The best-selling jazz album of all time, the stark modal style of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue has inspired countless musicians—everyone from the Doors and James Brown to Weather Report, Q-Tip, and Portishead. Recorded in 1959, at Columbia’s legendary 30th Street Studio in Manhattan—which also was the home for celebrated recordings by Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, and Sly & The Family Stone—Kind of Blue was the dividing line between Davis’ cool period, and the exploratory music that began with his revolutionary ’60s quintet. Housed in an abandoned Greek Orthodox church at 207 East 30th Street, 30th Street Studio measured 100 feet by 100 feet with very high ceilings and gorgeous wooden arches. The enormous space was converted to suit the acoustic desires of each artist with the use of gobos and baffles, allowing the studio to record everything from small jazz groups to pop singers to massive choral and orchestral pieces.
“I always liked the drum sound in there,” says Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of the Kind of Blue band. “You could play the way you wanted to play, because the engineers had control over everything. They knew every spot on the floor where the drums would sound best. For the Kind of Blues sessions, they put a mic right close to the cymbal, so you can hear it ping—you clearly hear the wood of the drumstick against the cymbal. I think there was one mic positioned overhead, one mic placed between the snare and hi-hat, and maybe one more mic near the front of the drums.”
Produced by Irving Townsend with engineer Fred Plaut, Kind of Blue brought together the greatest jazz musicians of the era: pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and acoustic bassist Paul Chambers. It was supposed to be just another recording session before the band returned to the road, but Davis enforced a template of instantaneous creation by handing the compositions to the musicians practically on the spot, and insisting on cutting the pieces in one complete take.
“He liked the energy in the first take,” says Cobb. “Miles always felt like the more you did it, the worse it was going to get. And with those kinds of musicians, you could just tell them what you wanted, and they’d give it to you the first time.”
To commemorate the album’s 50th anniversary, Columbia Legacy has issued Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition—a comprehensive box set that includes two CDs, a DVD, and a 180-gram, blue vinyl LP. CD One encompasses the March 2, 1959 session that produced Kind of Blue’s “Freddie Freeloader,” “So What,” and “Blue in Green;” the April 22, 1959 session that brought forth “Flamenco Sketches” and “All Blues;” and some false starts and studio sequences. CD Two presents a May 26, 1958 session— the only other studio recording of the sextet (Davis, Evans, Coltrane, Adderley, Cobb, and Chambers)—with producer Cal Lampley that produced “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Fran-Dance,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Love for Sale,” and “So What,” as well as a 17-minute live version of “So What” captured at an April 1960 concert in Holland. The DVD includes interviews with prominent musicians, as well as the complete 1959 television program, Robert Herridge Theatre: The Sound of Miles Davis. The vinyl LP is a worthy addition to this historical box set.
MASTERING FOR VINYL
Given the task of remastering Mark Wilder’s 1997 two-track remix of Kind of Blue for the 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, mastering engineer Greg Calbi broke out his usual setup at Sterling Sound: a Studer A80 2-track, Digidesign Pro Tools, Merging Technologies Pyramix software, a custom Muth console, a Dangerous 2-Bus Analog Summing Mixer, a Focusrite Blue 330 mastering compressor, a Blue 315 isomorphic equalizer, a pair of EAR DAR 822Q equalizers, a custom Wolifson tube amp, a Manley Massive Passive tube equalizer and Variable Mu Limiter Compressor, ProAc Four monitors, and Wireworld and Harmonic Technology cables.
“I had Mark’s 2-track tapes that were mixed from the original 3- track tapes,” says Calbi, “as well as three or four pressings of Kind of Blue from different eras. The early versions had a bit of a different bass sound than the ’97 remix, and I wanted to get as close to the original bass sound as I could, because I thought it spoke a little bit better. We tried several different pieces of equipment to get the roundness we wanted on the bass. I ran the audio into a custom line-stage amplifier designed by Barry Wolifson, then into an EAR DAR822Q equalizer— boosting around 100Hz to get the bottom as full as possible—and then into the Muth console. Other than that, I didn’t want anything in my signal chain that might change the original relationships of the instruments. I didn’t want to start EQing and changing the tone of things. It was basically a transfer of the mix, but fattened up to get it as smooth as possible. That was my job with Kind of Blue—to transfer the mix flat, but with a color that would enhance the sound of the horns and the bass. The original mix tended to be a little bit on the bright side. There was a period in the early ’60s where everything was really bright.”
Calbi also worked hard to accurately represent the original sonic spectrum of the album.
“The elements that make Kind of Blue most interesting to me are the sound of the room itself, the horns being panned hard right and hard left in the stereo version, and the natural dynamics,” he says. “The expressiveness and detail you can hear from each player is amazing. And, when mastering for vinyl, you can keep full dynamic range without having to compress everything to be louder. Today, people love their sh*t to be loud in order to compete on the radio, or with other CDs. But for Kind of Blue, that approach is irrelevant. This is music that you want to cherish, and try to enhance. You know, people always use words such as ‘organic’ and ‘natural,’ but the only natural thing is sitting in a room and hearing some guy play. Everything else is all technology and artifice.”
MASTERING FOR CD
As Sony’s Senior Mastering Engineer, Mark Wilder typically spends his days remixing tracks both classic and modern out of Sony’s Battery Mastering Studios on West 54th in Manhattan (formerly the Record Plant). Wilder has more experience with Kind of Blue than almost any other living person on the planet except Jimmy Cobb. Wilder not only remastered the quintessential Kind of Blue mix from the original 1959 3-track tapes, he discovered a playbackspeed flaw that remained on all Kind of Blue pressings until 1992. At that time, Wilder was revisiting the 3- track safety reels from the original 1959 session for the Sony Mastersound reissue of Kind of Blue, and he noticed the three songs on Side A were a bit sharp in pitch compared to the same tunes on the backup reels. Apparently, the main 3-track deck was turning slower than normal during the March 2 session, and when these tracks were played on a machine running at the proper speed, the slightly faster playback produced the higher pitch. This is why the CDs and LPs made from that reel were sharp. Wilder surmised that the main 3-track had received some maintenance by the time of the April 22 session, and therefore the pieces on Side B were tracked at the standard speed. Realizing that the backup reels had never been played, Wilder decided to use them to remaster Kind of Blue for Columbia’s 1992 Mastersound SBM Gold CD release, thus ensuring both “sides” of the classic album were playing at their proper pitches.
“For the 1992 Mastersound disc where we did the speed correction, I used a Studer 807 3-track and a Neve 8108 console to mix direct to a customized Sony PCM 3402 DASH reelto- reel digital 2-track during that period of time when Sony had its proprietary 20-bit converter,” explains Wilder. “For the final assembly, we used the U-Matic 1630 digital format tape. Basically, you recorded 16 bit/44.1kHz to a 3/4-inch videotape. These were all modified machines, and the connections were SDIF 2 instead of AES. For its time, it was great. Editing was very linear. Unlike a workstation, it was hard to bounce around in time— you pretty much had to assemble the master from start to end.
“In 1997, when we wanted to address Kind of Blue again, I had a GML custom line mixer, and a basically pristine, all-tube Presto 3-track— possibly the R-II  or Model 825 —which had a unique sound. The GML console was a true step up—it was by far more transparent than the Neve. I did a flat transfer—no EQ or compression—from the Presto and GML to an analog Ampex ATR- 102 with Dolby SR running at 15ips. Printing to analog allowed me to move those original mixes into the future for any technology change that may come along, and these are now the reference standard mixes of Kind of Blue.
“We wanted the 50th Anniversary reissue to be special in some way, so I went with a different tape machine—the Studer A80—and, instead of using the newer Dolby SR 363 units, I went with some standalone SR cards that fit into the old Dolby 360 racks. We used Grado cables to connect everything, and, keeping in mind that we wanted a different interpretation of the original tape, I ran it through an EAR 825 Mastering EQ completely flat. I just wanted to get that Tim de Paravicini [a renowned high-end analog engineer who designed the EAR 825] sound without fiddling with the tonal balance—which I didn’t want to change. If you compare the 50th Anniversary CD with the 1997 release, you’ll find the 50th Anniversary disc a little warmer, and more inviting. It’s not that the ’97 version is abrasive—it’s simply 11 years later. I am at a different place as a listener, and as an engineer, and my interpretation was different then than now.”
Still, retaining the original audio character of what Wilder considers “one of the best recordings Fred Plaut ever did” was a paramount goal. He also wanted to scrupulously document the sounds of the vintage tools likely used to craft Kind of Blue at 30th Street Studio in 1959—a custom Columbia console, Neumann M49 mics, Telefunken or custom-made mic preamps, Ampex 300 or 350 tape machines, Scotch 190 tape, and Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater monitors.
“You have three horns and a rhythm section together in a huge room, and Fred Plaut—the original engineer—placed the mics with a sense of where he wanted the performers to be in the speakers,” says Wilder. “The left, center, and right balance was done before it hit the 3- track tape. It’s mostly a simple, static, ‘all faders up’ mix—even though Fred was doing what was known as a live mix. He was aware of the solos, where the heads were, and who was playing what—turning the mic preamps up or down as needed. A perfect example is “Freddie Freeloader,” where Fred is a little late on John Coltrane’s entrance. The saxophone sounds very echoey, and then, all of a sudden, he’s there. Fred was a little slow on the fader.”