Sunday, February 04, 2007

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead

My friend John Amato over at Crooks & Liars put up a Late Night Music Club piece about The Band tonight, which reminded me of a couple of stories about the master tapes for Music From Big Pink.

While I worked at Capitol Studios, we were asked to transfer the master 1" 8 track tapes to a modern digital format for an MTV show. I can't remember the title, but it was artists, producers etc., playing tracks, then showing how the music was constructed: "Well here on track 17, we put the ocarina solo..." sort of stuff.

They wanted Robbie Robertson to do his bit on the west coast at The Village Studios in West L.A. where he has had a room for several years. And Levon Helm would do his part in a studio in N.Y.C.

But the word soon came back from both Capitol's west coast and east coast library facilities that no multitrack masters for Big Pink could be found. Other albums, but not Big Pink. People were starting to worry, no one likes to lose assets like these.

One day a Capitol staff engineer mentioned the problem to Don Hahn, a veteran engineer who started out at Phil Ramone's A & R Recording in NYC in the '60s. Donnie said "Damn, I worked on that record at A & R! But they weren't called The Band yet, they called themselves . . .The Crackers!" Armed with this new information, the 1" 8 track multitrack master tapes for Big Pink were located.

A few days later, I was in Studio B at Capitol with a couple of boxes of tape, a 1" 8 track machine, and a 48 trackk digital tape machine ready to do the transfer. After I carefully aligned both machines, I patched them together as well as brought the outputs of both machines onto the console for monitoring and comparison purposes. I hit Record on the 48 tk and Play on the 8 tk, and started listening. And was I shocked!

First on "The Weight", the entire song by the entire group is on tracks 1-4. Push those faders up to the '0' (Zero) mark, and there's the song. As I soloed each track I could hear every voice and instrument, but condensed onto only 4 tracks. It was clear the song was recorded live, because on each track I could hear multiple sounds. One track had Levon's vocal along with drums, and some keyboards, another had Rick's vocal with other instruments. Everything leaked into every microphone to some extent, yet it was clearly a perfect performance.

Tracks 5 through 8 were, if I remember correctly, extra overdubbed background vocals and horns in the "dum, dum, dum, dum, dum da dumdum" part between the end of each chorus and the beginning of each verse. But they were not used as is mentioned in the Don Hahn link above. What a refreshing surprise, that even in the beginning days of massive amounts of overdubs and modern studio technique, that the band just played the song, and Don and Shelly recorded is. How perfect is that?

And still one more surprise remained. On the song "Up On Cripple Creek", everybody knows the break between each chorus and verse is a Jaw Harp (Jew's Harp), right? Closer listening to the soloed track on the multitrack revealed that it was a Hohner Clavinet (think the riff in Stevie's "Superstition"), just distorting an amp. Not a Jaw Harp after all.

What a great look into the history of great recording. I have been really lucky to have had such opportunities. Here's a great site that has Band discography info:


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