From the viewpoint of mid-2015, there seems to be nothing at all special about a songwriter and some musicians traipsing down into a rented basement and recording run-throughs of new material and some cover songs. But if it was 48 years ago, the place was Woodstock, NY, in a house nicknamed Big Pink, the songwriter was Bob Dylan, and the other musicians soon became The Band, well, that's a different story and we should be grateful any of it was ever recorded. The Basement Tapes Complete features 138 tracks over six CDs, plus a 120-page deluxe-bound book with extensive liner notes. But what is crazy about these liner notes is the lack of real information about the recording process or equipment. I won't even mention the "Altech" mixer listed within these notes.
As recording geeks, of course we are curious about this stuff, but I did a little sleuthing to figure some of this out. Garth Hudson, The Band's organist (and more), was the natural choice back then to oversee the recording equipment, as he had a knack for fixing gear on the road and had even briefly studied electronics. Gathering some of Peter, Paul & Mary's PA rig (they shared Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman), Garth had two Altec 1567A mixers, possibly four or five Neumann U 47 mics, and a Binson Echorec, all tracked live into a 2-track portable ("suitcase") Ampex 602 quarter-track, 1/4-inch tape recorder featuring 7.5 or 3.75 ips tape speeds. Note that the tape deck on the cover of the 1975 double album release of The Basement Tapes was a ReVox deck that was not used for these recordings! You can surmise that Garth ran the two mixers with one feeding the left channel and the other the right. Garth has said before that the intent was to track this way and sum to mono. Some previous Basement Tapes releases have been from mono summed sources, but on this release stereo width was generally preserved, while some vocals were somehow "centered" from the left or right live printing. Because it was a smaller deck and couldn't handle 10.5-inch reels, everything was tracked on 7-inch reels. The tape brands included Scotch 111, 3M, along with lesser, cheaper brands like Shamrock, Pure-Tone, and Village Silver tapes. (I cannot find any mention of this latter brand anywhere.)
A lot of the credit to really pulling this release together goes to Jan Haust, who oversaw transfer of original tapes, along with famed engineer Peter J. Moore and Garth Hudson's input. Some tapes even needed to be physically ironed by hand, which Peter did! It was mastered by Peter at the E Room, in Toronto, Canada, with additional mastering by Mark Wilder at Battery Studios, NYC. The set was produced for release by Jeff Rosen (manager of Dylan's business and music publishing), Jan Haust, Steve Berkowitz, and compiled by Jeff Rosen.
Hearing multiple versions of "Nothing Was Delivered" performed in different styles is a treat; there's just so much to take in here that you can spend most of a day immersed in it. Sound quality varies, from distorted and blown out (some of disc one and most of disc six), to warm, deep, and inviting. My favorite bits are hearing Dylan talk about the recording process: "Why don't you shut it off and I'll see how it's recording," is something we hear early on. After a rough pass at "The Hills of Mexico" Dylan surmises, "You don't have to take this one down, Garth. You're wasting tape." And later there's a quick, "What do ya say we hear some of that, Garth?" In many ways we've always assumed that these tapes were a magical glimpse into an informal session or jam, but this chatting lets us know that Dylan is more than aware that tape is rolling, and that something is being captured. Partly I would assume they had a limited amount of reels to record onto, and back in the analog-only days we all had to ration tape. Would the next take be better or worse if one was recording over the previous pass? It was a different era, in many ways.
Of course, none of this would matter if Bob Dylan didn't write great songs, and if Garth, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm (on some tracks) didn't know how to have fun and play some excellent parts in a chill environment. As Dylan recalled a few years later, "You know, that's really the way to do a recording — in a peaceful, relaxed setting in somebody's basement, with the widows open and a dog lying on the floor."