and Roger Meddows Taylor. They also agree on a weekly salary of £100 for the artist (i.e. £25 per member) for a year.
- Tuesday 22nd May: Album's about to be released - with a version of 'Keep Yourself Alive' which starts off with acoustic guitar like the demo - but is postponed yet again.
- Friday 6th of July: The lead single, 'Keep Yourself Alive / Son and Daughter', is released. 'Keep Yourself Alive' is a completely different version, taken from a different backing track (recorded in or before January 1973) and possibly with brand new overdubs, and mixed by Michael 'Clay' Stone.
- Friday 13th of July: Album finally released in Britain.
- Friday 1st of November: The album's certified Silver in Britain for having reached a £75,000 threshold. The popularity of the 'Killer Queen / Flick of the Wrist' single (released a few weeks prior) helps their back-catalogue gain notoriety.
- Saturday 1st of May: The album's certified Gold in Britain for having reached a £250,000 threshold. It's possible that, with Queen having topped the charts with A Night at the Opera and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' some months before that, more and more people became interested in learning how they'd begun.
- Tuesday 29th March: The album's finally certified Gold in the USA, after having collected a million dollars in sales (that was the criterion back then).
Documented Recording Venues
- De Lane Lea Music Centre on Engineers Way, Wembley, Brent, Greater London HA9, England. They recorded there in December 1971 and one of those demos, 'The Night Comes Down', made it to the album.
- Trident Studios on 17 St Anne's Court, Soho, City of Westminster, London W1F 0BQ, England. Most of what they recorded there was in April - May, though it's possible some sessions took place a little before and after that.
- The band:
- Frederick Bulsara (credited as 'Freddie Mercury'): Lead and backing vocals, acoustic piano.
- John Deacon (credited as 'Deacon John'): Electric bass.
- Brian May: Lead and backing vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, acoustic piano.
- Roger Taylor: Lead and backing vocals, acoustic drums, additional percussion.
- Additional musicians:
- John Anthony: Additional vocals ('Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll').
- Studio Crew:
- John Anthony: Head.
- Roy Baker: Deputy.
- Louis Austin: 'The Night Comes Down'.
- Roy Baker.
- David Hentschel.
- Theodore Sharp.
- Michael Stone.
- Technical Crew:
- Jonathan Harris: Equipment supervision.
- Douglas Puddifoot: Photography.
- Acoustic Drums:
- Hayman (studio backline at Trident).
- Ludwig (Roger's own).
- Ludwig (studio backline at Trident).
- Acoustic Guitar:
- Hallfredh ('The Night Comes Down').
- Martin (possibly everything else).
- Acoustic Piano:
- Bechstein III 7' 8" (Trident).
- Steinway (Music Centre).
- Additional Percussion:
- New Era Cowbells.
- New Era Tabla.
- New Era Tambourine.
- Electric Bass:
- Fender Precision: Possibly used, depending on when he got it.
- Rickenbacker: Confirmed for 1971, possible for 1972.
- Electric Guitar:
- BHM Bespoke: Presumably used for all the recordings.
- Electric Organ:
- Hammond C-3: Housed at both Music Centre and Trident.
Documented Studio Equipment
- Analogue Tape Recorders:
- Scully 16-Track at the Music Centre.
- 3M M-56 16-Track at Trident.
- Mixing Consoles:
- De Lane Lea Music Centre:
- Sound Techniques 3016 (Studio 1).
- Sound Techniques 2416 (Studio 2).
- Sound Techniques 2016 (Studio 3).
- Trident A 3224 (Studio 1).
- Sound Techniques 2408 (Studio 2).
- Tannoy Red Speakers in Lockwood Cabinets driven by Crown D150 Amplifiers (Music Centre).
- JBL 4350 Speakers in Lockwood Cabinets driven by HH Amplifiers (Trident 1).
- Tannoy Red Speakers in Lockwood Cabinets driven by Radford Amplifiers (Trident 2).
- C-12 and C-12A: Possibly used on bass at both studios, especially if/when they were after a Beatles-esque sound (e.g. 'Keep Yourself Alive'?).
- C-28: Used at Trident for tom-toms and electric guitars.
- C-414: Possibly used for drums and percussion at the Music Centre.
- C-451: Possibly used for drum overheads at Trident.
- D-12: Main bass-drum mic at both studios.
- D-202: Used at Trident for percussion and bass (the signal coming directly from the amp).
- D-224: Used at Trident for hi-hats.
- Electrovoice RE-20: Possibly used occasionally on the bass-drum at both studios, and for electric guitar at Trident.
- KM-53: Possibly used on drum overheads and acoustic guitar at the Music Centre.
- KM-54: Possibly used on drum overheads and acoustic guitar at the Music Centre, snare and tom-toms at Trident.
- KM-56: Possibly used at Trident for snare and tom-toms.
- KM-64 and KM-86: Possibly used for acoustic guitar at the Music Centre.
- KM-84: Possibly used for additional percussion at the Music Centre.
- KM-88: Possibly used at the Music Centre for electric guitar, vocals and drum overheads.
- M-49: Used at the Music Centre for piano.
- U-47: Possibly used at the Music Centre for the bass-drum.
- U-67: Multi-purpose mic at both studios. At Trident, it was the main mic for vocals and piano, and also occasionally for drum overheads.
- U-87: Multi-purpose mic at the Music Centre.
- Sennheiser MD-421: Possibly used on tom-toms at the Music Centre.
- Sennheiser MD-441: Possibly used at Trident on the hi-hats and perhaps also occasionally for vocals.
- Shure SM-57 and SM-58: Main snare drum and electric guitar mics at the Music Centre.
- Sony C-38B: Possibly used at Trident for snare drums.
- Outboard Signal Processors:
- Astronics A-1671 Graphic Equaliser: Used extensively at Trident.
- Dolby Noise Reduction: Used extensively at Trident.
- EMT 140 Plate Reverb: Used a lot at both studios. The signature delay at the Music Centre was 167 milliseconds.
- Pultec EQP-1A Tube Equaliser: Used at Trident.
- Teletronix LA-2A Compressors: Frequently used at Trident, part of their characteristic sound.
- UREI 1176 Limiters: Used extensively at both studios.
- UREI LA-3A Limiters: Possibly used on electric guitar at Trident.
Myths, Legends & Ongoing Debates
- David Bowie: Rumour has it that some time in the nineties David Bowie was asked if he'd been influenced by Queen, to which he made the off-hand and possibly apocryphal comment that Frederick Mercury had asked him to produce the band's first album. Plenty of people still believe that even though there's no evidence whatsoever and even though Roger himself debunked it (Mojo, August 1999).
- Recording Downtime: A commonly-told story involves the band members getting phone calls in the middle of the night and rushing to the studios because a big-name artist (such as David Bowie, Elton John or Paul McCartney) had cancelled or left early, then recording as much as they could for a few hours until the cleaners showed up. Norman Sheffield categorically denied it in his book, but it's so ingrained in the Queen mythology that most people would never dare question it. What really happened may have been somewhere in-between.
- What did John and Roger play?: Since they were at least partly recording in graveyard shifts, it's possible that on some occasions they didn't have time to set up Roger's drums and had to settle for what the studio had (a Ludwig kit and a Hayman one). But whether or not that happened (and if so, on which songs) is anybody's guess at this point. As for John, the earliest photograph of him with a Fender bass is from the 20th of December 1972 - by then, they'd long recorded most of the album. There's nothing to tell whether the bass had been given to him when they signed with Neptune Productions (on the 1st of November, in which case he didn't record the album with it) or long before that (in which case he did).
- Who played the organ?: There's an organ on 'Liar' (and it seems to have been a deliberate choice as there's also organ on the demo version), but no mention of who played it. Could've been Frederick (who wrote it and was the band's chief keyboardist) but it could've also been anyone else. It's only a D chord...