A peak into the mind of John Hampton

How’s that new technology workin’ for you?

Why is it … that every single time a new technology (iPhone, iPad, iBulb, iWish) is introduced, we, “John Q. Public and Co., LTD. LLC”, welcome it with almost frenzied anticipation. We never think about even thinking about the repercussions it could wreak on society … or if it’s REALLY going to make life easier and/or better. Here’s a story from the London Telegraph dated June, 2011, that states that the new, hotter than sunburn “green” CFL light bulbs, the ones that are going to replace the lame, 1000-year-old, stupid, (-but-proven) bulbs … can release cancer causing … stuff. Now THAT’s progress; a giant leap toward technical excellence; a nightmarish technical PICNIC!!! Real, live, no-joke scientists, after a wagonload of studying the curly little rat inside and out, say the bulbs should never be near your head or left on!! I have one in my shower that’s been on 24/7 for over a year as my night light. But our prez sez, energy costs are going to “necessarily skyrocket”, so the CFL looks like the perfect answer! Right? Sure…. IF YOU DON’T MIND KIDS WITH 3 OR 4 EYES, OR ELEVEN THUMBS! We truly are The Apex of Thought if we move forward with this one.

See for yourself, if it’s still in the archives…..


But any new technology is going to have some “bugs” to work out before it’s really consumer-ready. I got a new MacBook recently and once I was over how really cool it looked, I noticed a not so funny anomaly …  if I touched it anywhere on it’s chassis while my other hand was operating the trackpad, out of nowhere …BOOM! I’m in a chat-room for one legged Tango dancers!

The 1995 Chevy Blazer had over 500 “Engineering Change Orders” (fixes) between 1985 and 1986.

Now the younger crowd is making a run on turntables. And USB turntables. I understood the whole turntable run when CDs first appeared AND players were finally under $200. It was then that many college radio stations had so much money tied up in vinyl, they bought one or two more lest the things “disappear” overnight. And they simply couldn’t afford a new CD to replace every vinyl LP, not to mention that at the time, every record ever made was NOT on CD also.

Case 1:Now here’s the odd part-and the crux of this second piece concerning vinyl records: We are still going through a run on turntables. Today! But now, EVERYTHING IS available in the digital format; whether a CD or a download that, to many ears, is the same “fidelity” as a CD. So why all the turntables? Well, I’ll tell you why, sonny. The average record buyer has lived with the (sub-standard) sound quality of a CD long enough to notice a difference between the CD and vinyl! Many of you have never heard a vinyl record! “But Hampton, I think CDs sound great!” And then they “prove” it by playing a great recording of a great song written by a great artist! LOUDLY! A record made by great musical minds will sound good on a laptop with toilet paper in your ears!! And/or LOUD!

An audiologist (one that studies sound) will tell you that you can “hear” from 20Hz (Hz = Hertz, the number of vibrations per second something makes, to about 20,000Hz. 20 Hz is low, low bass, like the sound of fireworks when they launch. Or when the ones with no color sparkle … just flash, then 4 or 5 seconds later …. BOOM! 20Hz! That low sound that literally moves you;  it moves your butt out of your chair when you’re in a good theater playing “Avatar”, and that first shuttle is landing. Or the volcano erupts from the La Brea Tarpits in downtown L.A. 20,000Hz is the high, high stuff like metal on metal; a cymbal crash or breaking glass contain 20,000Hz. Anything above that is what makes your dog’s head tilt to one side. Yes, there ARE vibrations up there, but our cilia in our ears are too coarse to wobble that fast. So, CD regulators made a specification that if sound higher than 22,050Hz gets recorded, an electronic circuit enters the picture and acts like a sound-cop. “STOP! If you are higher than 22,050 vibrations per second, you will NOT be included on this CD. So just go back to your cars before I turn you into distortion!” But this isn’t a bad circuit. It CAN’T be. Because it’s … a newer, better technology. Better than vinyl anyway. Right?

Well, maybe not. Scientists in Japan are now discovering that the brain reacts to sounds well above that 22,050 Hz, where whales communicate and Cicada carry on primal conversation. Even dogs hear things that we “can’t”. Or can we? Neve asks, “How do these ultra-high frequencies get inyo our nervous system? We are beginning to think it could be through the skin. Perhaps even through the etes.

Case 2: Geoff Emerick, Rupert Neve and a dodgy anecdote re module #12

Nece designs the best audio consoles around. Well, he and Peter Gabriel, the owner of Solid State Logic, another fine British console, or “desk” as the Brits call them. Rupert would drop in on Geoff every now and then just to chat it up a bit, as well as ask him how his Neve desk was behaving. Rupert noticed once that the console went from 1 to 11, then 32, then 13-31. And the module #12 was all the way at the end. When grilled about it, Emerick’s reply was simply ” I can’t really say, Rupert. I just don’t like the way that module sounds”. When Mr. Neve asked if he could take #12 to his shop and look it over, Geoff was fine with it. “I won’t be using it”.

So at the plant, Rupert had his tech team run distortion tests, intermodulation tests, frequency response test (Hz) from 20 to 25, 000 Hz. and they found absolutely nothing amiss. On a whim, Rupert got them to run a frequency response test all the way to 100,000Hz! And to their amazement, they noticed it had a rise in volume around 56,000Hz! Meaning it was adding it’s own color to the sound. But wait … if we can’t hear past 21,000Hz, what difference would a rise at 56,000 make? Neve asked his guys to find out why the rise, and they found a transformer with a 100 ohm* termination instead of 1000 ohms*. They corrected the problem, and ran the test again. Perfect. Coloration gone. He had returned the module to a state of high fidelity, or “Hi-Fi” (highly faithful reproduction of the original sound), which was always the goal. Rupert had one of the guys return the now faithful module back to Emerick.

When he dropped in on Geoff after that, the console was numbered “10,11,12,13,” ad numerum. When Geoff took a break, Rupert asked him if the module sounded better to him now. Geoff responded by asking,”You saw it’s back where it belongs, didn’t you?” ‘Nuff said. But then again, it opens an entirely new door in the study of audiology.

This story is one that Rupert Neve related at a SPARS** luncheon meet-and-greet a few years ago in New York at an AES*** convention. So what does it all mean? It means that a CD or a digital download do NOT contain all of the sound that the music is putting out there. There are frequencies well above that 22,050Hz “brick-wall” in every CD player on the planet that removes a part of the musical experience. But vinyl records can get a lot closer to “Perf-Fi” (Perfect Fidelity) if you are listening through great speakers, with a good stylus on the “tone arm”. Did you know there are styli that can reproduce up to 60,000Hz? And speakers that will reproduce well into the 30,000Hz range. Well, guess what else? ANALOG TAPE will record and reproduce up toward 50,000Hz. So…

If analog tape can record it, and vinyl can reproduce it, why in the world are we giving in to the sub-par CD, that abruptly cuts off audio that is very much a part of our everyday, especially our music? If you are one that believes music is a spiritual entity, would YOU like to see God as you understand him (or don’t) walking around on crutches?


Whew! Now THAT got deep. ………. Next question

*- An ohm is a measure of resistance to electronic current flow.
**-The Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios
***-Audio Engineering Society

ProTools 9 … One step closer to Photoshop for music.

Is our planet getting to be a wacky, whirlwind of a world that we wander in, or WHAT? I mean, everyone is afraid to do anything because no one knows if prices are going up more, or if they are going to come back to Earth. We just can’t get off the breast of Middle-East oil because environmentalists just won’t let us drill anywhere, for fear of wiping out the Flat-tongued Rainbow-Snail Hairless Marmot … though right beneath our feet there’s enough oil to keep the Sheiks from our doorstep for generations! Amidst all this,  technology allows almost anyone to make a record with a couple instruments and a laptop! Like I said, it’s a wacky world we’re wandering.

So it’s all in a big, weird state of flux, or rather flux NOT. But some things are moving forward; DAMN the torpedos. Like music technology, computer technology, ANY technology. And like I’ve said, it’s not a nice, straight line of advancement like it has been since the dawn of time. Instead of people designing “stuff”, people are designing computers that design “stuff”. Some computers are designing other computers that design “stuff” to make computers that design “stuff” better. What used to be a linear progress is becoming asymptotic, or exponential progress. ( Hint: These are words that are getting more and more airplay as time moves on.)

As technology marches blindly on, music technology marches with it. Save for one tiny difference. It seems as if the sonic part of music technology is going backwards as it marches … forward? Honestly! Imagine this: From the 1940s until the late eighties, recording to analog, magnetic tape was … well, it’s how it was done. The most popular means of recording music now is almost like it’s always been, except the advancement of the technology allows for cheaper microphones, less than high-fidelity processing, you know. . . junk. But it is by no means ALL junk. Some things cut through the sea of junk and make it to shore, and we find that it’s a really fantastic breakthrough. Let’s look at the most cutting edge breakthrough of them all: the recording medium. By today’s standards, the first digital (not analog) recording medium  was crap when compared to analog tape pressed onto good, virgin vinyl … at least to my two earholes. Call me nuts. But if I’m nuts, you’ve got to tell Jack White he’s nuts, too … (all if his THIRD MAN Records releases are vinyl.) And Ozzie (?), The Black Keys, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes … about 99% of “ear-havers” on the planet. But not many will argue against the latest version of ProTools, easily the most used recording platform in the world. And now, you may, if you wish, mimic the sound of analog tape on each and every ProTools track!

But why in the world would the most popular digital recording medium in the world go to these kind of lengths to NOT SOUND DIGITAL? WHY? Thirty years of developing digital just to end up where we started? I don’t get it. Unless …

Unless it’s an admission that the pro-vinyl folks are right, and analog tape sounds better than digital no matter how much technology you put behind it. I say … not exactly. At least that’s not the whole story.

If you are a bad musician, and I include a voice as an instrument, you will NEVER be good. Never. Go back to school. But if you are a fair musician, ProTools can make you a better musician. But, go back to school anyway. We are already awash in mediocrity without your adding to the party! But if you are a pretty good musician, hang on to that tuition cash for a minute. Because ProTools MIGHT help you be good. And from good, it’s possible (possible) that you can get to great. Save for one caveat. There could be one teeny-weeny . problem with using it a lot. Live performance. Because ProTools 9 is out, and it’s one step closer to Photoshop for music.

There’s a feature in there (in ProTools) that can make your drummer steadier than he really is. DRAG. CLICK.  The world famous “Auto-Tune®” (now it’s “Melodyne®”) will make your out of tune singing on key. SHIFT DOUBLE-CLICK. Having a bit of trouble deciding when your equametric-paralyzer (tone) is helping,  or your compressor (dynamic range) is hurting? No worries, mate!. It can make those decisions for you.There are lots of presets that were dialed up by the smart guys who know all about it, because most read the old manuals! And lose that cheap guitar sound in a flash because there are plenty of pre-set amplifiers in there, too. From settings The Beatles dialed up, to Carlos Santana, and everything in between! If you keep running out of air because the key of the song never got a second thought, just sing one good chorus, and paste it in to all of the chori! If your drummer can’t get off work, Apple will give you some great drum parts, thanks to Apple Loops®! Yes, it’s a wanna-be’s dream come true. Now you can make a record all by your little lonesome, in your bedroom, after work (when you’re half beat and your girlfriend is getting real bored watching you indulge yourself.)  And when (if) that little jewel is all done,  just show it off on MySpace®, and maybe you can even get iTunes® or  uTones© to sell it. I can see the headlines now: AVERAGE LOCAL MUSICIAN DOES FAIR; SELLS MANY RECORDS ON WEBSITE! Mirabili dictu! Will miracles never cease? (This is one miracle that I often pray … will.)

I mean, why take all the time needed to deliver a touching, inspired, bring-’em-to-the-edge-of-tears-type vocal performance that has the power to change lives, … when you can just slack your way through one half-fast performance, then use the recorder like the coolest video game ever made … for a week? And speaking of inspired, I can tell you for sure that inspiration is hard to pull off even in the best of recording studios, if you have no feedback. How do you do it in your room, at night, after work, with your bored girlfriend trying to watch “Jersey Girls”? Or say that you are Mr. Virtuoso … don’t you need some kind of feedback? The word we are missing here is collaboration. Don’t you need someone to bounce ideas off of, like a band mate, or a producer, or even the engineer … (if you’re wise enough to hire a professional to help) Some sort of collaboration? Remember John and Paul, and then John or Paul? Was each alone really as good as both of them, together, swapping ideas?

Finally, notice that as technology shares in it’s breakthroughs, it begins to grow beyond our wildest dreams. And as the artist isolates more, adrift in that technology, music that warms the soul seems to become quieter, harder to hear.

Maybe it’s disappearing … just as fast as the Flat-tongued Rainbow-Snail Hairless Marmot.

Geoff Emerick and the Legend of Strawberry Fields

Did you know that Julian Lennon’s dad used to have a band with that guy in Wings? I have a vague remembrance as a boy (it was February 1964) of watching “Ladies and gentlemen, The BEATLES!” on  TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time. It was a stunning moment for me and millions of others. That cleverly planned moment (I mean come on … 20 days after the record release … how DID they get that gig?) was that moment that  I fell in love with music. But por mois, it was even more than that, resonating with the spiritual side of me. Have you ever reacted to music like that, or am I the only one? My brother Randy and I went to our room when the show was over and, with a broom and a bed … part, we stood in front of the ceiling lamp watching our shadows on the wall morph into John and George. (I was John and Paul was a leftie) That night defined the beginning of my life in music, as it did many others, I’m sure.

I kept up with the band through every part of their meteoric careers, buying everything they released in America. And then later, and into my twenties, I discovered the stores in New York where you could buy British releases of stuff never released state-side. I found a way to keep up with them after they had disbanded. But when I began the recording studio part of my life, I noticed from reading the inside of Anthology 1 that their “team” wasn’t even mentioned on the records; the team of people putting that music together. I mean surely the band didn’t just walk ino any recording studio in the world, running around plugging in microphones, bringing orchestras in and telling them what to do! And SURELY they weren’t the only ones who, after making these gems, sat behind the recording equipment and put the final balance on all of these guitars and French Horns and vocals and miscellaneous cacophony. Nope, it wasn’t them. But it was a team … that was dedicated to seeing that their artistic vision made it safely into my hands, as un-altered as possible. There was George Martin, their “producer”, whatever that meant. And at first,  the “engineer” was Norman Smith. But toward the end of recording their ear-turning Revolver record,  Norman moved on to produce Pink Floyd, and Geoff Emerick, became the guy sitting alongside Martin in the control room. My older sister was staying in tune with The Beach Boys, who were going through their own metamorphasis with their acclaimed Pet Sounds record as both bands went through the white-hot phases of their careers. It was kind of like Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And because of the subtle rivalry for the ultimate recording, records became so … so really interesting. I preferred the British slant, like I Am the WalrusStrawberry Fields ForeverLucy In the Sky with Diamonds … what exactly WAS this new sonic safari all about? cTomorrow Never Knows was the first song by The Beatles where I  heard a distinct difference between the happy, shiny Beatles, and the new, cerebrally cool Beatles. Radically different. But what was making it so different out of the clear blue?

I believe that answer to be two-fold.

#1 drugsLucy inthe Sky w/Diamonds

And #2… Geoff Emerick

Every other part of the team was the same. Geoff was the force that fulfilled John Lennon’s request of matching up one version of Strawberry Fields with another. The two versions had been recorded weeks apart at two different tempos , and in two different keys! It seems Lennon loved the end product after weeks of working out every nuance he wanted … but he still loved the beginning of the very first “potential” keeper. So Geoff, in a single, magical, musical moment, refusing to say it couldn’t be done, found a way to turn the edit between the two versions into a legendary artistic moment. A moment most engineers wouldn’t have even thought of. Geoff was brilliant. He made it work. (The edit occurs at exactly 1:00, on the word “going” in the phrase “’cause I’m going to … Strawberry Fields”) Click the title Strawberry Fields Forever

I had the pleasure (along with about twenty others) of having dinner one night with Geoff and his co-writer Howard Massey when they were in town promoting Geoff’s book,  Here, There, and Everywhere-My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles. (whew!) Rather than hit him with questions he heard all the time and probably hated down inside by now, I just sat there soaking up his presence and listening to his stories that were not in the book. He was brought to town for a presentation of the book, and some previously unheard music, by the Memphis NARAS chapter… the Grammy folks. I had become so infatuated with the man and his outlook on the subject of records and music and the Beatles, that now the book is in my stable of “READ OFTEN”, alongside Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, Plato’s Republic (which shold be re-titled “Plato’s and Socrates’ Feudalism”), MAD Magazines (about a hundred) and the original screenplay for Hampton Fancher’s “Bladerunner“. Now Geoff’s book. And every day, I discover ways that he and I have many similar viewpoints; he captures the ARTIST’s vision, by finding new and interesting ways to do whatever it takes to bring that vision to fruition. And he sees a clear cut line between engineering and producing, where most (myself included, at first) engineers see a blur and try to get into production eventually, if they can handle that hot seat.
Geoff, if you read this, I am only one of millions of fans who truly appreciate your views since I, too, have been there. Oh, and Geoff …  I regret Yoko’s ubiquitousness as much as you. As do many. But then again, you were sooo lucky to get that gig. Swine …

Next Question …

Accidents WILL Happen … (hopefully)

The session was called for 1PM. Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan were going to start their first and only album together.

Nile Rodgers was producing and I was all set up. Stevie and Rene Martinez (his guitar Tech and an excellent flamenco style player himself) were first, coming around a stylish 1:30. Jimmie was right behind them. Larry Aberman and Al Berry, drums and bass respectively, were setting up along with Rich Hilton, Nile’s “Do Anything” man.

Nile’s super-stylin’ 5:30 arrival could have been even later, had he not promised some magazine writer a “quickie” phone interview. And being the official recording engineer for these now infamous sessions, that meant phone interviews, too. As Nile talked record production with the interviewer,  he said something I didn’t understand … yet. This was 1990. And it took about ten years for it to soak in, but I eventually got it.
He said, “A producer’s job, really, is organizing the mistakes.”

Now it’s some time in 2003. And Jimmie is making his first solo record for CBS. It was during the first few days of his record that I discovered that Jimmie Vaughan is probably the hardest person on the planet to satisfy when it comes to getting “his” sound. And being the “NEVER give up” producer that I have become, I just won’t bail on pursuing that sound. We’ve talked about it in a language that only he and I understand. And we’ve driven around Austin for HOURS listening to this artist and that artist, from Johnny Guitar Watson to Blind Lemon Pledge, from noon to midnight …

But once you’re in the studio with a million ideas, it’s time to put the concepts to the test. And I’m coming up short on the intangible sound. But what is slowly coming into view as a bigger picture is that Jimmie Vaughan on his records is not a man singing and playing a guitar, Jimmie Vaughan is a really a conversation between a man and his guitar. When I finally saw that “big picture”, it was time to figure out how capture it.

I had two microphones I had planned on using. One on the amp, one for Jimmie to sing in. (Keep it stupid, simple.) First he wanted to re-do some guitar on the tracks we had finished the day before, so I got up a guitar sound and, as I expected, he didn’t like it. But as he played, I accidentally shoved up the volume on his vocal mike, which was across the room. Oh, if you could have seen our faces! His guitar through that amp IN THAT ROOM sounded like a million bucks. And as luck(?) would have it, adding that vocal mike meant all we needed … was a vocalist! These 2 microphones could now record the “conversation”.

This type of situation comes up in recording studios all the time. A guitar player gets lost reading a chord chart and plays a wrong chord at the chorus. The resulting chord could never have been calculated, even by Einstein, but it’s a magical chord that the song has been calling for.

A girl leading the other background singers brings them in 8 beats early. That little “mistake” fits so well that it becomes  the “hook” of the song.

An accidentally erased guitar part calls for a re-do. The new solo becomes the central theme of the song, which becomes a huge hit, and a theme for an insurance company’s ad that’s all over television. What would have happened to that band if the original guitar solo hadn’t been accidentally erased?

You know? Just writing this little blurb has made me want to go and tell four musicians to play four separate pieces of music at the same tempo and see what we come up with. Now the big question … should they all play in the same key?

Toots in Memphis is a record I had the honor of working on with Jim Dickinson that reeks of “Ja” … the idol of the Rasta way. Toots Hibbert and “the Maytalls” (what the heck is a Maytall?) were part of a huge onslaught of Reggae music that included Marley, Yellowman, … you know … REGGAE MUSIC! Sly Dunbar tells the tale of the birth of the art-form. The popular reggae feel apparently was the result of poor radio reception of Miami pop music radio. Over distance, the lower part of the bandwidth, THE BASS, is the first to go away in that poor reception. Which translates to the snare drum, or “back beat” is the main rhythmic component that comes across. I know this may be a little hard to follow, but in the simplest terms, any music that has equal force 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 …. comes through as _-2-_-4_-2-_-4. It’s the main rhythm of reggae music. Now that may not be accidental, but it certainly was influential.

The spirit of music has always been a little magical to me, and the “accidents” are actually not accidents at all. They are simply a spirit that some hear, and others don’t. And to me, that is the difference between the artist and the non-artist. It weaves itself around the senses that make a painter, an architect, or a musician able to see what others want to experience.

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 …

The “W C” Modification

What better place than the ol’ porcelain throne to peruse the pages of the latest “Recording Today ” magazine, and read the latest. in-depth, nitty-gritty  articles on the workings of a modern recording session and the technical prowess involved in bringing these creative endeavors to the modern marketplace, where the second it comes out of the gate, it hits the world wide web.

And by mid afternoon, EVERYONE has heard it. AND HAS IT.

Now that’s progress. Oh, by the way, the check from iTunes for that one copy is in the mail.

What are we doing? And why are we doing it?

No wonder the modern recording studio comes fully eguipped for the cost of a good laptop and two wanna-be microphones. And a few hundred bucks in software and CDs. I mean, what else do you need?

How about, for one, an artist? Better yet, an artist that is talented. What the heck. An artist that is talented enough to draw a crowd and sell a record or two. It’s happened before, you know.

I was reading in an apparently revered mag about the intense session that went down for the latest Joe Beets record. They had to be en garde because the prima donna artist, who I promise you have NEVER heard of, is a really demanding dude, and you must have his favorite U-47 wanna be mic ($499 retail) and a  candle burning … for the mood.

Yeah. You just never know day to day where Joe’s whimsy is going to take you. So they were prepared. They had 2 (TWO!) … RED®  brand mics running to matched Babylon E535 mic preamps with the Billy Harrington “W C” modification. 5 weeks ago, Billy was moonlighting after his Circuit City job, ripping off old Neve mic pre-amp schematics, and if he couldn’t find the St. Ives Windings transformers,The old old St. Ives he took parts out of old, busted Shure 57s. They sounded fine. And that very first amp stage that Rupert Neve would have a table of old British ladies analyze on a curve tracer for noise and gain? And then they would put that tiny little dot of red fingernail polish on it as a mark of excellence? Well, Radio Shack has something similar, so Billy was using those. A real piece of work, that “W C” mod.

Billy's fab WC modIt’s absolutely amazing the depths that audio technology has sunk to to accommodate todays recording session.

“By the way, we have to break so I can get Spider from Day Care. 20 minutes MAX!” Just keep rehearsing that part.”

Most artists that I deal with come to me and our fine studio because they know they will get the highest level of co-operation in the pursuit of their sound. If it’s Jimmie Vaughan, I know what he expects and I provide it. Jack White and his lo-tech hi-tech vibe is catered to at the same time. We have learned to be chameleons and fit seamlessly into almost any situation you can dish up. Country music to the Cramps, Audio A to Z Z Top, Allman Brothers to the latest Euro-pop …I  / we have been there and forgotten NOTHING. Our Fairchild limiters have input transformers the size of a Babylon E535. And our Neumann mics are NOT the kind that have a single integrated circuit in them. These are tried and true tools of the trade still going strong fifty plus years after they were made.

And I’m sorry, but I STILL haven’t been impressed by that “WC” modification.

Next question …

Hearts Off to Haiti

Aiding Haiti with Love and a Melody    

When my management approached me with an offer to help Larry Dodson (from the fabulous Bar-Kays) put together a record that the Bar-Kays and others were doing, my eyes lit up. ALL of the profit from the sales was going directly to someone in quake-ravaged Haiti who was honest to a fault and would get the money wherever it would do the most good. I just said “Sure. When? Where?” But I wasn’t sure WHY I had volunteered so quickly.In July 7, 1977, the first day I worked at Ardent Recording Studio, ZZ Top was in studio A, and the fabulous Bar-Kays were in studio B. There had to be at least 12 people in there, with the speakers turned up to 11, and every fifteen minutes or so, a Bar-Kay would come out to attend to his beeswax, always loud and laughing, and to the casual onlooker, one would think a hoedown was on rather than a record. But boy … they had fun and it was all over the place. I cottoned to this place and these people like a flea cottons to a dog. Good luck getting rid of me, folks. I’m home.

On the day we cranked up this session, Larry and their tech/roadie/remote recordist Markus came in with the production they had done so far, in some secret laboratory. Now WE were going to add more people and more voices, singing a song written to the unfortunate Haitian population that were desperately trying to restore their country that laid in ruin by a natural disaster of the ugliest kind.It seems a lot of people look at Haiti like the movie “Serpent and the Rainbow”, with it’s Black Magic and people coming to life AFTER being officially pronounced dead. But what was coming in on the net, in the news, and through the radio described something much different and even more horrifying once it sinks in that it’s REAL.

But you know, that’s when Americans and the world, do what we do best. We help. We comfort. We give what we can, hoping … what? That if we are ever in that shape, they would return the favor? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s because it just feels good to help a fellow human being in distress. It’s just in our blood.

The record was growing. Maurice White is coming, and Kirk Whalum is slaying us with the most soulful sax this side of, hmmmmm, this side of China.

J. Blackfoot is just plain old testifying, loudly, if I may. Many red lights, mon! Eric Gales is tearing up both a guitar and an amplifier as he blazes a brain boggling blur of fingers and arms and strings, all becoming just white hot! This is fantastic. Then, the almost winner of last year’s Americam Idol, (we call her) Lil Rounds. I wept.

And over the next few days, so many people came in that the production team was simply overwhelmed and we were just saying “GO! We’ll sort it out later”. When you add it up, we spent six days putting more and more and more on this record. Yes, the production was becoming a nightmare. But YES! You could NOT hold back the people who wanted to get involved. There was a couple from Spain, taking a tour of the studio. Larry asked them if they could sing. They came in and sang beeeeautifully … as if to say to say “Haiti, we in Spain care too!” It was all Un Be friggin lieveable!!! We were completely burnt after six days of that. Break!

I did the math. Assuming average promotion, and average airplay. Nationally, of course. Assume a CD with 2 different versions. Or 3. Heck,we could really make about 50 versions! Let’s assume a $5.99 retail. Say 100,000 people hear it, like it and buy it. In America. After the extremely minimal costs incurred are paid, it leaves you with about … it’s easily around a half a mil. What if 300,000 people buy it? Now we’re over a mil. For 6+ days work, we could send the Haitian people over a million BUCKS! A MILLION BUCKS!!  so …

All you have to do to help the Haitian people is buy the record! It’s not lining my pocket one cent. Nor Larry’s. Nor Maurice’s or Kirks or Eric or even Li’l Rounds!! The love shared in that room during the recording of that song made us ALL a little more humble, a little more aware to the devastation that Mother Nature, on a bad day, can cause. This reality check was our payment. And we ALL learned again that LOVE alone (with a little cash) can help even the worst situations.

And as we rounded the corner into the home stretch, Larry and I both realized that we had just been moved a little closer to each other, both on a personal level and a cultural level. One of the greatest things about the music business is that we all share a bond that supersedes race, religion, and just about anything that COULD come between us. It is a spirit that at times becomes the Great equalizer of mankind. It can be humbling. And, like anything spiritual, in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc. Today, the Hatian peopkle were in good hands. Can I get an AMEN on that, J. Blackfoot?

And very soon, the Haitian people will become a part of it, too.

Next question …

Have you heard “The News”?

“It’s hard to go wrong borrowing from “The Memphis Songbook,” as I call it, when you’re crafting a record. One thing about Memphis’ music is how the listener can wrap him/herself up in the pain of the writer, or in the joy of being rescued from that pain. Whether it’s discovering a new love or letting go of an old one, the trials and triumphs of life are the intangible places where that lyric gets born. So who better to relate to these trials and triumphs than veteran songster Huey Lewis, Hughie Louis, or even Hugh Anthony Cregg III (all the same person), who has written a truckload of hits himself!

“When Jim Gaines, who has made records from Journey to Santana, Steve Miller to Tower of Power, Stevie Ray Vaughan to George Thorogood, … asked my involvement with his upcoming Huey Lewis record, I immediately started hearing “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “I Want a New Drug,” “If This is It,” and even having visions of Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Back to the Future, a movie forever interlocked to Huey and vice versa in 1985, when “The Power of Love” became HLN’s first #1 single, and “Sports,” their third album, started it’s slow burn to the #1 Billboard spot. It eventually ruled there for a bit, and Huey and the News had made it to the top of the pile. Before it was over, and it still ain’t, the record had sold over 10 million copies in the US alone and spawned nine top 30 hits, 4 bound for the top ten, and some of those for the #1 spot.

“In their career, Huey Lewis and the News has sold 19 million records worldwide… and counting. Wow.

“So how do you follow an act like that? You kick back and do whatever you want, that’s how! And Huey wants to take a dip in the river of the Memphis Songbook. But you better watch it, because that magic book has been known to launch new careers! And re-invent to established careers. Just ask The Black Crows about “Hard to Handle;” Toots and the Maytalls about one of their big ones, “Take me to the River,” or any other on his Toots in Memphis record. Or ask ZZ Top if “I Thank You” helped them along. And how many danced to Amii Stewart’s version of “Knock on Wood” … the list goes on. These timeless pieces, just like the American Songbook, refuse to be “bagged.” They fight category. And the Memphis Songbook feels like it has always been and always will be.

Just exactly like Huey Lewis and the News. Oh! And I hear Huey is a mean harmonica player.