Jon Altschiller owns and operates Chiller Sound in New York City. He's worked with artists like Rachael Yamagata and mixed projects for Joss Stone, Ben Folds, Mandy Moore and Joseph Arthur. He also contributes music to films and advertising. But he's best known as one of the busiest live concert recording and mixing folks in the business. Among other regular gigs, he works for Phish, tracking and mixing each show of their tour for immediate release to fans through livephish.com. It's a strenuous task, as many Phish shows go well beyond the three-hour mark, leaving Altschiller to finish off a three-hour-album every night. Jon has not only stamped his reputation with one of live music's staple bands; he's also mixed live albums and DVDs for Dave Matthews, Simon & Garfunkel, Jason Mraz, The Decemberists, Lenny Kravitz, Warren Haynes and the Bonnaroo Music Festival. On a break from a recent Phish tour, we discussed his history and his desire for perfection, despite a reputation for being "a live-guy." We were also joined by Jon's assistant, Danielle Warman.
You got your start in recording by following the Grateful Dead on tour and taping shows. What was your rig like?
I was in bands when I was young and I had a [Tascam] Portastudio, so I had four inputs and four microphones. I recently listened to a recording I did in Ventura, California, in 1987, which was circulated a good deal. I had two condenser [mics] and two shotgun [mics] on the side. I really split the whole taper section! It was epic!
So you must've had a reputation amongst the other tapers...
Oh yeah! Because I was working in studios I would show up with crazy mics. I'd come with Neumann U 87 and the like. I also had a DAT [recorder] when they first came out — a Sony TCD-D10 in 1987. Because of all the session work I was doing in New York I knew which musicians were going to Japan. That connection enabled me to get my hands on the digital technology early. During that period of time so many people were asking me for patches [at the shows]. The tech at the studio I was working at built me a mult-box. It was 1988 and I had the patches filled every show! It was the geekiest of gigs.
You eventually came full circle and mixed TheDeadfortheBonnaroo'04 album, as well as the DVD. How did that feel?
I was a Deadhead. I went to summer school in California so I could be where the Dead were. I went to so many shows that my father had a t-shirt made that said, "Did Jerry Garcia ever drive across the country to see me?" It was a family joke. [laughs] So it was Bonnaroo '04 and The Dead were playing. Granted it wasn't with Jerry, but they were playing 100 yards from me, blowing my mind. I thought, "I have driven thousands of miles to see and record this band, and now I am mixing this?" But the true experience was being able to solo Bobby [Weir], the drums, and Phil [Lesh]. It was a trip. When you're a Deadhead, and the same goes for Phishheads too, it's an immersive culture. The Dead got me through the '80s! I remember doing the Bonnaroo show saying, "Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this." But having worked with Phish and Dave Matthews, I felt prepared to do it. I didn't feel out of place or afraid to touch it. That confidence makes me feel like I'm able to mix bands that I love, like the track I did for the Simon & Garfunkel album [2005's Old Friends: Live On Stage].
And now you're sort of a glorified version of a taper with Phish. Do you think you're putting the "hard-working hobbyist" tapers out of work?
I enjoy having tapers there [at the Phish shows]. I'm never going to ask a taper, "Why do you do this when I put out my mix every night?" I understand the experience of taping! But I've also done plenty of studio records, so I also understand that you need to hear the vocals. [laughs]
You've also done live records for the Foo Fighters, The Decemberists and Warren Haynes. Did you ever see that in the cards?
I love doing records, but I also love the art form of live. That comes from the Dead. I love live music and really feel fortunate to do what I do.
What are some of your favorite live albums that you didn't work on?
When I was in high school, the Talking Heads' [concert film] Stop Making Sense came out. It was playing at the 57th Street Playhouse and my dad had an apartment right there. I was over on Christmas break and paid to see it at least five times. I didn't know what I wanted to do yet with my life, but that experience viscerally excited me. I love [Little Feat's] Waiting For Columbus, which Phish actually covered for their Halloween 2010 show. And then the obvious ones for me would be [the Grateful Dead's] Europe '72 and Live/Dead...
And Live/Dead was the first live recording cut to 16-track...
That's right! Those guys were so...