Nashville Skyline

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Rick Clark


Education Guide

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I got a call last week from my friend Andrew Mendelson, the chief mastering engineer and manager for Georgetown Mastering. Mendelson wanted to let me know that our mutual friend, Brian Ahern, was dropping in with surround mixing engineer Doug Beal to check out their mixes for the 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 the H.W. VanHoos song “Green Pastures,” which features the harmony vocals of Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs, as well as Willie Nelson's distinctive gut-string guitar work. Beal felt that one of the two mixes had the “hair standing up on your neck” factor when he mixed it, but he wanted to see if it still had that magic in another 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's surround rendering of an already great song was pretty amazing. It is great when you get to hear a surround mix that is dead-on at capturing the emotional essence of a performance — and this one did.

“We just tried to make it sound like they were breathing the same air at the same time,” says Ahern of the mix. “We had the autoharp and the dobro come in at the same time, and they are kind of rear-ish in the mix. I built some ‘clouds’ that they bounce 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, but it's there. I also put a Memphis-style slap on Willie's gut-string guitar and Dolly's vocal, so I linked them in time. That slap comes from the dead center of the room and that is what you were hearing over your head. It was a mix idea that we had that we couldn't do when we were working in stereo.”

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

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

The other tracks Beal and Ahern referenced from Roses in the Snow with Mendelson were “Jordan” and “Gold Watch and Chain.”

Prior to his arrival at Georgetown, Mendelson had mastered for the Cleveland-based audiophile label, Telarc, which has not only released many award-winning and commercially successful orchestral recordings, but they have also great jazz and blues releases. Capturing the 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 I hooked up with him while he was doing mixes on Hiromi Uehara over at Chuck Ainlay's great Back Stage recording studio, with Jim Cooley assisting. The project, titled Key Talk, is Uehara's second album for the label. The tracks were recorded at The Sound Kitchen in the Big Boy room, with Matt Weeks assisting.

“The Big Boy is one of the best-sounding rooms I've ever worked in,” Bishop says.“I captured ambience tracks on everything that could actually be used for the surround mixes. Recording in Big Boy gave me lots of options in recording ambience around each of the three musicians. It may seem like overkill to place an acoustic trio in such a large room, but I needed that space for creating the right surround field to be used in the mix later.”

Bishop's experience in Nashville wasn't his first by any means, but he says his positive results and supportive interactions with the recording community have made the city a preferred destination for future projects. “I have long been trying to get more of our Telarc jazz sessions to Nashville, largely because of the cost-effective studio facilities here, many great rooms without the high costs of Manhattan, convenient and affordable hotels within walking distance, and an extremely friendly and creative atmosphere,” Bishop points out.“It's so cool that should we have a need for a particular piece of gear, one can call someone within the local recording community and get immediate assistance. Tracy Martinson, Chuck Ainlay, George Massenburg and Michael Wagener were among those to be of tremendous help here in many ways and at a moments notice. Instead of being territorial, the pros in Nashville will bend over backward to help a colleague out of a bind.”

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

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

When I arrived at Back Stage, Bishop was very accommodating and eager to play me the tracks. While Uehara does utilize what one might call a classic jazz piano, bass and drum lineup, calling her a “jazz” artist is almost misleading. The tracks I heard ranged 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 of Windham Hill's most thoughtful recordings. The dynamics and technique of Uehara and the other players were quite astonishing, particularly the unison bass and piano lines on a couple of the tracks.

“Hiromi has a distinct vision for her music,” says Bishop.“She goes into the studio with a very detailed idea of what 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 her all with absolutely every take.”

With regards to Back Stage, Bishop states, “My compliments to Chuck Ainlay and everyone at Sound Stage for creating such a great-sounding mix room and making it so easy to mix surround there!The ATC SCM-300s, SCM-50s and Nova Applause speakers all gave me lots of options in mixing, while helping give me a mix that translates very well on anything elsewhere. Very little has to be done after the fact in mastering with mixes I've done in the back room. Sound Stage is probably the most accommodating facility I've worked in. Did I mention that I like working there?”

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

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