Nebraska - Studio Sessions - Overview

Overview

"I was living in a place called Colts Neck, New Jersey — and I remember I saw Badlands, and I read this book about them, Caril [Fugate, an accomplice of Charles Starkweather], and it just seemed to be a mood that I was in at the time. I was renting a house in this reservoir, and I didn't go out much, and for some reason, I just started to write. I wrote Nebraska, all those songs, in a couple of months. I was interested in writing kind of smaller than I had been, writing with just detail — which I kind of began to do on The River. I guess my influences at the time were the movie and these stories I was reading by Flannery O'Connor — she's just incredible."
- Bruce Springsteen in 1984

The Nebraska sessions were never conceived to result in a commercially released album. Bruce’s intention was to create a batch of multi-channel, professional-sounding, finished solo demos to demonstrate to The E Street Band at sessions for the follow-up to The River album due to start in New York City in February 1982. By creating professional demos Springsteen felt the band sessions would progress faster than they had for his previous three albums. These are not professionally made recordings. They were never intended to be. It appears Springsteen only used a common, run-of-the-mill cassette recorder. None of these songs exhibit a finished songwriting product. These are song fragments, both musically and lyrically. There is much stopping and starting heard, as Springsteen records bits and pieces, manually stopping the recorder then returns sometime later to add more ideas…and so on and so forth.

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During and after the River tour in 1981, demo recordings continued at Springsteen’s home in Colts Neck, NJ from late March to early April 1981 during a break in The River tour, and then from mid-September 1981 thru May 1982 (mostly 1981) following the end of The River tour. In early December 1981, Springsteen asked his guitar technician, Mike Batlan, to set up a no-frills “porta-studio” in a spare room of Bruce’s Colts Neck, NJ home. Some modification work was done to the room to make it more receptive to achieving a decent sound. Batlan purchased a Teac Tascam (Series 144) 4-track cassette recorder, two Shure SM57 mics and two microphone stands. The sound was mixed through an old Gibson Echoplex and an old Panasonic boom box acted as the mixdown deck.

Legend dictates that the bulk of the songs were recorded in one all day/night session on January 3, 1982. Springsteen himself has said it took three days, although he later said it took "no more than a few weeks" in Songs. There were fourteen songs recorded and it seems unlikely that Springsteen and Batlan could have recorded and mixed those fourteen songs in (at best) a few days, especially since it involved some thirty-nine takes. Batlan has said that the actual recording began on December 17 or 18 and ended around January 3, which seems more realistic. In any case, Springsteen sent a cassette comprised of fourteen demos to Jon Landau, along with what is almost certainly a live recording, not a studio demo, of a fifteenth song, "Johnny Bye Bye". The tape also included seven alternate takes and five alternate mixes. However, two or three months later, with a few of these fifteen songs by then earmarked for coverage by the E Street Band, Springsteen recorded two additional songs ("My Father's House" and "The Big Payback") at home on the same equipment, thus making a total of seventeen different songs seen on the list below.


It was during the E Street Band sessions in late March and early April of 1982 that Bruce first attempted to record full-band arrangements of the demos. However, it soon became apparent to him that a majority of these songs did not lend themselves well to these full-band arrangements. Springsteen would later write in Songs, "I went into the studio, brought in the band, rerecorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse." It should be noted that most of the Nebraska songs were not recorded in "rock" arrangements, as the fan-coined title "Electric Nebraska" may suggest. Instead, Bruce had Max Weinberg add light percussion, or Roy Bittan a synth pad. However, not every re-arrangement was a failure, "Born In The U.S.A.", "Downbound Train", "Pink Cadillac" and the re-written "Working On The Highway" were all successfully recorded with the band during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions. Below is a day by day calendar of the "Electric Nebraska Sessions".

According to Toby Scott, it was in April 1982 that Bruce handed him the original solo demo tape and said, "there's something about the atmosphere on this tape – can't we just master off this tape?" In effect, Bruce was asking Scott if it was possible to make the sound quality good enough to release some of the songs as a solo album. It took Scott a few weeks to get back to Bruce with a definitive answer. If Scott's answer had been “no” then there is unlikely to have ever been a Nebraska album. At one point Bruce even went back into the studio with an acoustic guitar to try and re-record the album, but the result lacked the atmosphere and feeling of isolation only found on that original cassette. Eventually, however, Scott said "yes", so by late May it had been decided to issue the album, ahead of the still-in-progress E Street Band album. Despite Scott's confirmation that the tape was usable, the task to produce the album was not an easy one, for example, the old Gibson Echoplex used as mixer was long gone. In addition, the tracks were recorded with the varispeed knob turned to "fast", before Batlan turned it back to the twelve o'clock position for mixdown. The Panasonic boom box had fallen into a river in the meantime, and was recovered from the muddy bottom and hosed down before springing back to life one Sunday morning soon after. The heads of all the Gibson and Panasonic decks used were never cleaned or aligned, and finally, Springsteen had carried the only tape copy around in his jacket pocket for three months.

Toby Scott was later interviewed about the process of recording Nebraska:
"Well, of course, you could just about hear the moans coming from all the engineers in the room. We were all trained to get the best sound possible on the best equipment, and here was our artist asking us to go against pretty much everything we knew. And I said 'yes Bruce, we could. I'm not sure you'll like it, but we could.' I could've said no, that the sound wasn't good enough to master off of, but that's not what it's all about. We work for the artist, and we're there to help them achieve their vision, even if it goes against all the rules of engineering. I guess that's probably part of why I'm still working for Bruce after all these years.

"So I gave that cassette to an assistant and told him to copy it onto a good piece of tape. Then we went around to four or five different mastering facilities, but no one could get it onto a lacquer - there was so much phasing and other odd sonic characteristics, the needle kept jumping out of the grooves. We went to Bob Ludwig, Steve Marcussen at Precision, Sterling Sound, CBS. Finally, we ended up at Atlantic in New York, and Dennis King tried one time and also couldn't get it onto disk. So we had him try a different technique, putting it onto the disk at a much lower level, and that seemed to work. In the end we ended up having Bob Ludwig use his EQ and his mastering facility, but with Dennis' mastering parameters. And that's the master we ended up using.

"The album sounds the way it does because of all those factors - the multiple tapes, the dirty heads, the varispeed - it's all part of the overall atmosphere, and part of what Bruce liked about the songs. At the end of the day, he was able to get his ideas down on tape, in his own environment, thanks to a PortaStudio and a pair of 57's, and that was the equipment he needed to get the sound he was looking for."
Courtesy: tascam.com

The title for the album was narrowed down to three choices "Open All Night", "January 3, 1982" and the ultimate winner, "Nebraska". The Nebraska album was released with only ten of the seventeen songs listed above on it. "The Big Payback" turned up later in 1982 as a b-side to Open All Night in parts of Europe and "Born In The USA" was issued on the 1998 outtakes compilation Tracks. Of the five "missing" songs – three of them ("Pink Cadillac", "Downbound Train" and "Johnny Bye Bye", as well as "Born In The USA") were re-recorded with multi-instrument arrangements during the 1982-83 Born In The USA sessions and released either on that album or Tracks. The two remaining songs ("Child Bride" and "(The) Losin’ Kind"), despite being among the most compelling of all the Nebraska session songs, remain officially unreleased. So to date twelve of the seventeen songs from this session have been officially released in their original arrangements. Fortunately, complete takes of all four of the other studio recorded songs are circulating in excellent quality. The alternate takes of some songs (see session details below) have also yet to surface.

In September 2014, Bob Ludwig was interviewed by Backstreets prior to the release of Springsteen's first seven albums in remastered form and spoke about the methods required to remaster the album utilizing the Plangent Process. "The process allows the tape playback to sound closer to the output of the mixing console than ever before", explains Ludwig. "It yields better separation, less distortion and a solidity to the sound that can be really remarkable." Recovering lost frequencies and digitally correcting wow and flutter and other timing issues, the Plangent Process reveals, as Ludwig puts it, "a sonic depth and clarity not heard since the original mix-down session." Nebraska, given the nature of its origin, has always been tricky. That material was recorded to cassette, which caused many engineering headaches when preparing the album for release in 1982. Fortunately, Ludwig didn't have to go back as far as the mix-down cassette Bruce carried in his pocket. He explains that for the other six albums in the box, "we used all the original 1/4-inch, two-track mix masters, so nothing needed to come from multi-track. Nebraska was the exception. The original album was mixed to a cassette, and we could not cut vinyl from that, so during those Nebraska sessions, I made a 1/2-inch master reel which contains the correct takes, edited together, at the correct speed and with the correct azimuth Bruce wished for the album. That reel was used for the original vinyl cut, cassette masters and CD mastering, and it is what we worked from here."
Courtesy: backstreets.com

The Nebraska and Born In The U.S.A. sessions really cannot be separated, but a dividing line was created after the Nebraska sessions on January 3, 1982. New songs after that date were placed in the BITUSA section, along with 3 songs that made the album, BITUSA (song), Downbound Train, and Working On the Highway. The starting point for Nebraska was the material Springsteen started recording after The River was completed. In all 30 songs are listed here, 11 released, 19 unreleased. Part two of the Nebraska-BITUSA period follows, covering 1981-1984.

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