Nashville Skyline

b>I got a call last week from my friend Andrew Mendelson, the chief mastering engineer and manager for Georgetown Mastering.

I got a call last week from my friend Andrew Mendelson, the chiefmastering engineer and manager for Georgetown Mastering. Mendelsonwanted to let me know that our mutual friend, Brian Ahern, was droppingin with surround mixing engineer Doug Beal to check out their mixes forthe upcoming Rhino Records DVD-Audio release of Emmylou Harris'acclaimed 1981 album, Roses in the Snow.

When I arrived, Beal and Mendelson were comparing two mixes of theH.W. VanHoos song “Green Pastures,” which features theharmony vocals of Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs, as well as WillieNelson's distinctive gut-string guitar work. Beal felt that one of thetwo mixes had the “hair standing up on your neck” factorwhen he mixed it, but he wanted to see if it still had that magic inanother setting. After playing it for Mendelson and myself separately,it was clear that one mix had the mojo.

While I sat there in the Denny Purcell chair, Beal and Ahern'ssurround rendering of an already great song was pretty amazing. It isgreat when you get to hear a surround mix that is dead-on at capturingthe emotional essence of a performance — and this one did.

“We just tried to make it sound like they were breathing thesame air at the same time,” says Ahern of the mix. “We hadthe autoharp and the dobro come in at the same time, and they are kindof rear-ish in the mix. I built some ‘clouds’ that theybounce off of in front with my Lexicon 960. So when the dobro comes in,you hear the sound bouncing off the clouds up front. It's subtle, butit's there. I also put a Memphis-style slap on Willie's gut-stringguitar and Dolly's vocal, so I linked them in time. That slap comesfrom the dead center of the room and that is what you were hearing overyour head. It was a mix idea that we had that we couldn't do when wewere working in stereo.”

Ahern feels that having a fine mastering engineer to reference iskey to maintaining objectivity in one's work. “It's foolish tomix and master in the same room. You are bypassing a great opportunityto jump realms and go through another filter. Denny Purcell used tosay, ‘You only get to hear it the first time once.’ Havingsomeone who is hearing your music for the first time is a valuabletool. That ‘first-listen’ experience is already lost toyou, because you've already heard the music a million times.”

Concerning “Green Pastures,” Ahern shared a story aboutNelson's involvement on that track: “Willie often came in to singand overdub guitar. He was always willing to play and he's great towork with,” recalls Ahern. “One day, I got really impatientwith that old guitar of his, the one with the hole in it, because itwouldn't stay in tune. I said, ‘Willie, this isn't going towork.’ He just looked disappointed and he left. A couple of dayslater, he pulled up in a big limo and walked in with a $30,000gut-string classical guitar ready to do that overdub. He did it,climbed back in the limo and left. This really impressed me and made merealize that he really is a professional fellow.”

The other tracks Beal and Ahern referenced from Roses in theSnow with Mendelson were “Jordan” and “Gold Watchand Chain.”

Prior to his arrival at Georgetown, Mendelson had mastered forthe Cleveland-based audiophile label, Telarc, which has not onlyreleased many award-winning and commercially successful orchestralrecordings, but they have also great jazz and blues releases. Capturingthe sonic essence of many of those fine releases is multi-Grammy Award— winning Telarc engineer and producer Michael Bishop.

I was tipped off that Bishop was doing a jazz project in town, so Ihooked up with him while he was doing mixes on Hiromi Uehara over atChuck Ainlay's great Back Stage recording studio, with Jim Cooleyassisting. The project, titled Key Talk, is Uehara's secondalbum for the label. The tracks were recorded at The Sound Kitchen inthe Big Boy room, with Matt Weeks assisting.

“The Big Boy is one of the best-sounding rooms I've everworked in,” Bishop says.“I captured ambience tracks oneverything that could actually be used for the surround mixes.Recording in Big Boy gave me lots of options in recording ambiencearound each of the three musicians. It may seem like overkill to placean acoustic trio in such a large room, but I needed that space forcreating the right surround field to be used in the mixlater.”

Bishop's experience in Nashville wasn't his first by any means, buthe says his positive results and supportive interactions with therecording community have made the city a preferred destination forfuture projects. “I have long been trying to get more of ourTelarc jazz sessions to Nashville, largely because of thecost-effective studio facilities here, many great rooms without thehigh costs of Manhattan, convenient and affordable hotels withinwalking distance, and an extremely friendly and creativeatmosphere,” Bishop points out.“It's so cool that should wehave a need for a particular piece of gear, one can call someone withinthe local recording community and get immediate assistance. TracyMartinson, Chuck Ainlay, George Massenburg and Michael Wagener wereamong those to be of tremendous help here in many ways and at a momentsnotice. Instead of being territorial, the pros in Nashville will bendover backward to help a colleague out of a bind.”

The musicians on the album dates were Anthony Jackson (Fidora contrabass), Tony Gray (Fidora bass), Martin Valihora (drums) and Uehara onpiano and keyboards. Uehara (a Yamaha artist) was provided a YamahaCFIIIS Concert Grand piano, courtesy of Yamaha Artist's Services.

“I should also mention that, because of the piano-intensivenature of this project, we had contracted with Max Michimoto, one ofYamaha Artists Services' top piano technicians, to stay and work withus throughout the entire session,” says Bishop. “The YamahaCFIIIS Concert Grand had to be able to hold up to the scrutiny that DSDhigh-resolution surround affords.”

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When I arrived at Back Stage, Bishop was very accommodating andeager to play me the tracks. While Uehara does utilize what one mightcall a classic jazz piano, bass and drum lineup, calling her a“jazz” artist is almost misleading. The tracks I heardranged from “Kung-Fu World Champion,” with its progressive,rock-like melodic and rhythmic passages, to reflective moments on“Wind Song,” which possesses the rich lyricism of some ofWindham Hill's most thoughtful recordings. The dynamics and techniqueof Uehara and the other players were quite astonishing, particularlythe unison bass and piano lines on a couple of the tracks.

“Hiromi has a distinct vision for her music,” saysBishop.“She goes into the studio with a very detailed idea ofwhat she wants to achieve there. That is a great quality in a musician,especially at just 24 years old. Working with Hiromi is a real pleasure— she composes exciting and provocative music and she gives herall with absolutely every take.”

With regards to Back Stage, Bishop states, “My compliments toChuck Ainlay and everyone at Sound Stage for creating such agreat-sounding mix room and making it so easy to mix surround there!TheATC SCM-300s, SCM-50s and Nova Applause speakers all gave me lots ofoptions in mixing, while helping give me a mix that translates verywell on anything elsewhere. Very little has to be done after the factin mastering with mixes I've done in the back room. Sound Stage isprobably the most accommodating facility I've worked in. Did I mentionthat I like working there?”

The Uehara project will be released simultaneously on CD and SACDearly this summer. Bishop tracked the session in multitrack DSD on aGenex 9048 and the SADiE System 5 DSD workstation and mixed through theSSL 9K at Sound Stage to the Sony Sonoma DSD workstation. The SADiESystem 5 is going to be used again for the SACD and CD mastering andauthoring back at Telarc.

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