Choice Cuts is a blog series where we ask the question all music obsessives love to answer: “What is your essential music?” This time it’s Tony Dawsey’s turn.
He’s well known for mastering hip-hop classics, but not as many music fans know about Tony Dawsey mastering jazz. So the title Tony selected for his first “Choice Cut” might surprise some readers: Urban Knights‘ self-titled album, released on CD by the GRP label in 1995.
“That’s my favorite album of all time I’ve worked on,” Tony says. “Maybe it has something to do with it being jazz; it’s upbeat and it puts a smile on my face.”
The album, which has instrumentals and vocal tunes, features a core group of Ramsey Lewis (piano), Grover Washington Jr. (saxophone), Victor Bailey (bass), and Omar Hakim (drums).
Ramsey Lewis started his career in the 50s, playing straight-ahead piano trio jazz, and scored his first hit in 1965 with the iconic soul-jazz album “The In Crowd”.
Grover Washington, Jr. started in the soul-jazz field in the 60s, and started making records under his own name in the early 70s for Motown and Verve. Like Ramsey, Grover eventually had “crossover” hits in R&B.
Victor Bailey got his first big break replacing Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report. Talk about having some shoes to fill! He’s gone on to be an extremely in-demand sideman in jazz, fusion, funk and R&B as well as a leader of his own projects.
Drummer Omar Hakim also spent some time in Weather Report, but he got his first break with Carly Simon. He made serious waves playing with David Bowie on “Let’s Dance,” and Sting on “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and has been on many hit records since, while still keeping up his fusion chops.
So “Urban Knights” is a sort of soul-jazz / R&B / pop supergroup.
“I can listen to it any time,” Tony says. “I’ll listen to it when I’m home — I can sit down and listen or it’s something that’s nice to have on when I’m doing stuff in the yard or whatever. I’ll play it in the car — though it depends on what kind of driving I’m doing. Sometimes it’s Biggie Smalls in the car! But probably not a month goes by that I don’t listen to Urban Knights. Some people will probably be surprised at that, thinking I listen to hip-hop all the time or something. I do listen to hip-hop, but I listen to a lot of other stuff too.”
I joined Masterdisk in 2010. A lifelong musician, I had also been working as a marketer in the staffing industry for 10 years. Joining the Masterdisk team was a move I was very excited about. I knew the legacy of the studio, the work of the engineers, and the parade of stars whose music had passed through the Masterdisk mastering consoles.
In my first week on the job full-time — it might have been the first day — I’m going into the men’s room, and who’s coming out, but Lou Reed.
LOU FUCKING REED.
I had that amazing sense of being in the right place (the studio, not the men’s room.) He looked older and frailer than I expected, but he had not been in great health for a while. He still looked cool though. On that occasion he was working with Scott Hull on a video soundtrack. I would see him again a number of times over the next few years.
I think I saw him once around the time of his Metallica collaboration, “Lulu,” that he mastered with Vlado Meller. Same Lou, maybe moving a little slower, still cool.
And then in the last few months I saw him a few times again, as he returned to the studio to do some extensive remastering work with Vlado. One day I was working in the back lounge of the studio, which was then next to Vlado’s room. Lou came in one day, walking very slowly. He made it to Vlado’s room, the door shut. After a little while some of the most iconic sounds in all of rock and roll started vibrating out of the walls. A famous bass line. Vocal lines that have become part of all our DNA. It was an eerie feeling knowing that the creator of those sounds was in that room next door, reviewing them. Revisiting them. Full songs were played all the way through. Some were played a few times in a row. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a very intimate moment.
Later that afternoon, after Lou left, I popped in to Vlado’s studio. “What happened in here today?” I asked. “Lou’s very happy,” Vlado said. “He said he thought his CDs sounded like shit, and he wanted it done right. We got new transfers off the master tapes, and they sound great. You want to hear an A/B?” Yes I did.
Vlado played me “Walk on the Wild Side.” The old CD against the new transfer. And the difference was astounding. The old CD sounded so thin compared to the vastness of the sound in the new transfer. The bass sounded like a BASS. It sounded like a Miles Davis or Mingus record. You could hear fingers on the strings. You could sense the size of the instrument and the size of the room it was in. It had physical force, air and space around it.
This new version sounds incredible, beautiful, startling. It choked me up. Apparently it made Lou tear up himself as he says around the 4-minute mark in this video:
I asked Vlado about his experience working with Lou.
“Lou was gracious. He had a sense of humor too,” Vlado said. “He was appreciative. He thought the sound was amazing and he was so happy. He said ‘nobody will probably buy them but I don’t give a shit.’ He was a true artist.” A&R man Rob Santos was in attendance on at least a few sessions and Lou was very appreciative of him, and the label as well, for putting up the funding to get the records to sound the way he wanted them to sound. He had a lot of appreciation and thanks to go around. Lou Reed remastered fifteen albums with Vlado over the past few months.
Scott Hull worked with Lou on a number of projects over the years as well, starting with the “Mistrial” album in 1986. Scott at that time was primarily a digital editor — that’s before DAW workstations when digital editing was an extremely specialized skill.
“The call came in in the afternoon that Lou wanted an editor, and it needed to be done that evening. He had been working on the record at another studio and they had made a digital copy of their edit. Lou listened to the original edit and the copy, and was hearing a difference in the tone. The engineer insisted that it was impossible that there was a difference, because the numbers were the same: there’s no degradation and no difference in a digital copy. Well, Lou didn’t agree. He heard a difference. And that was the end of that working relationship. He called us that day and he finished the record at Masterdisk with Bob Ludwig.”
“It’s not that Lou was so stubborn, necessarily,” Scott said. “If he felt something wasn’t right, you weren’t going to convince him that it was otherwise. He trusted his perceptions completely. He trusted his team, and if he didn’t have a very strong opinion about something he would take other people’s input. But once he knew something, that was it.”
Scott said that over the course of his 30-plus year career, there aren’t many artists he encountered with that same level of confidence. “It’s interesting, because their music is so different, but Lou and Donald Fagen are alike in that way. So confident. So familiar and deeply in tune with the music. Donald’s emotional reaction to his music is similar to Lou’s.
The next record Scott worked on was “New York” (1989). “For Lou, it was his guitar tone,” Scott said. “It was everything. Lou’s acoustic reference, for years after, was the first minutes of ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Just like an engineer has a reference recording you bring to a new room, Lou had that. He only needed to hear a few seconds of the guitar part and he understood the room he was working in.”
The last major project Lou worked on with Scott was the remastering of “Metal Machine Music” (2010). Scott remembers, “he was passionate about it. There was nothing arbitrary about it at all.”
The project was remastering the album in both stereo and quad formats. “When we compared the new transfers to what had been released we realized that so much of the low frequency information had been eliminated when they cut the record. For whatever reason. So it was a new experience with all this low frequency energy. What do we do with it? Is it good? It certainly changed the impact. So we spent a fair amount of time going over how that change in tone impacted the listener.”
“The original was stereo,” Scott continued. “Lou and Bob [Ludwig] had worked on a quad master way back. The thing is that Metal Machine Music was a live two-track [stereo] record, so there were no other assets to put into channels 3 and 4. So what they decided to do was to take the entire recording and record it backwards, and THAT became tracks 3 and 4. We manipulated the relation between these channels quite a bit when we did the quad remaster.”
“What I remember most about those sessions,” Scott said, “is how emotionally draining it was to listen to the album at a decent level. Even Lou wasn’t really able to listen to the whole thing with intese focus. It just took so much energy as a listener. It’s taxing. The QC [quality control] guys had to listen to it all the way through — two passes. It wasn’t easy work. You had to stay really focused. But when you did, it took you on a journey, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime journey.”
“Lou knew that nine-tenths of the population would dismiss MMM as noise,” Scott continues, “but he opened a lot of listeners to new concepts in music. Minimalism. Maximalism. The avant-garde.”
“I got the chance to work with Lou through several different phases of his career,” Scott said. “When he was deeply into his solo career. Then when he was more focused on performance art and avant-garde music. He reminds me a little of someone else — John Zorn — in the way that most people have a singular idea about him. People have an image of Lou that he’s this ONE WAY, that he makes THIS kind of music. But he was very multi-faceted.”
“I remember when we were working on Laurie [Anderson's] album “Homeland” (2010). Lou attended the sessions. It was a more relaxed Lou, but he was really involved in the process. It was clear that Laurie and Lou worked well together. I remember around that time their dog was having some medical problems and it was really stressful… and so there’s another completely different side of Lou. Collaborating, offering support. Worrying over his dog. He was a three-dimensional guy.
The sadness around the Masterdisk offices, and the city, and the whole music world has been palpable in the weeks since Lou’s death. There’ll never be another one like him, but we can be glad he was here. And we can continue to listen to the legacy he left behind — listen, feel and learn.
Tutorial T22 T22 – The Vinyl Frontier Sunday, October 20, 12:00 pm — 1:00 pm (Room 1E09) Presenters:Scott Hull, Alex DeTurk, Chris Mara and Cameron Henry (Welcome To 1979 – Nashville, TN), Paul Gold (Salt Mastering – New York, NY).
This week marks the release of Rush “The Studio Albums 1989-2007″ box set, which includes every studio album from that period (duh) — REMASTERED — with the added bonus of the (in)famous 2002 “Vapor Trails” album remixed!
The remastering was engineered by Andy VanDette, and the remix of Vapor Trails was by David Bottrill. It’s a great time to be a Rush fan!
We had the foresight to have cameras ready at a few of the mastering sessions (unfortunately not all of them). But we’ll share some of the behind-the-scenes shots with you here and a few comments from Andy about the mastering process.
Andy: Being the cutting edge technology band that Rush is, they were one of the first to embrace digital recording. Pushing the envelope to record 44.1 Khz 16 bit in the late 80′s seems a little short sighted today, but that probably felt pretty close to the cutting edge then. Early digital sounded very clear, but also very thin. I wish there had been analog safety copies of “Test for Echo”.
Q: Which of the Atlantic albums was the most significant for you?
Andy: “Vapor Trails”. I remember hearing it before it came out, and thinking “Wow, I guess this is why I will never work with Rush.” The snare and vocal were so overshadowed by low end.
Q: Do you have a personal favorite out of the Atlantics?
Andy: I have always loved “Snakes and Arrows”. The songs are fantastic. I can see how it turned on a whole new generation of fans. On the “Vapor Trails” tour, their fan base was guys like me. The shows I have seen the last four years have been increasingly diverse. Lots of families at the shows now. Last year I saw my first female air drummer!
Q: Which do you think improved the most?
Andy: Well… “Vapor Trails” of course. I see why they had a hard time remastering the original mixes. So much of their energy is in the bottom octave 20-40Hz. You can roll it off, but so much of the mixes’ punch came from that. It was just mixed that way. The David Bottrill remixes are very well balanced and musical.
Andy discussed remastering the first 15 Rush albums in 2011 here.
In addition to working with the original mix tapes, Andy used a number of supplemental items for reference: CDs of different masterings, and, in the case of Presto, we had the original Masterdisk master prepared by Bob Ludwig in 1989.
Sting’s new album, “The Last Ship,” his first full-length album of new material in ten years, is released today on Cherrytree / Interscope / A&M Records. The album was produced by Rob Mathes, and mastered by Scott Hull. Here’s Sting and Scott at the mastering session.
The album is inspired by Sting’s forthcoming play of the same name, scheduled to debut on Broadway in 2014. It will explore the themes of homecoming and self-discovery, drawing upon Sting’s memories of growing up, with reminiscences of universal truths – the complexity of relationships, the passage of time and the importance of family and community. (Wikipedia)
The album is available in multiple formats: a standard 12 song version (also on vinyl — get it at Elusive Disc), a 2-disc version with 5 extra tracks, and a super-deluxe edition with special packaging and 20 tracks available from Amazon.