Linda Ronstadt Reveals Her Passion for True High Fidelity Sound

“We were united for the best sound we could get, and that was it. That was what we were chasing.” Is Linda Ronstadt revealing her high-end hopes for Hasten Down the Wind? Actually, that’s her assessment of the main goal she had for the 15 songs on her new compilation, Duets (Rhino). The ace song interpreter simply soars on songs like the tender but tough “I Never Will Marry” with Dolly Parton, the special intuitive blend she gets with James Taylor on “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” and the complementary vocal halo she sets for Frank Sinatra on “Moonlight in Vermont.” Ronstadt has since retired from singing (in 2013, she revealed she has Parkinson’s disease), but that hasn’t stopped her from appreciating the sound of a good mix or a stellar vocal — or gently trilling a few lines of her favorite songs while we talk. Here, Ronstadt, 67, and I discuss her hi-fi proclivities, when not to use echo, how the right vocal texture tells the right tale every time, and how she learned about spotting hollow fifths.

Mike Mettler: Superior recording quality is evident across the board on Duets. John Boylan, your mixer/engineer, did a great job with level-matching recordings done some decades apart.

Linda Ronstadt: That makes me seriously happy to hear, because a lot of what I recorded was intended for the audiophile, especially Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind [1989]. Cry Like a Rainstorm really was a hi-fi record. We went for a big, tall sound on purpose. We recorded it on a large scoring stage at Skywalker Sound [at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California]. You can hear the room on it, all over the place. The room just roared.

Mettler: What a nice way to describe it. You used vocal echo to great effect on many of these songs, but you backed off from using it as much in later years.

Ronstadt: After Cry Like a Rainstorm, I was driven to get in a good-sounding room and not have so much of that chamber echo on some of the later records I made, like Hummin’ to Myself [2004] and Adieu False Heart [2006]. We dried up the echo and used as much natural room ambience as we could. I really liked that the best, because I hardly had any voice by then. I was working with a limited palette, so I had to limit myself.

People make different choices as to how much they load up on echo, just like you make choices when you load up your paint on a brush and decide how hard to push on the bristles, how many different colors to mix, and whether to make a wide swipe or a skinny line. There are a myriad of choices, and you mostly do it on a non-conscious level.

Mettler: One of the most important passages in your 2013 autobiography, Simple Dreams, was where you talked about having a “passion for true high fidelity sound” [page 185]. How important is the sound quality of the Duets recordings to you?

Ronstadt: Oh, it’s essential. The thing is, the recording process itself is the other artist in the room. The board is an instrument, and the mixer is an artist. It’s essential to have what the artists originally intended to have on the recording, because that’s how they’re trying to tell a story. For my voice, there’s a certain frequency range that carries the story. That range has the vocal detail, the little grind at the top of your voice with the shifting textures and colors. And when you can’t hear that, you lose the story.

Mettler: Whom do you consider to be among the best sound mixers you've worked with over the years?

Ronstadt: Good sound mixers are more born than made, I think. Well, they’re both, but good sound mixers are rare. They’re worth their weight in gold. I think George Massenburg is terrific, very original. And I also like the guy who’s done a lot of mixing for Neil Young, Niko Bolas. I love his mixes. And I love Gary Paczosa, who engineered and mixed Adieu False Heart. He’s a really talented mixer. He’s done a lot of Alison Krauss records too, and he gets a very beautiful sound with her voice.

Mettler: Speaking of George Massenburg, he did the surround mix for What’s New when that came out on the DVD-Audio format back in 2002. Did you have any input on that mix?

Ronstadt: No. He mixed that, but I heard it and I thought he did a really great job. He played that mix for me when I was in the studio. I was in San Francisco when he was doing that mix in Nashville. But when I went there to do some recording, I went in and listened to it. Nobody has ever touched any mix without me being there.

Mettler: One of the things I particularly liked reading in your book right out of the gate was when you talked about trying to get the “Boeing B-29 Sound” in your string arrangements [page 5]. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Ronstadt: Oh yeah! When B-29s take off and land, they’re in the interval of a fourth, and when they get up in the air, they’re in the interval of a fifth. I didn’t know that when I was a kid, but I knew I liked the fifths, the hollow fifths. Not the third there, just the fifths. And I can write very simple string arrangements — not very well, but I know what I want. Whenever I’d work with a strings writer, I’d always sing stuff, or do it myself and sing it for him and get him to write it all down. But often I would make those kinds of suggestions, and often they were those hollow fifths. I used to just write “thunder under,” and I'd say it was like the grind of a B-29, the grind between a cello and a double bass.

After [songwriter and longtime Ronstadt collaborator] J.D. Souther read my book, he went on YouTube to see a B-29 flying, and damned if it wasn’t the fourth taking off, and the fifth when it was in the air. When it would come over my house, it would just be on its way to land. And I heard one after another after another for years, coming home from the war, because the B-29s flew into Tuscon to the Davis-Monthan Air Field base.

Mettler: That's amazing. Finally, what were some of your favorite records to listen to when you were growing up?

Ronstadt: In the ’50s and ’60s, I enjoyed listening to golden-era Mexican mariachi records, Frank Sinatra records, and a lot of the great jazz records on high fidelity speakers — records by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Peggy Lee made a great record called Beauty and the Beat! [1959, with the George Shearing Quintet] that was great in hi-fi. They were monaural, and they sounded fabulous. Recording with tube mikes — it was a whole different way or approaching it. It was way more organic-sounding.

But I loved it when I got my first stereo set. It was with the little speakers you’d pull out on the side and the demonstration model with the train going by — I thought, “Wow, this is totally cool!” I went and got a few Miles Davis records and put them right on: Kind of Blue [1959], and Someday My Prince Will Come [1961]. Those were the first two stereo records I ever bought. And I’ll never forget the first time I heard Kind of Blue. Man, that was something — the sounds he made. I went, “Oh my God, this man has something to say.” I was only 14 or 15, I think. I was blown away.

An extended version of this interview will appear soon on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.

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COMMENTS
savage's picture

Mike, Thanks for your brilliant interviews, such as this one with one of my personal favorite singers Linda Ronstadt.

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