Producer and engineer Elliot Mazer is well known for his ongoing work with Neil Young, and was there at the birth of digital recording. Like Young, however, he's never been happy with the way it sounded — until now...
"To me, rule number one is that there are no rules," insists Elliot Mazer. "I make records when I can visualise a finished product. I dream arrangements and mixes. Some engineers claim to use the same mic, same compressor, same EQ every time they record a snare, for example, but I don't have any rules and I do not have any favorite ways of recording things. To me, there is no line drawn between what is being played and how it sounds."
It's a philosophy that has served Mazer well throughout his 40-odd years in the music industry as producer, engineer and inventor. He's perhaps best known for his partnership with Neil Young, which began in 1971 with the best-selling Harvest and continues to this day. Along the way, he's also produced numerous well-known albums for the likes of Janis Joplin, Barclay James Harvest, Linda Ronstadt and Area Code 615, and engineered The Band's Scorsese-produced concert movie The Last Waltz. He was part of Stanford University's ground-breaking CCRMA research team in the late '70s and early '80s, and he has spent much of the last two decades developing AirCheck, a system for automatically monitoring and logging radio and TV broadcasts which has become a near-standard in the USA and elsewhere.
The classic career path for record producers is to begin as a studio dogsbody before working up through the ranks as an assistant and recording engineer, while others come to production from a music-business or musician's background. Elliot Mazer is unusual in that although he is an accomplished recording engineer, he took the latter route into production, and only began to engineer projects when he started working in Nashville and set up his own studio. "I was working as an A&R man at Prestige Records and they asked me to do an album," he says of his first production job. "I produced a Bossa Nova album with Dave Pike, Clark Terry and Kenny Burrell."
Although he began his career in New York, Elliot was soon made aware of the distinctive techniques that had made Nashville one of the biggest centres for recording music in the US. "I was taken to Nashville in 1963 to work on an album with El Trio Los Panchos, a famous Mexican group," he recalls. "I helped them cut an album of Hank Williams songs in Spanish, and I got them to cut a Spanish version of the Beatles song 'Girl', 'Muchacha'. The trio sang and played their guitars,with the Nashville 'A' team of Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, Buddy Harmon, Hargus 'Pig' Robbins and the Jordanaires doing the 'Ahhgirrrlaahhh's. It was a great single, and probably my biggest-selling 45.
"I loved the feeling down there; the studio was the original Quanset Hut that Owen Bradley had built and used for many great records. The faders — big rotary pots — had marks on them for the appropriate level for the designated instrument. It appeared as if they always recorded the same instrument with the same mic at the same level. The studios were great for rhythm sections, the sound was fantastic and the muscians were amazing. Nashville studios were built to get solid tight rhythm sounds and isolated vocals. They had good earphone systems and good-sounding echo. New York and LA studios were mostly medium or large rooms that worked well for jazz groups and big pop records; the studios and engineers thumbed their noses at rock, and the earphone systems were bad."
It was not until the end of the '60s that Elliot made a more permanent move to Nashville, building and co-owning that city's Quadrafonic Studios. By this time he had worked as a producer with many of New York's top engineers and had absorbed many of their techniques, although he has always seen himself primarily as a producer: "I would rather use a great engineer than do both things myself at the same time. It is the producer's job to help the artist realise their creative vision and while doing so make a record that is commercial. There are some cases where a producer carries the creative vision, but I love working with artists that have a clear idea of what they want.
"In New York I got to work with engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, Bob Fine, George Piros, Bill Blachly, Fred Catero, Fred Plaut, Frank Laico, Joe Tarsia and many others as a producer, before I went to Nashville. Down there I learned from the guys at Bradley's Barn and some of the classic engineers at RCA and Columbia. After a while, I wanted to use some of the ideas that I learned in New York in Nashville and the best way to do that was to do it myself. The engineers in Nashville were good, but they were more limited in their scope as they had only recorded country and some R&B.
"I did a few projects at Wayne Moss' Cinderella Sound — Wayne let me engineer and I let him play bass. That room was a two-car garage and it sounded great. The Area Code 615 projects were done there. They had a great drum cage that Kenny Buttrey and Wayne built. Kenny was the kind of drummer that ate engineers alive if they did not get a good drum sound and a good earphone mix. That experience taught me a lot about recording. Wayne had a UREI 8:2 mixer, the one with the 610 mic amps. That was my first experience with them. Later we used another one for Big Brother & The Holding Company's Cheap Thrills and then on Neil Young's Harvest when we recorded in his barn. Neil loved the thing so much that he bought the board (Wally Heider's famous 'Green Board'). I use the [Universal Audio] 2-610 amps today and they are even better than the originals.
"David Briggs [the Nashville musician, not the David Briggs who has produced many of Neil Young's other albums], Norbert Putnam and I built Quadrafonic around this time. We wanted to build a slightly bigger room that gave us a lot of control and sounded tight and fat like Cinderella. Quadrafonic had a Quad 8 desk that was 20:8:16. It was designed by Deane Jensen who was working at Quad 8 at the time. We had an Ampex MM1000 16-track, AG440 eight, four and two-tracks, and Altec monitors — not 604s, not co-ax but with a mid horn like an A7 and two 12-inch woofers. I had the opportunity to do a lot of my own engineering there."
Perhaps the most successful album to bear an Elliot Mazer production credit is Neil Young's Harvest, the bulk of which was recorded at Quadrafonic. Hearing that Neil was in Nashville to record a performance for Johnny Cash's TV show, along with Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and other guests, Elliot invited them to a dinner party at the studio. Young had some new material which he was keen to record and, impressed by Elliot's work with Area Code 615, asked if he could get them into the studio the next day to back him on some sessions. Although drummer Kenny Buttrey was happy to oblige, the other band members were unavailable, so Elliot dipped into Nashville's rich pool of session talent to find pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, pianist John Harris and guitarist Teddy Irwin. The Buttrey/Keith/Drummond band was christened the Stray Gators, and all three have gone on to work with Young many times since. For Harvest, Ronstadt and Taylor were also drafted in to provide backing vocals and, in Taylor's case, banjo on 'Old Man'.
"When Neil played those songs, everything about the arrangements and sound seemed obvious. Neil came in sang the songs and looked at the studio," recalls Elliot. "I helped him get the band. We set up the studio so that he could be right in between the members of the band. He asked if we could put him near the drums. My role was to guide the sessions, create the sounds and give him confidence that we would get great recordings of his music. I brought him in for his first playback and he was happy, and off we went. We had great sounds, great earphone mixes and we were ready to go a few minutes after he got to the studio. The studio never got in his way.
"Quad was a two-storey Victorian-era house. The control room was the porch, the playing rooms were the living room and the dining room which were connected by sliding doors. The living room had wood panels and was lively, the dining room was padded. Neil sat between the rooms in the doorway. Kenny was in the living room to his left and the rest were to his right — bass, steel, piano, second guitar, banjo. The leakage gave the record character and we knew we were not going to replace anything. Each song was cut in a few takes. With Neil, you can tell from the start if a take is going to be magic. He lets that happen when he feels the band and the studio are ready. Neil sang all his parts live. We used a Neumann U87 on his voice, and I rode his levels going to tape and in the mix."
For the finished album, the tracks recorded at Quadrafonic were brought together with a live recording of 'The Needle And The Damage Done' from Royce Hall, UCLA, and two orchestral numbers Young had recorded in the glamorous surroundings of London's Barking Town Hall. "Neil recorded these two tracks before I met him," explains Elliot. "Glyn Johns was the engineer, I mixed them."
Three further tracks were also recorded with the Stray Gators, but not at Quadrafonic. Instead they were taped in a barn on Young's Californian ranch, using a mobile truck with the aforementioned UREI tube mixer. "'Words', 'Alabama' and 'Are You Ready For The Country' needed to be cut in a big room," explains Elliot. "We had cut a quiet version of 'Alabama' at Quadrafonic, but it was not as good as the one we cut at the ranch.
"The mixes were complicated and they did take a long time, even though the mix of the song 'Harvest' was the live two-track we cut in Nashville. Trying to recapture the feeling of the original sessions was the challenge.
"There were no compressors or limiters on Harvest, although I love compressors and use them when it is appropriate. There was no compression on the overall mix — that is something I never do. A lot of people process their output buss, which mostly leads to disastrous results. There is an wonderful concept called a mastering engineer. They are not analogue Finalizers, they are real people who can make a huge difference to the way things sound. Mastering engineers are a very important part of the food chain. Like most everything I have produced, I just gave the Harvest tapes to Sterling Sound, Lee Hulco and they did their thing. We listened to test pressings. That is how I work today. On the DVD-A of Harvest [see box, right], I sent the tapes to Denny Purcell at Georgetown and he sent me a disc."
Elliot Mazer left Nashville in the early '70s and worked as a freelance producer on a number of albums in the US and in London, before setting up a studio in San Fransisco called His Master's Wheels. It was at this time that he became involved in some pioneering research into digital audio that was going on at Stanford University. "An engineer that worked in His Master's Wheels had been doing some work at CCRMA — the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics," he explains. "I visited the lab and saw some amazing stuff in the mid-'70s. They had digital recorders, big digital synths and amazing processing. I showed them how we made records in the analogue world and I learned to use computers."
Among the innovations that originated at CCRMA were the Sonic Solutions digital recording and editing system and, most famously, FM synthesis. "A lot of the research at CCRMA was funded by the US Government who intended to help US industry. The FM synth software that John Chowning wrote at CCRMA was shown to all the US organ manufacturers — Hammond, Wurlitzer, and so on. They all said 'no, no, no', and we had to get permission from the NEA to go to Yamaha who were lusting after it. I think that John, CCRMA and Stanford made a lot of money from that code.
"They also had a great system that printed sheet music on demand. A guy called Leland Smith invented it at CCRMA, and he wanted to put kiosks in music stores, so people could come in pop in 50p and get the score for Beethoven's Ninth. We showed it to a bunch of music publishers who said, 'no, no, no'. It sounds like the record labels of today, saying 'no, no, no', to digital distribution."
As well as being converted to the merits of high-definition digital audio, Neil Young and Elliot Mazer are also enthusiastic proponents of mixing music in surround. (This wasn't always the case, despite Elliot's choice of name for his Nashville studio: "We called it Quadrafonic as a joke, although it did have four speakers in the control room. I did one quad mix there.") They remixed Harvest into 5.1 surround for its DVD-A release, and Elliot has also done a surround mix of one of his other classic productions, Big Brother & The Holding Company's Cheap Thrills. "I think the 5.1 formats are a great way to hear music at home," says Elliot. "Five point one gives you that solid centre, which is really great for imaging. The point one channel is helpful for sub-harmonics. These channels give you more space for your mix. I use the entire room."
The surround remix of Harvest was actually done prior to the release of Pro Tools HD, at Neil Young's own studio. Genex recorders and PMI converters were used, and the mix itself was handled on Young's vintage Neve 8068 desk. "Neil's 8068 is really a quad broadcast desk and it was easy to get it to do 5.1," explains Elliot. "I think that the new Neve 88r will be a wonderful 5.1 mixer. Working in Pro Tools is faster than working with Neil's Neve, though. The biggest difference is in one's ability to save every static and dynamic move. The surround panner in PTHD is cool, and one can patch around any limitations. Monitoring systems are crucial for these projects. We use an NHT Pro system in our studio."
Despite his involvement in some of the most important research in digital audio recording, Elliot Mazer has been an outspoken critic of the sound quality of digital recording and playback systems: "I don't think people get goose bumps from MP3 files" is his current mantra. Neil Young, too, is well known for his hostility to the 'digital' sound of compact discs, and has consistently blocked the reissue of several of his albums in the format, including the classic On The Beach. "I was unhappy with low-sample-rate digital stuff, but we thought early PCM sounded cool," explains Elliot. "I did the first CD remaster of Harvest and it sounded as good as it could back in the early '80s. Then one day we A/B'd Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run CD against vinyl and were aghast at how much better the vinyl sounded."
Some engineers and producers favour analogue media because they like the characteristic sound that can be imparted by tape compression, or the bass response associated with recording at 15ips. Mazer, however, likes good analogue systems for their neutrality and transparency, which he feels is not matched by digital recorders running at low sample rates. "My theory is that when you hear a recording and you do not hear the system, it's analogue," he explains. "I think that analogue by nature is more neutral than most digital systems. Good analogue seems to make a pleasing recording better than or at least different to digital."
He is less impressed by the value of those audible sonic artifacts associated with analogue recording: "You can use 'analogue' effects for digital recordings if you wish. There are 'analogue' plug-ins and ways to create head bumps, and you can add as much tape hiss as needed to digital projects. So-called 'tape compression' is an interesting concept. Personally, I do not like it when the quality of the sound of an instrument or voice changes as the dynamics vary in a recording. Many recordings thin the voice when it peaks. This happens often when the singer is working hard to get out that high 'C' with a lot of passion. The recording chain takes over and squashes the thing. I do agree that a lot of analogue tape compression is less deadly than that top bit in non-HD Pro Tools systems. I don't have preconceptions about how things should sound, but I like to be able to control how things sound and sometimes accidents create the most appropriate recordings.
"Bass and other long-wave information sounds different in analogue for many reasons. One of them I believe is called FM noise — frequency-modulated noise. If you record a staccato bass note on an analogue machine, you hear a 'fuffing' sound on playback. I hate that sound, but some people think that that is the true nature of a recorded bass. To me it sounds like putting a newspaper over the speaker cone: every time the speaker moves the paper rattles. The head bumps also make people think that the bass is punchier on playback, but for me it just changes the harmonics of the bass. I know how to make the thing more punchy.
"Today, the best analogue system, by far, is the ATR Services custom-built ATR with ARIA electronics and Flux Magnetics heads. These people have upped the ante. Check out how great some of the Stones CD/SACD discs sound. From what I have heard, they tried many different ways of transferring the original masters (when available) to DSD. When they got this ATR, things really happened. In 2002 we have a new fantastic analogue tape recorder. This machine is available quarter-inch two-track up to two-inch 16-track. I will use this machine at 15 or 30 ips, with or without Dolby SR. When it comes down to it, the project dictates the medium."
As CD gives way to DVD-Audio and SACD, however, both Young and Mazer are converted to the merits of newer digital recording and playback formats, and Elliot recently produced a DVD-Audio version of Harvest to mark the 30th anniversary of its original release. So when did he finally feel that digital recording moved from being an interesting experiment to being a viable technology for making records? "Last year I heard 192kHz sampling at 24 bits and, for the first time, I felt that we could make great-sounding recordings in the digital domain. Today I am using a Pro Tools HD system at 192kHz with 100 percent dynamic and static automation. This thing is amazing. It sounds like analogue."
The high-sample-rate HD system at last seems to offer the kind of neutrality Elliot Mazer likes, in a digital format. "With 192kHz, the recording medium is not there, which is slightly different than when you use the best analogue system. The 192kHz format makes listening to digital pleasurable, and it does not sound digital. It moves me more. I feel the same about DSD [Sony's one-bit, super-high sample rate technology used in the Super Audio CD format] but 192/24 PCM is my favourite, and 192 sounds better than 96 by a long shot. I'll bet that 384 will sound even better. The differences are in the width, depth and height of the recording. When one compares a CD with 192, the CD sounds small in every dimension: height, width, depth, breadth. The higher the sampling rate, the greater the bit depth, the more natural things seem to sound. Pflash Pflaumer, one of the inventors of HDCD, said that he thought that these higher rates removed things like time smear, whatever that is.
"This new Pro Tools system has a mixing engine that does not give up. I did one project where I had 38 tracks of 96/24 and a lot of tuning, EQ, compression, reverb and edits. The thing just sailed right through it and sounded great. I am now working on a 5.1 mix at 192kHz and that uses a lot of DSP and it is fine. Their converters sound amazing, although I still prefer the PMI converters. We did experiments at Neil Young's studio that shocked us. Take an analogue master and run it through a Model 2 PMI (HDCD) converter at 44.1kHz, then make a CD. Take the same analogue master and run it in at 176.4kHz, then use the PMI box to downsample it to 44.1. Make a CD. Listen to them both and the one done at 176.6 smokes the other one. Sony Music Studios in New York had the first Pro Tools HD systems that I saw and they are doing great things with it. They and Georgetown Masters in Nashville are my support system for these projects. Both have wonderful rooms for surround and engineers that can handle the various systems needed to master and author SACD or DVD-A."
It's taken a long time for digital recording to evolve to the point where Elliot is happy with the sound, but he's very happy to embrace its other advantages, such as instant recall. "I really enjoy knowing that everything about the mix is controlled in that little Digi icon. I love it when I click on the thing and I am exactly back to where I was last time."
If there's a down side to working at 192kHz, it's the fact that few other systems currently support the standard, and many plug-in developers have yet to adapt their products to work at such high rates. "There are only a few plug-ins that work at 192kHz. Focusrite's D2 EQ and D3 compressor and Digi's Reverb One are my favourites and they do the job. Digi also have a 5.1 compressor/limiter that has possibilities. I am going to experiment with some 192kHz plug-ins from Universal Audio. They have a complete system with 192kHz I/O and a DSP card that can run their stuff at 192kHz. This would work on a second PC with digital I/O from the Pro Tools machine. I love their 2-610 mic pre package and have used it for external processing of digital stuff. Janis Joplin's voice was run through it on the Cheap Thrills SACD that I did. I will try the TC 6000 and Sony 777 reverbs, but the interface will be analogue as they do not support 192kHz."
It seems that digital audio has finally evolved to the stage where Elliot Mazer is happy with it, at least in terms of how it sounds. However, other criticisms of Pro Tools and DAWs in general have focused on the way in which they encourage producers and engineers to work, substituting skilful editing for soulful performances and flashy effects for good recording techniques. Mazer has some sympathy with these accusations: "The dark side of Pro Tools and Nuendo is that one can work forever and use every plug-in until the 'DAE cop' busts you," he says. "Many records sound the same since many people are using the same gear, and if you use any of this stuff to excess it kills the soul out of your recording. I hear a lot music that has had the life squeezed out of it. One big problem that I hear is that people tend to use gear to make a particular track sound great. It is not about the track, it is about the big picture, which is the song. Bad songs make bad records."
Nevertheless, he's not blaming Pro Tools for everything that's wrong with music. "There are some great records coming from the digital world. I don't care if we can make a person that cannot sing in tune or in time sound passable. This does not make a star. The public is not that stupid. You can make good pop records in Pro Tools that have no real human passion, but don't expect them to be around next year. Pop music has always been disposable and today you can make disposable pop records at home. There is nothing wrong with this and there is nothing wrong in using gear to help art. Our ablity to make records with inexpensive gear helps the art."
It's not only the affordability of recording equipment that has changed since Elliot Mazer first stepped into a recording studio. What was an industry based around a few highly localised centres, each with their own techniques and styles, has become a globalised business, with the same hardware and software visible in studios from Tennessee to Tokyo. "When I started making records the only magazine about recording was the AES Journal," he says. "There was no community about recording as there is today. When I first recorded in London I was amazed at how different the studios were and they were amazed at how different my approach was about recording. Forty years later, all of us have recorded in every studio on the planet and there are magazines, web forums, schools, cheap recording gear and a general democratisation of recording."
And the consequences? "I'll bet that there is the same percentage of great and bad records made today as then."
Although he's still active as a record producer, Elliot Mazer has also devoted much of his time in the last 20 years to developing a system called AirCheck, which can automatically monitor the output of a radio or TV station and identify all the music that is broadcast. AirCheck is now widely used in the US and many other countries (though not the UK), and although Elliot sold his company to RCS in 1989, he's continued to work on the technology.
The dubious and often illegal practice of payola — record companies paying radio DJs or programme controllers to play their records — first came to public attention with the scandal that cost Alan Freed his career in the 1950s. Despite Freed's downfall, however, payola has never completely gone away, and it was a story about the liberties taken by one particular radio executive that prompted Elliot to develop AirCheck. "Neil Young and I were working on [Neil's 1983 album] Everybody's Rockin'," he recalls. "We had dinner with a friend who worked at a radio trade magazine. He told us a story about a radio Programme Director who went to Lake Tahoe to gamble. After playing at the tables, the PD called up his wife and said 'Honey, I'm bringing home a Mercedes-Benz.' Apparently the guy got his payola at the crap table — an independent promoter just slipped him some chips. And it turned out that the guy did buy the Mercedes and he did not even play the record. I asked if anybody had a way of knowing what music was on the air. I was told no. The labels trusted the DJs and the promoters to tell them what was on the air. Neil wrote 'Payola Blues' and I decided to invent what became AirCheck. I worked with Dr. John Grey who is an acoustician, musician and one of the founders of CCRMA.
"The system listens to the radio or TV and it compares what it hears against a database of known items. When it makes a match, it creates a report. These reports are used by record labels, radio stations and research companies. It does not use watermarks. The computer acts like a person. You hear something, someone tells you what it is called, and the next time you recognise it. Twenty seconds is the standard length we look for, although the system can go down to a few seconds if need be. We are good recognising highly compressed, sped up and distorted stuff from TV, radio, or the Internet.
"In 1984, DSP chips were on the market and early PCs were around. We used DSP boards made by Texas Instruments. It was crude by today's standards, but it worked just fine. I sold my company to Radio Computing Services in 1989. From there we built a large-scale system that is in use today monitoring radio and TV."
RCS are also active in the burgeoning field of Internet radio: "We have a product called iSelector that allows a listener on the web to hear their favourite radio station and turn it into their own personal version of that station. They can tell the player to play a song more or less and it can tell it to not play certain artists and songs. We have licences from the major labels in US that allow us to use their sound recordings in the service in the US. We hope to offer a similar service in Europe, once we get contracts with the European labels. A listener could listen to CapitalRadio.com, for example and when Robbie Williams comes on they could 'ban' him from their personal playlist, and when Shakira comes along they can tell it to hear more of that song or more of her."