For decades, the only way to know what it was really like at Woodstock was to have been there. Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary gives you a feel for the vibe, and the original companion albums showcased some tasty nugs — but at the end of the day, they were broad brush portraits of a moment in time.
Some performances remained entirely unheard, and many details of those legendary mid-August days in 1969 had been lost to time. Until recently, there wasn’t even consensus on things as basic as the festival’s schedule.
Enter acclaimed reissue producer Andy Zax. In 2005, he visited a Warner Bros. storage space and encountered their collection of Woodstock tapes. Wide-eyed and in awe of everything in front of him, Zax got to work sifting through the material, quickly realizing how much there was and how many holes there were in our understanding of the festival.
“It seems strange in an era where we’re used to going online and Googling up the basic facts on things, but most of the basic facts that were online about Woodstock in 2005 or 2006 were all wrong,” Zax said during a recent phone call. “When I started to piece it all together in 2005, there was no definitive order of who played, when they played, and the actual setlist. That was basically because anybody who had ever touched these tapes in the past had only gone in to cherry pick. Nobody had ever dealt with this stuff holistically in terms of thinking, What is this thing in totality? What actually happened?”
Zax eventually pieced things together and released a six-disc set for Woodstock’s 40th anniversary in 2009, at the time the most comprehensive collection of recordings from the fest. At the time, he wanted to release the entire collection of tapes but couldn’t. Part of that was due to a lack of buy-in from some stakeholders, but part of it was more basic. Some of the music was in bad shape. Really bad shape.
Fast forward a decade, and things have changed. Zax got his wish for Woodstock’s 50th anniversary with Woodstock – Back To The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. Limited to just 1,969 copies, The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive is an immense 38-disc, 432-track reconstruction of the festival that includes stage announcements and other ephemera alongside every artist performance from the festival in chronological order. There are also 10-CD, three-CD, and five-LP versions for completists or fans on a budget.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking, “Wait a second. Business situations can change, but you can’t fix messed up tapes.” However, thanks to pretty amazing advancements in technology, some previously unsalvageable material was able to be salvaged. While there were a few instances of technology making the 50th anniversary compendium possible, below you’ll find Zax’s account — lightly edited for length and clarity — of one specific situation where music was saved thanks to “magic science fiction stuff,” as he called it.
Andy Zax Describes How Technology Saved Ravi Shankar’s Woodstock Performance
One of the very first Woodstock-related recordings that was ever issued — either the first or second recorded artifact — is a record called Ravi Shankar At The Woodstock Festival that was released by World Pacific Records. That record is a fraud. It’s a studio re-recording of Ravi Shankar’s performance at Woodstock with some crowd noise and stage stuff dubbed onto it.
The story of that record is that Ravi Shankar’s producer, Richard Bock who ran World Pacific Records, had an idea that they were going to make a live at Woodstock record long before the festival happened. If you look at the printed program that was given out at Woodstock, there’s even an advertisement that says something like, “Watch for Ravi Shankar live at Woodstock coming soon.” They had success with the Monterey Pop live record a couple of years before, so they were hoping lightning would strike twice.
They took the multitracks from Woodstock back to LA, and Shankar wasn’t particularly happy with his performance. He listened to it and thought, “Well, I can do better than this and I’m not technically crazy about the record. Let’s just redo it.” So they redid the whole thing in a studio in LA, and that’s what came out as Ravi Shankar At The Woodstock Festival.
In the process of doing that, no one knows what happened to the multitracks of Shankar’s actual performance. I’ve been trying to find them now since about 2006 when I figured out what the deal was with that record. They do seem to be really gone. I’ve talked to everyone alive who might have any clue whatsoever as to what happened to them. My guess is that they’re in a landfill, or maybe completely forgotten about in a storage locker or basement. Maybe by dumb luck, they’ll surface in 30 or 40 years, but probably not.
The only surviving record of the Shankar performance at Woodstock is on a mono tape from the soundboard. It’s not a fantastic recording. Some of those mono reels sound a lot better than others, and this is not one of them. That’s all have, and it’s like all we’ll ever have. I had used 10 minutes or so of it in the box we put out back in 2009. It always sounded bad to me, but it was what it was.
Fortunately there’s an engineer in Abbey Road named James Clarke, and a long time ago he began thinking about teaching machines how to recognize sound. I think his theory was, “The human ear has no problem distinguishing between a voice and a piano and a drum, so why can’t I teach a machine to make those kinds of distinctions?”
That eventually led to this process that he has — there are other people doing work on this, but he’s further along than anyone else — which he refers to as “de-mixing.” The process is able to take a mono recording and break it apart into its constituent elements. Basically, you can turn a mono recording into multitracks.
James was able to take the Shankar performance and get three clean tracks with the sitar, tabla, and tanpura. When the machine is trying to identify the things it’s been taught to recognize, it rejects the set of sounds which are not what it’s looking for. This inadvertently got rid of a lot of hum and grit that was on the tape, so delightfully enough we got a really lovely set of multitracks which Brian Kehew was able to mix into a clean sounding stereo version of Shankar’s performance.
To me, this is like magic science fiction stuff. It’s like the Great Gazoo descended down, waved a magic wand, and suddenly here’s this remarkable thing! We were able to reclaim that performance which was, despite Shankar’s ambivalence, a truly excellent performance. We were able to reclaim that from oblivion. Every time I think about it, I get excited.
This article was produced in partnership with Rhino.