Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Memories of a Studio Virgin

There is still a stack of moving boxes that have remained untouched since my untimely escape from Shangri La. It has been over a year now, so I decided to start at the top and work my way through the hastily packed memories representing my years in Malibu. Years ago, when my grandfather died, I was sent a few boxes of his things, photo albums, trinkets, his military medals...I had the same feelings now as I unpacked my own things, as if they belonged to someone else...someone who had lived a different life.

In the very first box I found a videotape I had forgotten existed. In the last two months at the studio, I had a camera set up in the control room to record whatever may prove interesting. What a find. There was Jonathan Moffett cutting drum tracks for a Gary Miller production. There was footage of the great Greg Leisz demonstrating what was one of the first Rickenbacker electric guitars, nic-named the "frying pan." There was Keb' Mo' cutting vocals for the "Suitcase" album. And most of all, there were people living, laughing and loving every moment.

Watching the footage cut short my efforts at organizing the contents of the boxes, but I couldn't stop watching. Here was a studio that pulsated with music, life and laughter. I wonder if the final product ever conveys this ingredient to the listener of an album. Ultimately, a final mix is more than just notes, effects and soundwaves. That which reaches the ears of the listener is a combination of every emotion, every joke, every cup of coffee, every prank, every callous and every heartbeat of every soul involved with the making of the record.

As the tape unwound, my thoughts drifted back over the many studios, musicians and engineers that led up to the moments captured on that short video cassette. I tried to remember my first real studio gig. I had recorded in many makeshift multitrack home studios. There was the eight track living room of Steve Gillette. And I had done some commercials in another eight track room/garage in North Hollywood that I would later find out was built by my Shangri La partner in crime, Jim Nipar. And almost everyone had a four track. But what was the first real studio? Hmmm...

It was about 1980 I think. I played bass and was musical director for a revue type of show at the old Sahara in Lake Tahoe. We had been on the marquee for almost six months and I decided that I wanted to come back to Los Angeles. I secured a gig with a lounge singer who was quite successful and would play the occasional Nevada dates, but I would be able to spend most of my time playing in L.A. When I gave the show my notice, the producers decided it would be a good time for them to change over to recorded music. They asked me if I would be able to produce tracks which they could use for the show from that time forward. I told them that I would be happy to, providing that I could hire the musicians currently playing the show at premium rates to compensate for the fact that they would soon be without work.

Did I want to produce the recordings? Hell yes! Did I have the slightest idea of how to produce twenty-two separate cues and numbers? Yeah, sure! I was at least as well prepared as Balaam's ass! But they were giving me a studio, musicians and money...what could go wrong? Luckily, not much did and the job turned out to be acceptable. But little did I know how deeply smitten I would become with the world that exists in the holy of holies, the recording studio.

At this time, I knew nothing, zero, nada about microphones, mixing desks, monitors and headphone mixes. To me, outboard gear sounded like boating equipment. These were all assets which I chose to hide from the staff of the studio which was a typical mix of gear geeks, roadies and solder junkies. I kept my ears open and my mouth relatively shut...didn't want to show off...my ignorance. I had a strong musical background and was confident in my abilities in that regard so I told (lied to) the engineer that I was really under the gun to get the best I could get out of the musicians in a short time and that I would leave the technical considerations up to him. Whenever he asked me questions like "Which reverb would you prefer?" I would scratch my chin, look into the air and act like I was mulling it over. Then I'd ask him what he thought, scratch and mull a bit more and agree with his choice.

But where I got the lethal dose, the point at which I knew that I wanted nothing more than to live and breathe in this environment forevermore was when I sat and listened to the first playback. It was the first day of school, the first beer, the first hit of good weed, the first handful of warm breast and the first rush of acid all rolled up in one illuminating moment. It was the high that happens once and only once...but nevermore goes unpursued. I know that I've been in better studios, listened to better monitors, mixed on better desks with better outboard gear...but I have never heard anything that had a greater impact than the first time I pushed "play" in that little sixteen track room in Reno, Nevada.

Watching the tape of our shenanigans at Shangri La brought it all back. The holy "Why" of it all. Anyone who has spent time in recording studios has stories to tell. Stories of legendary all-nighters or marathon three day sessions. Most are amusing and many are true. But can you imagine an insurance adjuster or accountant loving his job so much that he stays at it days on end? I've seen musicians and engineers miss meals, miss weddings, funerals and graduations. I've seen people dodge phone calls or hide under the console to avoid having to leave the studio. And all for the ostensible reason of getting the perfect EQ curve, or the right reverb or a more precise edit. Once inside, they just don't want to leave. Why? Why ask. I don't know why, but every time I listen to a recording I get a glimpse of the sweat, work and sheer joy that went into it. Everybody should be so lucky.

And now... it's back to the boxes. Maybe I'll find another tape.

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