In The Studio
The first part of the process once we hit the studio was to transfer the tracks from the original DA88 digital tapes to hardrive and store them in a Pro Tools session (no more specific gear talk til later, I promise). Basically we were moving the tracks into a computer based work environment. Easier workflow, safer storage medium, etc etc. This proved to be an all day affair as the older tapes did not want to play nice once they made it to the studio. I won’t go into all of the hoop jumping shenanigans of the day, I’ll just proudly report that when the dust cleared we accomplished what we needed to…screw you, tape machines. Getting as many shows as we can off of their original tape format and on to hardrives is important for us. Our DA78 machines are serviced and well maintained but they still scare me to death. Any device that can eat your master…I just don’t like it. Rant over.
Riding shotgun with me through every last minute of the Huntsville mix was Drew Vandenberg. Drew is one of the staff engineers over at Chase Park and if I have it my way I’ll never do a live record without him. Very bright guy with a great ear. Drew handled all of the track editing and didn’t flinch at any of my “hey, I got an idea!!!” requests. We’d usually edit 3 songs at a time and then mix three and then repeat. By editing I mean we’d go through a song and turn off any mics that weren’t used. Sunny’s got a lot of shit up there but he doesn’t use it all on every song, ya know? It just makes for a cleaner sound when you turn off what you don’t need. I do the same thing live I just do it in real time (and subsequently sometimes forget to turn the chimes mic on until it’s too late). We’d got through the vocals and mute everything until someone would sing. We’d clean up the ambient crap that floats around in the drum mics. Turn on and off the keyboard channels as needed. All that fun stuff. I could tell Drew as we began a song what to expect so there wasn’t too much guesswork involved. Nonetheless it is a very tedious process and Drew handled the task admirably. Once the cleanup would be completed I’d jump back in the hot seat (which means I’d get off the couch) and begin mixing again. Ah the mix…
The drum sounds were hammered out on the first day. I started with Todd’s stuff and then slowly incorporated the main pieces of Sunny’s rig. Once those levels were set they didn’t change too awfully much. The congas I’d later ride and given the song’s needs we’d automate the parts where he’d use his trinkets and assorted doo-dads. Most of that stuff comes through what we deem his vocal mic as well as channels for timbales, bongos, blocks, chimes, overheads, and several channels we call “toys” which are all just his various cowbells. Anyway, I brought Dave into the mix after the drums and percussion were pretty well set. All I really used for Dave was a direct sound (just the signal from his guitar, no amp) plus a signal from one of an effects device he used at the time. Those three guy’s sounds laid the foundation and the other three guys came next. For Mike I just used one mic from his amp and did the same for JB. Jojo’s stuff came last and included two channels for the piano, two channels for the leslie cabinet (that’s the amp for the organ, the thing that spins right behind Jojo on stage) plus the clavinet and wurlitzer channels. For each song we’d run passes of automation for the guitars and keys first. That way I could ride solos and put things in their respective places in real time just like I would live. I could generally nail this on the first pass but many times we’d go back into the computer where the automation was stored and move some levels around to massage things into a better fit. I’d typically have Dave set for any available fader moves during this portion as well in case he had a solo part or in case I just felt he needed to move around a bit in the track. Again, this is where Drew was of tremendous help. (***I guess I should define automation for those confused: Automation is the process of storing various functions on a console or, in this case, on a computer or similar digital mixing platform. You can store fader moves, mutes, panning, plug in manipulation, etc. It was critical for a complex mix for a band with as much going on as Panic***). After guitars and keys were good we’d go through and do the aforementioned percussion stuff. Vocals came last and were usually relatively straightforward. JB’s pretty damn easy to mix vocally. Fitting the other guy’s backing vocals in was usually the tougher part…they ain’t exactly the Beach Boys. So in a very, very, VERY understated way that was the basic mix routine. Twenty something songs is a lot of music. We mixed for about 8 days gaining speed and momentum as we went along. The audience tracks were not added until the final day. Let’s make that another paragraph. This one’s become ridiculously large…
The tracks we had for the audience were admittedly not the greatest. To be honest there was only one track on the tapes…pretty lame. It was clearly done from the front of the stage and there just wasn’t a very big sound on it. I asked Horace to grab me an audience tape from his collection and he produced one quickly. I wish I knew who the taper was so I could thank them but I have no earthly idea whose source we used. Sorry guys. Anyway, we combined the stereo audience tape with the single track I had from the multitrack tapes and we made a stereo mix of the two. I sat there with my feet kicked up and just rode that mix as the show played. I’d bump it up here and there as the crowd swells grew. It’s funny, you guys cheer louder at certain parts now more than you did at some back then. Very little cheering after “WAKE UP!!!”…shame on you. All in all, however, it was a large building with a relatively modest attendance so to have the crowd sound like 20,000 people in an uproar would simply be a dishonest representation of what went down that night. I had to call Horace in during this portion of the mix because A.) I was pretty burnt after mixing for so many days in a row and B.) I just couldn’t decide how much audience to flavor the project with. Horace reassured Drew and I that we were in an okay spot.
After the audience was sufficiently taken care of, well, we were done. I’m not gonna bore you with any mastering info. What I would like to do is give you all some random insights and musings I have in my head from (drum roll please, cue massive voiceover guy) The Making Of Huntsville 96:
1.) One of the most surprising aspects of the recordings was how little stage bleed there was in the vocal mics. Waaaaaaaaaaay less than there is these days. Just a quieter band back then. Dudes are loud now. Mike’s vocal in particular was super easy to mix compared to later times when you could barely pull anything out of his mic. Lower monitor levels at the time played a huge role in this. Oh the simpler times…
2.) The guitars are hard panned. JB gets the whole right side of the stereo spectrum and Mike gets the left. Only once in a blue moon can I get away with this in a live setting. Makes for a wider sound (duh) and enhances the separation.
3.) Jojo is straight up the middle. Even the leslie, which is typically mixed stereo, was made mono to do this.
4.) This is to date the oldest collection of live multitrack stuff from the Panic vault. The process was less than refined at this point. The band was at a transitional phase with monitor guys and from what I can tell the recordings were a bit of an afterthought though obviously still useable. In particular several tracks were either so hot that they clipped (overloaded/distorted) from time to time or so low that the 16-bit depth of the era made for a slightly less than desirable sound. We worked around all of these and you’ll never notice. Among those: the kick drum, the clavinet, Mike’s guitar, the bongos, and the congas.
5.) There’s a spot in Drums where the bongos were so distorted that what we ended up using in that section is the bleed of the bongos from the nearest conga mic! Pretty proud of making this work. In the mix it goes from what we call “conga 3” , which is the lowest conga or tumba, right back in to the straight signal from the bongo mic itself once it quit distorting. See if you can spot where the transition is.
6.) This shows contains the two songs I dread mixing the most out of Panic’s whole catalog. Really. Dread.
7.) For my money the coolest spot in the whole show is a hand off of sorts between Mike and Jojo around the 9:45 mark in Guilded.
8.) There’s a delay on the vocals during the Arleen/Satisfied part. I really didn’t care too much for the delay…too long of a time for my personal tastes, but to have left it out would have made the delay that was in the house that night sound awkward. Plus I kind of feel that Dave was playing with it a bit. He does that a lot nowadays. I give him some effects in the house during Chilly, Rock, Blight, etc and he usually works with it. We’ve never discussed it actually. We just do it. You know…FYI.
9.) In Diner there was a spot where the first tape machine completely quit recording. That would be the tape with the kick, snare, high hat and some of the toms! Drew made a fantastic edit where he took a brief section from a similar spot in the song and spliced it in. You’ll never hear it. I can’t even remember where it was in the song!
10.) JB’s vocal sits pretty well within the music as opposed to being way on top throughout the show. I did this purposely. It sounds more intense to me that way. Conversely Mike is jacked up there pretty hot when he’s singing. Not to an unmusical point but a little hotter than what you may have been used to in the past. To me these releases are a way to reveal to the listener certain things they may not have ever heard quite as clearly before.
11.) Kinda building off of #10 above, much of the mix on Huntsville was done specifically to focus on the band, Widespread Panic, as a whole. There’s not a lot of solos cranked 10 db above the rest of the band. We’ve all heard that. Things move in and out appropriately but you’ll notice that for the most part you can hear everybody at every moment. The six head monster thing. You know what I’m talking about. Couldn’t hear JB’s guitar well enough before? Get ready.
12.) Set 1 was actually mixed twice. I loosened up some of the compression on the whole mix during Papa’s Home and I liked the sound better so we ran the whole thing again.
13.) Sunny’s main cowbell (toy 1) was so distorted we actually replaced it with a sample. Don’t hate. It was a sample I made from Sunny’s cowbell collection. You can hear on the audience tapes and the board tapes floating around out there where it sounds like the mic was laying right on the instrument. It just sounds f*cked up. That coupled with the track being distorted created a big problem. He hits the damn thing a lot throughout this show. I ran over to our warehouse, took Sunny’s current toy 1 cowbell, went back to the studio, sampled it on my laptop and gave that sample to Drew. We had to go through every single cowbell hit and replace it with the new sample. What a pain in the ass. Because of this those cowbell parts are ducked slightly lower in the mix so it doesn’t sound too fake. I hesitate telling you this. You’d never have noticed if I hadn’t. I hope you can all sleep well at night knowing this. It was a necessary evil. Happens a lot on live recordings. More cowbell!!!
14.) JB sounds like Cartman to me when he says “Eric Carter” after Can’t Get High. It’s probably just me.
15.) Drew and I celebrated the marathon mix of Huntsville at a Waffle House.
16.) Despite all of the really cool jams in the second set it’s the Porch Song I can’t quit listening to. Yes, the unjammed out, stock Porch Song. It just sounds…fun? Something like that. Good stuff.
17.) Oh this is priceless. The initial pressing of the discs for some reason came back with Pilgrims misspelled. How Widespread Panic is that?! If your disc says “Pilgrams” consider it a collector’s item.
….um, that’s 17 things that immediately come to mind. Maybe I’ll think of more. For now that’s all I’ve got. I’ll call you when you get off work.
…to be concluded in grand nerd fashion with part 3!!!…