Why Can't I Stop Listening to This?

Grammy-winning engineer Nathaniel Kunkel Writes About Listening to the Intricacies of Mixing the Songwriters Tour Album With Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett
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I have just spent a couple of weeks mixing a show I recorded last year of Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett. They do the Songwriters Tour together once in a while, and I was lucky enough to be asked to record their Redwood City performances in Northern California. It's really an amazing show: they are all onstage at the same time, each one performs a song, and then he passes the baton to the next guy. One of the benefits of this arrangement is that there is no setlist. They play what they feel like playing after the previous guy has played. They might play a solo on another performer's song, and they usually talk to each other about their respective performances and/or what the song was about. It is amazing to watch and very educational.

After I mixed the show, however, I learned some amazing stuff.

Lyle, who spearheads the project, is one of the greatest champions of integrity I have ever met. So when I was mixing the show, I decided to leave in all the talking, all the tuning, all the audience chatter, everything. It was long, but it was the performance in its entirety. I figured that approach would be the most beneficial for the performers to evaluate the show before release.

The other thing that differed in my normal approach to mixing on this project was my abandonment of an elevated-level master. I am so over it (no pun intended). This product was going to have dynamic range.

So I printed my mixes of real performances with dynamic range (which should not be the anomaly that it is). Then I burned a couple of discs to reference in my car. However, I was not prepared for my reaction: I was fully engaged and unable to pull myself away from listening to this concert. That was unusual — I normally want to get as far away from a project as possible after listening to it for weeks. But this was different. There was flow. There were dynamics. There was humanity. There were jokes and discussions. There was, right there, something I don't hear much anymore: people entertaining me. Not machines. Not reverb. Not Auto-Tune. People.

It was also a complete listening experience — the dialog was as important as the songs. These are not just amazing songwriters; these are amazing people, with a story and a reason for everything they do. And they were sharing it with me.

I was floored. It was captivating, and my desire to keep listening over and over was unrelenting. Like a man who has come out of the desert and found water, I could not get enough.

So that got me thinking about some of the music by musicians I love — Buddy Holly, Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Eric Taylor, Karla Bonoff, Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Nat King Cole, and Frank Zappa. You know, the good stuff. The stuff that could, and still does, enthrall me.

I also thought about the first time I recorded James Taylor. I was so worried. Would I be able to record his voice right? It's one of the most recognizable voices in popular music. Then I heard him sing right in front of me, and my worries evaporated. Not because I was unnecessarily confident or thought I had the right mic. My worries evaporated because you could put a $49 Realistic mic from Radio Shack in front of him and he would still sound like James Taylor. You would have to try to bung it up. Really, you would.

Why am I telling you this?

Because like this show with Guy, Joe, John, and Lyle, and like my experience with James, when you have a truly great performance of a truly great song, sometimes you just need to get out of the way.

If you are in front of an artist and they don't floor you, I'm not sure adding a loop is going to make them a star. We should stop trying to make hit records for any artist and start making good records for hit artists. Not only is it easier, but if I were to judge an artwork's success by the enjoyment of the person experiencing it over time, I think it's more likely that a good record from a talented artist will result in great art. Only time will tell.

Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.