Music: Bruce Springsteen

Dec 1, 2010 9:00 AM, By Barbara Schultz

REVISITING 'DARKNESS,' KEEPING HIS PROMISE TO FANS

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Anyone who’s seen Bruce Springsteen in concert knows that The Boss doesn’t hold back; when he and the E Street Band are onstage, they’re giving their audience all they’ve got. Why play for an hour when you can go for two—or three? Why fade out when there can be “One more time!”? So if Springsteen’s going to issue a box set, it’s not going to be an early LP wrapped up with a few bonus tracks and a taller booklet—his box is going to be full.

Case in point: The Promise. Released in mid-November, this “Deluxe Package” includes the remastered Darkness on the Edge of Town album (first released in 1978); a making-of documentary (The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story); a double-album’s worth of previously unreleased songs recorded during the Darkness sessions (also available for purchase separately); and four hours of concert footage on two DVDs, including a full-length concert recorded in Houston in ’78, and a unique live version of the Darkness album, performed front-to-back at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J., in 2009, in an empty theater—no audience, just musicians. And every disc has been meticulously mixed and mastered to bring this embarrassment of riches fully to life.

It’s important to note that the songs introduced on The Promise are not half-baked demos and outtakes. They’re fully realized songs that could easily have formed another double-album release, though were never final-mixed after the recording sessions in ’78. “This was all stuff that was left off the [Darkness on the Edge of Town] album simply because Bruce decides what suits the album,” says Bob Clearmountain, who mixed all of the “new” tracks and the Paramount concert. “He wants the songs he chooses to get certain ideas across. He’s so prolific; he writes all these amazing songs and then hones it down to what is most relevant.”

Like the original Darkness album, all of these bonus tracks were recorded at The Record Plant and Atlantic Studios (both in New York City) in 1978 with producer Jon Landau and (then) engineer Jimmy Iovine. “It was unusual to mix tracks that were recorded more than 30 years ago, but it brought back memories,” Clearmountain says. “I started in 1972, so the recording techniques that Jimmy used were similar to what I was doing back then on analog tape, where the drums would be on four tracks as opposed to 12 as we do nowadays, for example. It was kind of nostalgic, even though I wasn’t involved in recording the original record.”

Clearmountain, who was provided with Pro Tools transfers of the original analog tracks, mixes on a 72-input SSL SL 4000 G+ in his Mix This! studio (Pacific Palisades, Calif.). He used the original Darkness album as a reference while shaping the songs on The Promise. “I tried to keep the general vibe of what they did then,” he says. “I’d go through the Darkness album and find a song that was a similar tempo or mood to the song I was mixing, and I would actually A/B and try to keep the general atmosphere similar.”

Clearmountain also used the two live chambers he has at Mix This! and the Audio Ease Altiverb Version 6 plug-in to help re-create the sound of ’78: “Altiverb is a modeling reverb that comes with re-creations of many interesting real spaces,” he says. “I really like that because it gives the mix a more realistic-sounding environment. Of course, back then, they used EMT plates and spring reverb, so I also have a spring that I use; it’s a little Fisher Space Expander—just a cheesy little tube-driven mono spring reverb that really takes you back to that time period.”

In a few instances, however, Clearmountain, who has been mixing Springsteen releases since The River (1980), applied a slightly more modern approach. “The snare drum was a really big deal in the ’70s,” he says. “Darkness was mixed well [by Iovine and Chuck Plotkin], but many of the mixes had an incredibly loud snare drum, which I find a bit distracting. So I also applied what I’ve learned mixing with Bruce and others over the years, so you’re not going to hear this huge, bombastic snare drum on the mixes.

“But, of course, in any case, the ultimate gauge is the reaction of the artist, whether it’s Bruce Springsteen or anyone else I mix for. If Bruce had said, ‘Well, look, we really should have a big, bombastic snare drum,’ then I would have done that, of course.”






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