The Last Waltz: Recording, Mixing, and Remaking the Music
by Blair Jackson and Chris MichieFrom Mix magazine, September 2002.
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Acclaimed by many as the greatest rock concert film ever made, The Last Waltz — director Martin Scorsese's riveting depiction of the Thanksgiving 1976 farewell concert by The Band and a gaggle of their musician friends — was a natural candidate to make the jump to multichannel formats. Last fall and winter, the film was completely restored and remixed. It enjoyed a brief run in selected theaters this past spring, and was released by MGM Home Entertainment on DVD in both 5.1 and conventional stereo. Additionally, Warner Bros./Rhino came out with an expanded four-CD version of the popular soundtrack.
As is usually the case with these sorts of restoration/remastering projects, nothing was as simple as it seems. But then, neither was the making of the original film, which, despite its relatively straight documentary approach (with minimal additional interview footage), sprawled over 18 months from the winter of '77 through the spring of 1978.
“Everything was pretty much state-of-the-art for the time,” remembers Steve Maslow, the veteran re-recording mixer who mixed the music for the original film on the Goldwyn stage's Quad 8 console. “They brought it in on [24-track], and initially they wanted to do something that wasn't done too much then — it might have been one of the first movies to do it — which was to interlock the multitracks to the film chain. It was quite cumbersome at the time. I can't even remember what they used — some sort of film sync lock device — and it took at least 20 feet for the film chain to lock up; it was pretty frustrating.
“It was quite time-consuming taking the [multitrack] information and locking up the film channel and going to 3- or 4-track mag. We EQ'd and made a little mix predubbed to 4-track mag, which became the dubbing unit. We had almost two months of premixes, getting everything from 16-track to the film, and then there was a little time spent getting the production dialog from premix. Rob Fraboni, who was the music producer, was involved almost from the beginning. Robbie [Robertson, leader of The Band and producer of the film] showed up at the final, mostly.
“The length of the mix was the longest I'd ever been on,” Maslow continues. “It was six months, done mostly at night. I had three days off: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. One reason the film as a whole took so long is [The Band] took the tapes to their ranch and messed with them for a year, overdubbing bass and keyboard and vocal parts. I remember one of the problems we had to deal with was that Rick Danko had all-new bass tracks, and he overdubbed them without regard to the sync fingering onscreen. So part of what I had to do was every time he was on camera, I had to switch from the overdub bass to the production bass and make it sound seamless, which wasn't easy because it had a slightly different quality to it. As I recall, there were also quite a few piano overdubs, too, but since you never saw Richard Manuel's fingers, that wasn't a problem.”
Maslow, who had a background in conventional music mixing before making the move into film, says that mixing The Last Waltz “was incredibly challenging because there were a lot of really interesting camera moves, and Scorsese wanted the sound to reflect the movement onscreen. So, for instance, there might be a sequence where the camera was moving, say, stage left to stage right with a sweep, and we would actually pan the instrumentation and vocals with the camera move. That was something I don't think had been done before in a concert film.
“Of course, in those days, we had no automation,” he adds. “It was rather primitive compared to today. So there were a few times when we had three, four, five people on the console handling different instrumentation or vocals on the mix. It was quite a scene. Very difficult to get that right, but also fun. The teamwork becomes very important,” he says with a laugh. “Dolby had just introduced surround, but we did what was essentially a 3-track left-center-right stereo mix. There were no discrete surround tracks at the time.”
Now flash forward 25 years and head out to nearby Santa Monica's Pacific Ocean Post (POP) Sound Studios, where Ted Hall remixed The Last Waltz in surround for both its theatrical and 5.1 DVD release under the supervision of Robbie Robertson. Hall, who was widely hailed for his expert surround job on Yellow Submarine three years ago (see Mix, September 1999), had his work cut out for him.
“What came to me were from the original 2-inch masters transferred to Sony 3348 HR 24-bit,” he says. “And, unfortunately, when they transferred the tapes, they ran the tapes wild, so I had to resolve the tapes from the timecode on a digital track, which was difficult. But once I got that up, there were issues of music edits and sorting through the tapes and doing a lot of archaeology to find out what was used. For instance, what vocals they actually used, because they overdubbed them on some songs for the [original Last Waltz] soundtrack album. Robbie's mixer, Dan Gellert [see “Remaking the Music,”, below] did stereo mixes and made stems, splits — splitting out the guitars and everything. He is the hero in this; his attention to detail is outstanding. That was approved by Robbie soundwise and stereowise, and then I made a 5.1 to match the original mix to some extent. That original mix, which Scorcese worked on back in '78, was a stereo mix with lots of panning. So if the picture moved from the piano to the guitar, the sound would move with it.
“Part of my job was not only to get everything in sync and to get a nice-sounding 5.1 theatrical music mix happening, but to re-create all these pans. I took the VHS release tape home for a couple of days and mapped out as much as I could of what Steve Maslow had done 20 years ago; it was a humbling experience in this era of massive automation and data networks. Some songs were pretty static, but almost every one of them had some sort of dynamic panning going on. We mixed everything digital on a Neve Logic 2 console with all panning, EQ, dynamics, automated. I would go through the mix, get it to where I thought it was working and then call up Robbie, and he'd drive over, we'd run through a couple of songs and tweak. We'd listen in a theatrical environment, and he was really good at picking out things that involved the sound in a theatrical 5.1 environment. He's a very attentive, great guy. Everything he said was always totally right-on.
“Eventually, before it was released, I made 5.1 stems and took those to Andy Nelson at Fox, and we played it in a huge room there just to give it its final little blessing and make sure that everything translated well. It's funny, I was working with old ¾-inch picture for the longest time. I didn't actually see the new picture until we went to Fox. And when I saw it there, I was stunned.”
According to Hall, “Robbie's whole intention with the 5.1 mix was to try to make you feel like you were there; he wanted it so that after 90 minutes in the theater, you felt like you were at a concert. The way we mixed it, it's a little bit like you're standing on the stage and the band is around you. While most of the music is still up front, there's also music in the rears pretty much all the time; there's reverb, some drums and whatever the instrumentation is that seems to wrap you into the mix, whether it's a guitar or keyboard part. There's also very discrete crowd stuff going on [in the rears]. In fact, there's one guy who's whistling all the time that drove me absolutely nuts. The same whistle over and over again. Even Robbie was saying, ‘Can't you notch that guy out?’” Hall says with a chuckle. He also notes that because Gellert “had mixed it in more of a studio album style, for the 5.1, I tried to match the ambience of the room [Winterland in San Francisco] using a couple of processors to give it a little more of a live feel.
“Robbie was intent on really restoring this the right way, so we took the time to do it right. I spent a lot of time getting the original mix together and then probably another month mixing the music. Dan would be working across town, and if there was anything I needed, he'd send it to me and vice versa; we were swapping files. Getting the movie just to where it should be before the 5.1 [work] took a while. What Robbie wanted to do on the DVD was have a new 5.1 mix and the original 2-track mix, mastered and EQ'd. That way, people at home can listen to what it originally sounded like. And the people with surround systems will definitely hear something exciting and new.”
THE WINTERLAND RECORDINGS Elliot Mazer's Live Recordings for The Last WaltzREMAKING THE MUSIC
Elliot Mazer was the chief recording engineer for the live concert that is central to The Last Waltz. In his words…
I had worked with The Band previously and had known them from Woodstock and Albert Grossman's office. I helped them with Music From Big Pink, mostly around mastering time. They had mixed it, and Robbie [Robertson] was concerned about how dull and dark it was. We listened in my apartment and in the studio, A&R Studios, the old Columbia studios on 7th Avenue. Turns out that it sounded dark and it sounded great. They had not planned it that way, but the engineers that worked on it were very conservative about EQ. A lot of it was done live in the studio, and the 8-track multitrack tapes were worn. All of which can make a project sound dull.
I also helped John Simon get the equipment and set up the studio for their second album, The Band. It was recorded in a home in the L.A. hills that had been built for Sammy Davis, Jr. And I had recorded a live show with The Band at Wembley Stadium [London] in ‘74. So I knew Robbie and The Band, and I was called in to record The Last Waltz after Robbie and Rick heard Neil Young's Time Fades Away.
We met in L.A. at Shangri La, The Band's studio in Malibu, and talked about the show and traded ideas. Marty [Scorsese] had prepared a shooting script that was based on the lyrics of each song. The camera assignments and moves were built around the songs. We worked the setup at Winterland, all the rehearsals at Winterland and the evening rehearsals in the basement of the Miyako Hotel, which were magical.
The truck was one of Wally Heider's trucks. Rob Fraboni mixed the house sound at the gig. John Simon did many of the arrangements, conducted various parts of the show and was very much involved with the rehearsals. He had to teach the guest songs to The Band and worked with the horns. John also played piano on a few songs in the show. Rob and John also worked on the overdubs and mixes for the original LP.
The Heider crew was great. Ray Thompson, one of the greatest live engineers, set up the piano sound and the house mics for the show. He could not be there for the actual show, but he was very helpful.
I was responsible for the concert recording. Every aspect, every detail of The Last Waltz was discussed and planned out to perfection. We knew the entire show before it started. There was one song in the show that had problems: Paul Butterfield walked out to the wrong mic, Robbie broke a string and one of Marty's lighting rigs went down — all of this at the same time. By the time Robbie got new strings and Butter was on the right mic, most of Marty's cameras were out of film. Marty told Robbie to go, and he covered the song with one camera, I believe, until the crews had time to load new magazines on the other six cameras.
The tape format was 2-inch, 24-track on 3M machines with Dolby A noise reduction. We had two machines running on overlap, and I think we got every song on both machines. But at some points, the power dipped so low that on a few tracks we had hum since the Dolby units were not connected to the same power source as the machines and console.
The vocal mics were Beyer ribbon models. The Band had great mic technique, and these mics had good off-axis response, which allowed for a lot of jumping around — the singers didn't have to eat the mics. We had mics from my studio, His Masters Wheels, the Heider's mics and the P.A. mics. We even painted the mic stands black so that they did not glare on film — Keith Monks stands and booms! So as not to screw with Marty's shots, we put up no drum overheads and put mics under the cymbals facing up instead. Levon's vocal mic gave us an extra amount of air on the drums.
We used every input on the API Heider board, and I believe that I used my Neve BCM 10/2 for additional inputs. We mixed the drums to four tracks and everything else was isolated. No compressors, no gates and generous EQ.
As independent engineer Dan Gellert tells the story, he first met Robbie Robertson when The Last Waltz project was in the planning stages. Robertson needed an engineer to remix the entire original album for both an expanded CD re-release and the remastered film soundtrack. Also planned was a DVD-Audio release (in 5.1 surround), which, like the four-CD boxed set, would include a slew of previously unreleased performances. “It was a long process to do, for sure,” recalls Gellert, who eventually spent about 125 days working on the various remixes.
Originally from New York, Gellert started his career at the Power Station (now Avatar), eventually reaching the position of chief engineer. After developing a roster of clients while at Avatar, Gellert went independent about two-and-a-half years ago. Recent projects have included remixing tracks for two Robbie Robertson projects, mixing an album for Sweet Honey in the Rock and recording jazz pianist Akiko Grace with her trio.
Gellert joined The Last Waltz project after the original tapes — including five hours' worth of 24-track multitracks from the concert, plus the “Last Waltz Suite” and other tapes recorded on a Hollywood soundstage after the event — had been transferred to 48-track digital format. “The signal chain was as clean as possible, just straight into the Sony 3348, which is 24-bit,” explains Gellert. “Unfortunately, I was brought into the project just as the transfers were done. [I say] unfortunately because the transfers weren't done perfectly — not the audio, which was fine, but the clocking, which was a problem. We had to figure out how to fix that in the end when the music got synched to film.”
Gellert's first task was to listen to all of the tapes to find the correct performances to mix for the film soundtrack. “There were a lot of extras — a lot of tapes, a lot of outtakes — so I had to weed through it all to see what would make sense,” he says. Not surprisingly, documentation was less than comprehensive. “With anything from that long ago, the first thing to go away is the documentation, the track sheets. We had 50 or 60 large reels of 48-track digital multitracks, so I started by going through them to find the extra bits, and some bits that no one has heard. So that was a long process in and of itself, just listening.” Not only were there duplicate tapes to sort out, with no documentation to show which was the master, but occasional musical patches, overdubbed on the master tapes after the concert, had to be identified and logged.
“It went in stages,” recalls Gellert. “The first stage was the transfers, and then I got all the tapes. Then the next stage was listening to everything before I started delving into mixing it. Finding out what was going to be useful and then creating a schedule for mixing it all. We decided to mix the original album first, then the extra stuff and then what was in the film that wasn't on the album.
“My original plan was to mix each song in stereo and then go to the surround version. But after the first one or two songs, I realized this was not the most efficient way to do it,” he continues. “I found that for this kind of project, mixing in surround is such a different beast. The subwoofer excites the room in such a different way that to go between the two formats quickly wasn't efficient — you had to get your head around the room sounding very different. So, I mixed it all to stereo first; all of the original album, things in the movie that were not on the original album, the extra stuff I found, like the jams and rehearsals and ‘The Last Waltz Suite,’ everything. Then I went back and concentrated on the surround mixes.”
All the mixes were done on an SSL Axiom MT digital console, with stereo mixes committed to an Ampex ATR-102 running ½-inch analog tape. “We mixed to other formats, but that's what ended up winning for the stereo,” comments Gellert. Surround mixes were captured in 24-bit Pro Tools sessions. All stereo mixes were monitored on Yamaha NS-10s, while Gellert set up Genelec 1031s and a matching subwoofer for the 5.1 surround mix.
The private studio was well-equipped with a combination of classic analog devices and the latest digital processors. “One of the great devices that I really enjoyed using was the Sony S-777 sampling reverb,” he says. “It just sounds accurate, like you're actually in the space. I used that a lot, and a Lexicon 960.”
How did Gellert approach the remixes of an album that many consider a classic? “I started out listening to the original. I wanted this version to bring out all of the musical detail that was masked in the original, and also to have a real impact. That was my agenda.” To achieve consistency with the rhythm and vocal levels, Gellert used some compression but more often relied on fader rides, which were captured and repeated by the MT's automation system. “Compressors would level it out a little bit, but to make it really level out was just eating up too much,” he explains.
As it turned out, Gellert had to do quite a bit of preliminary work before actually getting down to mix each track. “Every song was a little bit different,” he says. “There were so many different performers, and people would move around the stage. I mixed 54 songs altogether, and after mixing the 20th song, you'd think I could say, ‘Okay, I know what's coming.’ But there was always some technical thing I had to spend time with. On ‘The Last Waltz Suite,’ I had to find the right performances by A/B'ing with the record to make sure it was the right take. It wasn't straightforward, but that was the process and was expected by everybody.”
Not surprisingly, Gellert had to make adjustments for different players on the same instruments. For example, Richard Manuel's grand piano sounded very different when Dr. John sat down for the New Orleans funk of “Such a Night.”
“I found that when Levon [Helm] was singing and playing, the drums sounded very different from when someone else was singing,” adds Gellert. “It's a natural physical thing — when he's singing, he plays differently. The horns were also a little difficult to bring out.”
Gellert and Robertson quickly established a routine. “I'd mix all day, and he would come in toward the end of the day and we'd listen and tweak the mix, maybe an hour, maybe two, and then it was done,” explains Gellert. “It was the optimal way to do it. I got it sounding the way he wanted to hear it — I learned that pretty quickly — and then he'd make little fixes here and there, just updating the mixes.”
For the stereo mix, Gellert and Robertson opted for a wide stereo soundscape. “For the live concert, the premise was to make you feel like you're a little too close to the stage, in the first row, so the stage is really wide, with the piano way to the left, Robbie's guitar way to the right,” explains Gellert. “That was the idea: To make it really wide and to have the ambience of the arena come from behind. I was very happy with it. With ‘The Last Waltz Suite,’ I made it as wide as possible and I played more with all of the available stereo fields, not just the left/right front but, for example, the left front and right rear, as well. I mixed the extra tracks after I mixed the rest of the stuff, so I had an idea of what I wanted it to sound like. It was fun hearing tracks that, unless you'd been at the concert, you wouldn't have heard before.”
The surround mixes for the DVD-Audio release were addressed on a case-by-case basis. “Some were similar, some were quite different,” says Gellert. “On some of them, I did a surround mix for the DVD movie and the film and then tweaked it a little bit differently for the DVD-Audio. It needed to be a bit different, because you're not looking at the movie.”
Once Gellert completed the mixes for the film and video releases, they went over to Ted Hall at Pacific Ocean Post. “I was there listening to stuff; both Robbie and I went there now and then,” says Gellert, “but Ted did such a fantastic job. He had all the elements — the original dialog and all that — and he had the same nightmare I had of finding the right things and making sure that it's appropriate and correct and the best it can be at this point.”