Mixing and mastering engineer Jeffrey Norman has been a part of the Grateful Dead world on and off for more than 25 years now. Since his first project with the band — editing tracks for Dead Set back in 1980 — he’s been involved in dozens of projects in various capacities: He’s mastered all but the first selection in the Dick’s Picks series; he’s mixed nearly all of the group’s archival releases from multitrack tapes since 2000, including such multi-disc masterpieces as Ladies and Gentlemen…The Grateful Dead (from Fillmore East ’71), Rockin’ the Rhein, Steppin’ Out (both culled from Europe ’72 shows), the 10-CD Fillmore West box (from winter ’69), the 5-CD Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack (fall ’74), the recent Live at the Cow Palace New Year’s 1976, and many more. From 1995 until 2006, Norman worked day-in and day-out at the Dead’s now-defunct studio at Bel Marin Keys in Novato, Marin County; before that he did sporadic work for the Dead, mostly out of their legendary Club Front studio in San Rafael, all the while maintaining a busy career as an independent engineer active in many Bay Area studios.
Jeffrey is a local boy — he grew up in Santa Rosa (and hour or so north of SF) and studied classical piano as a youth. Though he loved the music, “I just didn’t like the performance aspect of it — it stressed me out more than I enjoyed it,” he says as he sits in his home mastering studio — known as Garage Audio — in the Sonoma County town of Petaluma. After attending UC Davis, he gravitated to the recording side of music, initially taking a job as a go-fer at a small Santa Rosa studio called Woodbridge Recording. As it so often does, that menial position led to Norman beginning to assist on recording sessions, and by 1976 he’d moved on to work at Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco, ground zero for so many classic albums by top Bay Area bands. There he worked with everyone from local favorite Greg Kihn to the eccentric genius Captain Beefheart. “I swear, Beefheart had some kind of telepathic powers or ESP or something,” Norman says with a chuckle. “He’d be out in the studio and we’d be in the control room talking about something and he’d say [into the talk-back mike], ‘No, I don’t want to do that song.’ And it was like there was no way he could’ve heard what we were talking about. We weren’t even positioned where he could read our lips. It was very impressive.”
After his stint at Heiders, Norman became an independent engineer, freelancing at many different Bay Area studios on a wide variety of projects, including records by the Yellowjackets (with guest Carlos Santana), John Fogerty, Huey Lewis & the News, the Doobie Brothers, Bruce Hornsby, Metallica and more. He was on staff at the Record Plant in Sausalito when he got the call to work with the Grateful Dead for the first time…
At what point do you encounter the Dead’s world?
That was 1980 and it was the mix of the Radio City Music Hall material for Dead Set.
So that was with [GD engineer] Betty Cantor-Jackson?
It was Betty and [live sound engineer] Dan Healy; it was very collaborative, even though they were a little like oil and water. I think neither of them had worked together as partners before, but they ended up doing a really good job. I was working at the Record Plant, sort of loosely on staff, and I got a call from either Betty or Dan to Michelle Zarin, who was the manager there, asking if there was someone who could do editing. At that time, of course, it was all tape and it was razor blade editing.
It was all 16-track, right?
Actually it was dual 16-tracks synced together and mixed to 2-track, and they had done the acoustic album [Reckoning] and for whatever reason didn’t really want to do the editing themselves on the electric music; so I jumped into Front Street in San Rafael with Betty and they said, “Here, we have to cut this material down to fit on two records. So, as they mixed, I would edit the safety master mixes [a back-up copy of the master tape], they would listen to the edit and then I would go back and edit the master mixes.
Hmmm. So you’re responsible for some of the editing that Deadheads, including me, really didn’t like! We all thought it was sacrilegious to eliminate solos and such…
[Laughs] Well, they weren’t my decisions! You know, when that was remastered a few years ago [for the Beyond Description box set] I thought we should go back and put in all the things we cut out. They’re somewhere in the vault.
At the time, though, I was really proud of the editing because it was so clean. [Laughs] But from a musical standpoint I realize it just was inappropriate. For instance, in “Fire on the Mountain” it was like on the third solo it goes from the start of the solo to the end! But that’s because they were trying to fit a certain amount of music on each side, and in the days of vinyl records that was extremely limited. You didn’t want to go more than 22 minutes on a side because it didn’t sound as good.
So whose decision was it?
It was really Dan and Betty’s. The band members really weren’t around much for that mix. I don’t actually know where those pieces are, but I know I never threw them away.
Well, it’s my understanding that a number of the original reels for those two albums were recorded over later for another project.
That’s right. It’s a real shame. In fact, when we put out the DVD [Dead Ahead], the [new] songs we mixed didn’t have any audience recordings; they were gone. The 4-tracks that had the audience didn’t exist, so they were a little dry.
You have to give Dan and Betty a lot of credit, because they came up with a very cool technique, where they put the audience on a separate 4-track machine that had time-code, and then they’d move the actual audience machine close in time to the stage [recordings] and they had an M-S miking technique that was very spatial. I thought those records sounded really, really good. I know Dick [Latvala, former GD vaultlkeeper] didn’t think those shows were that special, but as a new guy working on it I thought it was pretty great.
Anyway, that was my introduction to the Grateful Dead. From there, I got called in from time to time, because I knew what I was doing in the studio and I could pass the lobby-of-Front-Street-test.
You mean the gauntlet of Parish and Candelario — their mockery and derision?
[Laughs] Exactly! I could pass the crew gauntlet. They didn’t get to me, for some reason.
How did Front Street strike you as a studio? Obviously you were accustomed to conventional studios with top-of-the-line equipment and isolated control rooms. Now, here you were working in this single giant warehouse studio room where the console is in the same room as the musicians and there’s minimal isolation — some drapes and those giant Sonotube baffles.
It was very different certainly, but not in a bad way. It sort of fit them perfectly. In rock ’n’ roll you got used to seedy clubs; as far as atmosphere, this was a seedy recording studio. That’s where I was really introduced to Dan Healy. I remember going in and seeing the Sonotubes you’re talking about –these big, brown solid cardboard tubes. And he’s saying, “No, man, don’t touch those! Every one in there has been placed perfectly!” I thought, “OK, now I see who I’m dealing with.” [Laughs]
But the thing is, they always had great equipment. Jerry had an older Neve console there at the time; subsequently they got a newer Neve. Jerry had apparently bought that for the studio; later he gave it to Mickey. All the outboard gear [compressors, reverb units, etc.] was excellent. But there were wires all over the place. There was dust everywhere. Things were stacked all over the place. That part of it kind of drove me crazy. But there was a mike locker and you could always get whatever you needed and everything usually worked, which was not always the case even in the better commercial studios.
John Cutler was the maintenance guy then and I became friends with him pretty quickly.
What was the next big project you worked on with the Dead?
Probably The Twilight Zone. [The Dead wrote music for the revived TV series.] I assisted on that.
Was that fun?
Yes, it was, although I think it was a little tedious for the band. It wasn’t that easy for them, first of all, to be there and come up with ideas on a timely basis.
Not really their strong suit…
Not really what they love doing. But they did do it, and they came up with a lot of really creative stuff. Everyone contributed and they were definitely serious about it. Merl Saunders [who produced the music for the show] was sort of running those sessions; he was great, and that’s also where I met [electronic music expert] Bob Bralove.
In general, did the way the Dead worked in the studio seem very different than other groups?
Well, they were not very disciplined. I found through the years that a lot groups that became successful — and I suppose Huey Lewis & the News was an exception to this — became less disciplined as they became more successful, because sometimes you lose that desire and drive that you have when you’re struggling and you’re hungry. And let’s face it — being in the studio is a lot of work. People play around, of course, but to really get something done, it has to be really focused work. I think In the Dark was really their last great studio work together, and I think it took its toll on Jerry. That was after they hadn’t made a studio album together since Go to Heaven in ’79-’80. I assisted on mixing In the Dark, and although I didn’t do a whole lot on it, the album as a whole was a lot of work, especially for Jerry.
One thing that’s always struck me about the Dead, and you can hear this all the way through In the Dark and Built to Last, is they liked to treat all the different sonic elements almost equally on their recordings. So many musicians will have the rhythm section in what is clearly a supportive role, or push the vocals way, way out front or really emphasize solos at the expense of other instruments in a mix. But you listen to an album like In the Dark and there usually isn’t an obvious foreground or background; it’s a different and more equal relationship between the instruments.
That’s true. I think a lot of that comes from Jerry; really, it’s one more of his many, many unbelievable talents. He was always making sure that it was very democratic. As I got into taking over the mixing position [on archival releases] many years later, it took me a few projects to really grasp that. Part of it is some tonal things — sometimes it’s hard to get Bobby out there sonically in his early guitar work. It’s great, but sometimes his tone is a little dark. I’ve learned to work with it more through the years.
But yes, it’s a democratic approach where it all works when you get to hear everybody. Sometimes there’s a star figure, and most times that’s Jerry, but I realize there are times I’ve made Jerry too prominent, which is not necessary…he does that naturally by the way he speaks musically. You don’t have to have him quite so prominent; you’ll hear him well regardless.
And certainly someone like Phil has a totally different role in the Dead than a conventional bass player does in some singer’s backup group.
Absolutely. I’ve never heard a bass player who can play so much almost lead instrument stuff and still not be in the way, even when there’s a lead instrument going on.
Were you involved with Built to Last?
Not that much. That was kind of a weird album…
Well, they recorded it separately for the most part, with the different guys adding their parts individually and changing their parts in relation to other parts being created in isolation. Sort of the exact opposite of how you think of the Dead working. That said, I think it sounds pretty good. It’s worn better for me than I would have expected. Cutler did a good job of pulling it together.
I should go back and listen to it again. I remember Billy had to come back and re-record his drums over an existing track, which rarely really works — not for a pocket; for a real groove. Like you said, everybody took their stuff home to work with them. Mickey came back with, like, two 24-tracks of material to sync with the original source. You know — 48 tracks of percussion? What do you do? [Laughs] That was unusual. I don’t think that’s a good way to record, personally. It’s not that collaborative. You may have meticulous parts you’ve done, but it doesn’t look at the whole the same way.
You started to get more involved, though, when their whole archival release program started picking up steam in the early ’90s.
Right. I would get called in to do different things. I came in with Dicks Picks when that was starting up. I mastered every Dicks Picks except the first one. Then, in 1994, a position opened up to be on staff and, to be honest, having done so much independent work, I was definitely up for it. John [Cutler] kind of needed an assistant and we worked together pretty well, I liked everyone there and I liked working with the music. So I ended up being one of the last people hired, besides [latter-day vaultkeeper] David Lemieux. We worked on Hundred Year Hall [derived from a Europe ’72 show] — that was mixed at Front Street and John was great because he put me in the position of not being an assistant so much. I didn’t feel like I was subservient to someone.
How did all the differences in recording media strike you when you started mixing and/or mastering the historic recordings? Some of those 2-tracks in the Dicks Picks series sound amazing. Betty [Cantor-Jackson] was a really an excellent recordist.
And of course Bear [Owsley] was, too. And don’t forget Kidd [Candelario]. He probably could’ve been a really good engineer if he’d had the discipline and wanted to. He could’ve been a good studio engineer.
There’s something to be said for that live-to 2-track sound. As much fun as it’s been to mix these multitrack projects and tailor the mix…when you record to multitrack it goes to tape through a board [mixing console] and then it sits there on the tape, and then when you mix it, it goes from the multitrack through the board back to another tape machine, so there’s all this path of electronics that can be good or not so good. But when you do the live 2-track that Betty and Kidd and Bear did, it’s just going from microphones through a simple little mixer — an Ampex MX-10, where you had center, left and right at a pot — and that stuff’s really clear. Sometimes the mixes aren’t perfect, but considering how they were done, they’re pretty amazing. A lot of them sound fantastic.
What’s your opinion of the cassette masters in the vault?
I’d use some of them. We have used cassette masters, and some of them are very good.
It seems as though on a lot of the early ’80s cassette soundboards it’s hard to hear Bob.
Well, some of that is because he was being mixed low. But giving Healy the benefit of the doubt for a moment, if Bob’s guitar was screaming-loud onstage and you didn’t use as much of it in the P.A., he wouldn’t be as prominent in the tape. I don’t know how often that was the case. Some of those early ’80s shows do sound kind of weird, but also for musical reasons. The tempos are sort of all over the place on some shows. And a bunch of those tapes aren’t even there in the vault anymore. Who knows where they went? Actually, we have better stuff from the ’70s.
What I would resist for an official release — not that I have any say in it; I don’t — are audience tapes. I’ve never been partial to audience tapes. We used one on the The Phil Zone, which was unusual…
The Hollywood Palladium, “Hard to Handle”…
Right, and it sounded pretty good. That was such a great performance. Actually, we just found the soundboard version of that not too long ago.
I’m really of the mind that you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. If it’s a great performance, sometimes you have to make due with the fact there are some inadequacies.
Tell me about the differences between mixing, say, the 10-CD 1969 Fillmore West box, and mixing Europe ’72 material.
Well, they each have their challenges. On the Europe ’72 recordings, the drums are a little dark and dull-sounding, and they needed some brightening. Cutler came up with a great idea when he did some mixing of Europe ’72 material [for Hundred Year Hall], which is to use an Aphex Aural Exciter [audio processor] on the drums. There’s something about the Aphex that really brings things out.
I’d love to be able to mix some more from Europe ’72 and use this Plangent Processes [audio restoration tool] I used on the recent Cow Palace set [from 16-track recordings of New Year’s Eve 1976]. What this company — actually, this individual, Jamie Howarth — is able to do is to look in the digital domain at the bias frequency in analog tapes. [The Plangent tool] takes away the irregularities that are found in every analog tape, but keeps the character — the fullness, maybe the tape overdrive, or whatever; the good parts of the tape. It sounds great on cymbals and gives a clarity to the entire recording. I’d love to be able to use that mixing some Europe ’72. And I wish I’d known about it when I did the Fillmore West, because as much as I like that Fillmore West box set, it would’ve sounded even better. [For lots more on this technology, go to plangentprocesses.com]
The ’69 tapes were pretty punchy. The way those were recorded by [Bob] Matthews — taking the microphone straight into the tape machine and bypassing [console] electronics and control, the end result is there are some things that sound fine and others that are clipping, and there’s distortion on some tracks because they’re just too loud. The first day, the 27th [3/27/69], was fine; the 28th I struggled a lot with distorted vocals.
The day I visited you in the studio at Bel Marin when you were working on the Fillmore box you showed me how much bleed there was from track to track — guitars on the vocal tracks…
On everything! [Laughs] Well, it was a very bare-bones recording. There wasn’t too much you could do. There’s lots of bleed of instruments into the vocal mikes and there was limited tracks of drums to work with. But the end-result is fine.
Live Dead was really the Holy Grail for so many of us older fans, so I was a little concerned with how this box would stack up with it, sound-wise. But I was really pleasantly surprised — even with how the “Dark Star,” for instance, sounds a little more present than the original mix. Not better, but different in a good way.
Believe me, I knew that was going to be a big deal to fans. To have to mix anything that was on Live Dead….
Did you refer to it much when you were mixing?
Of course. I’ve gotten some flak online about some delays and other little things I put in on the 2/28 “Dark Star,” but they were things that I thought would make it sound a little better, whether they were right or wrong. But for the actual Live Dead material, I really tried not to do anything that was going to change it radically from what people already knew. David Lemieux was the guy who clued me in and said, ‘You know, people are going to be expecting this to sound a certain way. You don’t want to jar them too much.’ Matthews’ original mix was really excellent. I can see why everybody loves it so much.
I really think that for me, personally, that box set will be the best thing I ever get to do. Like I said, I wish I’d had the Plangent Processes stuff — it would have sounded stellar! But I still listen to that, and I don’t listen to very much stuff I’ve worked on: I hear too many flaws. There are flaws there, too, of course, but the music is just so powerful.
Do any of the Dicks Picks stand out as particularly challenging or difficult to master?
Each is unique. Some are more difficult in the editing sense, trying to make something work because you don’t have tape for every second of the show. Some have noise reduction problems.
The Kings Beach one [Vol. 22 from Feb. ‘68] was a lot of fun.
That was from 4-track, right?
Well, officially all Dicks Picks are 2-track. [Laughs] How do you know that’s a 4-track?
I just know.
Well, I can’t confirm that. [Laughs]
How much, realistically, can you do to a 2-track in mastering?
Not a lot. You can screw it up and you can improve it, but you can’t polish a turd, as they say. If it doesn’t have enough low end you can help it, but you’re not going to be able to get the vocals out if they’re totally buried.
Do you have a philosophy about editing tracks? When we were working on the Garcia studio box [All Good Things] a couple of years ago, we were confronted by the problem of do you edit out mistakes? It was that dilemma: what would Jerry do? Because certainly the Dead themselves used to edit their live tapes, and they didn’t release studio albums with glaring mistakes on them. For all their fabled looseness, they had a perfectionist streak in them.
That’s true. And we do face that: In mixing, which clams do you keep? What is acceptable to keep and what should I try to cover up? This is a very vague answer. In mixing there are some things that are worthy mistakes, and others that are more worthwhile for the music to cover them up and at least mute the problem instead of having it be blatantly out there
If you’re in one of those situations where the tape runs out at the end of the reel and there’s 45 seconds of music missing, I will try to keep as much as possible. I might try to find something of the same song from another version and put that in if there’s a graceful way to do it. Ideally, you want to make a continuous flow.
On the Fillmore box there’s a tune where the stereo image gets very strange and it sort of folds up on itself for a period…
Yeah, well, speaking of cassettes, there were five or six places where the multitrack ran out and the only tape to cover a gap was a Bear 2-track. They were little pieces of Bear’s board mixes and some worked OK, but there’s one in a version of “Caution,” I believe, where there was only a cassette, and that’s pretty brutal. That’s probably what you’re referring to. It’s not that great a cassette — there’s no high-end and there are drop-outs. But we had to use it. We wanted the box to be every note played — we didn’t say every note on the multitrack! [Laughs] Plangent would’ve been able to fix some of the problems we encountered, like where you have pitch problems at the end of one reel and the beginning of the next one. It wouldn’t fill the musical gaps, though.
You did a lot of your Dead work the last ten years at the Bel Marin studios in Novato, which was a pretty different environment than Front Street. It had the semi-isolated control room…
It was pretty well isolated unless someone was thumping away in the other room. We could do everything there. We didn’t do a lot of [studio] recording there, though Bobby did a lot of Evenings Moods there. But it was a great mixing studio. You could take it from archival multitrack and also do DVD mixing. Tom [Flye, Mickey’s primary engineer] really helped make the room manageable acoustically, because it was this huge room with just drapes and a big, boomy bottom end. He’s very good at hands-on building and sort of made a room-within-a room. There were still flaws, but I was able to manage. Another thing that was great about it is you had a mixing area and a separate mastering area with different speakers and a different setup, so you could hear things in different ways.
Bel Marin got to be home after a while. It was a really nice place to work. It’s really too bad that things didn’t work out so that we could keep that place, but I totally understand about the economics of it.
You and David Lemieux seem to have a really great working relationship.
I treasure David. I totally trust David and his artistic decisions. There might have been two or three things through the years that I’ve wanted to change, but usually because of some technical thing rather than an artistic thing. To me it’s just an easy relationship. I can’t say enough good things about him. You know, for most of these mixing projects I haven’t had anyone in the band listening to things as we went along, but I could always count on David to give me some good feedback. He’s perfect because he knows the music so well; better than I do, certainly. He can say, ‘You know what, on this little run-up to the bridge section of ‘Morning Dew,’ Phil should be up there.’”
Tell me about this studio we’re sitting in — your new mastering studio.
This room originally was a garage and it was remodeled earlier to be a home theater with surround sound. I had the TV over there, and a couch over here. I had bought a Meyer [speaker] system for surround — HM-1s. It was a great room. Then, when things started to wind down at Bel Marin I realized, ‘Oh-oh, I’m going to have to get a job!’ I know I was really, really lucky. To expect to work as an engineer for anybody on staff in this day and age, much less someone as amazing as the Grateful Dead, was pretty unreasonable, so I talked it over with my wife, Patty, and made the decision to try to start my own mastering place here. [Former Dead manager] Cameron Sears was very helpful to me — a lot of this gear in here is the Dead’s. He went to the band and said, "Jeffrey is still going to be able to do some work on Grateful Dead stuff, but he could use some equipment.” And they were very gracious and let me use it. At some point there will be a decision of whether I buy it straight-out. But Rhino said they would like things to be as seamless as possible and that they’d still like me to do some work, so that’s been good.
So, I had some ideas about what I needed in here and then Sam Berkow of SIA acoustics, who’s been on the periphery of the Grateful Dead world for many years — he’s very good — took some pictures and took some measurements and came up with the design, which has baffling and isolation and this [fabric] ‘sound cloud’ above us. With just a little more work I’ll be able to replace the HM-1s with [Meyer] HD-1s. I’ve got Pro Tools. I’ve got the Pacific Microsonics HDCD converters. I’ve got this great Fairman compressor, which is a made in Denmark and which I used on the bass on the Fillmore set and some on Jerry’s guitars. It sounds really good. And then I have all sorts of machines that let me play back just about any format, whether its PCMs or DATs or multitrack reels.
So far things have been working out really well. I mixed the Cow Palace set down at The Plant, and I’ve done mastering here, including work with David Gans and Bob Bralove and a few others. It’s still a new business and time will tell how it goes in the long run. But of course I’m hoping to do more work on Grateful Dead projects.
For more on Jeffrey Norman’s studio and credits, go to garageaudiomastering.com