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Creating the 432-Track ‘Woodstock 50’ Box Set

By Steve Harvey. Woodstock took place 50 years ago this month, and for those who weren’t there (or were and don’t remember it), Rhino is releasing three versions of its "Woodstock – Back to the Garden – 50th Anniversary Experience" box set, including a 38-disc edition with all 432 tracks (267 previously unreleased) performed by every artist on the bill.

North Hollywood, CA—“It’s the world’s most famous concert, but you’ve never really heard it,” says Brian Kehew as he opens a Pro Tools session for one of the songs included on the new Rhino project Woodstock – Back to the Garden – 50th Anniversary Collections. Various multi-disc versions are available from Rhino, including a near-complete reconstruction of the festival in a limited edition 38-CD, 432-track boxed set that presents every artist performance from Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, in chronological order.

No previous presentation of the event—not Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 film or subsequent official soundtrack albums—has come close to fully documenting the music festival. Rhino’s deluxe collection adds 267 previously unheard tracks—nearly 20 hours—to the historical record, and includes not only songs but also announcements and onstage conversation captured by the open mics, some of which are included on the alternate packages. The $800 deluxe package, called The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, also includes a Blu-ray of the director’s cut of Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary.

The 162-track, 10-CD set Woodstock – Back to the Garden – 50th Anniversary Experience will retail for about $160. A third version, 50th Anniversary Collection, features 42 tracks on five 180-gram LPs or three CDs.

The 50th anniversary releases were produced by Andy Zax and Steve Woolard, with sound produced by Zax with Kehew, who mixed the project. Mike Sawitzke assisted with one band’s tuning issues. Dave Schultz at D2 in Los Angeles mastered everything.

Andy Zax on Twitter: @andyzax

Zax’s vision was very clear, says Kehew: to include as much as possible in a vérité style, warts and all. That meant losing the edits, flanging, echo and fake applause of previous releases, while keeping the feedback, buzzes and hums. “It’s what the audience or anyone on stage would have heard,” says Kehew, who reduced, but didn’t remove, the worst distractions using Pro Tools or iZotope. It also meant including certain artists’ Woodstock performances that had been replaced on previous releases by recordings made at the Troubadour and the Fillmore East.

Zax and Kehew began the project around 2005, working toward a 40th anniversary release, but hit the limits of available technology and then ran out of time. As Kehew discovered when he listened to the source tapes, which were recorded to 8-track Scully machines backstage by engineers Eddie Kramer and Lee Osborne, this was never going to be a straightforward project.

“There is a ‘first song’ issue for almost everybody because it’s always a fresh setup and there’s no soundcheck,” says Kehew. While the stage crew gradually sorted things out as the festival progressed, with 32 separate artist performances captured, Kehew had some work to do.

Track 1 of each tape was audience and track 8 was camera sync tone, leaving six tracks for the artist. “For a band like The Who, six tracks means drums, bass, guitar and three vocals. You’re covered,” says Kehew. But for larger bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears, or the Grateful Dead with its two drummers, instruments and vocals were combined via Shure vocal mixers, so Kehew was often unable to easily separate and pan them. The solution was to transfer the relevant recordings into Pro Tools and perform micro-surgery to isolate the elements.

Take Creedence Clearwater Revival, for instance. Though they are one of the better-recorded Woodstock bands, their opener, “Born on the Bayou,” is a mess, with instruments switching tracks mid-song. The snare drum starts, quietly, on the guitar track. Later in the song, the drums fade in on their own track. “I’m going to leave the guitar panned because it’s the riff, so it’s more important than the quiet snare drum,” says Kehew. “Because the drums fade in, I’ll keep them low and sneak them in gently, so no one notices. You start with a song that sounds sort of okay and it then gets pretty good.”

The tape of Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming Into Los Angeles” starts without the vocal, and it appears that someone briefly raised and lowered the level of successive tracks searching for it. The solution? The mono board mix recorded at front-of-house. “I used it as the vocal track. I put it in the mix and made it sit as close as possible to the existing vocal that we had, then blended them.”

Kehew tried to find fixes wherever the recording detracted from a performance. “We can get some help using modern tools,” he says. For example, in Pro Tools, duplicate the drum track, roll off the high end and compress it for more tom-tom or kick thump. “Or if I need the snare to stick out more, EQ a channel to have the stick frequency spike a little.”

Keith Moon’s drums disappear for eight seconds in The Who’s first song, so Kehew copied eight seconds of drums across. “It’s cheating, but it’s not bad cheating. It sounds bad with a hole,” he says.

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For a couple of artists’ performances, he sought assistance from Abbey Road Studios’ James Clarke, who has developed a demixing process similar to certain commercial products. “Ravi Shankar’s tape is missing, but there is a mono mix, done well, back in the day. But we didn’t want one of the first performances to be mono,” Kehew says, so he had Clarke separate the sitar, tanpura and tabla. “We get a usable stereo track and it has the same tonality,” he reports.

For songs that didn’t require surgery, Kehew simply mixed them straight off his Scully machine on the vintage Quad Eight Pacifica console at his Timeless Recording facility in North Hollywood. Having mixed much of the material both on the desk and in the box over the years, he can compare the approaches. “In the computer, it becomes more precise and less exciting, always. I find there’s a visceral excitement that translates to the finished project if I mix by hand.”

The project’s sound, per Zax’s vision, is very literal, says Kehew. “It’s not fancy or beautiful. We have a very bandwidth-limited, mid-rangey sound. There’s low end and high end; it’s just not pretty. And we went for wider panning for clarity’s sake” using photos from Woodstock for positional accuracy. Overall, he says, “You can hear a lot of dynamics. We didn’t squash things much, and I never used a stereo bus compressor.”

The Road to History Inside Abbey Road Studios, Sep. 22, 2009

Jimi Hendrix’s dawn rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock has become iconic, but another event potentially could have replaced it in popular culture. Artists were asked to pause periodically while the cameramen loaded new film; in one break, during The Who’s set, Pete Townshend takes umbrage when social activist Abbie Hoffman grabs his mic and starts declaiming. “Had it been captured on film, it might have been the moment of Woodstock, not ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ It would be some Yippie getting hit over the head with a guitar and falling into the audience,” laughs Kehew.

When the band restarts, Townshend’s guitar is out of tune and they grind to a halt. It’s all on the new release. Warts and all.

Brian Kehew •

Rhino Entertainment •