I recently had the opportunity to observe the process of making a record-from start to finish. Rico Anderson, manager of the Lamont Cranston Blues Band, suggested I do this as a new slant on what I had been writing about. It was a great idea and a very rewarding and educational experience for me. It started with two live recording sessions with the Lamont Cranston Blues Band (at Whiskey Junction and Brewbaker's). I observed John Keefe as he went about the recording process on site and followed him into the studio afterward. The following is part one of a two part interview with both John Keefe of First Generation Recording Studio and Pat Hayes of the Lamont Cranston Blues Band.
Ray: You are both a musician and a recording engineer (is that the right term?), how did you get to be each? Which came first and what led to the other?
Johnny O: Recording engineer is the correct term. I started playing coronet at the age of 6. When I was 8, I was encouraged by my grandmother to start playing accordion. I played accordion until I was 13. I also taught it for awhile. Then I took up guitar when I was 13. Accordion wasn't "cool" to play at that age. I bought my first guitar for $4 from a friend of mine's sister who had an electric guitar hanging on the wall like a decoration. When I first heard Jimi Hendrix he really changed my whole concept of what the guitar sounded like and what you could do with the guitar. I was self-taught. I used to put weights on the records to slow them down to learn the licks. I also bought books. At that time, I never took any lessons because most people who were giving lessons back then couldn't play any of that stuff. Back then I would have killed to have some of the videos that they have now to learn from.
Eventually, I started playing or jamming with other guys. That's where the recording part comes in. My father had an old 3M reel-to-reel tape recorder that he had bought from my uncle who owned a camera store. I started taking that with me to record our little jam sessions and to play them back to see how they sounded. I did that for a few years and then I got a job working as a deck hand working on the river for pretty good money. I went out and bought a really nice reel to reel two-track tape recorder and a couple of condenser microphones. By that time I was playing in bands and I would bring the tape recorder and microphones and record our rehearsals. I'd play them back to see how it sounded. Then soon after that I started playing around with mic placement. I noticed I could get different sounds by placing microphones in different places in the room. That lead to me going out and recording bands and friends live in clubs and at private parties. I did that for a number of years and then started reading books on recording and asking people questions and getting any information I could. Eventually I took some courses on digital recording at Hennepin Tech. So you could say one lead to the other.
Ray: How did you get attracted to the blues?
Johnny O: Pretty much Jimi Hendrix led me into the blues. I started looking at who his influences were. And started listening to Buddy Guy, Albert King, BB King, Albert Collins, Freddy King-there's a whole list of them. That led me to start delving into some jazz guitarists.
Ray: Who are some of your influences?
Johnny O: As I said Jimi Hendrix, all the Kings, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhart, and Gabo Zabor, to name a few. There are so many great guitarists.
Ray: What other bands have you played with?
Johnny O: The list is very long. In my 20s and 30s that's all I did was play guitar in bands. I went on the road and played with any band that was paying. I played country, rock, 50s, and I even played with an Elvis impersonator.
Ray: How long have you been working on recordings?
Johnny O: Ever since I started playing guitar, I've been recording in one form or another. The other thing is when I got that nice reel-to-reel and started recording my bands, other bands started hearing it and for a few dollars or free beer I'd go out and record their shows or rehearsals. In 1990, with the advent of MDM (modular digital multitracks), recording for somebody like me became affordable. I didn't have $15,000 to spend on a tape deck. This is when I bought my first ADAT. Again, I just started recording bands for a few dollars. I bought a house in 1994 and started setting up a
Ray: Did you work with anyone else, in other studios?
Johnny O: No, pretty much like the guitar, I'm self-taught.
Ray: Who have been some of your clients?
Johnny O: It's a pretty long list, but I'll keep it recent. A detailed list is on the Website: www.firstgenstudio.com. Lamont Cranston, I also do a lot of recording for Musicland-the Excelsior label-with Steve Millar, who is the producer. We work on rerecord projects-a concept is put together by Musicland and Steve Millar; for instance, a Broadway CD or a dance CD. Millar secures the musicians, the arrangements, the charts. The material has already been recorded by the original artists. The musicians rerecord the material live in the studio. It's not midi stuff. Then it's marketed in Musicland stores under the Excelsior label. Other recent artists would be the Soulmates, Shane and the Wild Weasels, Power of Ten, Out All Night, and Cool Disposition. Currently I'm working with Lamont Cranston on their live CD, Hydraulic Jack and the
Lifters, the Soulmates, and my solo CD, which is Johnny O & Fillet O'Soul and another live recording by a band called the Broken Hearts with Ted Larson and Mike Carvalle from Lamont Cranston which also features Steve Pool and Mark Bohn. An upcoming project is recording St. Joes Choir on location.
Ray: Tell me about your recording studio. When built, what's there, what you can do?
Johnny O: We went in and gutted the basement and built it up from scratch over the course of 2 summers. A friend of mine, Greg Johnson, helped me with the wiring and structure-or, I should say I helped HIM! He's a marvelous carpenter/Jack Of All Trades and musician. Scott Ludden, the Soulmates sound engineer/studio engineer did the design and specifications. I started with (four) ADATs and
a 16-track analog tape deck, and a Mackie 32-channel mixing console. In 1998 I switched over to hard disk recording for its editing capabilities and upgraded to an automated console. I use ProTools but still have ADATs and bought a 24-track analog tape recorder. As far as what I can do…I can do most anything. With the advent of digital recording, there is not a whole lot I cannot do. For example, I have software that can take vocals or instruments that are out of tune and put them pitch perfect in tune. A recent example, while recording the Musicland Broadway CD we had a singer who could not hit a very high note. It was, I believe, a high E. So we had her sing a high D and then we pitch-shifted it to a high E. Listening to it, you would swear she sang that high E. I can take material and speed up or slow down that material with no pitch change. These
are just a couple things, but there are many, many more. The computer is a very powerful recording tool. It's amazing.
Ray: You are currently working on the Lamont Cranston Live CD, please tell me how that came about.
Johnny O: I did their last studio CD. I've known Pat for a number of years and I used to go out and see them in their early days--when they were playing on the West Bank. Then I met Pat when we (the Soulmates) were playing a couple of shows together with Lamont Cranston and started talking to Pat about the studio.
Ray: Can you explain the whole process from the on-site recording to the studio mixing? Please take as much time as you need to explain the process and what you did (what worked, what problems you had, etc.). Lets start with the on-site recording.
Johnny O: Ok, on site recording-we usually show up 4-5 hours before the show. We bring in MDMs, ADATs (in this case). Then we'll find a spot in the location that can be isolated as much as possible from the stage. Then we'll run what's called a splitter snake. One half of the snake feeds the house system, the other half feeds the microphone pre amps, which in turn, feed the tape decks. We may place some studio mics on stage and use some of the house mics to mic vocals, drums, guitars, keyboards, etc. and then place 4 microphones around the room to pick up the crowd response. Then the tape decks output to a mixing console which we can monitor the material being recorded directly to tape through studio monitors and headphones. I've used this
setup a number of times and it works pretty well.
From there, the material is recorded digitally on to tape and brought back to the studio and digitally transferred to hard drives. From there, editing takes place. Editing is a process of removing material that you don't want in the recording. In some cases, we may edit whole parts of a song to shorten the length. In other cases, we edit just parts of tracks to remove mic bleed or any background noise when an instrument isn't playing which makes for a cleaner recording. After that, then we set up EQ's and effects, which is reverb delay, etc. on the particular tracks to enhance their sonic capabilities, although we try and keep the tracks as natural sounding as possible.
From there, mixing takes place. Mixing can be best described as each instrument having its own place in the song. An example is rhythm parts have their own amplitude or volume, where solos or lead vocals would have a greater amplitude. You could say that mixing is a bit like cooking: each instrument has its own "flavor" and everything is blended to make the mix in the song. Then EQ and effects are added as the spice. After the mixing process is completed the tracks are then digitally bounced to a two track stereo mix. At that point, mastering takes over.
Mastering is like applying a final polishing before replication. It's a process of basically matching all the tracks in amplitude or volume, which is called normalizing, any final EQ'ing, stereo imaging which is widening or narrowing the stereo field and then compressing or limiting the mix to achieve total digital zero output. The problem with digital stuff is unlike tape, if you go over absolute digital zero, you get instant distortion. So it's important to try and get the hottest mix without going over digital zero. From there, the tracks are trimmed and ending or beginning fades are applied. Then the tracks are assembled and spaced in the order they will be put on the CD. The CD then goes off to a replicating facility.
Ray: What different problems/challenges do you encounter with a live recording vs. a studio recording?
Johnny O: The greatest challenge is the location you're at. Not all clubs keep their equipment in top working order. The other challenges-even though we show up 4 to 5 hours early-there never seems to be enough time. Also trying to get the musicians to show up early (2-3 hours before the gig) to get a proper recording level and to troubleshoot any potential problems (hum or line buzzes, maybe something that doesn't work. Once we're set up, there's not a lot we can do until the musicians show up and we get proper level checks. In studio recording, I have a very controlled environment. I know exactly how something is going to sound when it's recorded down there. I know my equipment is in top working order. I also have in-house musical instruments (drums, bass, amplifiers, guitar amplifiers, etc.) so that stuff can be checked and set up by the time the musicians arrive.
Ray: Once you have the recording done, please explain working with the band or producer on the mixing, or what comes next.
Johnny O: Usually the producers or artists and engineer will sit down and talk about how they want the band to sound. Then they'll talk about the performances and how they rate--whether they are good or mediocre. A (working) mix is then set up to hear how the performances sound. At that point a reference disk may be burned so the producer or artists can take it home and evaluate the performance and or material.
Ray: What are the other steps involved?
Johnny O: Overdubs may be called for to fix weak performances or mistakes. Then finding out what the artists or producers visions are of how the material should sound and what route we should take to achieve that.
Ray: What are the different roles of engineer, producer, etc. in the final product of a live recording?
Johnny O: An engineer handles the technical part of things. A producer will handle more of the creative end of things. Examples are an engineer will handle most of the recording, mixing, editing, EQ set up and FX set-ups. A producer would handle song arrangements, performance, feedback, but may also handle some EQ mixing, editing and FX. A producer may or may not be on hand for the live recording. So the lines get blurred a lot. Some engineers are producers as well. I found myself in the role of producer many times when a band is lacking direction. There are also assistant engineers. I use them a lot on live recordings. You need at least two in order to handle the technical aspects of a live situation.
Ray: How important is each role of mixer, engineer, producer, etc. in the final product of a live recording?
Johnny O: Mixers and engineers are the same thing. I'd say the most important thing is the engineer and producer work very closely together and as I said before, the lines are often blurred. Case in point, when Pat and I are working on the Live Cranston CD, we're continually bouncing ideas off each other to see what works and what doesn't work, and we don't always agree, although with Pat being the producer, he has the final say. That's probably true in most of the recording situations. It's the combined efforts that count to make a good recording. Everybody has to be a team player.
Ray: How was it working with Pat Hayes?
Johnny O: It's great working with Pat. Like I said, I used to see Pat when I was in my formative years down at the Triangle Bar when they played every Wednesday on dime-a-beer night. I would say to myself, "I'd love to record these guys some day." Pat and I seem to have good chemistry together. He has a great sense of humor and he knows what he wants as a producer.
Ray: Are some producers easier to work with than others? Any stories?
Johnny O: Some producers are easier to work with than others. Some are very technical on what they want. Some are less technical and are looking more at the creative side of things. A good story would be when Steve Millar came into the studio for his first Musicland project, which was a large Broadway production. I had just upgraded to ProTools and I only had 2 weeks to learn the technical aspects of it. So I went on vacation and spent two weeks reading the manuals to try to get a handle on the systems' capabilities and how it worked. As well, Steve was under the gun because it was his first project producing for Musicland. It had to be perfect. The pressure was
incredible. I being new to the system and Steve being new to producing it was like the blind leading the blind. Our senses of humor helped us handle the pressure. It came out very well although we went way over budget. And we both ended up eating some of the cost.
Ray: Once you are done, what happens next in making the CD?
Johnny O: It goes to a replicating plant. The studio master is burned to a glass master and then the CDs are stamped out. Next, a silkscreen design is applied to the non-playable side of the CD. The booklet is printed; the tray cards are printed. They're all assembled and shrink-wrapped.
Ray: You are busy playing with your groups, Soulmates and Johnny O & Fillet O Soul, how much time do you spend in the studio?
Johnny O: Between playing with the Soulmates and my trio, Johnny O & Fillet O Soul, most of my time is spent in the studio. The studio business is kind of like a roller coaster. When it's busy, it's really busy. When it's slow, it gives me a chance to catch up on my marriage.
Ray: What are some of your next projects?
Johnny O: The Soulmates are going to release a CD. I'm releasing a solo CD. I'm going to be recording a choir, as well as the Musicland stuff. We have a Latin project coming up with Musicland.
Ray: Please comment on anything I might have missed.
Johnny O: I just would like to say I really like recording. It gives me a chance to work with a lot of different musicians and see a lot of different styles that I probably wouldn't see because I'm playing. I like meeting and interactions with other musicians. I have a lot of fun doing it and it allows me to be very creative. Thank you for a chance to talk about the recording business.
First Generation Recording Studio
CLICK HERE for Pat Hayes Interview.
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