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Bill Schnee: engineering the Jacksons’ Live album (Interview)

The Jacksons’ Live album turns 40! This double album is the only one the Jackson brothers ever released to reflect their showmanship on stage. Though the Triumph Tour was short and only took place in the US, it is considered as one of the group’s landmark projects. The show included special effects by Doug Henning, and the seltlist is an incredible mix between the group’s best songs and Michael’s hits from his Off the Wall album. Bill Schnee was there to mix the Live album as we know it today. As he releases his book, Chairman at the Board, he remembers the making of this set, and shares some of his memories on the road with The Jacksons.

You are releasing your book Chairman at the Board. Could you pitch the concept of this book to us? What is the backstory of this project? 
I’ve always loved telling stories, and I’m very fortunate to have had an incredible career for over 50 years.  People were always telling me I should write a book, but I wasn’t interested because it seemed too self-serving.  Then a few years ago, three different people in four weeks suggested it, and the third person said something that ‘rang a bell’ in me.  He said that the record business as we know it was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, and peaked in the 70s and the early 80s.  It was a short time, a very iconic time, never to be repeated again … and you were there.  The “you were there’ is what hit me because I realized I could tell stories that had nothing to do with me that I just heard about.

The Jacksons Triumph Tour took place in Summer ’81 and the Live double album was released in November the same year. If I am correct you also opened your recording studio in 1981. Was the Live album mixed there? If yes, was it one of the first projects to be mixed in your studio?
My studio opened in July of ’81 with David Foster making the Chicago 16 album.  I left soon thereafter to do the Jackson’s Live album. The live album was mixed at Studio 55 in Hollywood on a Neve recording console.

When did you get involved in this project? Did the group ask for you or were you recommended by the label?
Freddy DeMann, the group’s manager called me and asked if I was interested in doing the project. I gave him an immediate yes, and we met at a restaurant to discuss the details.

I would literally forget to be mixing because I was totally mesmerized by watching Michael as he danced all around while singing near perfect vocals. Absolutely amazing!

Is the recording a mix between different shows?
The manager and I decided it would be best to record a series of shows in the middle of the tour when everyone was at the top of their game.  I picked a group of shows in the northeast because the cities were close enough so the recording truck could pack up after a show and make it to the next city in time to set up.
I don’t know how many dates there were, but I do know the list on Wikipedia is wrong, because there was a show in Nashville – I believe the day after the NYC dates.  I went to the show with my friends in Nashville. When we started listening to the different concerts, MJ asked me to turn his vocal off.  I told him he should listen to them because most of them were great.  But he said no … that they had to be perfect.  I dropped out of the project for the overdubs for personal reasons, and jumped back in for the mix.

Were some parts re-recorded in the studio (vocals, overdubs…) ?
They did do some fixes in post production. I believe some guitars, all of the background vocals, and some of Michael’s vocals were re-done.

This album was released at the time when listening to music was all about getting a proper Hi-Fi system at home – and experiencing the music with an audiophile approach. This album is mixed in a way that the sound is spectacular and makes your imagination work (what is happening on stage when we hear these special effects etc…). So, when mixing the album, what was your ambition? More than a recording of a live show, did you and the group try to produce an immersive soundtrack of it? 
I only wanted to make a great representation of how they sounded on the tour. Live albums live or die with the artist’s performance at their shows.  There actually are no special effects.

Some musicians of this tour like Bill Wolfer and Jonathan Moffett told us how difficult it was to keep the groove going as the group wanted them to play the songs fast. So when it came to mixing, was it hard to maintain this groovy and rich sound with amazing bass frequencies?
That’s funny how you’ve said the musicians were being pushed to play the songs so fast.  I didn’t know this at all. But when I heard the album 30 years later after not hearing it all those years, I was surprised at how fast all the tempos are.  

As a glimpse of your work with Michael and his brothers, would you like to share a moment that our readers can read in full in your book?
One of my favorite chapters in my book is about the Jacksons.  There’s a cool tie back to meeting Michael ten years earlier.  The recording truck had a camera pointed at the stage so I could see who was doing what.  The first few nights of recording, I would literally forget to be mixing because I was totally mesmerized by watching Michael as he danced all around while singing near perfect vocals. Absolutely amazing! 

The Jacksons’ Live album is the only one the brothers released (Motown released a live album from a tour in Japan, but that was not a worldwide release). What was their motivation and ambition when they started to work on this project? It sounds like a fabulous testament of their showmanship as a group.
My guess is everyone knew that after the release of Off The Wall, Michael was going to go on his own and the group might not stay together much longer.  Funny enough, a couple of years later, they all came to my studio and worked on their last single as a group, “State of Shock” (I believe) just before they did the Victory Tour.

To you, as a sound engineer, what is the main difference between a studio album and live album mixing projects? 
The biggest difference if dealing with the acoustics of the hall where the artist is performing. Most venues do not have the best acoustics for recording music.  Every venue on the tour was a 20,000 seater, and those all sound somewhat similar.  

Sequencing: how hard was it to sequence the songs, taking into account that back then the set was to be pressed on a 2LP sets? For example, the Jackson 5 medley is split up between two sides, with “I’ll Be There” being the first track of side 3 and leading to “Rock With You”? Were some songs left off and not included?
They came up with the running order, and the only problem was the division between the four sides, and that’s why we had to split the medley up on two sides.  I don’t remember if any songs were left off.

Can you confirm that during the Live album sessions, Michael went to record some vocals for Joe King Carrasco on a track for one of his albums? 
I have no idea.

When you look back at this project, what are your instant thoughts and memories ?
The first thing I think of is how absolutely incredible a talent Michael showed himself to be.  No one that I know of has been able to do what he was doing – near perfect vocals while dancing like a fool! Most all of the other acts that dance use pre-recorded vocals played from a computer.  The other thing I think of was I got to live like a rockstar!  Of course everything was first class and I traveled with the band – on the bus!  I got used to entering and exiting hotels through the kitchens because their fans in every city somehow always knew where they were staying and would be there waiting.

Last question: in this digital age, listening to music has become a different experience from what it used to be in the 80’s. Do you believe in His Res masters available on premium streaming and online platforms? Or, in some cases, do you still believe listening from a physical source properly mastered is unmatchable? 
The HiRez streaming companies do sound a bit better than the other Mp3 streamers. But, they don’t compare to a higher quality digital source (96k or 192k).  I started Bravura Records for the purpose of recording live to 24/192 with proprietary recording equipment, and the results are stupendous! 

Interview by Richard Lecocq

Order Bill Schnee “Chairman at the Board”

Pre-order The jacksons “Live” 2LP reissue (out March 26, 2021)

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