A peak into the mind of John Hampton

Rocket Surgery – Brain Recording

I woke up this morning with a brutal pain in my lower abdomen. I am the apex of pain wimps. If I step on an acorn with bare feet, you can hear me for miles..

Quick flashback to my tenth grade Biology class (Claire, Kathie, Hea …HEATHER! Whoa!) … my mind’s eye sadly moved off the chicks and on to that chart of (Inside) “The Human Anatomy”, which I had seen every day of the 10th grade year. The chart … I touched my hipbone to get the relationship to the “mind chart”. Over about 3 inches to the left, then down … 3 … 6 …SEVEN! YOW!! Seven inches!! Holy veriform, Batman! That’s my APPENDIX! I’m in trouble. I’ve heard if that sucker blows it’s “The Big Countdown”. Better call someone and get to a doc PRONTO.

A couple doors down, my buddy, Rocket ( we all called him that) was getting ready for something really big, too. He told me that his band, Even Steven, was going to start on their first record the next morning. When I asked him where he was doing it, instead of hearing the expected studio name, he said something about their live sound guy who just got all this … stuff. Laptop, software, a microphone set from Mattel … you know, STUFF! So now he’s producing records. (Huh? I never knew the dude could spell producing!)

Now look; I really like Rocket a lot, and sometimes I feel like I have got to show him every little (or BIG) pothole in the road he should avoid. In fact, it was during that very conversation two nights ago that I had felt the first twinge of this time-bomb in my lower right. When it became obvious that he wasn’t listening anymore, I just said ‘Good luck’, figuring I had said all I could without holding his hand.

I mean, COME ON! Thirty-plus years of making little records and big records, I feel I must know at least the basics of how to make a record, right? And today, these are shark-infested waters. But his pal apparently knew it all … and then some. Plus ☞ I needed to lay down; I was in serious pain (at least for me).

I knew I was probably about to have a life-changing event; under an anesthetic and a knife. And Rocket was about to have a life-changing event, too.

I received the following eMail in one of those mass mailings which was uncannily relevant to both of our situations. If the author of this fine piece of mass eMail wants, I’ll give you 100% of the credit and whatever I make from it. Oh, and thanks. The eMail really opened my eyes … and I hope it helps more “Rockets” out there:


I‘m not very technical but I just love doing brain surgery. I couldn’t see wasting all that time to get an undergraduate degree in science, then wasting four more years in medical school and another three or so as a resident, but I’m sure that I can make up for the deficit with my enthusiasm and my love of brain surgery.First of all, you really don’t need to be in a big fancy building, like a hospital. I use my ping-pong table in the basement to do my surgery. (I do throw a plastic sheet over it to preserve the paint). By doing it at home, I save on rent! I admit that sometimes the neighbors complain about the occasional screams that they hear, especially late at night. So I nailed some egg cartons to the walls.

Next thing is the equipment. They have all of that shiny stuff in the operating room and believe me, you don’t really need it. I equipped my Operating Room at my local dollar store. In the hardware department, pick up a hack saw. This is very handy for cutting off the top of the skull. If you want to get fancy, pick up a cross-cut saw, for emergencies. A good claw hammer is handy for removing any extra bone that you missed with the saws.

Move on to the housewares department. Here, for a dollar, you can get a whole set of steak knives. These are very sharp and they are good for the detailed work. For the rough work–get a bread knife. In the sewing department, you can pick up a sewing kit with all kinds of needles and different colored threads. This is handy for sewing the scalp back in place. You can also get a set of three different-sized scissors. Sometimes they come in handy. There! For 7 to 8 bucks, you can completely equip your operating room.

On TV, you see the operating room full of assistants. This is a total waste of space. If you really watch them, they are all just standing around doing nothing. In my home operating room, I have eliminated all of these unnecessary people. I do, however, engage the family dog to sit under my operating table to clean up the scraps.

You see how simple it is to do brain surgery at home? Anyone with a love of brain surgery can do it. I never read Grey’s Anatomy, although I did see a copy once. Very nice pictures but half of it was in Latin. Who wants to bother with all that! If you really want to be a brain surgeon, all you need is the desire and enthusiasm.

My prices are very reasonable since I don’t have all that stupid overhead.


Next question! … and AMEN!

Dana Rocked This Time Through

The story you are about to hear is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent .

It was at LEAST one million degrees below zero. Eddie (Degarmo) and Dana (Key) were inside a phone booth looking through the yellow pages. Their old, clunker bus had made a really funny (bad funny) noise a few miles back, followed by an ever increasing odor inside the bus that had the smell of burning rubber combined with gasoline and, according to bass player Tommy Cathy, old barbecue Fritos.

Leave it to TC to be familiar with that one. But Eddie and Dana had a look of “Oh Crap! Here goes another coupla grand” on their faces.

Finally, Billy Wayne, the driver, said “Guys, we’re losing power fast. I’m pulling over before this dang thing blows up!”

The snow was everywhere. Dana saw the phone booth a hundred feet or so up the road. In the middle of nowhere, there was a PHONE BOOTH! That was not coincidence. These men had God, with a capital G, on their side. And I can prove it.

Eddie and Dana were on the fringe  in their field. They were going where no man had gone before. First, they were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to do the first Christian Rock concert in that neck of the woods. AND, they were going to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to play THE FIRST CHRISTIAN ROCK CONCERT in that neck of the woods. Almost every church big-wig, from Falwell to Falwell was calling them evil, imposters, scam artists, you name it. But These guys were for real. And this was,  the to borrow from the Blues Brothers, a mission from God.

In the booth, they got one mechanic who could fix their bus, but he was an hour away, and the truck that could tow the bus was another hour away, and they had to be on the stage in five hours. Wondering what to do, Eddie pointed to a phone number scratched onto the frozen aluminum in the booth and said,”Let’s call him”. With absolutely no idea who they were calling, not to mention absolutely nothing to lose, Dana dialed the number. A man picked up with the native “hahloo”, and Dana just started telling the guy the truth: They were broke down outside of Yorkton, going to play a gig tonight in Saskatoon, the guy to fix the bus MIGHT be there in 3 hours, then he had to FIX the bus, and did he know any one, since they had not even a clue as to where they were, ANYONE who could point them to a better direction

There was a long pause.. a really long pause. The stranger asked what number they were at, which, remarkably, was on the phone, and they gave him the number. “I’ll call you right back”.

After about seven minutes, the guy called back and asked where they were. All Dana could say was that they had just passed a silo that had something written on the side, the stranger remarked that they were only about five miles from him and he’ll be there soon. Dana looked at Eddie with an odd look and said” He’s coming here!”.

Thirty minutes later, four pick-up trucks and two cars pull up next to their bus, and the band dudes get off and there’s a big con-fab there on the side of highway X , and when it was all said and done, the four pick ups and two cars were going to take the band AND the gear the 300 miles to Saskatoon. And I promise you that is a true story. The gig was great. It was actually a miracle. PLUS, the kids LOVED Degarmo and Key. In a million light years this could never happen again to anyone.

Dana’s luck ran a little low Sunday, when he died from complications due to a blood clot. But I say a little low because he knew exactly where he was headed this time and he has told me in the past, and we made many records in the past, how at times he was kind of excited about the life after this life.

Although I bawled like a baby at hearing the news, it was more for his unreal family than for him. Dana, you are and always will be sorely missed. And because of you, I am convinced that we will meet again. I love you. Happy Trails, my friend. You really did it this time through.

Introducing … The Single

It looks like the up and coming generation has finally redeemed itself with the grandest of grand concepts. Leave it to kids today to just reach down deep into that creative grab bag of life and bring the novelest of novel ideas to fruition. It’s called … (drumroll) a SINGLE. It started a while back, actually, when iTunes geniuses decided that if you wanted, you could just buy one song off of an ALBUM of songs by a recording artist. Wow. There’s a novel concept.

Although we really know it wasn’t a recent development at all, it really, REALLY IS a lot different from the single our moms and dads started up way back in the olden days. In those days, pop music was just that. POPular music. An artist would think up a song, write it, record it, and put it out for us to buy. If we liked it, it became popular, and sold a bajillion zillion copies. Then, the popular artist would write another song, and put it out. If it also became popular, the men in the big cities would come around, snatch up the artist for their company’s big roster of popular artists, figuring they have a golden goose here. So THEY would release an ALBUM of his/her popular music, plus a few more that the listener could … enjoy. That was great! Except, I don’t know about you, but I could hardly ever afford a $12 album, and many times, the stuff I liked wasn’t available as a single. So … what’s a kid to do?

I could not get immediate satisfaction, unlike these kids today. Noooooo! I had to wait (WAIT?!?!) …wait until I had saved up enough ca$h to finally go get the album. But crap! I didn’t like every song, just two or maybe three tops. In fact, I got pretty good at playing D.J. because when my friends came over, I would only play those two or three songs, and that’s it! Een if my pals wanted to hear others, I RULED my musical domain with an iron fist.

Enter …. the new media.

Digital everything. Digital recording, digital CD, digital this, digital … heck, I bet they are thinking up digital shoe polish as we speak! A digital download, though, is how we get our music now, right? (I personally like the CD, and REALLY the 12″ vinyl) … But by and large, we get our music online. So doesn’t that mean we don’t have to buy an album ever again? I do believe it does mean that. AND that is precisely what the bulk of the world is doing. They hear a song or two, like them a lot, and download them from iTunes or CD Baby or Bob’s Record and Bait … in the end, they don’t buy a whole album. Period.

Enter the artist. He/she’s not stupid, (is he/she?) Why bother recording ten or twelve songs if, for the most part, only one or two will bring in some NLM dough? (No Laughing Matter) So, a lot of my work now is recording 2 or 3 songs on a weekend or weekend +, and in four to five days, we have product. Ready to upload and hit the globs.

But you know, as I grew older I really got into those ten or eleven songs. The artist could take me on a sonic safari for an hour almost, and I always came out on the other side a better, more edified listener. And many, many times, I ended up looking forward to the artist’s next record.

Is the entire experience slowly, or not slowly, going away? I will really be saddened if that experience goes away. I THINK I would end up in a much lessier place if that were the case. (Thanks to the Hatter for that line). And this one:

I don’t want to end up in a much lessier place. The Hatter knows there’s a lot to say about the much muchier place. We must hang onto the concept of the album of songs. If for no other reason, just so that “these kids today” can develop into better, more edified listeners. They may just wake up someday and be a little less into that instant gratification thing. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing.

Next question…

“Ear Haver”

When I was born, everyone remarked about the size of my ears. But on the Auditory Vigilance part of my A.D.H.D. Test, I flat out FAILED! Go figure.

Out there somewhere is a rockband (I call it Powerpunk) named ALL or Descendents; they are actually two bands, depending on who is headlining. If Descendents are more popular in a certain town, ALL will open for them. And vice versa. The only difference is, “Who is singing”? I’ll explain.

In the 1980’s there was Black Flag, a PowerPunk band that enjoyed large success … underground. These guys could easily play 200 packed halls, clubs, auditoriums, etc. a year and all the promotion needed was one announcement. From that one date announcement, word would spread, literally, like a wildfire in the hills over Malibu, and the gig would sell out fast. Part of this success was that their singer (singer?) was Henry Rollins; actor, poet extraordinaire, cultist, and an overall good guy. His bandmates, Bill Stevenson, Karl Alvarez (and Claire!), and Stephen Egerton were the core of it all, and when Henry moved on, they grabbed nuclear biologist/rocket scientist Milo Aukerman, and they became Descendents. If Milo had a rocket to work on, they grabbed Scott Reynolds or Chad (is right) Price, or C.H.U.D., and became ALL.  These guys are among of the most brilliant minds in music. I have worked with both bands and I am sure they can go on like this forever. In fact they are now ALL/Descendents.

So in the day of Mozart, Bach, and even todays classical musicians, there has always existed a language which modern music rarely (never) uses. Portamento, staccato, largo, legato, stromboli, JohnGotti,  … you get it. When I’ve been lucky enough to work with ALL/Descendents, an amazing part of our relationship is that we have developed our own language. And we use it seriously and often. We talk in terms that we all understand, but no one else can unless they learn the language. So one day Bill introduced me to one of the best adjectives ever. Ear haver. When we first started working together, I once heard something with my A.D.D. / hyperactive sense of hearing that the guys didn’t notice, until I pointed it out. (This can be a detriment if it gets taken too far, as you lose sight of the forest, or the song in this case, because all you see is trees). (Sorry, A.D.D. moment)  When I heard these tiny little sound “particles”, Bill and Stephen would finally notice what I was hearing and were, at first, stupefied that I had heard what I heard. “Cool ear haver“. That’s what they called me. Ear haver.  It simply means one with a keen listening prowess. More specifically it means one whose hearing is more trained or developed than average. It’s learned from being a recording engineer. “Cool ear haver”. It became another term in our language, alongside skink, krah, woob, pre-fire, and bizh.

There are many ear havers out there. At times when I’ve been affronted with statements like ‘Can we record to this instead of that?’, I have been known to (A) stop and ask them right then and there if they will go along with a little experiment. If they said ‘sure’, then I would (B) conduct a blindfold, A/B listening test on the spot. This is a test where I would sort of challenge this person, in a benign way, of course, to prove that they really heard a difference between that which they wanted to record to versus what I had chosen to record to. Please understand that I would never do this unless I knew the person well and I felt they really wanted to know for themselves. And if they chose the sound that they said they liked more …  as I switched back and forth between the two … more than 75% of the time, I would pronounce them ear haver. In my mind, 50% is a coin toss and tells me they could be making a blind stab at it. But 75% leans too far in their favor, in which case I would / will always oblige them. “Cool Ear Haver”.

Many engineers and producers out there today are up and running so fast that they haven’t had time to evolve this type of trained hearing. And I know from my own experience, that many of these “overnight” professionals will simply baffle their prospective providers of income, with pure, unadulterated crap. Once when I was looking for a place to record in another city when it was impossible to get the artist to come to me in Memphis, I was given a tour of a potential studio by the owner/engineer. And man, he could talk the talk. From bias oscillation transistors to the problems of certain classic microphones that he had modified. Talk TAlk TALk TALK TALK! This guy knew, literally, EVERYTHING about making a record. When I finally asked him to play something impressive that would suade me to bring him this hundred thousand plus dollar record, he went to a $4000 dollar turntable (‘better than digital’ … good), carefully pulled a record from it’s wrapper, gave it a quick static wipe, checked his stylus drag counterweight, and played me, at a very loud volume, THE MOST UNBELIEVEABLY HORRIFIC SOUNDING … MUSIC? … SOUND I HAD EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE on SPEAKERS that were very obviously WIRED BACKWARDS, and then he turned to me with a cocky, assured smile, scanning my face for expected amazement. And I must admit … I was amazed.

The thought of modifying a truly classic microphone, coupled with that terrifying speaker system, … and what in the Sam Hill are “bias oscillation transistors”? Here was a true EAR HAVER NOT. He has declared all out war on anything that sounds like … sound! I have no idea how these people make their way into ANY slot in professional audio. His sonic sensibilities transcend reality. And what is truly a nightmare is that the number of these sound pseudo-professionals is growing in our society at an exponential rate. Why? Because the technology that the pros use is now affordable to almost anyone. And the people buying into it are, in too many instances, people who think

that if you buy the stuff, the career will come with it automatically. And at the same time, in many instances, the naive, creative artist doesn’t know if it’s good or bad. Nor should he or she have to worry about the technical side of it. That’s the engineer’s and/or the producer’s job. The artist need only be concerned with what he or she or they  does best. So PLEASE, …  leave the technical part to the real “ear havers”.

Next question …