NASHVILLE, TN—The old adage says that you can have it fast, cheap or good—pick two. As Josh Hoyer and Soul Colossal recently discovered when recording a direct-to-disc project at Welcome to 1979 in Nashville, it’s actually possible to have all three.
Josh Hoyer and Soul Colossal recently recorded its new album, Cooked Raw, direct-to-disk at Welcome To 1979 in Nashville, TN. “We were originally going to do a studio album and take some time with it,” recalls Hoyer, who put his six-piece soul-R&B-funk band together in Lincoln, NE several years ago. The band had originally planned to go into the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals until a friend of Hoyer’s recommended Chris Mara’s Welcome to 1979, an analog-centric facility in Nashville. Mara’s studio is outfitted with a wealth of analog gear, from the extensive collection of vintage microphones through the fully restored MCI JH428 console to the similarly restored MCI JH series tape machines and, in the cutting room, a Neumann VMS70 vinyl lathe.
The band’s sophomore release, Living by the Minute, was recorded live over a period of days in late 2014 at ARC Studios in Omaha, NE, but once at Welcome to 1979, says Hoyer, “We loved Chris, we loved the spot and we loved the sounds he was getting. I said, let’s do a live-to-disc. We’ve frequently been told that people enjoy our albums, but that energy that we have with our live shows hasn’t quite been captured yet. It was a really great opportunity.”
Mara, who recorded Pete Townshend on a direct-to-disc project earlier this year, notes that there are challenges compared to other recording methods. “There are several layers of increased technical difficulty. On a multitrack session, you’re not really concerned about the mix. With live-to-2-track, you’re concerned about the mix, but only one song at a time. With direct-to-disc, we’re doing a whole side at a time. If you screw up the last chord of the last song, we’re doing it all over again.”
Direct-to-disc was especially popular in the 1970s among audiophiles, a demand fed by companies such as Sheffield Labs, but there is yet another layer of complexity compared to a multitrack session, Mara observes: “I have a vinyl mastering engineer in another room that’s dealing with what I’m doing and having to compensate in real time. I’m in my control room with my assistant, who’s on the phone with [lathe operator] Cameron Henry and his assistant—it basically took four engineers.
“There are a lot of components to it. We were doing six-hour days and we were all beat. A typical day for me is 10 [a .m.] till 12 [midnight] on a regular session, but this was like standing on your tip-toes for six hours. I was sweating.”
Josh Hoyer and Soul Colossal’s new release, Cooked Raw, features two 18-minute, three-song sets. The musicians selected the best from three takes of the A side and four of the B side for the new release, which will be available on 180g vinyl through Silver Street Records.
“Any live record for a soul-funk-r&b artist is usually pretty powerful,” says Hoyer. “That’s what we were going for, and I think we got there. To have that emotion be conveyed over the speakers is a challenge. We’ve listened to it after stepping back for several months and there really were some moments. There’s a lot of heart coming through the speakers.”
“We were recording to Pro Tools in stereo after the lathe so we could listen back to the digital file instead of listening to the master, just to preserve it, so we could hear the performances,” says Mara. “Cameron made the point that everyone was just listening to the vibe. You can’t fix anything, so why hone in? They had discussions that aren’t typical of a session.
“I get a little tweaky, because I’d want to change something, like you always do on playback, but there was nothing to touch; I might as well put my hands in my pockets.”
Welcome to 1979’s annual Recording Summit starts on November 6. “Josh’s band is playing our kickoff party and we’re doing a direct-to-disc of the same thing. It’s also the release date of his album. We’re going to auction off the lacquers for the Nashville Engineers Relief Fund,” reports Mara. That will be followed the next day by a technical discussion panel titled “What The Hell Happened Last Night?”
Looking for inspiration and an edge, artists have produced albums in some exotic locales or under unusual conditions. “In this day and age, it’s hard to come up with a unique recording situation,” Mara comments. He notes, “Most lathes are in mastering houses with no studios attached to them, so I think our studio is one of the only ones in the country that offers and can do direct-to-disc.”
As audiophiles will attest, direct-to-disc may be the purest form of recording—in this case, microphone to mixing console to lathe. “Josh sings a note and a microsecond later, it’s a groove on the record. It’s the highest fidelity you can get, and it’s very, very affordable. Those are not usually in the same sentence,” Mara laughs.
“They came in for three days and we have a snapshot of those three days; it wasn’t watered down and reinvented over six months, like a lot of records are. It actually is fast, cheap and good.”
To appropriate the feminist slogan, you can have it all.
Welcome to 1979