The songbird’s sweet melodious tone

It’s prettywell known that recording Bob Dylan is not a task for the faint-hearted, or the easily distracted. This interview with sound engineer Chris Shaw about working with His Bobness is full of choice bits, but I particularly like this gossip about “Moonlight,” one of the best songs on “Love and Theft”:

For me, personally, I have really fond memories of recording that song on “Love And Theft”, “Moonlight.” It’s really gorgeous, and I think the take that’s on the record is the second take, the whole thing is completely live, vocals and all, not a single overdub, no editing, it all just flowed together at once, and it was a really beautiful moment. During that session, at the end of every night, I would do a quick rough mix of the songs that we had been working on so he could hear them. And the rough mix of “Moonlight” ended up being the final master. I took two more stabs at mixing it, and everytime, we would wind up going back to that rough mix, there’s just something about it.

But, the thing was, there’s a lyric on the song where Bob sings, “The leaves cast their shadows on the stones,” and, when he was singing it live, he was reading his lyrics off a piece of paper, and, I guess, for a split-second, he got dyslexic, because on the live take, he actually sang, “The leaves cast their *stadows* on the stones.” So, the only time I did any editing on that song, was when I heard this word “stadows” go by, I knew he meant shadows, because I had the lyric sheet in front of me. So, when I tried a remix, I took the vocal, and I found a “sh” from somewhere else, and I chopped the “st” out and put that in, so he was singing “shadows,” y’know. And Bob was listening to all these mixes, and he kept saying, “Nah, man, I really wanna use that rough mix.” Finally, I said, “Well, you know, on the rough mix, you don’t sing ‘shadows,’ you sing, ‘stadows.” And he took a long hit on his cigarette, and he kind of looked at me deadpan, and he went, “Well, you know: ‘stadows.’” So, at the final mastering, we figured that we really couldn’t let that stadows go by, because everybody would give him shit about it, so we did sliver edit, literally just for the “sh,” like a 15 milisecond edit.

It’s interesting to see how far Dylan has come from his studio Luddite days:

Between “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, we did a couple of things for movie soundtracks. There was “Cross the Green Mountain,” the song we did for Gods And Generals, and a couple of others, and, when we went into the studio for that, I said to Bob, “You know, since this is just a one-off song, it’s not going to be for an album, I wouldn’t mind trying ProTools, just so I can show you the benefits of it.” And he said, “Okay, whatever.” And we did a take of the song, and he was like, “Okay, I want to edit out the second verse and put the fourth verse in there.” And I said, “Okay, and by the time he walked into the control room from the studio, I had it done.” And his eyes just opened wide. “You can edit that fast on ProTools?” “Yeah.” “And you can keep everything?” “You can keep everything, Bob.” You could just see the gears in his head suddenly spinning.

The thing is, now, he’s gotten so used to the speed of that, when we were doing Modern Times, he was actually getting impatient with the machine. He’s be, like, “Okay, let’s swap the second and third verse.” And ten minutes later he’s like, “Are you done yet?” I’m like, “Bob, don’t you remember the last record we did, it took me about an hour to do that, can you give me somewhere between zero and an hour to get it done?”

At least two of Dylan’s albums from the 1970s, New Morning and Street-Legal, were drastically affected by Dylan’s resistance to new recording technology. New Morning was simply a weak batch of songs made weaker by muffled production, but Street-Legal was a pretty solid collection performed by the biggest ensemble Dylan had ever assembled at that point. His insistence on using only a few microphones meant that the recording could never be properly mixed: a given track would contain sound from several instruments, and bringing up one instrument would bring up all the others on that particular mike. The sound on the SACD re-release of Street-Legal was a big improvement over the vinyl and initial CD versions, but it’s still crying out for a thorough sonic upgrade.

By chance, after reading the Shaw article, I came across this interview with Sonny Landreth, which included some detailed talk about his studio methods. Now Landreth, while a perfectly capable and sometimes inspired songwriter, isn’t in Dylan’s league as a composer — he’s a guitarist justly celebrated for his unique sound and idiosyncratic slide technique. But it’s hard not to wish Dylan could absorb some of Landreth’s studio approach:

It’s been said that you’re pretty meticulous in the studio. Is that fair?

That would be fair, a fair assessment. I have opened up to the strong possibility that perhaps now would be a good time to outline the space more, leave some parts left alone and honor the moment. If you’re going to honor the song, in turn, you can honor the moment, too. It’s two different things.

You make an album. It can be like a painting. I was thinking of that when we were out there yesterday at Elemore’s (Morgan Jr.) place. He has this incredible art and these beautiful paintings, so full of vision, his heart and his soul. Recording a song, mixing a song and producing a song can be very much like that. You have different textures, different layers. You want to support the lyrics in a certain way at a certain point in the song. That’s all really fascinating to me. I get really caught up in it. It is an art form.

“Honoring the moment” is a great phrase and the perfect way to describe Landreth’s artistic seriousness. What’s interesting is that Dylan, too, is trying to honor the moment, only his approach — amply documented through interviews and the recollections of his backup musicians — is to move quickly, emphasize spontaneity and discard songs after a couple of takes if the feel still isn’t right. Shaw’s description of “Moonlight” — “It all just flowed together at once, and it was a really beautiful moment” — perfectly sums up what Dylan is after in the studio.

It’s unrealistic, I know, to expect Dylan to meet Landreth’s kind of methodology halfway — it seems inevitable that Dylan’s albums will either be overproduced (Time Out of Mind) or underproduced (“Love and Theft”).  But Dylan, unlike Landreth, is a songbird who often refuses to give his own work the care and attention it deserves.


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