The Mixer: A Brett Eliason Retrospective

by John Reynolds on January 19, 2011

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Live Pearl Jam has been a significant contributor to the depth of my Pearl Jam fandom, as I’m sure it is for many of our readers. For the band’s first ten years, Brett Eliason manned the soundboard for nearly all of Pearl Jam’s shows as Front of House Engineer. 1998′s Live on Two Legs gave us a taste of how great a well-produced Pearl Jam live album could sound, but it wasn’t as transformational as the 2000 announcement that Pearl Jam would sell all their live shows on CD. It was at that time – as part of a Pearl Jam Tapers & Traders group DigiJAM – that I interviewed Brett Eliason about that process.

Brett returned to mix Live On Ten Legs – a follow-up if you will to Pearl Jam’s last live album – spanning tours from 2000 until today. Since the original release of 2000 tour, live Pearl Jam has come in many flavors: CD sales of all tours, FLAC and MP3 downloads from PearlJam.com and even a desktop download manager from Basecamp Productions (co-founded by Brett) used in 2005.

It made sense to revisit this interview with Brett from 2001. Stay tuned to Pearl Jam Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio on Wednesday, January 19 at 5:00 PM EST where Brett Eliason will be The Rob and Tim’s guest to talk about Live on Ten Legs and answer listener questions.

Working Man: 2000

JR’s Interview with Brett Eliason, originally published Winter 2001

Pearl Jam recently matched an industry record by having five albums on the Billboard Top 200 at one time. Not too many people, though, have pondered the significant fact that Brett Eliason – Pearl Jam’s Front-of-House Sound Engineer on the road and Producer/Mixer/Recording Engineer off the road – produced those five and sixty-seven other live albums in six months! Most bands couldn’t get one live album out in six months if they tried.

Brett recently finished the audio/video production of Pearl Jam’s second DVD Touring Band 2000 – a two-hour-plus behemoth packed with live footage, fly-on-the-wall backstage views and specially mixed “Matt-Cam” tracks where the viewer’s vantage point is directly behind Matt Cameron’s drumkit. After nearly a year of ingesting live Pearl Jam on the road and in the studio, Brett was generous enough to discuss the techical aspects of his job with DigiJAM.

I asked Brett to take us “behind the console” for a glimpse into the life of Pearl Jam’s Live Sound Engineer and Live Bootleg Producer. “Steady Diet of Bootlegs” discusses the groundbreaking release of the 2000 Binaural Bootlegs. “Second Video Theory” delves into the release of the upcoming DVD Touring Band: 2000. Lastly, “Looking Forwards Back” retrospectively presents Brett’s decade-long career with Pearl Jam. Enjoy!

Steady Diet of Bootlegs

JR: What was your first reaction when Pearl Jam discussed releasing soundboards for retail sale?

Brett: I was quite excited. I knew that there was interest out there for this product. I also knew that I would be able to produce the shows in a timely and cost effective manner which would make the process possible. These are not soundboard recordings. These are separate, multitracked recordings independent of what is going on with the live sound.

JR: Has the band catalogued their concerts since their first show (10/22/90)? Various 1992 b-sides included songs from FM recordings, and songs from particular shows were released from 1993 U.S. shows (the fan club single for example). I’m assuming early club shows were put to DAT, but did shows start to get recorded/archived to multi-track at some point?

Brett: I ran cassette initially DAT just wasn’t that prevalent a format in clubs at that point. As we got into 1992 I was running a DAT Walkman at every show. Starting in 1993 I began to multitrack (16 track) all of the shows. In 1994 I bumped up to twenty-four tracks. From these recordings came live B-sides, Christmas singles, and eventually Live on Two Legs.

JR: How did the Bootleg project alter your duties during the show?

Brett: I have been multitracking the shows since 1993. I have come up with a couple of ways to approach the taping of the shows that make the actual process simple and transparent. The only real setup is at the beginning of each tour. Otherwise, the only steps from show to show are labeling the tapes, and keeping notes on the shows. During the show, I just hit record and keep an occasional eye on the machines.

JR: Are the shows recorded on hard disk or do they go to tape? Also are the recordings 16-bit, 20-bit, or 24-bit?

Brett: Pro Tools (A software-based mixing facility) was involved in the production of the Bootlegs and the DVD. My mix system is based on a rather large Pro Tools system, which is 5.1 compatible. For the European Bootlegs I recorded directly to a Tascam DA-88 format, which is an 8mm 16bit-tape format. I then brought the tapes home, loaded them up on multiple hard drives (the recordings are 32 track, including audience mics) and mixed them.

My system is capable of 24-bit 48KHz, but because the tape machines are 16-bit and the final product is 16-bit 44.1K, that is the resolution that I settled on.

JR: Do you have favorite live records from other bands, which you used as a “frame of reference” when mixing (including “Live on Two Legs”)? or did you base it on your live experience with Pearl Jam working the soundboard?

Brett: There have been many live records over the years that I have owned and enjoyed. Certainly these have influenced me on some level. However, I didn’t use any specific recordings as a frame of reference. I did use my live mixing experience with the band to help form my approach. Neither the band, nor I wanted the bootlegs to sound “too produced”. I felt very strongly that they should represent what the listener would have heard in that venue, but tailored for a home stereo.

JR: How long does it take a show (bootleg) to be ready for manufacturing? What basic steps are involved?

Brett: My assistant, John Burton, and I actually figured out how long each show took to be ready for manufacturing. Realize that we kept the material digital from beginning to end. This means that each time the material had to be transferred it was always in real time.

The average show was twenty-eight songs long, encompassing roughly one hour forty five minutes to two hours running time. The European shows were all on an 8mm-tape format. They then had to be transferred from tape to my system’s hard drives, being formatted for Pro Tools at this time. John transferred two shows at a time (this was all of the hard disc space that I had). Once on the drives, the material would be titled and broken up into sections for disc one and disc two. I would then mix one of the shows, and bounce it as a stereo mix file to a separate hard drive. John would then take that mix file and prep it to be burned on to a CDR master. This was the final master that we delivered to be prepped for pressing. Up to this point John and I had a combined fourteen to fifteen man-hours into each show. For the European bootlegs I was given a two-week deadline for twenty-five shows. We delivered in just slightly over two weeks. We didn’t get to sleep much during that time.

JR: I understand that you have the home studio that you’ve always wanted. Is this where you did the production of the bootlegs?

Brett: Yes. I have had my studio set up for a couple of years now. It is a wonderful place to be able to work. I mixed the European bootlegs entirely here at home. For the North American legs John and I built my studio into a tour bus. I did the majority of the mixing for both legs in the bus, only needing to finish up the last several shows of each leg in my room once we were off the road.

JR: In one interview with Aphex, you mentioned that the N.A. Bootlegs are “fuller, punchier and warmer” than the European set. Could you elaborate on the different approaches for the Europe and N.A. Boots?

Brett: One big difference is time frame. I simply had more time. Also, having been through the process once already helped give me a better idea of how to approach the North American material.

The quote from the interview that you mention relates to a different technical approach that I took in recording the North American bootlegs. Aphex was kind enough to let us demo several of their 1788 microphone preamplifiers. Each unit has eight preamps, along with analogue to digital conversion. This enabled me to eliminate the long analogue snake run. The preamps took their split on stage, then fed the microphone signals down a digital snake to the tape machines, and Pro Tools system that were aboard the tour bus.

On top of the organizational and technical changes that were made, mixing the shows as we went gave us the time to have the shows properly mastered. Mastering is a common step in the production of a recording to be released. The mastering engineer pays special attention to the full audio spectrum and the dynamic characteristics of the stereo mix. He adds equalization and compression to the mixes prior to generating a final production master that will be used in the pressing plant. It is kind of like adding the finish clear coat to an automobile’s paint job. The clear coat evens out and adds that final luster to the final product. In this case we used Ed Brooks and Rick Fisher of RFI CD mastering in Seattle, great guys who did a wonderful job for us.

JR: Has their been any talk on revisiting and releasing pre-2000 shows?

Brett: There hasn’t been any talk of releasing pre-2000 shows at this time. But you never know. I would certainly enjoy going back through some of the old catalogue.

Second Video Theory

JR: Regarding the DVD, did you have to learn new tricks for doing Audio/Video Production? What was the most challenging aspect?

Brett: When I worked for a recording studio I did quite a bit of audio for video, anything from music video to Boeing presentations. I was involved in the Alive video shoot, having recorded and mixed the audio for that video. I also worked on a couple of the live music sequences in the movie Singles, and many other audio for video projects. These experiences made the planning of the audio and video sync pretty simple. There are rules to follow, and as long as you know the rules and stick to them it is not a difficult process.

I’d have to say the most challenging aspect of the DVD project had to do with the mixing process. DVD audio is mixed in what is called a 5.1 format. This gives you six locations and relationships therein, to place the audio. Your normal music format is stereo, or two locations. There are more decisions to be made as to where to place the instrumentation. There is a much larger sound field to control. These same challenges also make for a fun and unique experience in mixing.

JR: The “bonus” DVD footage has 3 songs with a “heavy drum mix” for the “Matt-Cam” footage. Was this as easy as increasing his instruments in the mix? Did Matt work with you at all to produce this?

Brett: Matt chose the songs that he wanted the Matt Cam angle for. Beyond that it was as easy as increasing the level of his kit.

JR: During the tour, were you prepared for Audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 or did you have to use simulation processors to achieve the effect?

Brett: There are several encoding processes for DVD. Dolby is one of them. The encoding process takes place after the mixes are done, and after the material has been mastered. I took the DVD mixes to Ted Jensen at Sterling sound, who not only is a great mastering engineer, but also happens to have one of the few 5.1 mastering rooms in the country. The encoding process took place at Sony.

Simulation processors are used when you do not have access to the multitrack material for remixing, or do not have the time or the budget to remix and must rely on 5.1 simulation of a stereo format. In this case, I had the multitrack material and was able to generate the six channel 5.1 mixes.

Lookin’ Forward back

JR: I believe you’ve manned the board for Pearl Jam since 1992? What was your first show and how did you get the job?

Brett: My first show with Pearl Jam was on July 4th 1991. We played the RKCNDY a couple of days prior to going to New York for the New Music Seminar. We also did a few other shows while out there.

I had worked with Jeff and Stone to a small degree while they were in Green River and Mother Love Bone. I was a staff engineer at the studio where those bands did some recording. I worked for a couple of days as an assistant on the Green River record, and as an assistant on some Love Bone demos. I knew the band’s manager, Kelly Curtis, from various projects that had introduced us a few times. I was working on a live recording for a band that Kelly had come to see. We bumped into each other, and Kelly asked me for a recommendation for a live sound guy who could go out and do a month tour with the band. I had never been to the East Coast. I hadn’t had an opportunity to do much travelling at all. So, I recommended myself. Kelly had brought Ed with him to the show. We were introduced, had a quick conversation and Kelly later talked it over with the rest of the band. I had my tryout at the Rock Candy, and we left a couple of days later. The tour went very well, well enough to warrant me working on the Alive video and heading out on the next tour.

JR: You work on the road and at home. At this stage in your career, which do you like better? Or does Pearl Jam’s “accommodating” schedule of touring “lightly” and recording every two years provide you with the freedom to do other projects?

Brett: The band’s schedule works out great for me. I love doing live sound for this band. It is truly a great experience to get the band and crew together, most of us having worked together for many years. The band’s schedule does indeed give me the freedom to work on other projects. This blend keeps my job interesting and very enjoyable.

John Reynolds ( Twitter: @jjjrrr )
A New Jersey based programmer, John handles TFT’s programming and technical aspects. He also conceives and writes his share of TFT’s articles and sections. John’s first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 12, 1992.

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