Over the years, Saturday Night Live has become not only a cultural and comedic institution, but quite a musical one as well. And after more than 25 years of magnificent live performances by many of the rock legends of our time, those of us that have religiously watched the show (that’s just about everyone, isn’t it?) have longed for a release of the musical treasures that the show has created. Finally, after all these years, it’s happened, with a series of upcoming DVD releases that feature music from the first 25 years of the show mixed not only in stereo, but in glorious 5.1 as well. I recently caught up with Stacey Foster, SNL technical consultant and project coordinating producer, and SNL music engineer J. Vicari, who worked with acclaimed music and audio producer Glenn Rosenstein at Nashville’s Backstage at Sound Stage Studios mixing these historic performances.
What exactly is in this package?
Stacey Foster: It’s some of the highlights from the first 25 years of the show. There are five volumes to represent each of the five obvious periods of the 25 years, available as either five individual titles or as a box set. We’ve been working on the production since late ’99, which was the 25th anniversary of the show, so it’s taken a couple of years to get it to this point.
Are there any extras on the discs besides the music?
SF: We’re putting on some bonus tracks to promote the discs, where the bonus track on disc 1 promotes disc 2, disc 2 promotes disc 3, etc. Then on the last disc we have a U2 track that promotes the future discs that we’ll be working on. All the material comes from the beginning of the show up to the Fall of ’99, but U2 is from 2000, which is the first year of the future stuff.
How many songs total?
SF: There’s an average of 12 tracks per DVD, but there’s comedy music and spoken word as well. Lorne [Michaels, SNL creator and executive producer] talks for a bit and each episode is hosted by a host. There are interviews as well as a bunch of interstitial and historical stuff intercut. In other words, there are actual shows that you can sit and watch for 80 minutes if you want. It’s the type of thing that on the DVD menu you can just say “Play Music” or “Play Comedy” or whatever your taste runs to.
I understand that packaging the musical content was a long time coming?
SF: As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s fairly expensive to clear a lot of these musical performances. Every time you think what a wonderful idea it is to do something like this, it starts to become a less likely scenario when you put the hard numbers to paper. But, in the last year or two, everything seemed to come together to actually make this feasible.
What were some of the technical issues that you encountered?
SF: I came on board in 1985, which is the beginning of the last 15 years of this 25-year compilation. We started on the air in stereo and behind the scenes multitracking about 18 years ago, which meant that the first 10 years or so of the show were only ever recorded in mono. And they weren’t even archived on audiotape; it was mostly on videotape. There were some of those early performances that we found on 1/4-inch tape that were not timecoded, but we were able to line a few up with the picture and keep them in sync for the length of the performance.
So then we had to synthesize stereo and 5.1 from those mono tracks. It was a big pain listening to various boxes to figure out which box did what better because we wanted to be as historically correct as possible and not create anything bogus or gimmicky, yet make it a satisfying experience for those with 5.1 systems at home.
What did you end up doing?
SF: We ended up using a combination of things, but we mostly used a TC6000 and a Lexicon 960 for some of the ambiences. I don’t think we did anything earth shattering, but we created a nice ambient space where you get the impression that you’re sitting in the studio listening to the performance.
What formats did you have to deal with?
SF: As I said, on the first 10 years of stuff we ended up stripping in from analog 1/4-inch and old 1-inch videotape. Over the ages we’ve transferred everything else to digital multitrack – even the early 2-inch 24 tracks have been transferred to 3324 or 3348.
J. Vicari: It jumped from analog 24 to digital 24 to 3348 all within one season. We had two of the first 3324’s in the market way back when, then we went to 3348 as soon as that was available. Then we went to Pro Tools as soon as we could get off of linear digital because random access is such a better postproduction medium for us.
SF: Everything that we used on this project was transferred D to D into Pro Tools. So when we were mixing, everything was coming off of Pro Tools and going back to Pro Tools, but it took a fair amount of time to get it into that fashion.
Did you transfer everything in New York and then bring it to Nashville?
SF: Yeah, everything was prepped in New York and then transported on AIT to Nashville and back. We have a whole media asset management plan going on at the show, and having a job like this helps us with that.
Do you normally mix straight to Pro Tools now?
SF: Yeah, we have four 48-track systems with a bunch of Apogee converters here at the show on a big fiber channel network.
How long did the mixing all the audio parts take?
JV: It took us about three or four weeks of strictly mixing the music because all of the tracks were already prepared. Then we sent the tracks to Ted Jensen at Sterling for mastering. It took about 11 more days to do the shows themselves. We did the music as 5.1 and put it to bed, then mixed the sketches in 5.1, then the shows were built taking all that information conformed to its proper time slots. Then I took that and started from the beginning of the show so it all flowed together seamlessly. It was a bunch of steps.
Why did you go to Nashville to mix?
SF: Mostly because they had a really nice 5.1 room with a SSL MT Plus and a great environment for doing surround. Doing the same thing either in New York or Los Angeles would have cost us way too much money, so we thought it was an appropriate compromise based on the money and time that we had. Was mixing on the MT Plus a factor?
SF: Yeah, J. was somewhat familiar with it, having done sessions on it in New York. It became clear early on that it sounded really good and it was fast. When you’re working on 5.1 and stereo mixes at the same time, you need to compare how the different components of each mix are working in both environments, and that’s exactly what the MT Plus let us do. The new HS processor was also a big help on a project of this kind. In the past, especially on an analog board, comparing two mixes of the same program was a time nightmare. With the MT Plus, the time between mixes was literally instantaneous.
JV: It was actually set up great for what we were doing. I was familiar with the console although I hadn’t used it to mix in 5.1, but it was pretty seamless going from stereo to 5.1 on it.
Did you start with the stereo or 5.1 mix?
JV: I started with the stereo mix, but I actually tweaked the 5.1 mix for itself. When I laid it back, I laid back two separate mixes. Both mixes are discrete mixes.
Are both the stereo and 5.1 mixes on the DVD?
SF: Yes, we’re going to do both a PCM 2.0, a PCM 1.0, and a 5.1 AC-3. We’re going to try to make it so that the 5.1 doesn’t automatically downmix to stereo, and you have to manually choose the 2.0 mix.
What monitors did you use?
JV: Active 8-inch KRK’s with a KRK subwoofer. We didn’t use a bass manager.
Did you use much outboard gear or did you use what was available in the console?
JV: I used some analog compression, but I mostly used the on-board stuff. We had a variety of digital reverbs like the Lexicon 480 and EMT 250 split for front and rear, but I mostly stayed on-board with everything else. Every once in a while I’d do some analog snare and kick compression.
How long did it take for you to get the sound that you wanted, given that you were in a new room with a different console than you were used to?
JV: It took a little while, but as soon as I stopped looking at the screen and started just wacking the EQs, I got it to sound the way I wanted. I worked the console pretty hard to get it to react the way that I wanted it to, but it actually came through pretty nicely.
Did you have to go back and touch things up at all?
JV: No, once we went through a song, we put it to bed, except for the Bangles and Ricky Martin. The very first mix I did was the Bangles, and we ended up going back to touch that one up because we learned a lot as we went along. But the recall was perfect, so there was no problem.
Did you get any input on the mixes from artists or management?
SF: We’ve developed a relationship with most of the artists over the years, so we know their tastes. We also had Glenn Rosenstien to produce the mixes, so he and J. worked closely together.
JV: One of the benefits of me mixing this was that I was there when most of it originally happened. Believe it or not, I could remember every detail that every band engineer told me on the live mix. It just came back like it was yesterday, so I put all their input from the live shows into this. I wasn’t in there doing a lot of experimentation. I basically copied what I had done originally, except I had to re-create the stereo mix to create the 5.1 mix.
Were the mixes mostly music in the front with ambience in the rear?
SF: The whole idea was to make the consumer in their home theater feel like they’re a part of the show. We just wanted to give you the best seat in the house and keep everything true to the night of the performance.
JV: I think the use of the center channel was interesting to me. Everybody tried to tell me from day one to be cautious of the center channel, but I used more of it than I thought I would. There’s some music in the rear channels, but just enough to pull it away from the front a little bit. Visually, I thought one of the benefits of 5.1 was to have panned vocals that followed the screen.
What did you do with the LFE?
JV: I used it for any gimmicks like low string pads or low effects. I tried not to put a lot into it, but, when I did, I made sure it made a point. The kick drum’s not flaying and there’s not tons of bass there, although there’s a little bit, so it’s mostly for effect. I’m pretty well convinced that’s what it should be used for.
What format did you mix to?
JV: I mixed back to Pro Tools with a RADAR as a backup at 48/24.
SF: We went AES in and out so there weren’t any converters used at all. From there, we’re going right from Pro Tools into the AC-3 encoder for the DVD.
How long did it take to do each track?
JV: It ended up being about a mix and a half per day on a 12- to 14-hour day. It sounds like a long day of mixing, but a lot of it was just getting things back and forth into the computer. I never had a time allotment per song. I went as long as each song needed.
SF: But it didn’t feel like we were rushing. We never had the feeling that we didn’t have enough time.
JV: On the third disc we had limited tracks anyway. We recorded it originally on analog 24-track, but there were production elements on it as well, so there were only about 16 music tracks. Nowadays it’s all 48 or 64 tracks.
SF: We store the show now on like 72 tracks between production and music, but back then we were limited to 22 total tracks on the multitrack because of the code and guard tracks.
JV: Yeah, we had kick, snare, and kit left and right – that kind of stuff. You can only go so far with that kind of thing unless you’re going to do overdubs, which we didn’t do. Whatever it was that night, that’s basically what was there.
SF: There’s nothing fixed here. This is just real people playing real music.