Bob Matthews, 4/14/14 (continued)
Bob Matthews [of “Bob and Betty” fame] was one of the first fans of the band that became the Grateful Dead, and he joined this fabulous crew of autodidacts at the very start, eventually becoming a sound engineer and co-producer of some of the band’s most important recordings. I interviewed him on April 14, 2014 for This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead.
Gans: You humped that Ampex MM-1000 around to various venues and to record the material that became Live Dead.
Matthews: The 16-track enabled us to have one track for every input on the stage. Four vocals, the drums, two basses, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and the organ. It provided the solution to the live recording problem I had previously isolated with 8 track, where we had to make decisions in the back of the truck about mixing. Usually the problem was drums, which were very phase sensitive. You’d have to mix the snare and/or the kick and/or the toms on to a single track, because you only had 8 tracks. The problem was that once you made that mix, it was locked in stone; nothing you could do to change it. And you were making these decisions in the back of a square truck. It might have some carpeting on the walls, but it was not the place [acoustically speaking] to be making those decisions.
With the 16 track, all we had to do was make sure that the microphone worked and that there was sufficient level that we weren’t in the noise, but that we weren’t so high that we were clipping the tape. That was the methodology that created Live Dead, Skull and Roses, Europe ’72: microphone or direct, into similar preamps, and into the storage device. Then you take it back into the studio where you have the time and the facility to approach it as a laboratory, and carefully discern whatever decisions. You end up having to make a lot less alterations than if you had used a whole board – i.e. preamps, combine amps, output amplifiers. Every time you add an active process, you are affecting the signal. The thing that it took a while for us to learn that what we were affecting was phase. If you have one device that shifts the phase this amount, and then you add a little EQ on another channel, when you start combining those, you get all of these sums and differings of phase, and it tends to muddy or cloud the end result.
Gans: So, the shortest path from the stage to the record head.
Matthews: That’s right. Still works, 40 years later.
Gans: Betty told me once that you guys put together Live Dead pretty much on your own and presented it to the band while they were dithering about what to do with their live recordings.
Matthews: That is correct. We were finishing up Aoxomoxoa while we were doing the Fillmore and the Avalon recordings that precipitated Live Dead. They took time out from Aoxomoxoa, reviewed all the performances, selected the performances, made a mix of those performances, and put ’em on the shelf. That was it.
Bear was the one who prompted me. He said, “You should go in and make a mix of that, because [the band’s mix] doesn’t represent the methodology of what you recorded.”
I went to the management of [Pacific High Recording] and called in a favor, because I had made them the first 16 track studio in San Francisco. In off-time, I’m asking you for speculative time to work on this, and I told the band I had done this and do I have your permission? They said okay, as long as it didn’t cost anything.
Upon completion of those mixes, I submitted it to the band. The next thing I knew, it had a release date. And that release date was November 10, 1969, my 22nd birthday.
That was really my first, what I consider to be – I’m reluctant to use the word “masterpiece.”
Gans: As I recall, there’s only one major edit in that record: a jump between “St Stephen” and “The Eleven” –
Matthews: The tape actually did run out. We had it rehearsed: When a reel ran out, we had two people on the takeup reel – one to take up the used reel, another one to slam down the empty – and another one over on the other side, taking off the empty and putting a full one on, running it through the heads, around the [hub], and hitting PLAY and RECORD. We got to the point where we could do it in about 35 seconds.
The vinyl – the “Dark Star” side is 23 and a half minutes long. Nobody had ever done non-speaking content, which is to say music. It’s a demonstration of Betty’s skills at mastering. She’s the one who supervised all the cutting. Because of the dynamics of “Dark Star” – it gets really quiet – we were able to take advantage of that with variable [track] pitch. When it’s really quiet, you don’t have to cut as deep a groove. There is X amount of energy that you can physically put into cutting a disc – so much depth, so much sideways. It’s a very fine process, and I thought it was pulled off exquisitely.