Jason Isbell Direct-To-Disc

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

Ona cool Novembereveningin Nashville,60audioengineers, musiciansandother recordingindustry professionalsgatherin thesecond-floorcontrol roomof Welcometo 1979 Studios. Itis thefirsteveningofthestudio’sannual Recording Summit,aconclaveof recording enthusiastsfilledwithpaneldiscussions,demonstrationsand theweekend’scenterpieceevent—adirect-to-disc recordingsession.

As Welcometo 1979owner/recordingengineerChrisMaramakesminoradjustmentstotheboard,hewatchesthevideoscreensonthewall infront ofhim.Onedisplaysabandwarmingupinthemaintracking studio.Severalof theattendees studythe musicians, looking forahintof whothesurpriseartistwillbe.Onthescreendisplaying theinteriorofthe vocalbooth,afigurestepsintoview; Grammy Award-winningAmericana singer-songwriter JasonIsbellstrapsonhisguitar.

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.

“Ondirect-to-discsessions, mymastering islikeaperformanceinitself,” Henry says. “I’moften hunched overthemicroscope, playingthe wave,sotospeak.A lotofproblemscanbe avoidedbygood planning,but someofitisguesswork. Youdon’thavethe luxuryofknowingtheexact running timeofeachsideofthe record.Thebandwilltellmehowmany songstheyhaveandhow longeachsongis. Iadd20percent ontothat. ChrisandIalsohavea phone tocommunicate,so whenIstart getting closetotheendoflacquer,Icangetonthehornandsayweneedtodoa fadeout,but youalwayswantto avoidthatifpossible.”

Downthehallfromthemastering room,Isbell playstheopeninglick ofthe Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear MeKnocking.”Thebuildingcrackleswiththesoundof rock ’n’ roll forthenextsixminutes, butasIsbell nearstheendofthesong,hesuddenlystopsthetake.

“Let’sstart that again. Wedon’twanttogettoogroovyorhavetoo muchfun,”Isbelljokes.Maratellshimtohangon,and Henryscrambles to removethelacquerand loadsafresh,unmarked platteronthelathe.

With afreshlacquer spinning, Henry indicates that he’s readyand Marasignalstostart Take2.Isbellandbandquicklyfindagroove.They nail “Knocking”andthenpause forjustamomentbeforelaunchinginto John Prine’s “Storm Windows.” Finishing that number, Isbellmakesa quickguitarchange,andthen closesout SideAwiththeCandi Staton Southern soulclassic “Heartona String.”

Inthe mastering room, Henry quicklyinspects the completed lac- querand replacesitwitha freshone. Upstairsinthecontrol room,Mara checksthesettingsonhisconsoleandprepares forthe recordingof Side B. “Fordirect-to-discsessions,Ineverfadedownbetweensongs,”Mara says.“Thebuzzofampsinthe room,thechatterbetweenthe musicians— allthatgoesdownifIfade,andittakesallthelifeoutofthesound.”

Henrysignalsfromthecutting roomthat SideBis readytogo.Isbell counts downas Henrydropsthecutting headonto thedisc. Suddenly, Isbellsays, “Holdit, let’skillthedrumvocalmic.”A fewsecondsofband chatter followbeforetheykickoffadrivingversionof Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”andthen return tothe Stoneswithacoverof“Sway.”

Isbell closes SideB 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 abouta quarter-inch left. You may have to fade.”

Finally,Isbellbringsthesongtoaclose. Henryexclaims, “Barelygotit!” ashemanipulatesthecontrolsonthelathetocreatetherun-outgroove onthespinning lacquer. “Ipredicteditwouldbe18minutes long, which turned outtobeatightestimate,butIstillgotittofit.”

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