August 31, 2017

FTV: DIY Recording

  In my archives, I have a old cassette tape dating back to early in my junior year of high school – somewhere around 1969.  It isn’t much to listen to because there is a lot of background noise, some snippets of dialog and the first (and unfortunately only) bit of music ever put down on tape by my high school band The Twig.  It was not a serious attempt at recording music, it was just a bunch of us goofing around in my basement.  The tape is falling apart so I am going to make one valiant attempt to see if it can be transferred to a CD, otherwise, the only record of this bit of history will be in the minds of any of us who were there.

    My old friend Mitch, late of Gresham, Oregon, had dropped in when Mike, Gene and I were jamming songs, trying to put together enough music to play at least an hour and a half school dance.  That was a distant goal.  Now that I think about it, we didn’t even have a name yet, but we had a vision of playing paying gigs in our last year of high school.  We had a lot of work ahead of us and outside of getting a little gas money for playing a house party, we were playing free gigs just so we could play somewhere other than in my basement.  Mitch had stopped by to show us his new Craig stereo cassette player.  He was working at the Red Owl grocery store and enjoying the fact that he had some disposable income to spend on things like this.  Gene and Mike were working part time at a gas station and in the hospital kitchen, respectively, but as soon as we were card carrying members of local A.F.of M. 218, they planned to quit so we could enjoy playing for pay without the outside distraction of other part time employment.

     We didn’t really get much done after he showed us his new toy, but at some point Mitch had hit ‘record’ and let the tape roll while we were jamming away.  It is distorted, it is loud, but it is also captivating because I had never heard myself playing drums on tape before.  When I played with the guys from K.I.Sawyer AFB in Knockdown, guitar player Ray had brought an ancient reel to reel tape machine to the NCO Club one night.  He just set it on the front of the stage and recorded part of our set that night using the only microphone that came with the machine.  I never heard any of this tape and wish I had a copy of it just for fun, but like Mitch’s version of the basement tape, the quality of a band recording made with one microphone would not be good.  I can say this with a great deal of authority because bass player Mike did the same thing on one of our road gigs with Sledgehammer and while it was interesting to listen to for grins, about all it was good for was to keep us from getting arrested (more on this a little later).

    When Mitch eventually upgraded his sound system from this portable boom box cassette player sitting on the back seat of his car to a dash mounted 8-track tape player, I bought the Craig machine from him.  From 1970 to my arrival in Ontonagon in 1975, this was my music box in every place I inhabited.  It was fine for playback, but it wasn’t designed to be a great recording unit so I relied on others to convert albums to cassette for me until I figured out how to install a switch box on my folks Magnavox console stereo that allowed me to make my own tapes.  When I moved to Ontonagon, I  vowed to replace the old Craig unit as soon as humanly possible.  I put out a plea for advice from my old bass playing buddy Mike (our in house electronic genius who also built our Sledgehammer PA amp, speakers, and floor monitors).  After explaining what my expectations for a new system were, Mike suggested  Marantz 1060 amp, a Sony Cassette deck and a Pioneer turntable.  I had only two more questions:  “How much will this set me back?” (he assured me that it would cost me no more than two months rent!) and “What about speakers?” (he was living in a small apartment and offered to let me buy our old floor monitors that we had built in my dad’s workshop).  When Christmas Break of 1975 arrived, I went straight to The Sound Center shop that had relocated from its original location on North Third Street and now did business in the new Marquette Mall right next to the Holiday Inn.

    As soon as I could unbox everything, I had it set up in my folk’s basement and probably drove them nuts playing every album I had to shake down the new system.  Dark Side of the Moon was definitely not one of my father’s favorite albums!  Once I got it set up at my apartment on Pennsylvania Ave. in Ontonagon, I had to remind myself that my neighbors were behind the wall and the laws of apartment building courtesy said, “Thou shalt not blast music and make your neighbors hate your new sound system.”  Now it was my turn to make the mix tapes to repay my many friends who had kept me supplied with new music.  The old Craig machine was sold to LeRoy Roger’s children as they were getting to the age where they were discovering music.  Picking a sound system was powerful enough to use it for junior high dances at the old gym on Greenland Road was no accident.   I made mix tapes of slow songs to give me time to flip real records on the turntable as students could request the tunes, but they couldn’t touch the equipment..  I wasn’t recording live music in this period, but I was learning the ins and outs of my system.

    The next move was to upgrade the 8 track machine in my truck. As long as I was making mixed tapes, it made sense for me to upgrade my moving sound system instead of juggling multiple tape formats.  If you are seeing a pattern here, then you have figured out that I replaced my 8-track machine with a cassette unit that came from my used player source:  Mitch.  Driving from Marquette to Ontonagon for a band gig, a stop to eat at the old Baraga A&W ended up with the old 8 track tapes finding a new home.  Noticing the cook’s area was stacked with 8-track tapes, I asked the carhop to see if the cook would like to buy the last 20 or so 8-tracks I hadn’t given away for $10.  She came back and said, “He will if they aren’t stolen and if he doesn’t have to take the ones he already has.”  I assured her they were not hot by showing her my new cassette player mounted under the dash and as she trotted off with my box of 8-tracks, I reminded her that I wanted the box back.  She was back in a flash with a $10 bill, my box, and a smile:  “He said , ‘I don’t have any of these!’” so we both went away happy.  

    In the spring of 1976, I was invited to play in the athletic booster’s fundraising concert they called ‘The Hootenanny’.  Long time Easy Money member Mark Bobula had casually asked me in the teacher’s lounge if I played an instrument.  In no time, I was drumming behind several of the acts that appeared on the bill that year.  After the Sunday afternoon matinee performance, we all headed out to the Candlelight Inn for the wrap party.  I hadn’t realized that Mark had taped the show with a reel-to-reel player and after we had dinner, we settled in the bar area to listen to some of the playback.  As we listened to Dave Kalivoda’s sparkling rendition of Glen Campbell’s megahit Country Boy, Mark stopped the tape and rewound it and played it again.  The third time, he looked around and asked, “Who is singing the high harmony on this?”  I gave him a little wave and said, “Oh, that’s me,” to which he exclaimed, “You didn’t tell me you could sing!”  This turned out to be my unintended audition that lead to my playing with Easy Money.  Maybe the reel-to-reel recorders weren’t overly high tech, but they were great for making a quick reference tape and for keeping Sledgehammer out of jail.

    During the early winter of 1975, we were booked to play a two night stand at the Wagon Wheel supper club and bar that was attached to the motel operating in the old Memorial Building in Wakefield (a building that was torn down not too many years ago).  Bass player Mike had lugged along a small suitcase sized reel-to-reel that he set up on the fireplace mantle in the part of the dining hall that served as the dance floor.  He said he was just curious to see what we sounded like playing live so when the second night of the gig was done, we retreated to our luxurious upstairs room (a bare room with 4 army cots) to listen to some of the playback before we turned in for the night.  We were having so much fun ripping each other for each mistake we heard, we totally lost track of time.  Around 2:30 AM, there was a knock on the door.  Barry jumped back a bit when he opened the door to see the front desk manager and a policeman standing out in the hall.  The manager said, “We are looking for a couple of girls from the ski trip bunked in the big room across the hall.  They slipped away from the group about an hour ago.  Have you seen them?”  I am not sure where he thought we had stashed them in our bare-bones accommodations, but we pointed out that A) they weren’t here and B) we had been here listening to the tape of our gig for over an hour.  This explanation seemed to satisfy them so they left us alone (and the eventually caught the two girls sneaking back to the second floor with a couple of guys they had met dancing in the dining room earlier in the evening).  Mike’s dissatisfaction with the reel-to-reel recording lead him to a more ambitious project:  doing a live recording of Sledgehammer in stereo.  This is how Sledgehammer Live at the Four Seasons Lanes and Lounge came to be recorded a couple of months later.  

    Hearing the Hootenanny tape capped my rudimentary introduction to recording live music.  As soon as I heard the tape, I began hatching a plan to upgrade the recording process for the next year.   I didn’t exactly know what I needed to do higher grade recording, but with a year to plan and my electronic buddy Mike a phone call away, I vowed to find a way.  In part 2, we will look at the steps needed to take what Mike had learned recording Sledgehammer Live at the Four Seasons Lanes and Lounge and adapt those lessons to recording the next Hootenanny.

Top Piece Video:  Can you tell why this was not a favorite of my father’s when I was trying out my new stereo in my folks basement?  Good thing he wasn’t still on shift work or he would have had my hide!  1994 Floyd at Earl’s Court