Category Archives: recording

recording studio stuff

Virtual Mentors

(this is a repost of an original blogspot post i made in 2007)

I got into studio recording, engineering and production after purchasing a Tascam Porta One four track cassette recorder from Manny’s in New York City in 1985. Because recording has always been a process of trying to maintain ‘right brain’ musical integrity while not over-using the necessary ‘left brain’ engineering side, the musician/engineer must avoid reinventing or perhaps even fully understanding the wheel. A intuitive shortcut is needed, something to fully grasp only what you will initially need and actually use. One way to achieve this is to have a great mentor. Two SF Bay Area people were key mentors in my progression: great audio tech, friend and fine musician Lawrence Fellows-Mannion has saved me countless hours over the years with his advice and guidance, and high end audio gear engineer/specialist Steven Jarvis is another person who helped so much when I made the leap to the professional.

Of course, good mentors are usually very busy, so you gotta have some virtual mentors too. Pete Townshend was one. Besides his great musicianship, Pete was one of the first to grasp the advantage and power of the home recording studio. His Scoop ‘demos’ LP was an early inspiration – especially the tantalizing gear pics and recording details in the liner notes.

Nowdays, we have the internet and look what I found today! An amazingly detailed interview (sadly EQ magazine is offline) with Pete about recording that covers his many studios and methods from the early monophonic to the present polyphony. If you ever wanted a superchared version of the Scoop liner notes, this is it. The snippet below is some of the best advice that could be offered to anyone concerned with making a better studio recording at home:

For the composer, computer tools present a dilemma. For most people, creative ideas emanate and are nurtured on the right side of the brain. However, technical matters are dealt with on the left. So one immediate problem is that before we can get creative with a computer we have to do things like organize our tracks, create a file, make sure we have somewhere to store it, etc. Being able to just run a tape machine (analog or digital) on a whim, always set up and ready to go, is a good thing to have in your life. Or you could have something like an Edirol R09 digital recorder handy. Try to stay in the right side of the brain until the music is properly shaped. Computers (and compact microprocessor controlled digital studios) are wonderful to arrange and modify what you have composed. For me, tape machines offered a way for me to compose, not to record great music, but merely to ‘write it out’ as I had no other way of doing it.

Of course those people who work entirely within the computer environment, using loops, MIDI, samples and reflex-driven software like Ableton Live, can get used to making very frequent jumps from one side of the brain to the other. But the music they make tends to sound a little different to the kind of music most of us feel reflects something of the heart. There are many exceptions. This is not a rule, but I often urge musicians I meet who love to work with MIDI software to ‘try some of the old methods out’ however, getting a decent tape machine is not easy, nor is it cheap.

So remember, start with a good sounding space. And if it sounds bad, fix that first. You may just have to deaden it right down. Next, buy at least one truly great microphone. Next, buy at least one truly great mic preamp. If you can, buy a single module from some old board, an API, a Neve, or whatever. If not, buy a new ‘classic’ channel, or something as good as you can afford. Next, pick your recording medium, and use your brain. If you start with tape, use nothing less serious than a reel-to-reel Revox, TASCAM or Fostex of some kind. If you start with digital hard disk, try some test sessions at different sample rates and bit depths – you may be surprised that your system sounds better at lower quality rather than higher because it doesn’t have to work so hard. So, use your ears if you can when making these assessments; pretend to be one of those old jazz guys who could really hear. I would recommend using a single pair of earphones for some of these kinds of tests. Pick the ordinary ones used in studios. Use your speakers just for playbacks of these tests and checking detail. If you can afford none of these things, buy a small tape Portastudio. Four tracks will sound better than eight. Remember that what you are doing is using a medium, not a modifier.

So cool. now you know why i bought a 3M M23

RIP Larry Levine

I love the sound of old records. Especially ones from the 50’s and 60’s – the golden era of open reel tape recording – often utilizing fewer than 8 tracks. Great musicians made the music (usually all together), great producers coaxed and coerced great performances and brilliant engineers made it sound spectacular – using great rooms, great mics and simple recording paths.

One of those great engineers, Larry Levine has passed away. It was he who invented the Wall of Sound with Phil Spector at the venerable Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles on such hits as The Ronettes, Be My Little Baby and the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. He who recorded Eddie Cochran’s, Summertime Blues, The Beach Boys’, Pet Sounds, Herp Albert’s, A Taste of Honey and even the Ramone’s, End of the Century.

You Can’t Do That!

dave meyers you canBack in 1998, I engineered You Can’t Do That the only solo record by Chicago bluesman Dave Myers. My friend Rusty Zinn, with whom I had recently finished two records, co-produced and played on it (along with Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds).

Dave, his brother Louis, Fred Below and Junior Wells formed The Aces and were a key ingredient in the mid 50s Chicago blues sound. While the other three had gone onto some fame, Dave had missed out on that part of the gig. Rusty and Kim were friends and really wanted to give him his due, so they convinced BlackTop Records owner and producer, Hammond Scott to do a record.

You Can’t Do That was recorded in the big room at the old Coast recorders on Harrison Street in San Francisco (thru Dan Alexander’s sweet Neve console). It was cut live with the exception of a few vocal overdubs that Hammond felt were needed. This wasn’t something Dave had much experience with, but he was game to give it a go.

Things were progressing okay, but then one tune, Stone Cold Fox simply bedeviled Dave and the whole thing degenerated into a hilarious half hour. After ten minutes of belly splitting stuff, I instructed the 2nd engineer to roll a dat tape of the overdub session so we could capture it (the 24 track master tape machine that I was operating was constantly recording over the bad vocal takes). Dave is front and center with Rusty, Hammond and myself off mic. Until now, only a handful have heard this recording, so without further ado:

      1. Cone Stone Fox

What a sweet, funny man. Unfortunately, Dave passed in 2001 and I am – we all were – privileged to have been a part of it. He was such total gentleman – in fact, the man kept calling me ‘sir’ and thought I owned the studio…shit I woulda been happy to have been responsible for his coffee cup.

Do Recording Artists need Producers?

Depends…Often when you’re under the microscope of the studio you can rarely judge accurately if you’ve given it your best. You can rarely be objective enough to know what you put down is actually what you are after. A good producer can offer that. However, if you are really focused you can do it yourself. Take for example, one of my favorite artists, Billy Childish, who loathes the idea of a producer yet has managed to put out over 100 cool records. Then again, Billy Childish is one focused fella when it comes to his art.

Some of my favorite producers – Roger Moutenot, Chris Thomas, Tucker Martine, understand that the gig is just as much about people and psychology as it is music. They become an integral part of the formula and work very transparently. Consequently, they often don’t get credit where it is due (what did he actually do?!). No matter – let’s look at what can happen without one.

Case A: The artist knows what he/she is doing, has the studio and all the musicians in order, songs together, band rehearsed, nails the performance, pays attention during the mix and leaves with an amazing record. Now this takes a lot of work, a lot of mistakes and a lot of experience to do. Nothing like finding that out in a studio! Do you need that kind of stress? Maybe. If you have done 10 years of 4 tracking and are able to produce in your own environment – then consider making a record that way, because that will all change the moment you walk into another studio. Your experience will need breadth as well as depth. Frequency – rare.

Case B: The engineer or someone playing on the session ends up producing by default. Usually this person will develop a migraine from the multi-tasking, won’t have much fun and will probably feel underpaid. This will affect the session. What? The engineer/producer erased a track? The mix isn’t what you wanted? The guitarist hates what he played? Frequency – often.

So, if you are not afraid of a new relationship and are willing to put an effort into finding a good producer, it can pay off. You are going to have to put a lot of trust in the person producing, trust that he/she is of like mind about your project and that you’re both going for what you ultimately want to hear.

One last caveat! (Case C) A bad producer is the result of bad communication. And a bad producer is probably worse than none at all. So choose wisely.

Production Tip #1 – Work on your songs and arrangements before you step into a studio. Work is the key word. Takes up time. Makes better records. Great SONGS and compositions are the most key ingredient in making make great records.

Kingtone Studio

This the history and evolution of Kingtone Studio recording set-ups. The idea was lifted from the liner notes to the Pete Townshend “Scoop” LPs.

IMG_1709Studio #7 2008-present. 8-24 tracks. I’ve been obsessed with keeping the smallest footprint possible. I wanted something both portable yet totally pro to track with, making do with what I already have excepting a few necessary upgrades. There are so many options available but it boils down to two or three paths. My Metric Halo 2882 firewire AD/DA interface (which I owned/used briefly in 2003 before they developed the crucial 2D mixer option) is still running strong into a MacBook pro running a combination of Harrison MixBus 32C (for mixing and some editing), Waves Tracks (for live tracking) and Reaper (for editing and manipulating). I used to use Digital Performer and long ago left Protools in the dust. This setup gives plenty of ultra high quality ins and outs. The 2882 and a UA 2-610 tube mic preamp has enabled me to get great recordings and keeps my table top nice and clean. I always have a pair of ADAM A7s and a few other speakers for reference (including my trusty Cambridge Audio computer speakers) but do miss a mixing board for hands on control…someday soon. I recently scored a great Otari MX-55 1/4″ open reel deck…ah analog, how I sometimes miss you.

Studio #6 2007. The PARIS system’s main card died – RIP. Faced with the prospect purchasing another card with a limited life span and continuing to run OS9, I chose to sell the PARIS parts off. I started using a simple Protools setup with a $200 MBox.

prerackStudio #5 2004 to 2006 – Emeryville, CA. 16 tracks+. I moved to a more spacious and brighter studio and fully committed to the digital age when I discovered and purchased a ‘vintage’ DAW platform, PARIS. Fantastic sounding, stable, with really intuitive (ie analog) recording, mixing and editing capabilities. 16 tracks, 24 bit, no latency with real time fx, eq and aux capability AND a solid, workable control surface. Basically a Protools HD with better sound at a fraction of the price. And since it had its own processing power, I ran it for years with my old Mac 7600 with no problems. I added a sweet Ampex 350 mic preamp (rebuilt by Rance) and a FMR audio Really Nice Preamp to the setup which was now neatly contained in two roll around racks.

Studio #4 2003 – Emeryville, CA. 8track. I struggled for a year with a free version of Protools 4.0 and an old Digidesign Audio Media III card (16 bit, 2 i/o) running on a really old Mac 7600 (G3) in a dark and dank rehearsal studio. The setup was hodgepodge and without a proper patchbay, but it sounded okay. I recorded a lot of cool music – much of it for the Immersion Composition Society.

soundcraft-series-two-243461Studio #3 1998-2002 Berkeley, CA. 8+ tracks. I moved into a warehouse complex right on the train tracks in West Berkeley and made the move to mostly vintage pro gear with the help of my good friend and SF bay area audio guru, Lawrence Fellow-Mannion. The centerpiece was a beautiful 1969 3M M23 1″ 8 track that I found sitting in a forgotten corner of El Cerrito Guitar Center, a late 70’s Soundcraft Series II 16/8/2 desk from Wallysound, a couple of Dan Alexander Neve 1272 and Ampex 601 mic pre’s, some good compressors, an Otari MX 5050bIIb 1/4″ deck and a tt patchbay with fancy quad cabling. I added an amazing Lawson L47 tube mic and a Coles 4038 ribbon to the collection. My friend Ricardo Esway, chipped in some digital gear including 8 channels of MOTU digital in/out (that paled in comparison to sound of the M23).

The tracking room had great sound and fantastic reverb decay due to the 30′ arched wood ceiling. We built a proper double-walled control room but left the rest of the space as is (ie not remotely soundproof). Amazingly the trains that frequently roared by rarely interfered with recording. I eventually moved out of the space and broke up the studio (no more tinkering and soldering!). The M23, Soundcraft and patchpay live with Chris Butler and his vintage collection in Hoboken, NJ, but I did keep some crucial gear…

TSR8Studio #2 1990-1997 Boston, MA, CT and SF, CA. 8 tracks. My first real studio with a Tascam TSR-8 1/2″ open reel deck, Seck 1282 mix console, Tannoy monitors, Sony DAT deck, Lexicon reverb and a Symetrics compressor. All very decent sounding and popular semi-pro gear that I acquired while an employee of the now defunct EU Wurlitzer Music in Boston (thanks David Bryce and Ducky Carlisle). I eventually purchased a few more mics including a really nice AKG 414TLII, made many demos and several records.

porta1Studio #1 1985-1989 Various east coast USA locales. 4 track. Purchased the venerable Tascam Porta-One cassette ministudio and a couple of Shure 57’s from Manny’s in NYC. What a great combo. Ease of use, durability, cool VU meters, it was just such a home run by Tascam. Recorded A LOT of demos, ideas and several cassette releases. Before this the only machines available were huge. In fact, the only recording experience before this (the thing that started it all, really) was a month long internship with the huge, dodgy Ampex 4-track open reel studio in my university music department.