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Re-Mixing Song to a Seagull Print-ready version

A conversation with mixing engineer Matt Lee

by Dave Blackburn
JoniMitchell.com
October 15, 2021

DB: Didn't you work on the Love Has Many Faces boxed set?

ML: I did. I helped with the assembly of that record. There were some tweaks that we did, and we added a trumpet to one of the songs. Mostly assembly and some light EQ stuff. On In France They Kiss on Main Street I brought the drums up a little bit even though it was a mastered two-track; I was able to finagle that and negotiate the drums a little further forward. You know, basic improvements that Joni wanted in there. I worked with Joni for about fourteen months on that.

DB: So Joni was sitting with you much of the time?

ML: Every single session!

DB: What year was that? About 2013?

ML: 2013, yeah. All the way through till around August 2014.

DB: So you were an obvious person to call to work on the Song to a Seagull remix?

ML: Yeah, while we were working on the first record, she had received the masters back from David Crosby, I think. There happened to be a disc included with it, and she handed it to me and said "here, you're pretty good at this sonic stuff. Why don't you see if you can fix this?" I didn't start with it til 2015 sometime.

DB: Had it already been digitized at that point?

ML: Yes, it had.

DB: So the original source tape would have been on 1" 8-track?

ML: That's correct.

DB: Did you have many meetings with Joni to discuss the overall approach, or listen to the original version and make notes of things that needed fixing?

ML: Basically, I didn't want to lose the spirit of the original record and I didn't want to put too much of an opinion on it, or anything like that. The general thing that I noticed about it was she had all these stellar performances, and at first I didn't know exactly what to do about it. I slowly started working on it and went track by track and built it up. I made each track, to the best of my ability, as natural as possible. I noticed that there were a lot of issues with the recording itself - in particular, there was some noise on it.

DB: There's been a lot of talk for many years about it. "What went wrong with Song to a Seagull and who's to blame?" kind of thing! Without getting into that can you list some of the problems you encountered?

ML: Yeah, sure. Basically what I noticed was that, however it was engineered, there was an average of two guitar tracks on each song and it seemed like they used different mics on the guitars so I tried to just get them together as close as possible, to start with, and the other thing is that Joni had said how her vocal sounded like it was under a bowl of Jello, so I thought, let's see what we can do to give the vocal a little more presence - you know, shape it up a bit and bring it forward.

DB: I noticed that on the original mix the two guitars were panned to the center and were phase canceling with each other. It sounded thin and brittle, when they were probably hoping for a thickening effect.

ML: I had noticed what you mentioned, and I automatically panned them to the sides. It made all the difference in the world, I thought. I tried going as bare bones as possible, and just brightening up the vocal a little bit. It was drowning in reverb on a lot of the songs, so I pulled back and used different "verbs".

DB: Did you get to start from dry tracks or were there effects baked into the master?

ML: No, there was nothing baked into the master so I got to start fresh with everything.

DB: There was a story going around that Crosby had Joni sing into a piano with a mic over the piano strings to capture the resonance of the strings. Is that an urban myth?

ML: I really didn't hear anything like that going on there; it's possible. Being the creative mind that David is, it sounds like something he might have tried doing. It was a very experimental time in music; I didn't really notice that, though. I just noticed I had to work with these vocals a certain way. I definitely wanted to feature and highlight the lead vocal and make everything as clean as possible.

DB: Was Joni singing at the same time as playing the guitar?

ML: I believe that she did on one track and then she'd add another guitar afterwards. That's what it sounds like to me. These are stunning performances.

DB: So you didn't run into the phase problem from leakage of the guitar into the vocal mic?

ML: Not so much, but there was a little bit of that; it didn't really bother me. It was okay. I could also flip the phase on the channels so I could see which way it went better, you know?

DB: The most prominent thing about this album, originally, was the pronounced reverb. When we read that you were working on a remix of it, a lot of us were wondering if it was going to stay in the spirit of the original or a brand new approach. It sounds like you chose to maintain the spirit of the original.

ML: Absolutely, but not letting it be so deeply immersed in reverb.

DB: So, what kind of reverbs did you use, actually?

ML: They were digital reverbs; one was a plate reverb and the other was a chamber, like the ones underground at Capitol Studios. I went with those because they were easy to control, and I thought the plates had a beautiful sheen to them they offered. They didn't inhibit the quality of the listen and they didn't inhibit the quality of the voice.

DB: Yeah, I've always felt the original reverb gave this album a sort of eerie Gothic cathedral kind of sound.

ML: It did at that. I think they were going for a sort of cavern sound, but it made it sound like she was way far away from you. What I wanted to do was capture more of the performance, because I couldn't believe just how beautiful this record is. I think I would have felt really guilty if I didn't somehow make it feel like she was in the room with you. I wanted to get more of that personal warmth she offers when she performs. These have to be some of the best performances I've ever heard in my life, by any artist. This is a sublime record; I was really, really, honored to have the privilege to work with this. The tapes are absolutely stunning. Certain things had to be fixed, but I thought that overall they did a good job. In the mix, I think they could have done a bit of a different approach, but, you gotta remember, in 1968 Phil Spector was king and his "wall of sound" was something everyone was looking for. It was very much a fashionable thing, you know? Phil overdid it with everything; I mean, he'd have like three bass players on one track and probably two sets of plate reverbs going on also.

DB: So, this was mixed originally at Sunset Sound. Would the reverbs they had back then have been EMT plates or live chambers?

ML: I think that they might have had both. They sounded like EMT plates to me. They had that very familiar ring to them. It was very strong - really high density reverb.

DB: What tools did you use, mostly?

ML: I used the Abbey Road set. They worked out really well. They were really clean. I'm a big fan of that particular set. I used mostly API EQs, the ones from Universal Audio. I also used some outboard hardware units, both EQs and compressors.

DB: The tape hiss that was on the masters - you said you chose to use only EQ to clean that up instead of noise reduction software. What was the reason behind that?

ML: I felt it sounded fine just using EQ. I wanted to keep it as bare bones as possible; I wanted an opportunity to let the listener really hear Joni up front.

DB: So what would be your typical workflow from starting with the raw tracks?

ML: I would listen to every track very carefully to see what I had to deal with. Then I'd very simply work through the EQ and see where it sounded the most natural possible. I'm pretty familiar with the sound of a (Martin) D-18 and I know what Joni wants with her voice, because after working with her on Love Has Many Faces I was trained pretty well by her. That was like the most valuable fourteen months of my life! She's just got the Midas touch, I'm telling you! I had her voice kind of in my head while I was working on it [Song to a Seagull]; I just thought, "what would Joni really like?" After I did what I did, I think I had to bring it home a couple of times just to fix reverbs on it for her, that she requested. I would call her and see what she liked or disliked or what she felt it needed more of. So, I think I did a couple of correction sessions on it, and that was about it. When I brought her what turned out to be the final product, she looked at me and smiled and said "you've saved my record, Matt. My music thanks you, and I thank you."

DB: What an honor!

ML: You're not kidding, man. I almost burst into tears I was so happy! It was the biggest honor anyone could ever have in their life.

DB: On the song Nathan La Franeer there's that kind of wailing sound she called a "banshee" and none of us know what that is; could you figure it out?

ML: It sounds like it was made with someone's voice, maybe through a filter of some sort, or even a megaphone. I don't really know, but I looked at my second [engineer] and asked him what he thought, and he said "I don't know man but it's really deep and it's really scary!" It sounded like ghosts to me.

DB: A number of people in the Joni community have asked me to convey their thanks to you for lowering its volume!

ML: Ha, ha, ha, ha, you're all very welcome!

DB: It was pretty prominent originally.

ML: Oh, I know. What I did with it was kind of make it travel across the image. On this record I think it's really important to have a decent set of speakers to listen to it on. It is a real stereo mix, now, and you can hear the guitars and the voice better that way. I made sure that the [re]verbs were stereo so they were shooting one way or the other.

DB: so the original [re]verbs were probably mono.

ML: That's what I think they were, yeah. I thought this could have a little more motion to it, and I did make use of the pan knobs on the "ghostly voices." I thought that sounded kind of neat like that.

I haven't got my copy of it yet, but originally, when I gave it to Joni, on the beginning of Michael From Mountains you could hear David [Crosby] saying "Michael, take 4, click"; I don't know if that got left in or not but I was hoping they'd leave those little bits in.

DB: I have it and I think they took that out.

DB: Were there any compromises you had to make? You know, things that just couldn't be fixed or improved.

ML: Yeah, there was some of that. On certain things with the vocals and the way they were miked, there wasn't much I could do. But overall, I think it came out pretty good because you can basically hear everything on it now. It's a good listen and it has a warmth to it that I really like. When you have such beautiful performances to work with on these tracks - this whole thing is stellar, no matter what, so the old "it is what it is" thing didn't really pop into my head, so much as thinking "what can I do to help display this in its best way? I was just working with that mind set, and I didn't want to take away from the spirit of the original record. I didn't want to make it so different that it was going to be shocking, or anything like that. I didn't want MY opinion on it so much as wanting Joni's work to shine.

DB: Yeah, that's a pretty big decision isn't it when you're working on basically a restoration of a classic, and you've got people who've been listening to it for over fifty years who are not really interested in much change? But, on the other hand, you've got an opportunity to make a whole new record.

ML: Right, exactly. When you're working on something like that, you don't want to lose the spirit of the original if you can help it, because there was a vision involved with it in the first place. And, like you said, you can't have it so shockingly different. It kind of like what Giles Martin did with his [Beatles] mixes versus the original; I though he kept the same spirit too. It's just treating the material with kid gloves and giving it something to just bring it forth a little bit more.

DB: That's kind of how Steven Wilson describes his remix projects of all the classic stuff he's been doing. He A/B's his mix with the original, back and forth, to make sure he's not changing anything too much, but just going for extra resolution and extra depth.

ML: Yeah, I think that's the best way to go when you're doing restos [restorations]. I think that's really important.

DB: Did Joni give you any requests or guidelines up front that she wanted you to adhere to?

ML: No, she just said it sounded like she was underwater or under a jello bowl and please, please fix that. But when I worked with her for over a year on Love Has Many Faces she definitely let me know exactly what she wanted with her vocals and what she had to have going on and the way she wanted things treated. So, going in with this one, I had that voice in my head already. But, when she gave me the drive, all she really said was "you're pretty good with this sonic stuff: fix it!" And I was kinda gobsmacked. And I was nervous starting it, really nervous. I think that's good because it tells me I was in the right frame of mind about it because I realized "wow, this is a big deal and very important, and I have to do it right for Joni and please her, because I knew how much this meant to her. She said it sounded much cleaner and she really liked that, without all the hiss on it and stuff.

DB: That, in itself, allows you to hear more detail.

ML: Yeah, and I didn't have to do anything but simple EQ. The hiss wasn't so much on the guitars but mostly on the voice.

DB: Do you have any idea WHY it was so noisy?

ML: No I don't. Maybe it could been a bad tube in the mic. I've seen situations with Neumanns where the tube starts fritzing out and you can get some hiss like that.

DB: What were the record levels like?

ML: They were good. It was recorded pretty properly, I thought. Nothing offensive or really worrisome. It sounded like maybe there was more than one engineer on it and the second guy didn't know what the first was doing. One track would be really dull and another real sparkly and nice.

DB: Cactus Tree always sounded like a whole different studio than the rest of it.

ML: Yeah, it did didn't it? I think that's possibly due to different engineers on it; I don't know. Only one guy's name was listed though [Art Crist]. Who knows what he was up to?

DB: And probably Crosby doesn't remember much about the process?

ML: I don't know. David's a really smart guy and he's got a high mind. I don't know him personally but I've seen him in interviews and he seems to have quite the recall. So he might remember. I wouldn't want to assume anything about David. He was in awe of Joni too, you know. I read in an interview that he was asked the question "who's the best writer you know?" and within about half a second he said "Joni."

DB: Well, nobody even comes close, really.

ML: No, not at all! She's the best of the best, best, best. I've never heard anything like it; it's just incredible how great she is...amazing. Her skill - it's transcendent of everything that came before. It's unbelievable what she did with her voice and how she wrote. How do you come up with that stuff?

DB: You have to remember the time too. Most female singers that played acoustic guitar and sang had pretty similar sounds back then and sang similar kind of material but Joni was not at all like that; she trusted her own instincts and her own muse so faithfully that she let it lead her to interesting places.

ML: I couldn't agree more. I mean, she blew Jimi Hendrix away! That guy used to show up at Café Wah and show up with his Wollensak recorder. He loved Joni. He thought she was just amazing, and with darn good reason. She's the best of the best.

DB: One last question. Did you omit anything from any of the tracks or add anything other than effects?

ML: No. I went with all the tracks that were there.

DB: At some point she had talked about wanting to add some instruments to Song to a Seagull.

ML: This was all just the original tracks.

DB: That's fantastic, Matt, that you could answer all those queries for us, and everybody will be delighted to read about this on the website. Is there anything more you'd like to add that would be of interest to the Joni community?

ML: Just tell them thank you very much for all the kind words.

DB: Matt, I really appreciate all your expertise on this and I appreciate you talking to me.

ML: Dave, thank you very much, and I really enjoyed our time here today. Let's keep in touch.

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Added to Library on October 15, 2021. (1099)

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jakeyboy on

Thanks for a most interesting conversation with Max Lee.
I've been isolating for ten days which has given me the chance to listen to Love Has Many Faces on vinyl from start ups finish. What a beautifully crafted piece of work it is.
Thank you Joni.