Jason Isbell Direct-To-Disc

Record Store Day EP Captures Performance at Welcome to 1979
At the studio’s yearly Recording Summit, Jason Isbell tracked a Record Store Day release, Jason Isbell Live from Welcome to 1979.

On a cool November evening in Nashville, 60 audio engineers, musicians and other recording industry professionals gather in the second-floor control room of Welcome to 1979 Studios. It is the first evening of the studio’s annual Recording Summit, a conclave of recording enthusiasts filled with panel discussions, demonstrations and the weekend’s centerpiece eventa direct-to-disc recording session.

As Welcome to 1979 owner/recording engineer Chris Mara makes minor adjustments to the board, he watches the video screens on the wall in front of him. One displays a band warming up in the main tracking studio. Several of the attendees study the musicians, looking for a hint of who the surprise artist will be. On the screen displaying the interior of the vocal booth, a figure steps into view; Grammy Award-winning Americana singer-songwriter Jason Isbell straps on his guitar.

Downstairs from the control room is the vinyl-mastering room where engineer Cameron Henry is checking the settings on the vintage 1973 Neumann VMS 70 cutting lathe. Henry, who has been the in-house vinyl-mastering engineer for Welcome to 1979 since 2013, has cut masters for hundreds of LPs, but this evening’s event is his twelfth direct-to-disc session.

On direct-to-disc sessions, my mastering is like a performance in itself,” Henry says. “I’m often hunched over the microscope, playing the wave, so to speak. A lot of problems can be avoided by good planning, but some of it is guesswork. You don’t have the luxury of knowing the exact running time of each side of the record. The band will tell me how many songs they have and how long each song is. I add 20 percent on to that. Chris and I also have a phone to communicate, so when I start getting close to the end of lacquer, I can get on the horn and say we need to do a fade out, but you always want to avoid that if possible.”

Down the hall from the mastering room, Isbell plays the opening lick of the Rolling StonesCan’t You Hear Me Knocking.” The building crackles with the sound of rock ’n roll for the next six minutes, but as Isbell nears the end of the song, he suddenly stops the take.

Lets start that again. We don’t want to get too groovy or have too much fun,” Isbell jokes. Mara tells him to hang on, and Henry scrambles to remove the lacquer and loads a fresh, unmarked platter on the lathe.

With a fresh lacquer spinning, Henry indicates that he’s ready and Mara signals to start Take 2. Isbell and band quickly find a groove. They nailKnocking” and then pause for just a moment before launching into John Prine’s Storm Windows.” Finishing that number, Isbell makes a quick guitar change, and then closes out Side A with the Candi Staton Southern soul classic “Heart on a String.”

In the mastering room, Henry quickly inspects the completed lac- quer and replaces it with a fresh one. Upstairs in the control room, Mara checks the settings on his console and prepares for the recording of Side B. “For direct-to-disc sessions, I never fade down between songs,” Mara says. “The buzz of amps in the room, the chatter between the musicians— all that goes down if I fade, and it takes all the life out of the sound.”

Henry signals from the cutting room that Side B is ready to go. Isbell counts down as Henry drops the cutting head onto the disc. Suddenly, Isbell says, “Hold it, lets kill the drum vocal mic.” A few seconds of band chatter follow before they kick off a driving version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and then return to the Stones with a cover of Sway.”

Isbell closes Side B with one of his own songs, the take-no-prisoners rocker “Never Gonna Change, which he originally recorded as a member of Drive-By Truckers. In the cutting room, Henry continues to watch his lathe closely, peering through the microscope to check the progress of the snake-like grooves in the lacquer, and making minute adjustments to the cutting head.

As Isbell and the band reach the last verse of the song, Henry’s attention to the grooves intensifies. Grabbing the intercom phone next to the lathe, he tells Mara, “I’ve got about a quarter-inch left. You may have to fade.”

Finally, Isbell brings the song to a close. Henry exclaims,Barely got it!” as he manipulates the controls on the lathe to create the run-out groove on the spinning lacquer.I predicted it would be 18 minutes long, which turned out to be a tight estimate, but I still got it to fit.”

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