Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Building The Perfect Beast" Memoir

I’d been an assistant at Bill Schnee’s studio for not much more than a year when Don and his crew, engineer Greg Ladanyi, and guitar player, Danny Kortchmar (all co-producers) came to Schnee Studio during the production of Don’s first solo album, “I Can’t Stand Still.” It was just a bit of recording and then a playback party.


Henley was my favorite of the Eagles, so it was quite an honor to be a part of it, even though it was really more of a party than a session. After an hour or so of playback, drinks and such overwhelmed everyone’s desire to hear more, so the rest of the evening was a laid-back hang, ending after midnight. They loved the studio, so I thought I might see them again during that album’s production, but the rest of that album ended at the studio that was at that time their home, Record One, a few minutes away in Sherman Oaks.


A year or so later the sessions for what would become “Building the Perfect Beast” began at Schnee’s. This was a different crew than the musicians I worked with at Schnee Studio. Most of the guys recording at Schnee’s were the elite session players playing on most of the pop records at the time. While some of those guys overlapped with Don’s cadre, by and large there were a different sort They were a part of the “LA Mafia.” (The musicians and engineers which centered around the productions of Peter Asher, who typically worked with Val Garay at Record One.) Record One was a built by Val, who engineered many of those albums for Asher


Val had been Asher’s engineer for many of the great albums he produced for James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and others. I learned there had been some breakdown in the relationship between Henley, and Jackson, and Val, so here they were. The reputed story was Jackson, so angered at Val for shutting down one of his mix sessions before it was finished, he threw a microphone stand threw the control room window. I’ve no idea of the truth of this story. But it seems plausible. But for whatever reason, Henley moved his project to Schnee’s, and Jackson built his own place in Santa Monica.


A large part of the production concept for this album was the marriage of drum machines with pop-rock elements. At that point, such productions were more R&B or Brit-pop. As I think back on it there weren’t any dialogs of “Hey, let’s do this.” It was just how the production evolved. Ladanyi commented on it a few times and that he liked it, but that was it.  


These were not easy sessions. The requirements of work were very high and I got yelled at on a regular basis. Technical problems or small mistakes were not tolerated, and always displayed for all to see. As tough as it was, it was a good thing for me and a seminal period of time in my career. It was either step up or get fired. As hard as it was, I will always be grateful for the demands expected of me. Fear is a great motivator and in a very short while, my game was raised significantly.


Right off the bat, changes were required for our studio. Schnee Studio had two MCI JH-16 twenty-four track recorders which were heavily modified to Bill’s own specs. They sounded great, but Greg wanted to use 3M-79 recorders without even giving the MCI a listen. So they arrived and Bill’s machines were placed in the adjoining hall.  


One of the things I learned that while these machines worked pretty well, and could punch in decently enough, they couldn’t punch out very well at all. So slow there were in fact that when overdubbing a bass guitar or drums there would be a gap in the recording. The solution was to drop leader tape on the spot for the punch-out. We’d find the spot for the punch-out, mark and cut the tape and place in a few feet of leader tape there so we’d go out of record when the leader tape passed by. Once the punch was done, I’d then reassemble the cut, and back to work we’d go. The first time Greg told me to do this, I didn’t get it. That was never the case with the MCI machines and I said so. I recall him looking at me, thinking I was nuts. “Well this is what we do” he said, so we did. I’m not sure Greg ever believed such punches were possible with the MCI but as he wanted to use the 3M79 machine, cutting the tape and using leader tape for the punch out was a regular practice.  


One other comment about this, and this is for all you young ‘uns who weren’t around during the tape era. Back in those days when 24 tracks were filled, we’d create what was known as a “slave tape.” I’d record identical SMPTE time code to track 24 of two machines, lock them together with a Lynx Synchronizer and bounce stems from the first machine to the second. After that we’d then put the master away and work on the slave. Most often that would be enough. However on occasion a second slave tape would be required. Thankfully that wasn’t often and I don’t recall that being the case for the Henley album. When it came time for mixing, two machines were brought in and the song was played from them both. One machine playing back the master parts, the second playing back the overdubs on the slave tape. All that to say, when I cut the tape for punching out, I had to be very careful with the edits so the Lynx wouldn’t lose sync when they would be played back during the mix, months later.


Despite all the hassle of making and using a slave tape there was a legitimate sonic benefit to making slave tapes. The friction of passing over the record and playback heads would cause analog tapes to shed some of their magnetic oxide. Over the long hours of overdubs, the tape would shed and by the time the mix would commence, a lot of the top end was gone. When that happened there would be a battle for the mixer to add back the top end, but not adding tape hiss. For that reason alone, a lot of engineers would make slave tapes as the master tracks didn’t have to endure the hours of playback and losing that precious top end.


Speaking of tape editing, this album had one of the most nerve wracking hours of my assisting career when making the song “Building the Perfect Beast.” Bear in mind I did all the cuts and editing. It was just what we assistants back in those days. We’d recorded the tracks on the master tape and were now working on the slave. Well as fate would have it Don came up with a new part he wanted to add to the song. Not just a new instrument mind you...but adding a whole section to the song. A bit more than mid-way through the song there’s a six bar chant, “All the way from Malibu, to the land of the talking drum…etc.” That wasn’t in the original master. Don had that idea during the overdubs. I bounced the drums to a second machine in three two bar sections and edited that back into the slave tape. Well the SMPTE time code was now ruined so we had to jam sync the code (you old farts know what that means) and re-record it. Then I had to do the same thing on the master. I was terrified thinking it would never again lock up, but amazingly it did.


Danny Kortchmar was a very integral part of creating the arrangements and production of the album. He made great demos at his house and would bring in the cassette roughs mixes he made from his Fostex 8 track. This was before MIDI or digital format of any kind, so they’d have to perform again any demo he’d made from scratch as the quality of the Fostex machine wasn’t good enough to transfer to the 2” tape.


Now with these recreations of the demos a funny thing happened somewhat regularly. When we’d begin to re-record Danny’s demos, Danny would bring in his gear and we’d start laying his parts. More than a few times Don or Greg would say, “Wait. That doesn’t sound like the demo.” Danny would sheepishly reply, “Oh...uh..I left that pedal effect (or whatever) the house.” So we’d break while Danny would drive back to his house to retrieve the pedal or whatever it was he used on the demo. After an hour or more, Danny would return with the needed piece of gear, and we’d be back at it. It was funny as this happened more often than not.


One of the great songs that Danny did bring all his gear for was for the song, “All She Wants to do is Dance.” That great fuzz guitar tone playing through the song was NOT a guitar. It was a Yamaha DX7 synth using the “Sample and Hold” patch. It was a one of those seemingly pointless patches on the synth, but Danny found a brilliant use for it. He slowed it down so it was in tempo with the song, then ran the output of it into his Marshall amp, cranked up to 10. We recorded it with an SM57 on the amp, then fed it to the room for ambiance and recorded that with a pair of Telefunken 251s. By the way, the ambience on the Linn drums is also the room at Schnee’s studio. Like the guitar and many other things for the album, we fed the drum machine back into the studio via the speakers in the room, and recorded it as a part of the sound. (Yeah...mixed together with the sound. Old school!)


The great solo on the song was synth harmonica was played by David Paich. He used the DX7 with a breath controller. The DX7 was also fed into the studio and recorded to get that great Schnee studio ambience. It was a single take...top to bottom. A freaking, amazing performance I’ll never forget.


One other interesting thing about that song. As I recall, Danny wrote it in a single night, lyrics and all. An amazing feat considering the amount of lyrics and the great story it told.


One other oddity I recall. We had an EMT 250 we were using for a reverb. Well at times during the recording of the album it began to make a very loud reverberated BANG with no notice. It was annoying as could be, but Greg loved that sound and wanted to use it in the stops of “You Can’t Make Love.” Well this machine had a mind of it’s own and we couldn’t make it happen when we wanted. So one night I was given the task of sitting in the control room running the ATR 2 track over and over, hoping the machine would make that noise. Six hours later, of course it never did, so that idea was abandoned.


“A Month of Sundays” is a bit of an oddity. Don wrote it mid-way through the album. Danny however didn’t really like it so much. He was raised in New York and the subject just wasn’t something near to his heart. He and Don ended up having a small battle over whether to have it on the album. On a break, knowing I was also from Texas, Don asked me what I thought. Well I told him it sure resonated to me and that I grew up knowing folks like the character in the song. After the break their dialog about the song began again. Danny said, “Don, I don’t really get it.” Don stopped, pointed to me and said, “Well HE does. And so do a lot of others like him.” Whether or not that moment changed Danny’s mind I don’t know. But after that afternoon there were no more conversations about the worthiness of the song.


“Sunset Grill” is and was one of my favorites on the album and was one which I actually had a small role as an engineer. We’d gone very late the night before and Greg had yet to arrive the next morning. Frustrated, Danny barked, “You record it!” So I took the Roger Linn drum machine and did what I knew Greg would want, sending it out to the room and recording it.  Greg arrived just as we finished. Listening back he grumbled, “We’ll replace that!”  But they never did.


Don wanted a bit more production on this, so they brought the great synth programmer and player, Michael Boddiker and Randy Newman for production ideas. Michael brought in ALL his gear. There was a veritable wall of synths (mostly modular Moogs) across the front of the room. He also had his Emulator II there which had the samples of the horn section stabs you hear in the chorus. Most of the production on that song was the work of Randy. I must say, Randy is one of the greatest hangs and personalities I’ve even seen. He’d recently released “I Love LA” but yet to create the score for “The Natural” and other movies we’ve all heard. He was also every bit of the genius you’d imagine. It was a wonderful week of work seeing him come up with all his great ideas. It culminated once again, with the synth solo played by David Paich. Another single take.  


For me, “Sunset Grill” is the most iconic of the songs on the album. Don’s fabulous lyrics speaks so perfectly to that decadent time in LA. The spectacular horn chart was written by Jerry Hey and recorded at Oceanway LA by Allen Sides. It was an addition they never even discussed around me until they brought it back, done. A great finish to a fantastic song.


One of the other great songs, and as far as I know was never released was a song called, “The New Money Changers” which was a stunning indictment of TV preachers. The tracking date had Jeff Porcaro, Danny, and Hawk Wolinski on keys. (The bass player I can’t recall, though it might have been Tim Drummond, who was a fixture on Don’s sessions.) The song was incredible. But as far as I know it was never finished and my thinking is Don wasn’t happy with the lyrics.


Which brings me to an observation on Don’s lyric writing. One thing I was really impressed with was Don’s dedication to great lyrics. Don was an avid reader of great literature and held himself to a very high standard with any lyric he wrote. When singing his vocals, if there wasn’t a line he’d not yet found, he’d simply let that part of the song go by and sing nothing....not even a dummy line. It seemed to me he’d never want the mediocre to supplant the best, so he’d only sing lyrics he felt were good and not get caught getting used to a second best choice. When singing “The New Money Changers” there were a lot of places with lines unsung. A few weeks would go by and he’d give it another shot with some lyrics changed, yet other spots still had nothing. As I never heard the lyrics completed my thought is that at least that was one reason why the song was never released. It certainly had everything else. The track was amazing and sounded complete. Owing to the nature of the song’s subject, that’s my suspicion, but it’s only a guess.


An interesting thing about the way they recorded their vocals...and I think the method was something I think Val Garay came up with. They used a U67 with a big foam pop filter on it.  Don would put his nose in the little hole where one could change the recording pattern of the mic and never moved from that spot. His lips were maybe an inch from the mic at most. I’ve never found that something I preferred. It seems so unnatural to me to make a singer get so close to the microphone and not allow them to move and when I tried it, I was never happy with the sound. But it was clearly no problem for Don. His brilliant vocals on the album speak for themself.  


Visitors


We had lots of visitors during these sessions. On any night there could be a veritable “whos-who” of artists and musicians dropping by. All of the Eagles except Glen Frey came by. Tim Schmidt was great. A shy man, very nice guy and respectful...even to low-life assistant engineers. Don Felder came by one night. He and I got into a long discussion of guitar tones and I found he was an encyclopedia of information on the Eagles albums. He could recall which guitar, amp, mics, compressors, etc were used on any song I mentioned.  


There was one night when Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin (from the Go-Go’s) came in for background vocals. I can’t recall exactly which song it was for but it the best part was hearing the dialog between Belinda and Jane between takes. Yeah...total Valley Girl talk.


Closing


My part of the album took almost a year. The guys would come in around 11am and work till midnight or so three weeks out of a month. By and large it was pretty much real work. There wasn’t much in the way of partying. (At least compared to sessions I’d heard of in the years before I came to LA) We ate well, but it was never on the studio bill as Don kindly took care of that himself. I saw first-hand some really great sessions and musicians during that project. As I said before, a lot was required from me. It was like a boot-camp and being on the front lines all at once. At times I hated it. At other times it was heaven for a young man who moved out to LA from Texas just a few years before. The only down-side was they moved back to Record One for mixing and the “Boys of Summer” was recorded just after they arrived there so I missed out on that.


I’m amazed how much of it I recall so clearly. A lot of it feels like it happened just last week. Of course I learned a lot about how to make an album. But I also learned a lot about human interaction, dedication to one’s craft, guts, determination, and how to handle severe stress. It took a few years for me to be able to even listen to that album. It was such a difficult process I had to have time to process all that occurred and hear it with fresh ears. Once I got past all that however, I realized what a great album it really was and how fortunate I was to have been a part of it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Home Recording Tip 50: In music production give moments where one thing takes center stage. Let the scene change

Time for a change

This tip and the next are from a few lessons I’ve learned from Chris Lord-Alge. And one of them, rather painfully.  


Back in my LA days I worked on TV show called “The Heights.” It was about a mythical band in the Pacific Northwest and their adventures in trying to make it. I was recording and mixing the music for the show and was soon to begin mixing a subsequent album. It was pretty much rock-pop stuff, and a lot of the music was pretty good. One of the songs in the show was “How Do You Talk To An Angel” which ended up as a #1 Billboard hit.


There’s an interesting story about how the song got to be #1. As the show was on FOX, their marketing crew had previews for it running in movie theaters across the country. “How Do You Talk to an Angel” was the musical bed to the preview and theater-goers liked it so much they began cheering and clapping when it came on the screen. Soon radio stations began to get calls to have it played on the air. Well, it wasn’t long before we got a call to get a mix of it out NOW! That of course shifted everything in the mix schedule for the album. Not surprisingly, the A&R guy from the label wanted Chris to mix it. I begged the producer to give me a fair shot and let mix it as well. Then he and the A&R guy could choose which mix they preferred.   


Now if you ever find yourself in such a situation, you must remember a few things. One, the big mixer you’re competing against has a track record, so you’re already at a disadvantage.  The fact is ESPECIALLY people in the major labels rarely use only their ears to make a decision on mixes. Guys at the labels are always in jeopardy with their job, so when in doubt, they’ll take the safest choice. After all, if the song is a flop, their boss can’t accuse them of not hiring a good mixer. And what if the unknown guy’s mix was better and they used it, but it wasn’t a hit? Then they’d look like an idiot. The labels don’t care about how good a mix is. They just care if it sells. But even if it WAS a hit, the question they’d face would then be, “Why’d you spend all that money on a mix you didn’t use? All to say I knew if my mix was to be selected over Chris’ it would have to be MUCH better than his. But even that didn’t guarantee anything. So I knew the odds were against me even before I started.


Still I did get my chance. When the mix was done the A&R guy came over for a listen right after hearing Chris’ mix. He was a very fine A&R guy with a great track record, and to his credit it wasn’t just a polite, courtesy listen. He sat down with me and really paid attention to what I’d done. “This is really good,” He said. “I gotta say these mixes are a lot closer than I thought they’d be. I think yours is more musical” as he nodded approvingly.  

Well, of course in the end they picked Chris’ mix. And I gotta say his mix was better. One thing which really separated his mix from mine is what Chris did in the instrumental bridge. There was this arpeggiated electric guitar part which he really pushed and made it a feature. In my mix it wasn’t buried, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it like Chris did. There may have been other things he did better, but that was the one big comment about his mix and for sure it made his mix better than mine. He made a real moment of that section and it made a huge difference. Of course I offered to remix my mix and do the same, but the decision had already been made. Lesson learned!