One from the road

Every reader probably has a favorite old album that they’d like to see remixed in 5.1 surround. Record labels, artists, and engineers have their lists, too, earmarking catalog albums for re-purposing as quickly as budget and other business issues allow. And one such label, Warner Music Group, has surely struck gold with its latest selection for DVD-Audio release. Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty was a milestone record. Live albums at the time typically consisted of the artist’s greatest hits (remember Frampton Comes Alive?); this, in contrast, was previously unheard material, some of it written on the road during the tour. Songs were not simply recorded at the venues, but also onboard the tour bus and in hotel rooms along the way. Released December 6, 1977 on Elektra/Asylum Records, the album reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 eight weeks later, was certified platinum within the year, and, to date, has sold over 5 million copies.

But, while Running on Empty was successful as a stereo album both on vinyl and more recently on CD, it is only now, with the maturation of 5.1 surround, that the true ambience and sonic landscapes of many of the songs can be accurately presented to the listener. Running on Empty, says Jordan Rost, senior VP, New Technology at Warner Music Group, “proves the point about the great sound quality that is technically feasible today that simply wasn’t possible when the album first came out.”

Fortunately, the age of the recordings is no barrier to DVD-A release. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t significantly take advantage of the new technology to digitize and produce something that is much closer to the original recording than was before possible,” says Rost.

Which exactly describes the process that the album has gone through since the beginning of this year, when the original masters were transferred from the best of the old analog technology to the very latest cutting-edge digital equipment. But, as Rost notes, “DVD-Audio is not putting product through a digitizing machine and spitting out an album. It’s not just a technical process; it’s an artistic process that goes to the core of the original sound recording.”

And that’s where engineer Greg Ladanyi enters the picture. Elliott Scheiner, at the helm as project coordinator, generally insists that the people who worked on the original record be involved in the reissue. Running on Empty was Ladanyi’s second project with Browne, a relationship that began with the previous album, The Pretender, on which he was second engineer, and continues to this day. Ladanyi, also known for his work with Don Henley, Fleetwood Mac, and Toto, has been nominated 16 times for a Grammy Award, has three Latin Grammy nominations, and was honored for the Best Engineered Recording in 1982 for Toto IV.

According to Ladanyi, the Running on Empty DVD-A is his way to repay Browne. “We have a great relationship and we’ve been friends for a really long time. He pretty much launched my existence in this business. This whole thing means so much to me; to be able to go back to this record and give Jackson something back for what he gave to me.”

Ladanyi works out of Tidal Wave Sound, his own residential studio in Los Angeles, which houses the very latest in digital technology for DVD-Audio production. Key to the entire process and central to the studio operation is Steinberg’s Nuendo media production system, which is complemented by the TC Electronic System 6000 and a 5.1 monitor system comprised of Westlake Audio’s BBM S5 speakers. “I love the Westlake monitors,” says Ladanyi. “They’re incredible.”

Equally important on this project has been the involvement of Steinberg’s product evangelist and co-engineer, Rob Hill. “Realistically, there is no limit to what it can do,” says Hill of Nuendo’s software. “With an understanding of where Intel, AMD, and Apple were all spending the R&D to have the absolute fastest processor, it was easier for Steinberg to look at it as a host-based application, where we just write the code and let them fight out the hardware battle on who has the fastest processor.” Ladanyi has been mixing the project using a dual Pentium III, 1 GHz PC with 512 MB RAM, three Nuendo 8 I/O 24-bit A-to-D converters, and two Nuendo 9652 PCI audio cards. Ladanyi, Browne, and Hill each have identical Nuendo systems and have been swapping removable drives with each other as the project has progressed.

But, as Hill recollects, Ladanyi’s relationship with Steinberg nearly never get off the ground. After another well-known DAW manufacturer failed to make a scheduled appointment at the NAMM show in January, Ladanyi visited Steinberg’s booth for a demonstration. The buzz about Nuendo had been growing among the top engineers looking for a 24/96 solution, and Rory Kaplan at DTS had been urging Ladanyi to check it out after hearing about it himself from Scheiner.

“We went through the program very seriously, and his jaw dropped,” recalls Hill. “He understood immediately that this was something so far ahead, and it fit all of his needs. He felt very comfortable immediately with bringing Jackson’s Running on Empty to us and making it a reality.” “Nuendo is just a great tool for me to use to enhance this music,” agrees Ladanyi. “I never thought I’d mix with a mouse, because I enjoy the involvement of the faders, but the level of excitement of the mixes is such that I forget I’m mixing with a mouse! I try very hard to remember that I have to be energized and inspired by the music, and not by Nuendo.” After experimenting with various combinations of equipment and sample rates, the team settled on rolling tape off the very Studer machine on which it had been recorded, through the original Dolby A units, through Browne’s Neve 8078, and into Nuendo at 96 kHz. They even replaced the 8078 with a line mixer in case the vintage console was coloring the sound, constantly A/B’ing between Nuendo and tape.

“I was trying to get everybody to say which one was which,” recalls Hill. “Everybody could hear the difference between the tape and the computer. I said, ‘Well, what’s standing out to you?’ They said, ‘We can hear the reels spinning on the tape machine!’ That was the only difference that anybody could pick out.”

But the transfer initially got off to a shaky start. Listening back, they discovered that an external word clock had introduced clocking errors. “We were so excited that it was working,” Ladanyi recollects, “that we were able to move all this music into Nuendo at 24/96, which was the first time, I think, it’s been done, that we listened, but not so carefully.” A second pass of the tapes was trouble free.

Back at Tidal Wave, with the transferred files loaded into Nuendo, Ladanyi reviewed the tracks. With memories of the mix processing used on the original recordings lost to the mists of time, he set about re-creating the ambience of the original live recordings using TC Electronic’s System 6000 multiprocessor and creating new 5.1 soundfields within Nuendo for the hotel and bus material.

Anybody familiar with the album will remember the opening title track, recorded at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. Audience members holler, band members tune-up, the count starts, and “BOOM! You’re whacked upside the head,” says Ladanyi of the new 5.1 mix.

Hearing the start of the track in its new guise for the very first time is a visceral experience, even allowing for the level at which Ladanyi enjoys playing it to visitors. “There are some effects where you just want that animal overpowering sonic thing happening,” he observes. “It’s important to get that rush, because when you’re in a concert and the band starts playing – you have to feel that energy.”

Being able to go back and listen to the individual tracks after 24 years has been an eye-opener for Ladanyi, who reveals that conversations between band members, unintelligible in the stereo release, can now be easily heard. At the start of the title track, for example, Browne can be heard singing the opening lines to the band, still unfamiliar with the new song. But Ladanyi was unsure about including them on the DVD-A release until Browne listened to his early mixes.

“I had not turned on the guitars and drums, so you couldn’t hear any definition, you just heard it in the audience. Jackson said, ‘Turn that stuff back on, I want people to hear that!’ Because he wants this record to have the realism of buzzes and not too much of what might be talked about as an ‘artificial hall,’ and rightfully so.”

But re-creating a believable mix of the audience actually took a little finagling, he says. “In those days, there were just two microphones – two shotguns – from the stage, pointing out to the back of the house, so the delay, needless to say, is just ridiculous. So we took the two tracks and moved them back into the band so that the delay was manageable. We copied those two tracks to make another two tracks, and put those more in the front, but they’re delayed within themselves so they don’t phase. That way it sounds as though there were as many people as were really there!” “In the hotel room mix, in a lot of the mixes, in fact, Greg’s using the [System 6000] VSS 5.1 reverb,” comments Ed Simeone, managing director of TC Electronic, Inc. “It allows you to place eight sources coming into the System 6000 anywhere in the 5-channel field, and allows you to set the Focus and Bleed. You’re able to pinpoint focus a position or broaden and widen it. Focus bleeds the signal to an adjacent channel and Bleed bleeds the signal to all the channels equally.”

The people at TC Electronic, comments Simeone, are very excited to be involved in the project. “Being able to take those recordings that were done in real environments and enhance them with environments that give the auditory illusion that you’re with them is a fantastic thing.” He also has a personal, emotional investment in the album. “I had the opportunity to work with Greg in the mid-’80s. I was the keyboard tech for Toto, and Greg engineered and co-produced a number of Toto albums. Also, I was on the road when Running on Empty was released. If you were on the road in the late ’70s, going down the road in a tour bus or a van, this was a very important album. It told our story. When Greg first put Running on Empty up and [drummer] Russ Kunkel starts playing, well, it brought tears to my eyes.”

Using the multichannel reverb capabilities of the System 6000, Ladanyi explains, has allowed him to place each individual precisely in the soundfield, much more so than in a stereo mix. “We’re trying to bring into focus the individual players on the stage so you can have more of a relationship with them. Where before you had two speakers and you had to get it to work in those two speakers, now I can bring stuff up, and it really brings out the clarity.”

Ladanyi is also able to correct some of the shortcomings of the original release that resulted from the method by which they were recorded. “When we recorded the live stuff, there were no monitors, it was all done by where I knew the levels should be on the meter. There are some things that I wish were different, and I’m making up for that with EQ and so on.”

He adds, “There are level rides going on in the performances, but not a lot because these guys are great players. I’m just raising solos so that they pop out a little bit, small vocal rides, making sure that the words are legible. It’s more about feeling the concert than it being the perfect record.”

In addition to Browne, guitarist David Lindley, and backing singers Doug Haywood and Rosemary Butler, the core musicians comprised noted session band The Section: drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar, pianist Craig Doerge, and guitarist Danny Kortchmar. “It’s scary how good these guys are in terms of that pocket – they had it down!” marvels Ladanyi.

But it is the hotel recordings that will be a revelation to listeners, especially those familiar with the stereo album. “You’re in the room with the players,” enthuses Ladanyi, citing the example of “Shaky Town,” recorded at a Holiday Inn in Illinois. “Jackson came over to Tidal Wave and we panned it; we just remembered where everybody was in the room. The piano was over on the right side, Lee was in the center of the room, Jackson was singing in the bathroom, Danny was in the front, and Lindley was in the other corner.

“The drums were in one corner of the room; it’s this stereo drum kit in the left rear of the room. The bass drum is in the center speaker and the drums are spread out left and right. It’s just incredible how you can have this sense of placement.”

The 5.1 mixes of the hotel recordings drop the listener into the vortex of the creative experience. It’s as if you’re sitting on the corner of the bed in the center of the room. “The hotel room stuff is just about being inside the song and getting a feel for the tenderness and the emotion and all the detail,” declares Ladanyi. “Imagine sitting in a room playing music with another person like that. To get that close to a song and to feel the whole thing is tremendous. It’s great for the audience. There’s no way you can hear that in a stereo field.”

Ladanyi is also particularly pleased with the remix of “Nothing But Time,” recorded on the tour bus somewhere in New Jersey. “The bus was small, and, as Jackson said, 4-tracks were too big to put in the bus, so I’m in the back of the bus with two speakers and a Revox 2-track; it was such a tight situation. So we’ve got the bus driving around, with the gears changing. And because we were doing 2-track, we overdubbed the drums right after, with a cardboard box bass drum and snare drum. Yet the playing is just so incredible, the rhythm and the balance within themselves.”

Simeone sums up the entire project particularly well: “You have an artist who cares going back to the original masters. He has the equipment that he used to record the original masters and the engineer who recorded the original masters. Yet he’s using the most modern technology to repurpose it. This is going to be an important 5.1 record.”

Surround Professional Magazine