A State of Graceland

“I got a call from Phil (Ramone) saying that Warner Bros. wanted him to produce Paul Simon’s Gracelandand Rhythm of the Saints in surround and he wanted to know if I’d be interested,” remembers surround wünderkind Frank Filipetti. “I was right in the middle of a Korn record and could only manage to fit one in, so I picked Graceland — just because it’s Graceland! Filipetti acknowledges that it was a tough choice saying, “Rhythm of the Saints is also a fantastic record,” adding that it would have been an honor to be involved with either Paul Simon masterpiece.

With over two dozen surround mixes under his belt including James Taylor, Meatloaf, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Polyphonic Spree, to name a few, the multi-Grammy winning engineer faced one of his biggest challenges to date when approaching the Graceland mixes.

“The main problem was finding the compiled masters,” confides Filipetti. “No one seems to be able to locate them. So I have a reel with approximately 14 vocals on it and I’m going line by line, comparing it against the vocal on the CD.” This tedious process has meant more time in the studio than normal, “I’d say we’ve probably done a total of 25 days, but only about five or six of those days were actual mixing. The first 15 days were spent finding tapes and parts, but we’re only a couple days away from finishing now,” concludes a relieved Filipetti who can add detective to his resume.

In-between sessions at Right Track in Manhattan and Ramone’s studio The Shire in N.Y.’s countryside, we managed to sneak in a few minutes with this powerhouse engineer as he opened up on surround mixing with Paul Simon.

Graceland was originally done in 1986. Besides the compiled tapes missing, what were some of the other challenges you faced?

A lot of Graceland was recorded in South Africa and there weren’t any session notes on those recordings. Paul brought those recordings back to the U.S. and he and [engineer] Roy Halee would overdub on and compile those tracks for mixing. In some instances we had the final compilations, but more often all we had were the original masters, which were incomplete. It’s been more of a detective story at this point than a mixing story. [Laughs.]

What format did you work from to re-create the mixes?

All the tracks have been transferred from the latest masters. The original multitracks were 24-track analog and 24-track digital (Sony 3324). Most of the analog material was recorded in South Africa and the digital material was mainly done in the U.S. David Smith at Sony Studios-NY transferred everything over to [Steinberg’s] Nuendo. So I received everything on a formatted hard drive as WAV files that were imported into a Nuendo session. As we weren’t sure which were final masters and which were redundant B reels, David gave us everything he had.

What was your approach to re-creating this classic in surround?

It was a lot of starting a mix and then realizing you were missing material. So I’d compare what I had against the CD, and, realizing I didn’t have the right vocal, I’d go through all of the alternate versions with Andrew Fellus (Phil’s engineer at the Shire) and work on finding the missing lines or even the missing takes. After a day of that I’d finally comp the right vocal only to realize the bass part or a guitar part on my master wasn’t exactly the same as what ended up on the 2-track. Paul is a perfectionist, and obviously at some point in the recording process he decided to punch a guitar phrase or two to help with the feel. Andrew and I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for these things. The material we couldn’t find was mostly effects on gear that no longer exists anyway. The next step was to re-create those effects with the gear we currently have. Specially speaking, tell us about Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes. I think it originally started as a 2-track recording of a rhythm section in South Africa but apparently all that existed when they brought it back to the states was a cassette. So Paul actually transferred the 2-track cassette to mulitrack and overdubbed his stuff onto that. So I didn’t have the original rhythm elements — nor did Paul when they did the original mix. The difference is, though, when they mixed it in 2-track they had two tracks of rhythm. I, of course, had to make it work on 5.1 tracks, so that was one of the bigger challenges. The lead and choir vocals are amazing on that record.

How did you treat them in surround?

The Black Mombassa stuff was spectacular. We did have specific elements for that, which was great. So instead of having them in front of you, I placed the listener in the middle of the choir. That was nice and very interesting, and we really had fun doing that. Still, Paul had some issues with coherency. In other words, there were certain guitar or vocal parts that depended on their proximity with another part. If you put one in the front speakers and the other in the back, that coherency is missing because they were so dependent on being glued together.

What was Paul’s opinion about hearing his music in surround?

Paul is not a big fan of throwing a lot of stuff in the rears. I’ve been working with Paul — trying to be as adventurous as possible while at the same time maintaining integrity with the song. Paul is great because when he hears it as being right, it’s right. He doesn’t spend a lot of time second guessing. So I’ve been working closely with him and Phil (who tends to be more adventurous). Paul’s been a big part of this in that Graceland was such a unique and personal vision that we’ve been very mindful of his perspective. When he first came by he just wanted to hear it and make sure everything was okay. He initially thought the surround stuff was a little too adventurous. I had put the listener in the middle of the band perspective and Paul wanted to keep a lot of the stuff in the front. On the other hand, he’s very fond of events suddenly changing perspective. So we kind of toned some things down and stayed a little more true to his vision. The good news is that he originally had little interest in 5.1, and after listening and playing with it a little bit, he really got excited about it. So he’s actually been very active now.

You mixed at Phil’s studio The Shire… what gear did you use?

I had been speaking with Peter Chaikin at JBL and he told me about the new LSR’s. He brought them over to me one morning in L.A. while I was mixing Korn, and we played around with them for a couple hours. I mixed the rest of Take A Look In The Mirror on them. What most impressed me was their uniformity. I immediately talked to Peter about getting me a set for 5.1 mixing. So when it came time to mix Graceland, I asked Phil if we could set them up at The Shire. I love them. In fact, I’m using them for all my mixing now, because of their tonability and the smoothness. There’s a real uniformity from speaker to speaker, which makes them ideally suited for 5.1 mixing. As for the rest of the gear, we’re using Nuendo for the front end and from there I’m going to the Yamaha DM2000. I did my entire signal processing off the DM2000 as opposed to using plug-ins in Nuendo. I generally go to the real stuff when I can. For reverbs and delays we used the Lexicon 960L. The reverb package in the 960L is great, especially the surround stuff. There’s a lot of no-linear gated reverb on the original Graceland album; we were using two engines of the 960 to re-create some of that. For the most part, I think we were pretty successful. At least Paul seemed to think so. The other two engines were for the really great Lexicon vocal reverbs we all know and love. I especially love the hall programs for vocals — they’re really terrific. One of my favorite Lexicon programs is Buckram from the 480L, which I use on percussion because it’s so great with drums. The greatest challenge for us was that we’re dealing with a very particular point in time and a very particular mixing style and a brilliant mixer in Roy Halee and Paul Simon. Trying to reinterpret this and provide a new perspective on it while still keeping everybody’s memories intact: it’s one of those records where you want to be adventurous and respectful at the same time. In this particular instance the artist himself was there, so when we did deviate from the master, I didn’t feel quite so reticent about doing it because if it gets Paul Simon’s sign of approval, then it’s Paul Simon. He’s the guy that did it, and if he wants to play with it a little bit, that‘s great. That’s better than great…that’s Graceland.

Surround Professional Magazine