Music Performed (Part 1)

There are different paths one can take when making a record and each offers its own unique rewards.  One path seeks to create something that cannot exist in real life, a work of sonic fiction valuable for the imaginary landscapes it embodies.  Another path seeks to capture, as closely as the latest technology allows, the sound of a real performance in a real space.  While I appreciate both types of recording, I am most interested in exploring the idea of records that sound like performances.  The reason is simple:  For me, the record is merely a vehicle that provides access to the music.  While I love records, for me, the greatest excitement in music is the performance event.  Capturing the performance event is my favorite way to make a record because listening to a performance is my favorite way to listen to music.

Jeff Buckley was spot on when he referred to music as a force of Nature.  Music has impacted so many parts of my life, I can’t imagine its absence.  Though most of the music I have come to love has come to me via recordings, for this entry of the Soundkeeper blog I’m thinking of those musical performances I attended that have left me with lifelong memories.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend concerts by the Beatles, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and many others too numerous to mention, and for these I will be ever grateful for the recorded legacies they left behind.  On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to be present at performances by many other musical heroes and these remain indelibly engraved in my being.

Several of the memories were created at the old Fillmore East on the lower east side in New York City.  My first visit occurred shortly after the release of John Mayall’s landmark album “The Turning Point” when I saw him play it live.  I also attended performances by B.B. King and Taj Mahal in this theater.  Sitting in the third row as Moby Grape rocked the room with “Omaha” and later, the band’s bassist Bob Mosley sang a solo a capella “Ode to the Man at the End of the Bar” brought home the energy of one of my favorite bands of the era.

In the Summer of 1971, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden was my first arena concert.  Musical hero after musical hero came upon the stage, thrilling me to live performances by so many folks I’d previously only heard via recordings.  From the opening set by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (the latter one of my first world music heroes) to subsequent performances by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (right there, half of my all-time favorite band), Eric Clapton (one of my first guitar “teachers”, whose records I would play over and over again as I learned to play different parts), Leon Russell and Billy Preston, these were some of the most exhilarating performances I can remember.

When a Rolling Stones tour was announced, it seemed like getting tickets would be near impossible.  The promoters decided to hold a lottery whereby folks would send in postcards and the winners would be drawn at random, each winning postcard entitling the sender to purchase four tickets to the show.  I remember an evening of filling out postcard after postcard and dropping them in the mailbox.  As I was about to take a trip out of state, I’d asked good friends to try and secure a ticket for me, in case they got lucky with their entries.  When the drawing was complete, it turned out eight of the postcards I’d sent in were selected.  I got to go and so did 31 friends!  Our seats might have well been near the ceiling—not that there was any trouble hearing the sound system though—but hey, it was the Stones!  Live!

The best seats I ever had at the Garden were for Genesis on the “Duke” tour in 1980.  I’d just mastered the CD for this album and really enjoyed being present when the group performed the album at the show.

Fun though the arena shows are, my favorite live concerts have been the ones in smaller venues, where there is more real contact with the artist.  Perhaps my favorite of all was a triple bill at New York’s Beacon Theater.  The roster that night included Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, and Tim Buckley.  Van had just released “His Band and the Street Choir” and the band played many tracks from the album along with some favorites from the previous record, “Moondance”.  Though I was familiar with and admired Linda’s voice from her work with the Stone Poneys, she was still a relatively new discovery to me.  Tim Buckley had just released “Starsailor”, his follow-up to “Lorca”, both of which remain two of my favorite albums.  It was a treat to be present as his band performed songs from both albums and to hear Tim sing in person.  I particularly admired the musicianship in this band where both the vocals and instrumental lines would tend toward more oblique and quite original turns than are typical of most popular music.

More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to attend several performances by Richard Thompson at the Tarrytown Music Hall.  Over the course of a bit more than a year, I’ve also finally gotten to hear another of my favorite artists at this same hall:  I love all of their albums but being in the room when Los Lobos plays and sitting still are two things I am not able to do at the same time.

That visceral experience of being in the presence of music being performed is to me, life lived to its fullest.

Next time out, live jazz in New York City.

Into the Majors

While keeping up with the recording studio scene in New York City, I heard there might be an opening at Atlantic Studios for a music editor.  In the two and a half years since I got my first job as a studio assistant, I had been involved with recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing and mastering.  The promotion to chief engineer brought with it a catalog of opportunities to experiment and learn, in which I immersed myself every day.  Now, Atlantic Studios beckoned!

I called the studio manager and much to my joy, an interview was scheduled.  We met, spoke and he offered me the position of music editor.  I accepted.  Atlantic Studios!  Atlantic Records!  First entry into studio A, the largest of the three studios on the premises, was a visit to hallowed musical ground.  So many records I’d grown up with, and others that were significant parts of the soundtrack of my life, were made in this room.  So many musical heroes created magic in this space.  Names sped through my mind:  Ray Charles, the Coasters, the Drifters, the Rascals, Aretha Franklin, Doctor John (the Night Tripper), John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), Buffalo Springfield, Cream, the list goes on and on.  The roster also included a long list of artists who recorded elsewhere but whose work was released by Atlantic, among them, artists such as Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, AC/DC, Phil Collins, Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones – a dizzying array of musical delights for the new employee.

To friends, I summed up my primary responsibilities as music editor as being to make long songs shorter and short songs longer.  Despite the exception a few decades before, when radio stations played Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” single which clocked in at over six minutes, it was common practice to edit album length songs down to somewhere around three or at most, three and a half minutes in length in the hope that this made them more likely to get played on the radio.  When management at the record label decided that a certain album track would become a single, my job was to create a copy of the album master and cut the copy to a shorter duration.  (Since editing in those days was accomplished with a razor blade, and since the master mix used for the album was needed for the album, it was necessary to create a tape copy in order to create an alternate version of a song.)  On some occasions, the record producer would already have an idea of what parts of the song they wanted to remove in order to create the single but in most instances, I was left with this creative decision.  Of course, approval (or rejection) of the edit, was the producer’s call.  In a typical single edit, a verse might get removed.  If the song contained a long instrumental break, this was shortened.

The Procrustean task of the editor was a bit more complicated when a song needed to be lengthened.  Recall that these were the days of the “dance single”, versions of songs longer than those on the album, that had become popular in the dance clubs.  How to lengthen a five minute song to eight minutes or more?  Where radio singles involved removing verses or shortening instrumental breaks, dance singles would have verses (or choruses) repeated and instrumental breaks doubled (by repeating sections or using sections within the break to build a longer, more complex break).  All this, in those days, accomplished with a fresh razor blade, a grease pencil and an Edit-All bar (a metal block with a tape-width groove to secure the section of tape being edited, and angled slots through which to pass the cutting blade).  There was no “Undo” button.  There was no “Nudge” button to move an edit point.  Instead, the engineer manually “rocked” the tape back and forth past the playback head, a hand on each reel, listening to the slow-motion playback for the point at which they would make the edit.  When the engineer thought they had the point, they’d carefully mark the tape with the grease pencil, loosen the reels and place the section of tape in question into the Edit-All bar.  If an edit didn’t work, the tape had to be spliced back together and a new cut attempted.

For today’s users of DAWs (digital audio workstations), where one uses a computer mouse to select a musical passage and make a menu selection to alter said passage, imagine this:  On one occasion, we needed to “censor” one word the vocalist sang and the decision was to reverse it — make that one word occur backwards, while the rest of the music played normally. As our “workstation” of the day was nothing more than a razor blade and a stout heart, we needed to figure out where on the width of the 2” (~5 cm) wide multitrack tape the vocals were recorded.  Manually rocking the reels on the multitrack machine, we could find the start and end of the word in question.  Then, with a ruler, lines were drawn along the length of the tape to “outline” the location of the word.  Using that ruler, the razor and some determination, the word was cut from the tape and the excised section physically inverted, then re-taped in place.  And it worked!  What involved some time and a lot of sweat back then can be accomplished in a second today.

The editing room in those days was also a tape duplication room.  In addition to the reel-to-reel decks, there were racks of cassette decks.  Cassettes had replaced the 7” (~18 cm) reels of tape provided to producers as “refs” (reference copies) of a day’s work in the studio.  Cassettes were also made for the label’s promotion department, in order for the folks there to become familiar with each month’s album releases.  The reel-to-reel decks were also used to create sub-masters, which were formatted copies of albums, sent to tape duplication facilities for mass production of pre-recorded cassettes and (yes) 8-track cartridges.  Cassette sub-masters were pretty straight ahead copies of each album side.  The sub-masters used for 8-track cartridges got a unique treatment.  For those not old enough to remember the format, it was comprised of a continuous loop of tape inside a plastic cartridge.  As the program played the first stereo pair of tracks and reached the end of the loop, the playback device would switch to the next stereo pair of tracks for the next pass of the tape loop, then switch again to the third and four pairs of tracks each time the loop reached its end.  Having the four programs on adjacent pairs of tracks allowed for keeping the tape loop relatively short.  It also meant that sub-masters required an album be divided into four “programs”, each program destined for its own two tracks of the available eight.

Things got complicated when, for example, the first two or three songs on an album might total 10 minutes in duration and the next two or three songs might total 12 minutes and then next group of songs might total 8 minutes and the last group say, 9 minutes.  The goal was to build the four programs to be as equal in duration as possible.  Program 1 might have three songs, program 2 might have just 2 songs, etc.  The loop of tape put into an 8-track cartridge had to be long enough to accommodate the longest of the four programs.  In the example cited here, we’d need to have enough tape for the 12 minute program.  That means at the end of the 10 minute program, there would be a 2 minute wait until the player got to the end of the tape loop and advanced to the next program.  The wait between songs could be a long one and needless to say, completely discarded the spacing decided upon by the artist, producer and engineer when they assembled the album master.  From my own experience, I know that a difference of half a second in spacing between songs can change how an album feels when listened to from start to end.

Some record labels would opt to maintain the album sequence, equalize program lengths as best they could and the listener got to wait until the tape got to the end of the loop before the album proceeded.  Others would re-sequence the album — change the song order from that decided upon by the artist, producer and engineer — to arrive at the most equal program lengths possible for songs of the given durations.  (If a change in spacing between songs of half a second can change how an album feels, changing the order of songs can create what is essentially a different album.)  Still other labels would simply divide the total album duration by four and if a song was still in progress when the tape loop reached its end, it would continue when the playback device switched to the next program – often with several seconds of music simply missing. (!)  The technique at Atlantic was to maintain the sequence if possible, but rather than have songs interrupted when the tape loop reached its end, the songs would be faded for a gentler transition to silence.  Then, the tape would be backed up about 10 seconds and to start the next program, the song faded in from silence, picking up where it left off and continuing to its end.  The word in the studio was that one of the label’s major artists once said “Anyone that buys an 8-track deserves whatever they get”.  Its compromised sonics aside, it was for the obvious musical reasons that I was never a fan of the format.

Just a few short years later, the world of editing was going to be revolutionized. So was the world of recording, as new technology came to the fore, bringing with it new possibilities and new adventures.