It's hard to beat a really good CD box set — one that is comprehensive, aesthetically pleasing, historically illuminating and sonically successful. It is easy to get lost in a good box for weeks at a time; I just think of it as leaving the planet for long stretches to enter another time and space. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to look into the making of three boxes that meet the above criteria and greatly add to our understanding of different idioms. The music on them spans seven decades, from the days of Edison cylinders to the introduction of 16-track. And, stylistically, the box sets encompass everything from old-time banjo music to wonderfully arranged big band tunes to trippy, improvised rock. You won't find any of these on the top of the charts — or on the charts at all — but each is spectacular in its own way and — dare I say — important.
You Ain't Talkin' to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music
Don't be distressed if you've never heard of Charlie Poole — he's never received the kind of attention that, say, Jimmie Rodgers did. Yet he was one of country music's early pioneers, a North Carolina banjo picker and old-time music star who had the first country mega-hit with “Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” in 1925, selling more than 100,000 copies. Poole's career was brief (he was dead from alcoholism by 1931) but brilliant.
He embraced various regional folk styles and incorporated well-known early 20th-century novelty tunes into his repertoire to create a synthesis that influenced many artists who followed, including Earl Scruggs, the “father” of bluegrass banjo. His songs on the famous Anthology of American Folk Music, released in the '50s, were emulated and covered by the leading lights of that era's folk boom, too. What makes this three-CD set remarkable is that it not only offers the cream of Poole's output, but also tracks by artists who preceded him (going all the way back to a 1905 recording) and those who copied him or closely followed in his footsteps. It's a highly entertaining and educational journey, beautifully augmented by compilation producer Hank Sapoznik's illuminating liner notes and copious historical photos.
Sapoznik, whose previous archival work includes a four-CD anthology of early Yiddish music, notes that Poole began his recording career in 1925, “right when a major technological shift had happened and they'd gone to electrical recording, which meant instead of using the horn, you were using a microphone and the vibration of the air to create the sound to force the stylus to cut into the surface of the disc. And you have a sound that to our ears today is a more accurate and recognizable sound than had previously been possible. Beyond the body of Poole's recordings, however, I wanted to identify recordings from the Paleolithic era of recording, the end of the 19th century — primarily, Edison cylinders and early one-sided discs. The problem there is that if you put a recording from 1903 next to one from 1930, you run the risk of giving the listener the equivalent of audio whiplash. So the matrix we used was great performance, great condition. A bunch of stuff I wanted to use I didn't end up using because the sound was impossible.”
Producer Hank Sapoznik also worked on a Yiddish music anthology.
The ideal for these sorts of projects is to locate as many metal masters (or “mothers”) as possible; then, as a last resort, go to record collectors and find the best copies possible. When Sapoznik did the Yiddish box, “of the 100 tracks we chose, I was able to locate metal parts for about 95 of them. On this one, out of 73 tracks, we could only come up with two! It was stunning to see how little remained in the vault. There are very few metal masters for all the great early blues stuff, the jazz, the early country. A lot of it just disappeared through the years, but there were also things like during World War II, there would be a scrap drive and the record companies would give them the metal parts! What's interesting is that metal parts for various ethnic styles — Hawaiian, Irish, Yiddish — exist in much greater numbers. I have no idea why.”
Searching for the optimum Poole recordings wasn't too hard: Sapoznik is well-connected and the old-time music community is tight-knit. However, finding some of the earlier Edison cylinders was more challenging. “A lot of the folks who collect the older stuff don't know anything about 78s. When I was looking for the original ‘Monkey on a String,’ I'd say [to a cylinder collector], ‘I'm doing an anthology on Charlie Poole.’ ‘Who's that?’ ‘He recorded in the '20s.’ ‘Oh, I don't listen to that modern music!’”
For the Poole set, Sapoznik enlisted the aid of Christopher King, whose transfer and restoration work on various collections of 78s through the years has earned him tremendous respect in the record-collecting community. “When I heard what [King] did with Down in the Basement [a wide-ranging anthology of old 78s released in 2003], it changed how I heard these records,” Sapoznik says. “These songs had the most breathtaking presence to them. Most of the time in remastering, people tend to use too much technology because there's such an obsession with getting rid of noise. With Chris, his aesthetic reflects mine in that I prefer a hot transfer. I prefer one with more ‘noise’ in it because in that crackle — in that top part of the sound cycle — you have the overtone series of the instruments. Not only does Chris know how to make transfers, but he's also incredibly savvy: He can look at a record and decode the markings on it and tell you how early in the pressing process the record was. So he can say, ‘This is in excellent condition and it's made from an early cycle of the stamper,’ which is a good thing, because the earlier in the cycle, the crisper the cut.
Charlie Poole (sitting) with the North Carolina Ramblers, circa 1927
photo: Kinney Rorrer
“What Chris was able to do was not only locate the best-condition copies, but he kept working with different-sized styli, trial-and-error, to find something that would really work the groove wall and get the most sound out. In a tune like ‘Flop Eared Mule,’ the payoff was that we not only got a cleaner transfer than had ever been done before, but we actually heard something that no one had ever heard before. Right before Poole is about to take his famous banjo break, you hear him say, ‘Aww-right!’ That might not sound like a a huge thing, but to people who know and love this music, it's like a message in a bottle that finally showed up.”
King made his transfers to DAT and then handed those recordings to digital mastering engineer Darcy Proper “to sharpen the sound of the transfers,” Sapoznik says. Then, Andreas Meyer applied some judicious CEDAR magic to certain “difficult” tunes. “Andreas and Darcy both shared my appreciation for the overtone series, and [Meyer] used the CEDAR to its optimum effect and with incredible nuance and shading instead of putting ‘cheese’ on top of the sound — what I call parmesan remastering,” he says with a laugh.
In an era when record labels are routinely slammed in the press for their lack of vision and playing it safe, Sapoznik gives high marks to Sony Legacy for letting him put together this superlative box, which will only enjoy a niche audience. “We'd have meetings [at Sony] in these rooms with posters of Michael Jackson and Christina Aguilera, and I'd be in there saying, ‘So, what do you think? Should we use the Uncle Dave Macon track?’ It was pretty strange. But they were great every step of the way, and now we have this box that we can be proud of and hopefully speaks across the decades.”
The Poole box is in quite a few record stores, but also available (cheap!) online at www.legacyrecordings.com.
The Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings
Scott Wenzel, a producer for the fantastic jazz reissue label Mosaic Records, knows a few things about 78s. As a kid growing up in Rye, N.Y., he became fascinated with the medium and would scour the nearby dump looking for records. By now, he's amassed more than 10,000 78s of every musical style, though his great love has always been jazz. With Mosaic, he's produced boxes by Louis Prima, Mildred Bailey, Harry James, Bunny Berigan and others, often using his connection in the record-collecting world. For his latest Mosaic opus, The Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings, there was no great call to collectors or searches of dusty attics. For many years, Count Basie's 1950s Verve output has been lovingly kept in the climate-controlled confines of one of Iron Mountain's famous storage facilities. Hell, these tapes, recorded between 1952 and 1957, didn't even need baking!
The music on the eight discs is often sublime: big, brassy, swinging dance tunes; dreamy ballads; and plenty of Basie's deft, economical piano. “What happened with Count Basie is that he reinvented himself in the '50s,” Wenzel says. “He had those marvelous '30s and '40s bands with people like Lester Young, [Harry] Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton and all those guys. But by the early '50s, the big bands weren't as popular as they had been, so when Basie came back — mostly from the persistence of [singer] Bill Eckstine — with his New Testament band and was so successful, it was really a resurrection of his career.” Using mostly new players, a broad selection of old and new tunes, and even some new charts of songs his previous groups had made famous, Basie proved once again to be one of the most popular purveyors of big band jazz, and his group became a launching pad for a number of great players.
Norman Granz produced all of Basie's Clef and Verve recordings. “He was one of the most remarkable impresarios that jazz ever had,” Wenzel comments of Granz. “In this particular period, he was all over the place. He was doing the Ella Fitzgerald songbook, he was doing all sorts of small groups with Bird [Charlie Parker] — Bird With Strings was one of his babies — a little bit of everything.”
The bulk of the superb recordings were made at Fine Sound, located at 711 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan, the site of NBC Radio's first studios in the late '20s, and then home to World Broadcasting and, later still, MGM, which owned a share of Fine Sound. There were two large music studios, A and B, and a third smaller room (C) that was used as a film mixing and dialog recording studio. Most, if not all, of the Basie sessions would have been done in Studio B, engineered by either studio owner Bob Fine, Aaron Nathanson or Al Mien. (Alas, there are no engineer credits on the exhaustively annotated session notes for the Basie box — not unusual for that era of the “invisible” engineer!) Fine had worked with Granz on a wide variety of projects already (Bird, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell) and was an experienced hand at recording big band music, so he was likely involved in some or most of the Basie sessions.
Count Basie’s box set producer Scott Wenzel
According to Bob Eberenz, chief engineer at Fine Sound during the '50s, Studio B was a large room by today's standards, measuring 55×38×25 feet. The console was a custom RCA model with 12 inputs and two output buses, although it was mainly used for mono recordings until the late '50s. The console went through an Altec A322 compressor/line amp on its way to the distribution bus. There were two Fairchild full-track tape decks (before early 1953) or two Ampex 350 recorders, which would run simultaneously (one for backup). Monitoring was through an Altec 604. The console had no EQ or effects; however, there was an echo send and return, and the studio could be patched into one of two live chambers (equipped with a 604 and RCA unidirectional mics) located under the eaves of the building's roof. According to Fine's son, Tom, who talked some shop with his father (who died in 1982) and is still in touch with Eberenz, miking for the Basie sessions might have gone like this: RCA 44s on the brass, Telefunken U47s on woodwinds, RCA 77s on the bass and perhaps drums, and an RCA 44 on Basie's piano. “For a large band,” Tom Fine says, “my father probably would have used all 12 channels on the board. He liked to mike and mix by section, letting the musicians form the balance themselves and then capturing their ensemble balance.”
Whatever the specifics of the methodology, what we have are a series of exquisitely clear and dynamic recordings. A look at the tracking sheets shows how efficient Granz, the engineers and musicians were; sometimes, they would record up to seven masters in a single session. Needless to say, everything was live.
Like the Poole recordings, the first of these Basie sessions took place at a transitional point: In this case, 78s were on the wane and 45s and 3313 LPs were starting to dominate the market. “In 1952, they were still making 78s, mostly for jukeboxes,” Wenzel says, “and record players still had a 78 [setting], but the change had really been completed by then.” All the recordings were in mono, save for two 1956 sessions cut at Capitol Studios in L.A.
Ellen Fitton did the transfers from original tapes to 24-bit DAT. “Then,” Wenzel says, “once I got all of the takes down from the original reels and we exhausted all the tapes that existed from Basie and his band, I put them on a CD-R for reference. Then I went through my collection and others' collections and the Institute for Jazz Studies and listened to the 45s and 78s of those songs because it's well-known that Granz would sometimes issue one take on the LP and then put another take on the single. I'd have two headphones where I'd be listening to two simultaneously, checking them against each other to see if they're different.” All in pursuit of the “complete” recordings.
The Basie box is available at www.mosaic records.com.
The Grateful Dead:
Fillmore West 1969 — The Complete Recordings
Even for a group that has already released literally hundreds of hours of live recordings, this is a milestone. This limited-edition (10,000 copies) 10-CD set must be regarded as the crowning achievement of the Dead's most adventurous musical period. These four concerts (February 27, 1969, through March 2, 1969) yielded the recordings that were used on the group's most magnificent psychedelic opus, Live/Dead (released in November 1969), and represent the apex of their improvisatory genius. Boasting four versions each of their late-'60s classics “Dark Star,” “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven,” plus favorites such as “Alligator,” “Caution,” “Cosmic Charlie” and others, the box captures the group right before they began a slow evolution toward the country musings of Workingman's Dead.
Aside from being the most jaw-droppingly intense music to come out of San Francisco in the late '60s, the Dead's Fillmore West shows have some historical significance in the audio world: These were the first live 16-track recordings ever made. It helped that Ampex, which first developed the 16-track by converting a 2-inch video machine to an audio-only function, was based down the road a ways from San Francisco. Pacific Recording in San Mateo was the first local studio to take delivery of a 16-track, right when the Dead were in the thick of recording their third album, Aoxomoxoa, on 8-track. The Dead convinced Ampex to lease them a 16-track — the third made — to capture some of their live performances. And so Dead engineers Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor and a couple of beefy roadies maneuvered the 750-pound behemoth up the stairs of San Francisco's Fillmore West ballroom to record the band for a live album.
“The process by which we recorded was a simple one,” Matthews recently told David Gans on the Grateful Dead Hour radio program. “Microphones [were] placed on the stage that [were] used for the P.A. split and [those] same microphones went directly to channels on the tape machine with no signal processing in between. No artistic decisions were made [concerning] the electronic signal.” Later, when he went to mix what became Live/Dead (culled from parts of two of the four concerts), he used “a fairly complex set of delays and reverbs to re-create that feeling of being in [the Fillmore].” One advantage of using the 16-track is that it allowed the use of 14-inch reels, “which at 15 ips allowed you to record continuously for an hour-and-a-half, and, of course, with the Grateful Dead [who rarely stopped between songs in those days, instead threading their songs together with long jams], that was very important,” Matthews said.
As wonderful as Live/Dead sounded upon its release 36 years ago, when it came time to put together the Fillmore West box, there were a few sonic problems and anomalies that had to be dealt with by veteran Bay Area engineer Jeffrey Norman, who has spearheaded the audio side of the Dead's ambitious archival release program for the past several years.
Grateful Dead’s box set engineer Jeffrey Norman
One is that the Dead's two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, had just two tracks each. “They put the kick and the snare on the same track, and the reasoning probably was, ‘Well, the snare is going to be the high end of the spectrum and the kick is the low end, so we can kind of deal with it that way,’” Norman says as he sits at the Neve VR console in the Dead's Marin County studio. “And to some degree that's true, but the blends of the two vary from night to night and there's distortion on a lot of it. Fortunately, each of them had another overhead track that was cleaner, so I'm trying to feather those in and use the overhead to do whatever I can. I also mult that one kick/snare track into two faders and treat one like a snare and the other like a kick. Some of the vocals, particularly Jerry [Garcia's], are distorted, too. If you listen closely to Live/Dead, you hear it a little bit, though I think that album sounds great.”
Early on, Norman “realized there were some things that could benefit from going over to a workstation: no tape degradation with repeated passes, selected noise reduction and the ability to move time slightly so that instruments are more time-coherent,” he says. “So I transferred it all to Pro Tools at 24-bit/96 kHz and started mixing, and I was really disappointed in how things were sounding, particularly on something like ‘Doin’ that Rag' from February 28, 1969, where Jerry's vocal was so distorted. What I've figured out is that analog-to-digital converters — even good ones — have a very difficult time accurately recording distortion and they have their own level of distortion.
“If it's really clean, they might add things the ear doesn't pick up,” Norman continues. “But when there's audible distortion, they make it even worse. So I went back and talked to Steve Jarvis and rented his Genex A-to-Ds — now I'm using his D-to-As as I'm mixing — and then, for the vocals, I rented a CEDAR Cambridge, which is pretty incredible for the de-clipping. It's eight channels of a lot of restorative elements: It's able to analyze where a clip is or too hot a level and to interpolate on either side of that. It wasn't quite as successful as I had hoped it would be, but it was definitely an improvement on those vocals.”
Norman also dealt with the incredible amount of bleed on many of the tracks. He pulled up singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan's lead vocal on “Alligator,” which revealed Garcia's guitar nearly as loud as the lead vocal. Both of bassist Phil Lesh's tracks have prominent drums, organ and rhythm guitar, in addition to Garcia's axe. “Jerry's guitar is in everything,” Norman says with a smile. “Fortunately, he was playing really well.”
The Grateful Dead jamming onstage, February 27, 1969—captured live and included in the upcoming box set
Speaking more generally of his approach to mixing these tapes, Norman says, “I get a good, rough bed of everything set up and get the tones and reverbs I'm going to use, start someplace in the computer and usually the first thing I mix is the vocals because there's so much ambience and leakage that I find it a lot easier to get the vocals in a rough position and then bring them up and down, depending on when they play. So when it's a jam, the vocals aren't in there; when they're singing, they're in there and I can tailor the other instruments around the vocals. It helps me make that weave together.”
Among the other gear Norman employed for the mix were the Neve VR's EQs, Summit Audio compressors, Pacific Microsonics 2-track A/Ds (the Dead have long-supported HDCD) and a Fairman tube mastering compressor, a Danish box akin to a Fairchild that Norman uses on bass. He adds, “I always mix back to analog tape because it still sounds the best. I have an Ampex ATR in like-new condition — thanks to Mike Spitz — and I mix to half-inch with Dolby SR.
“Once I get past the technical things, which I guess is what I'm here for, the music is just so great; it's spectacular,” Norman concludes. “I mean, anyone who can sustain a 25-minute jam and have it be interesting the whole time — that's just incredible!”
The Fillmore West box, which also includes a 100-page booklet containing photos and an essay by historian Dennis McNally, doesn't ship until mid-November, but can be ordered now through www.dead.net.