NEIL YOUNG ON THE ROCKS

May 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Bob Buontempo

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Neil Young has encompassed many different musical styles over the course of a nearly 40-year career, from delicate folk-based acoustic music to hardcore country to rockabilly to electronically processed rock, to feedback-saturated proto-grunge. He's touched on punk and reggae and horn-driven, big band-influenced music and much more, yet, through it all, he always sounds like Neil. It's in the voice, the songwriting, the distinctive harmonica style, the guitar solos dripping with feeling. He may be a musical chameleon, but he is always unmistakably himself.

Technically, he has covered just about all of the bases, as well. Young has employed all sorts of different methods of recording, from traditional analog multitracking to his experimental “digi-tube” technique. That term was coined for a process Young explored to record tracks well over a decade ago. During those sessions, he virtually pioneered the use of a digital storage media, softened by an all-tube, analog front end. To this day, that methodology continues to be a common practice, used by many engineers and producers when making digital recordings.

Young was also one of the first private owners of a Sony 3324 digital multitrack, at a time when only major recording facilities would have expected to see any financial returns from offering their clients the use of that extremely expensive machine. Then again, Young is not above using a crude recording of himself singing by a crackling fire at home on an album. That's Neil Young, too.

While we all patiently await the long-promised and longer-delayed first installment of the Neil Young box set series (volume one is reportedly eight CDs and only goes through 1972!), Young has been characteristically busy, and last Christmas he released both a fine live CD, Road Rock Vol. 1, and a concert DVD, Live at Red Rocks. Handling the recording for both projects was David Hewitt's Remote Recordings Services, based in Lahaska, Pa. “I called David because he's the best,” says John Hanlon of Young's production crew. They were looking to book Hewitt's mobile Silver Studio for three days in late September 2000, for Young's performances at Red Rocks, a breathtakingly gorgeous amphitheater situated in Morrison, Colo. Besides the planned CD and DVD releases, Young also wanted to do a live Webcast of one of the concerts.

Normally, this sort of gig wouldn't cause Hewitt — a six-time TEC Award winner for Outstanding Remote Engineer — much consternation. However, due to the location of the venue, combined with the lack of cooperation from the weather, Young's project ended up presenting quite a challenge.

“Red Rocks, a beautiful amphitheater, formed by nature from stone, is located at the peak of a sharp incline in the Rocky Mountains,” Hewitt explains. “Access to the location is via a very steep, rather narrow, cliff-edged road. So, they've built a loading station at the base of the site, allowing the semi trucks hauling the P.A. and band equipment to unload the gear onto smaller Bobcat straight trucks, in order to more easily proceed the rest of the way up to the performance area. However, since my Remote Recordings studio is permanently installed in a tractor-trailer and not designed to be dismantled, that situation didn't work for me. We considered running cabling from the loading station up to the stage, but that was quite a long distance, so we dropped the idea rather quickly.”

So, Hewitt and his son, Ryan, who was the assistant engineer for the sessions, attempted to drive the truck to the top of the grade. “We tried to make it up several times, but it was virtually impossible, and we started to burn up the clutch in the cab,” Hewitt recalls. “So, ultimately, we called a local heavy-duty tow truck service. They ended up carefully maneuvering around us and got up to the summit, right where we wanted to park our trailer. Luckily, the tow cables on their truck were quite long, and they lowered the extended towlines down the pavement to us. We attached them to our vehicle, and when we started to drive up the road again, they started reeling the cables back onto their wrecker. That caused us to get pulled up a bit by the now recoiling cables and helped us make it to the top of the site. Working together, we were finally able to get the studio to the stage.”

Hewitt was hired as the “remote engineer” rather than the principal recordist for the shows, because Young tends to use the same personnel he has for the last 20 to 30 years for all of his projects. In fact, the tour that these projects document was named “Friends and Relatives”; the Friends being the musicians and crew that Young works with, and the Relatives being his wife, Pegi, and his sister, Astrid, who are the background vocalists in the band. Young's all-star band for the tour included Jim Keltner on drums, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Spooner Oldham on keyboards (he also co-produced the CD) and Ben Keith on various guitars, from dobro to pedal steel and other instruments.

Young's son Zeke is also involved behind the scenes; he records every show to 48 tracks on six Tascam DA-78s. He assigns one of the machine's eight tracks in this manner: First, he grabs the FOH mix, taking it pre-fader, post-EQ and post-effects. That stereo mix is printed on the first two of the tracks. The remaining six tracks are used as three additional stereo pairs, which are dedicated to the audience and stage ambience mics. The other five DA-78s consist of 40 tracks taken from the FOH board.

“Neil uses digital media to archive all his shows,” says John Hanlon, who was the principal engineer on the project. “First, there are Zeke's DA-78 tapes of every concert. Neil also takes a DAT of the FOH mix home with him after the gig, so he can listen to, and study, the performance of that show. The performance is everything to Neil, so he is constantly evaluating each one.”

Still, Hanlon notes, “Neil insists on 2-inch analog tape for all his commercial releases,” which is one reason why Hewitt's truck was chosen. The mobile control room has a pair of Studer A820 analog 24-track recorders, as well as a Neve VR M48 console and plenty of outboard gear, which Hanlon supplemented with some of his own.

Hanlon explains the approach to recording these shows: “We split the mic signals from the stage three ways: one split was for the recording truck, one for the FOH mix and one for the monitors. Each feed was transformer-isolated, by a Whirlwind box, which was custom-built for Neil. I took my 60 inputs and subgrouped them so I could fit everything on one 24-track machine. I needed one track for timecode, which was provided as house sync by the video crew, and I used a guard band track, as well. So, I really only had 22 tracks to work with. We ran the two Studers with about a five-minute start time stagger and fed them both, simultaneously, with identical signals, which consisted of a mult from the console's outputs. That way, we could have two first-generation, 2-inch analog master tapes at the end of the night: one for mixing the CD and the other to be used for the DVD. Since we had to make some tight deadlines in order to have product out for Christmas, the CD and DVD were mixed concurrently, at two different locations.”

Hanlon adds, “All the tape machine reel changes were timed out to happen during cues and were done live and ‘hot’ during the show by the tape op, Phil Gitomer.”

Hanlon had to be very active during the performances. He also did a lot of pre-production homework. “I submixed the drums to four tracks,” he explains, “kick, snare and a stereo pair of the rest of the kit. Then I also had a pair of tracks for each of the keyboards. I made sure that I had a mic for each instrument feeding one of the two tracks of the pair and a direct box output of that same keyboard feeding the other track. When you consider all the different guitars Neil uses, plus the variety of keyboards onstage, there's quite a few instruments that are played during each show. And that's before you include any miscellaneous items, like the squeezebox, pump organ, lap steel or harp. Between Neil and the other four musicians, they play a total of about 21 different instruments during a concert. Then, if you add to that the bandmembers' background vocals, the two female background vocals, plus Neil's lead vocal, you have a lot of things going down to 21 or 22 tracks. I was constantly muting and moving faders to get the appropriate instrument up at the right time for each song.

“With the redundancy of the direct and mic feeds assigned to opposite channels of the pair, if I missed a cue for a channel mute or a fader move on one track, I had that instrument covered by its other feed to the second track.”

During band rehearsals in both Hawaii and at Young's ranch in Northern California, Hanlon studied the songs that were going to be performed during the show in order to learn his cues. “I needed to know where each instrument and vocal came in on every tune and when they finished their parts, as well,” he notes. “Plus, I had to know which of the many instruments onstage were going to be used on each song and who would play it. A couple different musicians play several of the instruments, and each guy has his own touch, style…and level. There's a lot of swapping that goes on during shows.

“I made color-coded charts for each song,” Hanlon continues. “Because of the limited number of available tracks, I had a few instruments share tracks. I found out which ones weren't used together in a song and bused them to the same tracks. So, I wanted to be sure only the correct mic or DI was open on each track at the right time. That way, I could cut down on the noise, leakage and mud that the unused open mics would have added to the track. This pre-production would come in very handy later on during the shows.”

“The mic preamps were all remote, staying on the side of the stage,” explains Hewitt. “They were mostly Millennias, with a few APIs used as well. We ran everything into the truck at line-level. Sean McClintock, the stage manager, would trim the levels to John's specifications.”

Hanlon set the levels once before the show rather than adjusting for the different players. “I just set them for the hottest level they would get and left them alone all night,” he says. “For instance, although the acoustic piano is played by a few musicians during the show, I know that Neil bangs it the hardest. He only plays piano for one song, ‘Tonight's the Night.’ So I'd just have the preamps for the piano adjusted so they didn't clip on that tune, and then it was good for all the others. That just comes from knowing and working with these guys for so many years.”

The microphone list for the dates was extensive, as might be expected. Neumann KMS150s were used for all the vocals. The drum set had a Sennheiser 421 on the kick, a Neumann KM184 on the hi-hat, a Shure SM56 on the snare, E-V 408s clipped onto the rims of all the toms and a pair of Neumann KM84s for overheads. AKG 460s were used on the acoustic piano, along with a Heppinstill pickup for the direct feed. That and the rest of the direct signals ran through Demeter DI boxes. Other mics included an SM56 and AKG 414 on the Leslie for the Hammond B-3, a Shure SM98 and Audio-Technica Pro-35R on the pump organ, ECM-33Ps on the vibes, Sennheiser 409s on the guitar amps and KMS150s for the dobro and squeezebox. Young's acoustics had FRAP contact mics with FRAP preamps on them, and the harmonica went through a Nady system.

A pair of AKG C-460s, augmented by an MKH 60 shotgun mic, were used for the stage ambience mics. Three additional shotguns onstage and a couple of pairs of Shure SM81s, fitted with omni capsules, were set up in the house for audience pickup.

“I had them set up in stereo pairs,” notes Hanlon. “Tracks 1 and 2 were ‘stage ambience,’ with the shotgun mic placed center stage, facing the band. Tracks 3 and 4 were ‘close audience,’ with three shotguns onstage, facing the crowd but pointing a bit toward the sky. Tracks 5 and 6 were ‘mid-audience’ at the FOH position, and 7 and 8 were the ‘far audience’ tracks. The audience/ambience mics were printed to an additional DA-78, synched to the Studer 820s. I got the levels for those during the opening act, The Pretenders. A Studer 962 console on Hewitt's truck was used for the audience/stage ambience microphones.

“All the inputs going to the multitracks were EQ'd, and any additional signal processing was added prior to them being assigned to buses or on the bus inserts,” continues Hanlon. “I used an API EQ and half of a modified Quad Eight compressor on Neil's vocals. The other half of the Quad Eight went on Spooner's vocals. There was a Pultec EQP-A inserted on the kick, and the rest of the drums were EQ'd by the Neve console in David's truck. The bass had a Neve 1084 EQ, a Neve 2254 compressor and a Pultec EQ-1A3 in series on its mic insert, and the same processing but with an EQ-1A on its direct signal.

“Neil's two guitar tracks each had a Neve 1084 and a Neve 33609 on them. The pedal steel amp had a Summit compressor, and the harmonica, a Tube-Tech compressor. Both the acoustic piano tracks and the other pair of additional keyboard tracks had Empirical Labs Distressors on each of them. The background vocals for Ben Keith, Astrid and Pegi all had UREI 1176s on their inserts.

“I monitored through KRK E8s and Yamaha NS-10s, powered by an H&H Mosfet V-800 amp. Occasionally, I threw the mix up on the mains in the truck [custom KRK 15A3s] for bottom-end reference.”

Young's regular crew handled the sound reinforcement end of the show: John Drane was the system engineer and crew chief, Tim Mulligan did the FOH mix and Mark Humphries handled the monitors, assisted by Tommy Sterling. Randy Aspilliaga also assisted onstage.

Upstream Multi-Media of Sherman Oaks, Calif., supplied video for the DVD shoot and the Webcast. Larry Johnson, who has known Neil since working on the original Woodstock movie, was the producer/director. “Larry is like a dancer, coordinating all his shots and switching them himself,” comments Marcy Gensic, the assistant producer for the project. “We had no video truck, so we constructed a little video tent on the side of the stage. The six digital betacams were switched live through an SDI digital switcher for the feed to the digital beta deck that would be used for the DVD, as well as the Webcast, and the two large projection screens for the audience. All the cameras were also taken as ISO signals, in case we needed to add or change anything in post.” The video was shot in a 16×9 widescreen format.

The audio and video teams had their systems in place and were working smoothly together, but what they hadn't foreseen was the impact the weather would have on the project. “It started out being 80 degrees and sunny that first day,” Gensic says, “but things started going downhill from there.”

“The weather was atrocious for all three shows, with heavy rain, snow and high winds,” adds Hanlon. “Now I had to be extra vigilant and mute any open mics constantly, because the wind noise made them unusable when no signal was present. The mics in the audience also started to crap out. We tried to cover them, but the noise of the rain hitting the plastic covering was way too loud to do that. The ‘roof’ on the stage was 60 to 100 feet above the stage floor, and since the wind was blowing the rain horizontally, it was no real help. Fortunately, no mics or equipment onstage went down, except for the change of a soaked drum kit.”

“We needed to build a shelter over the FOH console,” notes crew chief Drane. “We only had a little slit to look out to the stage. Otherwise, we were ensconced in that tarp.”

“But, the worse the conditions, the more determined Neil was to do a good show,” adds Hewitt. “Looking at him on the stage, with his hair blown back and a look of defiance on his face, standing in the rain, with lightning in the background was something else. He looked like some sort of Norse god.”

“The audio got a little messed up from some of the audience mics failing,” says John Nowland, who mixed the DVD at Redwood Digital, Young's studio in Northern California. “But we were able to work around it, by and large, by manipulating the different audience tracks. We also were able to take the occasional track from Zeke's 48-track tapes to get around a few problems.”

Nowland, who has been with Young since 1983, mixed the DVD-Audio on Young's Neve 8078, assisted by John Hausmann. The studio has custom monitors with TAD drivers. Mixes were stored to Studer 827 2-inch, as well as a Genex 8500 optical hard disc recorder fed through a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 converter using 24-bit/48kHz sampling rates. The audio was also HDCD encoded.

“We usually mix to both formats and pick the one that sounds best for the project,” Nowland says. “The added bonus is also to have the analog for future archival purposes, as sampling rates and bit depth increase down the road.”

DVD-Video post was handled by Complete Post in L.A. The video had a few minor problems, as well. “We got video noise from the weather and the cables running through puddles,” says Gensic, “but we were able to replace those shots from the ISO cams where needed.”

That should be the end of the story. However, there are two little plot twists that remain.

After Young listened to all the FOH DATs from the tour, he decided that his best performances were not from the Red Rock concerts. Although all those performances were used for the DVD and live Webcast, the Road Rock CD was compiled from the 2-track FOH mixes, printed on the DA-78 from other shows during the tour, augmented by some of the stage ambience/audience tracks. These included one song each from Cleveland and Santa Barbara and three each from San Diego and Vancouver. A DVD-A using the same performances as the CD was compiled in a Sonic Solutions system, upsampling to 96 kHz from the DA-78 tapes, sequenced and configured for 5.1 by Tim Mulligan. Mulligan then took his hard drive to Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering for some final touches.

It was a marathon of hard work on every front. But the deadline was met, and Neil Young fans were rewarded with a bounty of Christmas treats.






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