If you’re a hardcore Deadhead that seeks out the best recordings of that band, odds are you’re familiar with the work of Charlie Miller. Over the years Miller has taped and transferred thousands of tapes and you know that when he’s involved, it’ll sound good. Grateful Dead scholar Blair Jackson said it best, “My own rule of thumb with Archive Dead shows is I look for Charlie Miller’s name, and if it’s attached to a recording, I’ll usually check that out first, since his name is synonymous with the highest quality transfers and upgrades.” With that in mind we were excited a few days ago when we saw Miller’s name attached to a number of uncirculated Phish audience recordings popping up on bt.etree.org, so we reached out to Charlie to talk about his new found appreciation for the Vermont quartet.
Miller grew up and lived in Long Island for 25 years before moving west. “I saw every band in the ’70s at the Garden or Nassau,” he explained. How old was Charlie when he saw his first Dead show? ”I walked into the show when I was 15, when the show ended I was 16. They started the encore at five after midnight,” the recording/sound engineer told us about catching the Dead on his birthday in 1979.
- BT.ETREE.ORG: Charlie Miller Phish Transfers
Now that he has his sights focused on Phish, how did he pick which shows to transfer? “I was asked to sort through my friend’s Phish collection and [etree Phish admins] Terry Watts and Jason Sobel went through the list and gave me a color-coded excel spreadsheet that indicated what shows were in circulation and what shows had unknown CD generation(s) (involved in their lineage). Since I have a DAT I can do a better transfer.”
Miller focused on the recordings that haven’t circulated. Those who know Charlie know that for a long time he wasn’t into Phish. “I got into Phish about a year and a half ago which is kinda weird because I worked with all the [band members] before then, but I never quite ‘got it,’” Charlie said. Miller, who is a longtime employee of Steve Kimock, worked with Phish bassist Mike Gordon during Kimock’s time with The Rhythm Devils in 2006. “We had a week of rehearsals at Trey’s barn and after the last night of rehearsals we went over to Mike’s house for a dinner party. I have this map that Mike drew for me from The Barn to his house. It’s so funny, he drew trees on the side – it’s just a funny map. We’re in the kitchen chatting and we were talking about a song when Mike mentioned a Phish song. And I had this blank stare and Mike said, ‘you don’t know this song?’ So I said, ‘you know what, you guys are really nice guys and really talented, but I just don’t get it.’ His response was something along the lines ‘I can understand, sometimes I don’t get it either.’”
[Image via Dark Star Palace]
Miller actually attended Phish’s last performance before starting an “indefinite hiatus” on October 7th, 2000 at Shoreline Amphitheatre. Though he was turned off by the crowd, he had a much different experience when he attended 10 shows during the Summer of 2011 while he was working for The Heavy Pets. “It’s funny because The Heavy Pets are Phish fans, so they designed their summer tour to follow Phish tour so that they could do some after show parties. On the first day, at the Phish show, we had handfuls of free tickets. There were about 10 Phish songs at that point that I knew and really liked and that night they played like eight of them. We went a few nights later and they played the rest of the songs I liked. And I was like ‘wow, this is kinda fun.’ I was having a good time. Some of it I get, some of it I don’t. I’m listening to more and more of it and i’m appreciating more and more of it,” Charlie explained.
In appreciation for his experience that summer, Miller has started to turn his attention to transferring and mastering Phish recordings. “I was going through this list of DATs that they sent me on this excel spreadsheet. Then, last night, Jason Sobel and I were talking on the phone and I said, ‘pick ten for me to work on right now’ and I worked on them through the night,” he said.
Over the past few days Charlie’s transfers of tapes from Phish’s 1996 and 1999 summer tour have been winning raves from fans. Personally, I attended the group’s July 13th, 1999 show at Great Woods and have never found a recording of that night which suited the music. His transfer hits the mark and listening to it was a revelation. He’s also just unveiled transfers of legendary December ’95 performances: 12/9, 12/29 and 12/30.
As we spoke, Miller had his hands full, “Right now I’m transferring a DAT to a compact flash of a Phish show, I’m transferring a Grateful Dead soundboard cassette master from a crew member to a hard drive recording, I’m mastering a Dead show on the computer and playing Bingo on my iPad.” When I mentioned his skill at multi-tasking, Charlie responded, “Multi-tasking is an understatement.”
[Charlie @ Merriweather For Phish - Summer '11]
You’ll also notice Charlie’s name attached to hundreds of Steve Kimock recordings both official and unofficial. He told us about how he got his start with the guitarist, “I was following Kimock around and I couldn’t afford to do it anymore because I went to every show for a couple of years. So I got on the payroll and [now] they pay me to go.” As previously mentioned, he also worked for The Heavy Pets. “The Heavy Pets gig lasted about 15 months. I loved working for them because I’d sit at the board and dance and have so much fun. They’re such great guys and I love their music. It was a great experience overall.”
Charlie explained the transferring process to us, “I transfer the DAT to either a computer or solid-state compact flash and then if it comes from an analog source I make MP3s and I put them on this FTP site for my friend. He has perfect pitch, so he plays along to the recordings that I send him and he’s got a guitar tuner. If he has to start bending the strings to hit the notes, it’s off pitch. His CD player has a pitch adjustment, so he can adjust and he emails me the pitch corrections. I then go into my software, correct them, master them, patch them and it’s a process. Believe it or not, it’s fun, you can see me doing this all day.” With over 2,000 of his recordings/transfers on the Live Music Archive, we’d sure hope so.
Since he’s transferred so many Dead shows from every era we wondered if Charlie’s running out of Grateful Dead recordings to work on. “Oh gosh no. No, no, no. Crew members and band members give me their tapes, so there’s always upgrades and new stuff is always coming out. Some guy contacted me a week ago and told me ‘I taped over 100 shows between 1985 and 1988, I’ve got my cassette masters do you want to transfer them?’ I said ‘sure’ so he sent me a box of cassettes. Another guy who emailed me yesterday told me ‘I taped a million GD shows between ’92 and ’95 can you transfer my DATs?’ I said sure. There will ALWAYS be stuff to transfer,” Miller said.
[Charlie's Mics at Phish]
It takes Miller anywhere between an hour and 24 hours to transfer and master a recording. “It all depends on the quality of the source,” he explained. We look forward to seeing what else Charlie has in his bag of tricks in the coming months. Be sure to head over to bt.etree.org and look for “charlie miller” under “seeded by” to sample his work.