September 7, 2017

FTV: DIY Recording Part 2


    I called up my old Twig bandmate Mike (bass player and resident electronic wizard) and asked him to tell me everything that I would need to record a band live.  Mike had done this in April of 1975 when he recorded our band Sledgehammer on one night of a two night gig we played at the Four Seasons Lanes and Lounge in Marquette.  Mike had also steered me into upgrading my home sound system the year before so he informed me I had half the battle won.  The Sharp cassette recorder he had me purchase would be perfect for recording live music – I would just need a mixer and some mics.  When I joined Easy Money after the Hootenanny benefit show in the spring of 1976, I got to know a lot of the local musicians.  I figured I could beg, borrow and steal enough mics to do the job, but the mixing board was going to be a bit of a problem.

    Not long after my conversation with Mike, former OASD art teacher Tom Bugni introduced me to an old friend of his from Illinois who was making his yearly ski pilgrimage to the Porkies.  His name was Larry Hendrickson and he just happened to work a the AXE IN HAND guitar shop in Urbana.  When Larry found out I was interested in a mixing board, he said, “I am coming back in a few weeks with a Yamaha acoustic guitar for Tom.  I could bring you a Yamaha board and you can see what you think of it.”  To make a long story short, not only did we buy the mixing board/amp and PA speakers that Larry brought north with him, I also bought an acoustic-electric Yamaha guitar from him.  This became our band PA and when I retired from Easy Money the first time in 1978, I bought the PA (which I still own and use on occasion).  More immediately, I had solved the problem of how I could mix the sound from six separate mics into a two channel stereo mix of the next Hootenanny show.  Now I just had to solve the several dozen other problems that would pop up as this recording project took shape.

    The first problem was, “If I use our PA board to record the show, what are we going to use for a PA during the show?”  The music department had recently purchased a Kustom PA with a mixing board/amp at the request of vocal music teacher Garrett Lemain.  Garrett was more than helpful when I asked if we could borrow it for the 1977 Hootenanny.  Garrett and I also collaborated on organ concerts he performed later at the school, at Holy Family Catholic Church and at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Mass City.  In that he was also the organist at our wedding in 1979, not many people can say that they had the organist from the MTU hockey arena play for their big day, but I digress.

    The next problem:  to do the live mix of the performers on the stage, we would need to put the mixing board a good fifty feet in front of the stage.  Electronics teacher Larry Mattioli came to the rescue by having his class wire up fifty foot microphone extensions that would allow us to get a better handle on the live sound for the Hootenanny (which was moved from the cafetorium to the gym in anticipation of a larger crowd in the spring of 1977).  Tom Bugni volunteered to do the live sound mix so another loose end was soon tied up.

    The last problem would be finding someone to do the actual recording.  Playing the drums on stage for many of the acts was going to make it extremely difficult to also monitor the mix coming off the mixing board.  With six channels at our disposal, we put one mic on the PA, three mics on the bass and two guitar amps that we had set up on the back line, leaving two mics for my drum set.  It took some experimentation to find out the proper placement to get the full kit to sound good with only two mics.  I settled on one mic set in the triangle between my hi-hat, snare drum and mounted tom and the other between my bass drum and the floor mounted tom on the right side of the kit.  Not only did they pick up the drum and cymbals better than I had expected them to, they also showed up in stereo on the tape.  When I would play a roll from left to right across the snare and toms, it moved left to right in the stereo mix.  When I hit the hi-hat and crash cymbal on the left side of the kit, it came up in the left channel of the mix and vice versa for the ride and crash cymbals on the right side of the kit. The engineering the live recording  problem was solved by finding an interested student to hit play and pause on the machine.  We told him one thing:  do NOT touch the volume controls on the mixing board.  In the end, the recording was a pretty accurate record of the show, but our recording engineer decided to turn up certain channels so he could hear them better in his headphones.  This made it easier for him to hear, but it threw the balance off considerably.  It didn’t ruin the tape, but it made it extremely uneven.  I should ask Mark if he still has these master tapes – it might be fun to see if we can re-engineer them into a more listenable form after all these years.

    The year before my wife and I married, I was teaching in Ontonagon and she was working at the old Marquette General Hospital in Marquette.  The every other weekend commute was getting old so I decided to hang up playing in the band in the fall of 1978.  Having learned a great deal about recording live music by trial and error, I decided that I would try and make a live recording of my second to the last gig with Easy Money.  The idea was, “If I really screw this up, I will have one more week to try it again.”  Mark was coaching JV football and was assisting with the varsity at a game the Saturday of the gig, so I went to the VFW hall in Ontonagon and set everything up.  I again borrowed the vocal music program PA to use for the live mix and set up the Yamaha six track board to do the recording.  The six mic setup was very similar to the Hootenanny rig with one exception:  I set the board up within easy reach of my drums so I could slip on headphones and engineer the recording while I played.  Having been burned by a dial twiddling engineer once before, this was the best solution with the least amount of variables.

    We affectionately called the end product Easy Money Live:  Taking it to the VFW as kind of a take on the Doobie Brother’s Takin’ it to the Streets album.  As with any live recording, there are some flaws (like the couple of tracks where the live PA sound drops out for a few minutes) but all in all, it is a pretty good record of what Easy Money was doing at the time.  

    The one problem with recording to magnetic tape is the fact that they do deteriorate over time.  When we finally upgraded the WOAS-FM studio with an analog CD burner, the first project I took on was transferring my copies of both the Sledgehammer and Easy Money cassettes to CD.  Both were starting to show their age, but having a chance to rebalance some of the mix cleaned them up at least a little bit.  No one would mistake these for professionally done studio recordings, but the sound is true enough that listening to a few tracks from time to time takes me back to both of the gigs that the recordings were made at.  I don’t have a time machine so it is a moot point, but I wish I could go back to the days of The Twig and Knockdown with what I know now and record those two bands as well, but time and tide wait for no one.  What I can do is thank you to my buddy Mitch for stopping by at our Twig rehearsal with his first Craig cassette machine way back when because that was the spark that got me interested in recording live music.   Recording live music has provided me with the background necessary to appreciate how hard it is to capture what a band does on a recording.  It also spurred me to get involved with WOAS-FM in the first place!  Thanks to Mitch, Mike, and all of the musicians who let me practice by recording their music over the years.  I tip my hat to those hard working recording engineers who toil in the studios  and provide us all with those magical musical moments!


Top Piece video:  Uriah Heep’s The Wizard seemed a good choice to celebrate the wizards of the recording studio!