Hot Tracks #03

James Taylor: Live
(Columbia Records / Sony Music, 1993)

Artist: James Taylor
Album: Live
Published: 1993
Label: Columbia Records / Sony Music
Produced by: Don Grolnick and George Massenburg
Recorded live by: Nathaniel Kunkel.
Concert sound by: John Godenzi (FOH) and Randy Hutson (MON).
Mixed by: George Massenburg
Mixed at: Electric Lady Studios (New York, NY) and Record One (Los Angeles, CA)
Mastered by: Doug Sax and Gavin Lurssen at The Mastering Lab (Hollywood, CA)
Released: Aug 10, 1993

James Taylor: guitar, vocals.
Don Grolnick: piano.
Michael Landau: guitar.
Clifford Carter: keyboards.
Jimmy Johnson: bass.
Carlos Vega: drums.
Valerie Carter: vocals.
David Lasley: vocals.
Kate Markowitz: vocals.
Arnold McCuller: vocals.

On a past episode of this Hot Tracks column, I presented an album by Michael Ruff which was quite famous, at times, among audiophiles; it had been engineered and mixed by George Massenburg, often the go-to mastermind of albums that were meant to surprise even the most demanding audio enthusiasts – and especially fans of US-based popular acts like Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt, Earth Wind & Fire, Lyle Lovett, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, to name but a few of those who have for a long time relied on his services.

The very George Massenburg is elemental to the project of this (then) “double album” that came to life by way of a live tour planned and run specifically to provide the tracks that it contains, recorded across 3 weeks of concerts held in November 1992 to a variety of halls and theatres in Continental US.

As recounted in an interview that he gave to Mix (the monthly magazine that told the US-side of recording industry – complementing its then market rival, UK-based Studio Sound, in the paper-era of publishing), Massenburg was clearly intrigued by the record project, though candidly admitting that, concurrently, he wasn’t in the least attracted to sitting at a mixing console packed into the claustrophobic cargo box of a truck.

So technology came to help for this project, along with a bit of creative process-thinking: in a nutshell, Massenburg basically empowered a then 22-year old Nathaniel Kunkel (son of Russ, drummer of world renown on countless rock-pop records, many of which produced by Massenburg himself) to feed all stage lines from stage-box splitters via GML* mic preamps straight onto twin** Sony PCM-3348 digital 48-track open-reel recorders parked stageside, with nothing else in between – no EQ-ing, no compression, or gating, or limiting… straight off-the-preamp to (digital) tape.

Production was therefore meant to deliver a *real* live album right from the start, Live, but it would get at it without a mobile recording studio in the process, George was explaining to Mix’s interviewer.

Three weeks of live gigs provided the 30 tracks that made it to this album, chosen among those performed in 14 such concerts – without any overdub, which was at least unheard-of at times, in a production of such importance and budget.

Forty-eight tracks seem quite a trivial count by today’s standards, but at times (and on digital multitrack tape) it was cutting-edge, top-notch tech, available to only a handful of world-famous artists…

Each of the two Sony digital recorders alone sold for about 250k$ at debut, in days at which you could build the entire warehouse of a small company from scratch, any State in US East Coast, with about 25k$!***

James Taylor wasn’t marked “audiophile material” at that time, though famous as he was, already with a 20-year-plus career behind, he had an audience that was best kept close, and intimate, in quality settings – how he preferred to play theatres instead of stadiums, which also matched his music traits.

I discovered James Taylor’s Live album as suitable for FOH evaluation and PA alignment when serving as a live sound engineer in Southern Germany, right about at the time it was released, as it was played before a concert by a visiting FOH engineer.

At that time, it had a clarity that was not easily achievable with the usual production techniques, which often translated to faux-live albums drenched in over-production and un-necessary sonic frills – on the contrary, with a signal chain as short as possible, and the lack of a mobile recording studio proper, this album made for the (sonic) proof that, in audio production, less is often more.

It also helped, in context, that the two Sony PCM-3348 digital recording machines used in the process were indeed much better horses than the previous PCM-3324, though still running 16-bit (an HR version, 24-bit, was to debut only in 1997), and were indeed more stable than their predecessors, sound-wise, across their entire life-cycle – which meant no wow & flutter, no loss of transients on high-end with less-than-optimal bias alignment, and a tighter low-end, for the same reason.

But, coming to our days, how can it still play so great, after 30 years?

The recipe’s the workflow, in its case: it’s a record that’s been designed from the ground-up to be a great-sounding live album – starting with the arrangements, written for these exact band members, up to the choice of venues and audiences, and a most peculiar recording process that completely removed the mobile studio from the equation.

The arrangements by Don Grolnick grant each instrument its place in the spectrum, starting from Jimmy Johnson’s bass (pioneering a 5-string as his only instrument by some 15 or 20 years ahead of the pack).

There’s a full band of more-than-sublime session players accompanying the artist, and a 4-voice vocal ensemble, with supreme control and fluidity, over an expanded tonal palette that never makes a circus show of the sound, knowingly mixed with the proverbial balance and care of George Massenburg.

There’s room for ambience, room for band dynamics, and room for having Taylor’s vocals warmly wrapped in silk, and wool, and suede leather – all of this aided by the lack of over-processing, over-compressing and driving-levels-to-the-last-bit-and-beyond, strategies that weren’t so easily pursued at the time of this production, for a music programme that did not necessarily even need them.

Net result of all this, is that though still recorded and mixed on 16-bit as it was, even played off a CD at 44.1kHz, Live can turn your listening room (and experience) into a stunning concert venue in itself.

Now turn off the light, sit comfortably in a stable stance, stand still, adapt to a few minutes of silence, and play it at realistic sound pressure level… you’ve probably never known your listening room to be this deep and wide!

  • GML is the brand of outboard mic preamps, compressor/limiters, and parametric EQs designed by George Massenburg, and manufactured by his company named George Massenburg Labs… plug one in, feel the difference!

** “Twin” not for the purpose of linking 96 tracks together, but for redundant safety – as the risk of glitch on digital tape machines was real and frequent, those days, despite Sony’s best effort on error-correction techniques.

*** On a side note, one Sony PCM-3348HR High-Res 48-Track Digital Recorder is listed for sale onto, complete with autolocator and perfectly maintained, in near-mint condition, for 2.500,00€ (yes, you’ve seen it right: two-thousand-and-five-hundred Euro, about the price of a quality audio interface) and on offer there, unclaimed by any buyer, since 2017!

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