@wforwumbo applies machine learning to binaural hearing theory, and is putting the finishing touches on his doctorate in architectural acoustics this summer. His research focuses on the effects that a room has on performed music and how we perceive sound in space – he does so by building computational models that simulate and extend human hearing. He is also a classically-trained musician and an electrical engineer with a keen interest in digital audio signal processing; he designs and implements filters and transforms to manipulate audio, which he brings to his studio production and mixing engineering work. His obsession with audio doesn’t end there though, as he has recently ventured into the tapers’ section to record live music. Thankfully for us at Phish.net HQ, @wforwumbo is a huge fan of Phish and Phish.net, and has begun contributing to the site, both working to expand and improve the Jam Charts and helping to craft (and remix!) Mystery Jam Monday puzzles. Today, he will kick off a new regular blog series, “From the Tapers’ Section,” wherein he will draw from several different parts of his massive toolkit to not only bring Phish fans brand new mixes of audience recordings from classic Phish shows, but he’ll also share both his deep technical knowledge and discerning musical perspectives of the shows and the recordings thereof. - @ucpete
Drawing from my experience as both a live taper and a studio production engineer, I frequently manipulate my back catalog of live Phish tapes to my personal preference on reference listening systems. I have spent lots of time working with studio tools; it’s a labor of love, always trying to craft and sculpt sound - to let the tape get out of the way between me and the music. I do want to make one thing explicitly clear here: I am not the definitive voice. I am not touting that these are the “correct” way to listen to shows. I’m not even claiming that these will be preferable to your current tape of a show. Because at the end of the day, the sole rule of “good” audio is that only YOU can decide what sounds best. In fact, that’s the most important bit of advice I give to everyone when they ask me about audio: trust your ears. My tastes may not be the same as yours, and that’s okay - there’s plenty of room for all of us in the fan base.
Now with that being said, one intent of this taping series is to encourage the distribution and usage of audience-recorded tapes (“AUDs”). Tape trading has an incredibly rich and storied history, and is a large part of why many of us are into Phish. One of my favorite endeavors in digging through my catalog of tapes is comparing two different recordings and correlating their strengths and weaknesses to my personal preferences. This furthers my taping and production work by thinking about how to capture and manipulate sound, including the layouts, techniques, and gear that I use. To me, it’s lots of fun to think about and understand the intricacies of a given microphone and preamp, the recording location inside of a venue, or what experience I want from a tape (immersion? stereo image? frequency balance? more Mike? etc.). This blog series is in part an attempt to share my notes and thoughts on specific tapes to highlight different aspects of a show that you might not have heard before.
I am approaching this as a novel method for you to hear audience tapes in a new light with a refreshed perspective on what they are capable of, and allow you to decide if AUDs are truly for you. At the very least, I hope to introduce you to jams and shows from the back catalog that may fly under your radar; at best, I hope to share with you the wonderful and immersive world of AUD tapes.
The first tape we have is in honor of its recent 20th anniversary: 4/2/98, Island Tour night one. This is a show many of you are already intimately familiar with; it’s my personal favorite show from Island Tour, and it happens to fall smack dab in the middle of my favorite era of Phish (1996-2000). I’ve heard many of the tapes in distribution, including the LivePhish soundboard, countless times throughout the years – this particular recording is the one I keep returning to.
This 4/2/98 tape, created by Craig Hillwig, came onto my radar about a year ago. Craig focused his recording techniques on getting an accurate soundstage; after seeing countless Phish shows over the past 20+ years, he has an internal expectation of where the musicians should be located around his head during playback. His approach gives an extremely balanced and startlingly pleasant perspective of how things sounded in the room, from where his microphones were set up. Craig, like myself currently, was a member of “Team Schoeps” using the Schoeps Colette system of small diaphragm condensers; he has since retired from the taping circuit, though he kindly offers his wisdom on sound to me on a nearly-daily basis. For this show specifically, he used a pair of mk41 supercardioid microphones, which are highly directional and help to cut down on both audience chatter and room reflections, but don’t exhibit the same bass response as less-directional microphones. What this means practically is that you get less of the low-end thump from Mike’s bass and Fish’s kick, but you also have a clearer stereo image of the recording and significantly reduced audience chatter - with crisp and accurate transient response on the whack of Fish’s snare, the air of Fish’s cymbals, the pick attack of Trey’s guitar, and the top end of Page’s piano.
In Craig’s own words: “From what I remember, the official tapers’ section was on the floor, I remember there was a roughly 10-15 foot buffer of open floor between the front of a three-sided cage and the soundboard riser. I got into the venue later than I wanted to; I found someone I knew in the front row of the tapers’ section and clamped onto them. Since I was late to the venue I was the lowest mic pair on the stand, so my microphones were maybe 7 to 8 feet off the ground, tops. I started with 103 degrees and 10 inches between the mics, then I narrowed it down to roughly 90 degrees based on sight lines and intuition. Whatever that resultant spacing was is what I went with; let’s call it DIN [editor’s note: DIN, an old German radio standard, refers to 20 cm spacing and 90 degree angling between microphones]. From listening to the raw files afterwards I suspect that the stand was off-center, slightly stage left.”
There are a number of features about this specific tape that make it my favorite recording of 4/2/98. All instruments are presented with a solid soundstage: each band member is easily separable from his bandmates in the stereo image. When I close my eyes, I can hear Page hard left, with Trey just to his right, Mike approaching center, and Fishman filling out the center and right side of the image. This separation is further enhanced in the frequency spectrum where individual instruments do not bleed into each other, instead remaining crisp and distinct. The band used lots of stereo effects in this show, as evidenced in the “Twist”’s official soundboard - Page had a stereo tremolo on both his Rhodes and his synthesizer, and Trey had multiple passages of his rotary speaker. In Craig’s mk41 tape, this mixes very pleasantly with the room effects to create a listening experience that pulls you out of the tape and drops you right into the room on that cool spring evening in Nassau County two decades ago...
The first set bursts out of the gates with a groovy and funky eight-and-a-half minute “Tube” that competes with some of the song’s Fall ‘97 outings, but the real gem of this first set is “Stash.” This “Stash” climbs like the fiery ‘94 versions, but instead of breaking back to the main riff to end the song, Phish instead opts for bliss jamming in A mixolydian, throwing their cow funk skills at the tune and proving that the jam style could drop at any time, in any song. The “Chalk Dust Torture” that ends this set is high-energy and serves as an exclamation point on the first of the eight sets from this mini tour while still leaving everybody wanting more.
Phish | Thursday April 2nd, 1998 | Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum | Uniondale, NY
Set 1: Tube, My Mind's Got a Mind of its Own, The Sloth, NICU, Stash > Horn > Waste > Chalk Dust Torture
Set 2: Punch You In the Eye > Simple > Birds of a Feather, Wolfman's Brother → Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley → Frankie Says > Twist > Sleeping Monkey > Rocky Top
This show marked the debut of Birds of a Feather and Frankie Says. After NICU, Trey commented on the brief “Island Tour,” remarking that the band was getting bored at home and wanted to play some shows. Stash was unfinished and contained Frankie Says quotes at its end. The final chord of Chalk Dust included a "Charge!" tease from Page. Fikus was teased by Fish before Wolfman's. Sneakin' Sally did not contain a vocal jam. Twist included Star Trek theme teases from Mike. This show is available as an archival release on LivePhish.com.
The second set kicks off with a solid (albeit straightforward) “Punch You In The Eye” that yields to a breathtaking “Simple.” The opening pairing of the second set leaves the band loose and ready to continue their exploration. To provide some context for the few fans that may be unfamiliar with this historic run, the band had been hard at work in the studio working on Story of the Ghost, and they were anxious to share the fruits of their labor with the fans. The next 50+ minutes of the second set feature a mix of promising debuts and some cathartic jamming: after a solid debut of “Birds of a Feather,” they jump right into the funky end of the pool with “Wolfman’s Brother” → “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley” → “Frankie Says,” the latter being another new tune debuted in this set. Alas, these were just table setters for the evening’s finest offering: “Twist.”
It’s hard for me to decide where to start on this “Twist.” It’s cerebral and effortless – a super slick groove. It’s a clear and marked evolution from the thicker cow funk grooves of ‘97, finding spacier pastures on the back of Page’s Rhodes and synths and Trey’s Leslie speaker. At the 6:28 mark, the band takes a deliberate step away from the G Dorian vamp typical of Type I “Twist” jams (G-Bb-C-D – the main “Twist” theme) and jumps headfirst into a faster, darker G-based groove, which Mike uses as a springboard to lead the band into Bb. Trey and Page play around with the mode, with Page eventually settling on Bb mixolydian.
This is a curious choice, because the Bb analog of G Dorian would be Bb lydian, but the seemingly insignificant mode switch to Bb mixolydian completely shifts the modal tonic and root of the composition. Lydian would give a more Byzantine or Arabian feel to the groove, but mixolydian lends itself more readily to bliss jamming; the band opts for the latter. You can hear this tension play out and eventually resolve from 7:17-7:33, when Page plays an Eb as opposed to an E to complete the mode shift. Despite the foundational change to the jam, it isn’t the slightest bit jarring – Trey immediately picks up on what Page is playing and follows his lead. Mike and Fishman lock down a steady groove that allows the melody to stretch its legs, and the jam propels itself toward the stars. This yields to an extremely patient, careful, detailed, and gorgeous passage of music.
NOTE: per @wforwumbo's comment, the SoundCloud link is provided here for convenience, but given their own proprietary (and general purpose) compression algorithms should not be used to judge overall quality.
The next segment of this “Twist” jam contains the most standout feature of this tape to me – it’s what makes it my favorite tape by a sizable margin over others. Listen to the segment starting at the 10:52 mark, where Trey accentuates his pick scratches with his wah pedal. Prior to listening to this tape, I always assumed Trey just wanted to add rhythmic complexity to Fish’s locked-down pattern to generate polyrhythms. But on this tape I hear and interpret Trey using the wah pedal to tune his scratches to different resonances in the room, allowing them to hang around the audience’s head and further push your perspective out of the tape, into the psychedelic wormhole he created in the room that evening. Craig’s tape is the only source I have ever been able to hear this, with an amazingly refined level of detail and clarity.
Page and Trey continue using a slew of stereo effects throughout, producing a truly immersive, ethereal experience. Eventually the band settles into a “Riverport Gin”-esque riff that provides the final view from above, before giving way to dissonant and chaotic noise that simmers down into a murkier swamp that almost begs for a deep “2001.” Alas, they settle on the classic encore pairing of “Sleeping Monkey” > “Rocky Top” to finish the set, before bringing out the ugly pig for a “Guyute” encore.
The tape is not perfect, both as it stood in its raw form and in my remaster of it - my own caveat emptor, if I may. The stereo image sounds shifted towards the left, likely a function of the mic stand being stage left. This is a consistent challenge tapers have to face: we don’t always have the luxury of setting up precisely where we’d want to, so we make do with the hand we are dealt when we arrive at the venue and set up accordingly. There is a lack of Mike on this tape which is a function of using supercardioid microphones. This is compounded by the fact that the capsules picked up a small amount of what I call “room mud,” which causes bass and some guitar tones to sound a bit washy and undefined at times. And finally, the mk41 capsule has a characteristic upper-midrange spike which causes piano, sharp attacks on guitar, and cymbals to have a slightly “shout-y” quality to them.
All of these factors contributed to how I approached post-production work on this tape. I applied some extremely mild panning to try to counterbalance the fact that the stand was off-center, and that one channel was consistently louder than the other. In equalization, the easiest and most obvious change to make was to bring Mike further up in the mix. Here, a careful balance has to be struck, as bringing Mike further up also increases the dreaded “room mud.” I found where the room mud was worst and was able to isolate it from the rest of the mix by bringing down a specific frequency region by just a few dB; this was done by ear to “clear the haze” without ruining the careful balance of instruments. Next, I dealt with that characteristic mk41 upper-mid spike; I found the resonant spot and pulled it down accordingly. This helped to further stabilize the stereo image, while also allowing the midrange to breathe without as much resonance. As a final touch, I raised the treble just a touch in order to allow the air around Fish’s cymbals to breathe and shine through with ease and refinement.
This process was a challenging one to organize, as the decisions I outlined can tend toward an overall “scooped” signature, where the high and low ends dominate. This can cause recordings to sound a bit hollow and lacking in the meat-and-potatoes of rock music: the midrange. The key here was moderation - I had to make my edits aggressive enough to accomplish the task at hand without making any one change overly noticeable. In Craig’s own words, when he compared his original raw files with my edits: “this mix certainly delivers in terms of loudness with no obvious loss of headroom, and the EQ seems pretty tasteful in that I can’t really point to any one thing as the difference but the result is overall more pleasing.”
A quick note about the file sets for those of you grabbing these: a common technique used in production is audio compression. This reduces the dynamic range of a recording by making the loudest portions of the waveform quieter, and allows the overall volume to be raised without inducing clipping. One reason I love AUD tapes is that they preserve the details - the subtlety between quiet and loud - with pristine quality, and often remain uncompressed to give you the full dynamic range of the original performance. For the FLAC file sets, I did not touch this tape at all with any sort of compression; I wanted to preserve the detail and subtlety of every nuance of this tape. However, for the mp3 file set I have added some very mild studio compression techniques in order to raise the overall volume just a bit, expecting many of you to use the mp3 version on your phones, tablets, and other mobile devices where space is a premium and fidelity isn’t a luxury to be afforded. I recommend that you judge the mix on a decent sound system or pair of headphones you know well with the FLAC file sets, however the mp3 files should still sound quite good for your on-the-go cloud library with inexpensive earbuds.
I leave you here to spin the tapes at your leisure. I recommend you hit the play button and just get lost in this gorgeous music. Until next time, everyone!
FLAC and MP3 file sets can be found at this link (Google Drive): DOWNLOAD HERE
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