Complete Recovery

Elvis Is Back in the Building

Issue 127

New records from deceased music icons are often filled with mixed emotions from fans: some will welcome any releases of previously buried or newly-discovered gems that captured the magic of the moment. Others are often highly critical of anything released that could be deemed artistically subpar, and which might tarnish the reputation and legacy of the artist. While the last few years have seen releases of posthumous new material from Prince, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others, Elvis Presley’s catalog had been set in place by Elvis Presley Enterprises for some time. That’s why the 2018 release of a new Elvis Presley gospel album, Where No One Stands Alone, raised more than a few eyebrows, since it reportedly included never-before-heard Elvis performances.

As it turns out, producer Andy Childs and engineers Ed Seay and Tony Castle did a remarkable job of separating Elvis’ vocals from previously-recorded gospel songs and combined them with outtakes, alternate takes and brand new arrangements, instrumental accompaniments, and background vocals to create a new record. The process was not unlike the way George Martin and Jeff Lynne added new vocals and instrumental tracks from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to John Lennon’s 1977 vocal demo of “Free As a Bird” in 1995, to create a “new” Beatles recording.

To find out how it was done, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) recently sponsored a workshop named “Elvis is Back in the Building,” with Childs, Seay and Castle, moderated by Jim Kaiser of Belmont University.

 

Sony Legacy and Joel Weinshanker of Elvis Presley Enterprises originated the project. Childs, a veteran producer and singer/songwriter, was approached with the concept: if provided with alternate takes of Elvis Presley songs from the original 1960s and 1970s versions, could a new Elvis gospel record be created with modern arrangements? They wanted to build on the previous success of the album, Christmas with Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which reached Number 1 on the classical charts and which used a similar approach. The record was produced with the use of alternate-take Elvis vocals with the live orchestra and with the orchestra sometimes playing new arrangements over the original recordings.

Andy Childs believes it was his previous country music work with Sixwire and his experience with Southern gospel music that got him the gig. The project was green-lit in 2017. He and Elvis Presley Enterprises had to jointly select the songs. Childs narrowed the list to 20 songs that had sufficiently clean audio isolation and that lent themselves to contemporary arrangements that would be worthy of the project. 16 were finally chosen, and 14 made the record.

Of primary importance for Childs was to hear the original raw vocal 3-track Presley vocal recordings. Elvis almost never used a vocal booth and frequently cut vocals live with a band in the same room, holding his mic in his hand. Leakage and other sound issues could have made the isolated vocal tracks unusable for the intended project. Luckily, most of the isolated Elvis vocal tracks were of high-enough quality for the project. There was some background noise, and discussions with Ed Seay and Tony Castle to strategize the best way to enhance the vocals and remove noise commenced soon after.

Ed Seay considered this a “once in a lifetime” archival project and anticipated a high amount of scrutiny and criticism, especially from purists. He lamented that nobody makes records the old way anymore, where if Elvis had the band in a room and suddenly wanted to do a gospel song, they would just set the mics up, roll the tape and play it.

Childs’ concept for doing different approaches and different arrangements was to bring the Elvis tracks into the 21st century while still honoring the legacy of his vocals and performances.

Tony Castle got a call from Childs about doing the song “Crying in the Chapel.” Childs at first sent the isolated vocal stems (mixes) from the 3-track recording. Castle was knocked out by Elvis’ phrasing and how he approached the song. The audio leakage from the band on the stems was a concern but they were able to reduce it enough for the results to be acceptable.

In the original “Crying in the Chapel” stem, the isolated Presley vocal has upright bass and piano in the background and it progressively gets worse (louder) later in the song.

As the initial arrangement and performance was so strong, Andy felt it would be impossible to do the song better than it was done originally. Therefore, he approached it as he envisioned how Elvis might record the song today.

The challenge for Castle involved eliminating background sounds, primarily using iZotope RX 6 software and its spectral editor, which features a spectrogram visual display. This displays the harmonics of the instruments, which allowed targeting for removal of the piano and its inherent ambience, but without destroying or altering any of Elvis’ voice that might fall within the same frequency spectrum.

Other problems included the 4-second reverb on the original track. The old 3-track process, with its lack of available tracks for recording everything separately, necessitated printing the reverb on Elvis’ vocal on the same track as the original. It thus made Elvis’ voice sound like he was in a cave. Even more reverb was printed on Elvis’ vocals on some re-releases during the 1970s. (I sat in on several of these remix sessions that were engineered by my mentor, the late Dennis Ferrante, who remixed and restored the Elvis Presley 4-CD box set Walk A Mile In My Shoes. I can personally attest to how crucial it was to obtain the original 16 or 24-track multitrack tapes for that project, because of the sonic issues with the 3-track mixdowns that were routinely made by RCA Records in Memphis during that era.

Reverb removal software had to be used. A Zynaptiq program called UNVEIL was particularly useful for removal of reverb tails by softening and tapering them, since simply cutting off the tails would not sound musical. iZotope also had useful plug-in functions for targeting different portions of the reverb frequency range. The process involved removing the initial layer of reverb, then processing the result a second time for further work on reverb tails and other sonic aspects. Childs would receive the new track and suggest any further spots for reverb removal if needed, then take the track for further enhancement and for comping (mixing different takes together to create a new master “take”) to create a new track for the project.

For those spots where the background sounds could not be removed, Childs would have to adjust the arrangement to provide sufficient “camouflage.” For example, he would have to add background vocals or other instruments with parts in the same frequencies as the artifacts from the original track that could not be removed without altering Elvis’ vocal track.

When listening to the new isolated Elvis vocal track, it was remarkably free of the other instruments, and only retained some of the reverb tail from the original recording. It sounds like a remarkably pure Elvis Presley performance with him singing a cappella in a room.

Childs’ complaint about the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra record was that the room sound is present in Elvis’ vocals and then crossfaded out when he is not singing, which brings attention to the fact that one can hear that Elvis and the orchestra are not in the same space. Seay would find spots where nothing sonically was going on and reinsert room noise “spackling” (his term) into the track to create the illusion that Elvis was at least in the same building as the group. The result was that it sounded more natural and less like the vocal was “shoehorned” into the track along with the instruments.

Other changes included the elimination of the original background vocals and recording a new background vocal arrangement that was sparser and highlighted Elvis’ vocals, to give the song a more contemporary gospel feel.

The finished mix of the song indeed leaves more space for Elvis’ voice while the re-recorded piano, drums, and understated background vocals seamlessly blend with the half-century-old vocal recording.

Seay had to also create a new reverb using the now relatively dry Elvis vocal, a reverb that was close enough to the original but different enough to also blend with the new background vocals and instruments and sound like it placed Elvis in the same room with the other music and vocal tracks.

Tracking for the new vocals and instruments was done at Ocean Way Nashville recording studios. As the building used to be a church, Childs thought it would be appropriate to record an Elvis gospel record there, in addition to the fact that it’s one of Childs’ favorite places to record.  A big, stained glass window framed the entire project’s recording sessions.

Some of the other original songs, like “Bosom of Abraham,” were only two minutes long, so in order to create new and longer arrangements, having access to multiple takes was key for extending the songs, by adding extra bridges and verses that contained different nuances so as to sound credible as a total performance instead of an obvious cut and paste duplication from an earlier part of the same song (something that occurs frequently in EDM, electronic dance music).

Once the new arrangements were written, the comped Elvis vocal was digitally placed on a grid so that the band could follow a click track to insert their parts in time with Elvis. Ace veteran drummers Lonnie Wilson and Greg Morrow were thrilled to have the chance to play on a new Elvis record. They and the other seasoned musicians all apparently felt the weight of responsibility for doing their best on an Elvis Presley record, as he is still held in such high esteem even after his death over 40 years ago.

Childs also assembled a gospel singing choir of veterans from the Stamps Quartet and the Imperials, who had sung background on original Elvis recording sessions and tours. He coaxed them out of retirement; all were friends of Childs and leaped at the chance to participate in the project.

Presley typically preferred recording live in the same room as the band and with the background singers. However, since this was obviously not possible for the re-recorded background vocals, Childs recorded each singer with their own mic on individual tracks while separated by baffles for sound isolation.

For the female background vocals, Childs recorded Darlene Love and Cissy Houston, who both sang with Elvis in the late 1960s. He wanted to include them in the project, so they recorded their parts at the Power Station in New York, in deference to Cissy Houston’s age and difficulty traveling.

On “Stand By Me,” the original recording has a great deal of background vocals that repeat the phrase “stand by me” every time Elvis sings it. Childs’ modern take on it was to imagine Elvis singing it intimately alone to God, without the background vocals. Tony Castle’s job was monumentally challenging because of this objective: removing the background vocals while Elvis was still finishing a phrase, where there was minor overlap. Additionally, Elvis sang more softly as he ended a phrase while the background singers came in at full volume. To compound matters, the background vocals were on the same track as Elvis’ vocal!

 

The Brush Tool function in iZotope RX 6 was the key utility for removing the background vocals and harmonics while also avoiding tampering with Elvis’ vocal frequencies, in order to create a pristine Presley vocal track. Castle likened the task to “building an automobile without the wheels.”

The new version includes an introspective, jazzier piano part played by Dennis Wage, along with string synth pads to suit the now-lonelier-sounding vocal. Ed Seay also applied his room-sound “spackling” trick to put Elvis in the same room setting with the other instruments.

Childs wanted to create space in between Elvis’ vocal phrasings to draw out the emotional content within the new “Stand By Me” version and give it a less metronomic and more rubato rhythmic feel. The synth strings, guitarist Steve Mandel’s volume swells and other touches served to camouflage those original parts that could not be digitally eliminated by Tony Castle, as well as support the overall ambience of the song.

Lisa Marie Presley sang on “Where No One Stands Alone” – recorded at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles, right in the same spot where Elvis originally recorded the song. She asked Childs if he could sing her part first, so she could hear it as a reference in her headphones when she cut her track. Since Lisa Marie Presley is an alto, Childs wanted to bring out her lower register, so he arranged her harmony parts to be lower in pitch than Elvis’, while having her sing toward the top of her register for her solo lines. Her vocals were recorded with an old RCA 44-type ribbon mic with the intent on capturing a similar sound to what Elvis likely used on the original recording. Recording with her father, who died when she was nine, was an especially poignant and cathartic experience for her, and those emotions translated to her vocal performance, which holds its own with Elvis’.

 

Ed Seay did most of the mixing on the Carl Tatz Phantom Focus loudspeaker monitoring system at Nashville’s Loud Recording. Based on a triangular setup of the listener and the speakers, the listener is situated at the apex of the triangle for critical stereo listening while moving anywhere within the triangle’s sweet spot creates an immersive listening effect.

Where No One Stands Alone was released in 2018. Although Elvis had achieved many Number 1 albums and singles on pop and rock charts, Where No One Stands Alone became his first-ever Number 1 album on the Billboard Top Christian album chart. The album also reached Number 1 on the Billboard Vinyl Albums chart.

In the AES workshop, Andy Childs, Ed Seay and Tony Castle all voiced their awe of how great a singer Elvis Presley actually was, especially when you compare these recordings to today’s heavily comped (assembled from multiple takes) and Auto-Tune-laden vocal tracks, They noted that take after take had amazing, unique, emotion-laden and pitch-perfect performances. Listening to the vocals in isolation, it was astonishing to them at how unwaveringly Elvis nailed it every time. As the youngest of the three, Castle was particularly impressed that the guy who sang “Hound Dog” would have this level of vocal mastery and finesse for gospel singing, while also keeping the emotion in his performances so consistently powerful.

While pleased with the record’s chart success, Andy’s greatest satisfaction was in successfully making a new Elvis Presley record that simultaneously satisfied die-hard Elvis Presley purists and fans (whom he feared would be the most vitriolic critics) as well as turning on a new generation of listeners to one of the greatest singers in recorded history with material outside of his greatest hits. They indeed managed to get Elvis back in the building.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain, cropped to fit format.

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