Bernie Grundman (left) and Scott Sedillo record a live session for Straight Ahead Records. In the background is technician Beno May.
Weekends at Bernie's have been lively indeed since mastering legend Bernie Grundman and veteran producer Stewart Levine launched Straight Ahead Records in 2005. The partners are passionate about the label's concept, which is dedicated to the recording of performances by top-notch musicians live to 2-track.
Grundman has come full circle with the SAR venture. A jazz buff and an audiophile since his childhood in Phoenix, Grundman got his indoctrination into recording while working at storied Hollywood jazz label Contemporary Records in the '60s, prior to joining A&M in 1968. “They did it in a unique way at Contemporary,” Grundman explains, “and I've always had it in the back of my mind to do something similar — to make recordings with good musicianship and good sound, because if you can get those together it's a more fulfilling experience. That's what we're attempting to do with this label. We're just trying to get that sense of being there — to get the best of both worlds.”
The most recent SAR project, the just-released Orbit, stunningly captures the inspired interaction of a one-off sextet led by keyboard player Neil Larsen, sharing the foreground with guitarist Robben Ford, sax player Gary Meek and trumpeter Lee Thronburg, with bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Tom Brechtlein supplying the grooves.
Like every recording in the series, the Orbit project went down during the course of a weekend at Bernie Grundman Mastering studios, which has been in its present Hollywood location since 1996. The action started during the day on Friday, as the BGM staff transformed the spacious foyer into an instant recording studio, taking advantage of the space's nonuniform surfaces. The minimal modifications included covering the carpeting with wood flooring and putting up baffles here and there.
In the late afternoon, as the musicians arrived, BGM recording engineer and technician Scott Sedillo swung into action, replacing the custom-made hardware in the adjacent mastering suite (every device in this place is custom-made) with a console sporting 10 old-school rotary knobs built by chief technical design engineer/chief technician Beno May and hooking up a pair of computers he'd designed specifically for this purpose, including the “lunar module,” a metal box that looks like a prop from the 1950s TV show Captain Video.
Sedillo also fired up a hot-rodded Studer rolling quarter-inch tape. The three devices would record each take simultaneously and identically, capturing the sounds of 12 mics positioned by Sedillo as the players warmed up. Grundman says they're able to get the resolution of two microphones with just one additional stage of electronics. “In a sense,” says Grundman, “you do the equalization with the mics.”
Another device in constant use during the sessions is a high-end espresso machine, reflecting another one of Grundman's passions. “The espresso really helps,” says Sedillo.
There's no window between the suite and the foyer-cum-studio, so Sedillo has no eye contact with the musicians on these sessions. Instead, he focuses on the sounds coming out of the room's large built-in monitors, custom-configured and assembled from vintage Tannoy components, as Levine and Grundman offer specific comments.
All of the gear at Grundman Studios is customized. Says Paul Grundman, "And that's not an API! Mixing on the bottom, mastering on the top."
These are virtually instant records. “We're mixing with a mastering suite as opposed to a mixing room, so we're listening in a calibrated environment,” Sedillo points out. “So when I'm mixing, I know what I've got. Everybody's hearing the same mix as it happens. They're playing live, I'm mixing live and it's done. We don't need to master except to sequence and occasionally to edit, creating a tail end or editing a solo section.”
“The audiophile world is getting to know us, thanks to Paul,” says Grundman, referring to his son, Paul Grundman, whose most challenging task as Straight Ahead's managing director is figuring out how to turn this labor of love into a viable business. “We now want to expand into some more mainstream stores and areas because it's difficult to sell enough numbers in the audiophile market to be able to keep making these records.”
Grundman is delighted with the five albums (including an as-yet-unreleased jazz vocal album from Dwight Tribble) recorded for SAR thus far. “It's a challenge to see what we can get out of this way of recording,” he says. “But the process itself isn't that formal. It's grass-roots — everybody just hangs out and there's no ego anywhere. And Stewart's really good at getting the most inspired performances out of the musicians; he knows when it's happening.”
There's no recording session scheduled at BGM for the Friday of my visit, but there is an intriguing mastering project going down. Arnie Acosta, U2's mastering engineer, is in one of the four suites remastering The Joshua Tree for the landmark album's 20th-anniversary reissue. It's highly unusual for BGM to allow an outside mastering engineer to work in one of the rooms, but this project is special. Acosta is an old friend of Grundman's, and this is the second project he's done here, following his mastering of the band's 2005 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Before the project started, Sedillo put his head together with Acosta and Cheryl Engels, who's coordinating the mastering effort. “We asked the question, ‘What can we do to really remaster this?’” Sedillo explains, “because there's no end to the amount of digitally remastered reissues that don't sound any better than the original release. So we thought about how we could really make a difference, and Beno and I designed some vacuum tube electronics around a tape machine to try to extract as much as we could from the tape itself. Because what we found from analyzing all the previous releases and the original master tape from 1987 was that the tape machines of old could actually record more information than they could play back.”
It turned out that there were a lot of hidden gems on the analog tape. “There's also the matter of the mastering chain and how transparent a transfer you can make without losing fidelity,” Sedillo explains. “When you compare a master tape and even an audiophile transfer of it, it's not close. So we strove to preserve what was actually on the tape, and the electronics we developed captured that detail so well that Arnie was able to choose the approach he wanted to take, unencumbered by a lack of fidelity coming off the tape. In fact, I heard that one bandmember commented that they hadn't heard some of the drum parts since they mixed it.”
Sedillo tempers his enthusiasm for what he's hearing with a more practical consideration: “When you legitimately improve something that the fans are used to hearing a certain way — a wider image, more fidelity, bottom, space, what have you — the question then becomes, ‘How will it be received?’ So it'll be interesting to see how the fans respond to this version. But the band is excited, and we're excited.”
What I find particularly fascinating is the way the recording and mixing techniques employed on the Straight Ahead sessions flow so logically out of Grundman's less-is-more mastering methodology. But synergy is a way of life at BGM, which Paul Grundman refers to as “the Rand Corporation of mastering.”
I make my exit to the sound of an assistant whipping up foam and the aroma of another Daneli cappuccino. These guys really appreciate quality.
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