Elvis Presley's hits have been packaged and repackaged a zillion times, but it's safe to say that no single-disc Elvis collection covers as broad a swath and boasts as high a level of audio fidelity as this fall's collection, Elvis: 30 #1 Hits. It encompasses songs that hit the top of various U.S. and UK charts between 1956 and 1977 and presents the full range of Elvis' work, from rockabilly to sweeping ballads to country-flavored tunes to Vegas-y workouts — “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Burning Love,” with lots in between. It even includes, as a bonus track, this season's surprise Elvis hit: The contemporary JXL remix of “A Little Less Conversation,” which topped the charts in England. Fittingly, Elvis: 30 #1 Hits debuted at Number One on Billboard's album chart and in several other countries around the world.
“I think it's one of the few collections out there that goes from mono all the way up to Pro Tools, with 3-track, 4-track, 8-track, 16-track and 24-track analog in between,” says David Bendeth, who produced the compilation for RCA with the technical assistance of engineer Ray Bardani.
For Bendeth, whose production credits include Bruce Hornsby's latest CD, Big Swing Face, as well as discs by Crash Test Dummies, Cowboy Junkies and others, and Bardani, who's engineered projects for the likes of Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Marcus Miller, Miles Davis and many more, the Elvis project involved more than merely digging up and dusting off the old masters. The goal was to sonically improve the tracks wherever possible, which meant going back into the original multitrack masters (more than half were 3-track or above) and putting them through improved signal chains to give the performances greater punch and clarity. A 5.1 version is likely to come out in the not-too-distant future, too.
We spoke to Bendeth and Bardani about some of the technical aspects of this process.
Bendeth: At first, we didn't know what we were going to do or what it was going to end up being. We really had no clue. So I spoke to my assistant and we called up Elvis' master tapes, which had never been done before. We went to the original source for everything, which is at Iron Mountain in Pennsylvania.
I would have thought the masters had been used many times before for previous collections.
Bendeth: A lot of the early mono records had been re-EQ'd and remastered at some point; that's true.
Bardani: They might have taken out the master monos, but the multitracks had never been touched; that's for sure. So we went into the Hit Factory — Studio 4, which is an SSL 9000 room — and we made a transfer of “Burning Love” from the 16-track to 24-bit 3348HR.
So you stayed with tape?
Bardani: Yes, for solidity and consistency, and to make sure that we had a good tape copy in case anything happened to the master tape. You get back to the 3-tracks and they're 45, 46 years old.
Were they in pretty good shape?
Bardani: Absolutely. They were in very good shape.
Bendeth: It's funny, the only problem we had was with a 2-inch 24-track from the '70s that we had to bake. There were some leader problems — leaders were breaking on the 3-track, and the 3-track machine overheated every hour, so we had to reset the alignment constantly.
Did you have information on what kind of machines they were originally recorded on?
Bardani: The 3-tracks were done on an Ampex 3-track, and that's what we had. And there aren't many of those around these days. Actually, we got ours from some guy — a collector — who had one in really good condition.
Those machines — their tubes — get hot, and the transport's not great, either. So we had to make sure that when we played it, it was aligned perfectly and we got through it before anything could possibly happen. You're sitting there listening, and all of a sudden, everything stops. You don't know. Did the tape break? Did it overheat? It was a pretty laborious process. It took us several days to transfer everything. Every recording had to be checked for the right recording level and alignment level, but, luckily, we were able to find that information on all of the reels, so we had the right alignment curve for each tape.
Bendeth: Except, of course, the 24-track, which wasn't marked. [Laughs]
So you started with “Burning Love”  to see what you could do sonically?
Bendeth: Exactly. “Burning Love” was 11 tracks on the 16-track. We basically took the approach going in that we were never going to either add anything or take anything away; we were going to use what was there and build upon that by using different chains of EQ and compression. There was a big experimental phase of what we went through, going back and forth between many pieces of gear. It was a matter of finding the right chain. When we put up the original, we were pretty sure we could beat it.
Bardani: Because there was more information on the master tapes than I think anyone's ever heard before. The actual recording was pretty good, considering everybody was always live in the studio; nothing was ever overdubbed. That's the way he always worked. Elvis was in the middle of the room, everything was bleeding on his track, his vocal or echoes or effects were on his track, as were every other instrument; if a guitar had echo on it, it was on there like that.
Bendeth: So, we sat at the console for a couple of days and went at “Burning Love” with a real fervor. We knew the bottom end was on the bass and could be brought out more. We knew Elvis' voice was pretty well-recorded but could be improved. The backgrounds were buried, so we brought those up and compressed them and made them sit [in the track].
We mixed a few songs over a long period — we did “Burning Love” and then “Return to Sender,” “Can't Help Falling in Love,” “Wooden Heart.” And the point was to play this music for my company [RCA] and see if they liked it. Everybody loved it, so we got to keep going.
Was this project modeled after The Beatles' 1?
Bendeth: I guess there are similarities, but that's really a marketing consideration. Our job was different because we were actually working with the master multitracks and not just remastering. Although the remastering was very important. In fact, one of the interesting things about this project is that the mastering was done at the same time as we mixed. We would finish a mix and get George Marino and Ted Jensen [of Sterling Mastering] to master them, to see where we were at sonically. We ended up using George on all of the songs we mixed, and we ended up using Ted on all of the mono tracks, which we didn't touch. Then, at some point, Ted did the whole compilation as one work, too.
I would think that with the different eras and tape formats, you would have run into a lot of anomalous things — basses recorded differently, panning issues, etc.
Bendeth: That's true. It was all over the map. Like with the 3-track, we had this chain going that we were really digging on “Return to Sender.” Ray was looking at me like, “We're going to be able to breeze through these songs.”
Bardani: On “Return to Sender,” the music was all on track 1. Elvis was on track 2, in the middle, with the music bleeding through on his track; and then on track 3 were the background vocals with their echo, with the music again leaking slightly into their track. On that particular song, we went through a Neve compressor, a Neve 1081 EQ, and then some console EQ with some slight filtering to make sure that the low end and top end were clean. So that was the music. Elvis' vocal went through a dbx 160S compressor and then a Massenburg EQ. That was the chain before it hit the console.
We thought we were cool with it; this was going to be the layout. Wrong. Because the same year even, there might be another session and the split of the music and the vocal and the sound was completely different — sonically different, different placement, track spread differences. Different vocal EQ and echoes. So, basically every song was a new journey for us, and sometimes, the Neve [EQ] didn't sound right. Sometimes, it was an API EQ; sometimes, it was a Massenburg EQ that worked best.
Bendeth: A lot of the work came in through the detailed riding of the vocals. Once we would get the music to fit where we wanted it and have the balance of the third track, we would ride the vocal. Also, we were doing moves on the music; even on the one track with the music on it, we would raise certain things at certain times.
Bardani: If there was a guitar on the right side, we might poke it up a little for a bar and then bring it down, but you had to be really careful. All these moves were very detailed and this is where the SSL automation comes in, with the auto-takeover and the accuracy in small increments of moves where it was inaudible, but you would feel the energy.
We had to be really careful when we did the moves on Elvis because when we'd ride him, the sound of the record would change because so much music was bleeding onto his track. You had to be really careful and focus on what kind of EQ you used to make sure it sat well, and then when we did the ride, to make sure that, say, the drum ambience didn't get too loud if we raised his vocal.
Bendeth: One thing we got to do that I hadn't done in many years is, even though we had the SSL, we ended up doing some manuals on Elvis' vocals, on the 1081s. Something would go by where Elvis' voice was distorted and breaking up and the EQ was wrong, so we'd get it to the point where we really liked it and then right at that point in the mix, we'd kick it in and start moving stuff down a dB and up a dB. We just looked at each other and said, “This is so cool! We're doing it like we used to do it!” Hands on the console or, in this case, on the EQ.
Bardani: It was necessary because there were certain points on there where Elvis was singing and he obviously overloaded the mic pre and the mic, and all of a sudden, it got really distorted and bright and weird. We would soften those for consistency. So when you listen to his vocals, especially on the mixes we did from track 14 on, you can hear that his vocals fit right there. Every year was different, but generally, his performances were really solid.
Bendeth: Sometimes, we would put up the original tracks and they already sounded better than the masters just going through the SSL. We put up “Marie's the Name” and looked at each other and thought, “This is incredible!”
What does it say about the original recordings that you could improve them so much?
Bendeth: I think everything was recorded pretty well before, but I don't think everything was mixed really well, and I don't think everything was really mastered very well before. We didn't do anything particularly unusual. We just used modern technology — although if you look at the list, it's mostly classic stuff — and used a combination of balance with EQ and mastering.
But everything was put down fine originally. I think they used Neumann microphones to record Elvis' vocals and had RCA ribbon mics on the sessions. Good tape machines. What we did was just take what was there and polish it.
Bardani: We were very conscious that whatever panning or split was on the original classic record, we didn't tamper with that at all. If the bass was on the left side, it stayed on the left side. There was no trying to make things stereo that weren't stereo. We wanted to keep the integrity of the original tracks, but we wanted to get it up sonically to what we like.
Bendeth: We were tempted to change the panning a zillion times; I'm not going to lie to you. When you've got a song like “In the Ghetto,” where the drums are all the way to the left and the bass is all the way to the right, and you put them in the center and they sound better, you want to do that. But we didn't.
We ran into a couple of interesting problems, too. On “Suspicious Minds,” which was an 8-track, there were no horns on the master tape. And on “It's Now or Never,” which was a 3-track, there was no piano. What probably had happened is those things had been overdubbed at a later date and then the tape of the overdub had been lost. We didn't know what we were going to do, but we started mixing the songs anyway. Then I got this wacky idea: I realized that in both of those situations, the missing instruments were on the far right, so what we did was grab far right and filter out all of the bottom and top and got it to a point in Pro Tools where we had isolated it, and then, piece by piece, I flew it back into our master and brought it up so it doesn't flange. And I did the same thing with the piano. That's all we used the Pro Tools for on this. It allowed us to put these parts back in time with the song. We even made the horns sound a little bigger. That was the only manipulation that was done on the whole record.
Was anything done to the mono tracks? They sound better, too.
Bendeth: That was all Ted Jensen; he did a great job. Basically, he took out the other side of the mono — the noisy side.
What do you mean?
Bardani: They were 2-track mono. They mixed it to mono, but it was from a 2-track and they panned everything in the middle. So, what Ted did was pick the best side of the mono and work with that. In a lot of cases, I guess one side was a little dirtier or more distorted.
Bendeth: He did his thing. We couldn't believe it when we heard it. He definitely took them to a place they'd never been before.
Bardani: It certainly helped working from the absolute master, too. We knew it was from the best source we could have.
It must be cool to get to work with the master tape of a classic like “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Bardani: It was. Everybody was scared!
Well, it's like the Holy Grail of rock 'n' roll in a way.
Bardani: People were lining up at the studio just to look at the tape!
Can you sum up your experience working on this project?
Bendeth: Well, we've never worked with an artist of this magnitude before. And I don't know if we were the “right” guys to do it or not. There are many phenomenal mixers out there who could've taken this on and done a good job. But I think the advantage we had is that we were two people working on this together and we were always able to be objective about each other's ideas. I'm not sure one mixer could've done this — sat in a room and mixed it by themselves. So, we realized the magnitude of the artist and the importance of the record, and also we were going to put our names on this record.
Bardani: You work with Elvis and you're putting yourself up on the firing block.
Bendeth: I kept saying, “We're going to get crucified by someone for this. We're messing with the Mona Lisa — like putting longer hair on her and better makeup.” I was pretty scared, but Ray was always confident about it, and he's such an Elvis fan he wasn't going to mess with it. And once we had the four-man team in place — us and Ted and George — there were enough people with a knowledge of sound that we were always going to check each other and give each other a lot of feedback.
Bardani: It was musical respect. The music was always going to be most important over the technical considerations. We always went with feel. We were always in sync on everything, because the concept was designated from the get go to try not to be clever with it. We always had the original record right there because we wanted to be sure everything was as it was.
Bendeth: Only better.