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My Thoughts Since the Passing of Walter Becker

It seems we rarely give pause in respect to the passing of time, until we reach a certain point in our lives, and only then do we regard it peripherally. Additionally we give little thought to the passing of time in the lives of others as well. Especially those figures who are of the semi high-profile sort. As much as some of us like to think that we know about what they do, in the end, we find that we know very little, and that in reality they were little more than punctuation in our own lives.

The weight of this observation didn’t hit me until this past Sunday evening as I lay in bed. I had, as one could guess, been preoccupied with listening to music the majority of the day, and had not listened to the news until switching on my radio that night.

As soon as I heard the announcer mention the name of Walter Becker, I knew what words were to follow. Walter was one whose name would rarely be mentioned in context with anything else within the past forty years. One had to know who Walter was in order for his name to be familiar.

Walter looked like the guy you’d see in the seventies, sitting outside the mall waiting for a ride. One of the most unassuming bottom-to-top-to-bottom-to-top-again success stories in modern American music, Walter lived out his life in obscurity, in plain sight.

It occurred to me that this man had lived and died within a period of 67 years, and all that I knew about him could easily fit into a thimble. Even though throughout the years, I had painstakingly reverse-engineered his guitar leads and his bass licks, and had attempted to capture his ultra clean, rich lead tones to no avail.

Had Mr Becker not partnered with Donald Fagen during college, both men may have easily faded into the backdrop which is composed of the rest of us, and aja, one of my ten favorite albums of all time would never have materialised.

With the death of Glen Campbell last month, and now that of Walter Becker, the passing of time has become all too apparent to me.

We never know when we’ve caught our last trout, or completed our last composition.


What Is True Will?

You’ll often hear ads on television and radio which promote motivational speakers. These speakers often focus on the use of ‘will power’ in order to get monumental tasks accomplished. Thousands of posters, and countless memes have been dedicated to the use of positive thought and will power.

But what is will power, and is anyone actually in possession of true will?

How many times can you recall yourself saying something to the effect of, “I’ll never do that again”, or “From now on, I’m going to______________”? But how many times did you find yourself doing ‘that’ again, or forgetting the vow you solemnly made to yourself ‘from now on’?

These sorts of shattered illusions are what expose the true measure of our will.

When I was twenty years old, I made a short list of objectives that I fully intended to accomplish by the time I was thirty. I didn’t reach any of the goals. Not a single one.

But my intentions were good, of course. It seems that we always start out with the best of intentions in whatever we endeavour to do. Right before things go straight to hell.

So for the next thirty years, I was determined to see if there was one thing in my life that I could see through from beginning to end. One thing – surely couldn’t be too terribly difficult to accomplish. What, then, was the one thing that I was certain that I could devote the rest of my life to? Well, the one thing that I valued among everything else was music. I had begun my quest as a songwriter around the same age that I’d made my list, and it is true that I had not abandoned the journey. The fact was, that I had yet to be come successful at it. My dream was to be able to play several instruments tolerably, engineer sound, and produce my own material. Bands such as Todd Rundgren and Steely Dan were huge influences in this respect.

Success is a term that is generally associated with money and being well-known, respected among one’s peers, and the like.

Nonetheless, I persevered, and although I had learned a great many things in relation to the field – I was working in a retail establishment which sold musical instruments and sound equipment – I had still to make the strides that I had intended by the time that I was forty. Often it was necessary to remind myself why I had begun in the first place.

Throughout the course of rearing two children, and working all kinds of day jobs, I redoubled my efforts to set money aside for musical gear, and recording equipment. I also set aside one hour a day to practice at my craft, this was apart and completely different from the actual playing of music, which would consume even more of the time that I had precious little of.

By the time I was fifty years old, I had become connected to my Muse, and was writing profusely. The musical path that I had begun was a bit of a surprise, but I followed my Muse wherever it led without question. I completed my studio, which I christened Good Intentions, and chose ‘Hell Paving Company’ for the name of my publishing domain. It cannot be said that I was not acquainted with the irony of it all by this time.

In 2014, I tore my studio down with the intent of erecting it in another, more suitable room of the home. All of my gear sat in a corner collecting dust for the next three years. Chronic Fatigue is a cruel mistress, and my life had been slowing to a crawl since I had contracted it in November of 2007.

Then one night last month, while lying in bed, I was listening to the 20 odd sketches of tunes that I had recorded into my Android. I stared over into the dark corner that hid all of my recording equipment.

“Starting tomorrow, I’m going to start putting my studio back together, even if it kills me.” I told myself. The task was daunting.  But I knew that if I died before getting the tunes – which the Muse was still being so charitable in supplying me with – properly recorded, I would go to hell. Hell is a completely different place for writers. I imagine it to be a place where only poorly maintained manual typewriters exist, paper is at a premium, and the thoughts come too quickly to transcribe.

Mainly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving these tunes orphaned. Nobody except I had heard them, and my task was to get them recorded and give everyone else a chance to hear the wonderful imagination that the Muse is so blessed with, for you see, I do not feel that these pieces of music are mine. I have been assigned a task, and it is up to me alone to complete these pieces.

Eight days later, although my back and shoulders were killing me, the studio was together, and I found myself becoming painfully reacquainted with the plethora of cables and the routing of which I had all but forgotten.

Today I fired up all of the components, and with the exception of the ancient synthesizer, everything seems to be working. Maybe if I just jiggle the handle….

So I have discovered that perhaps there is indeed a bit of true will left inside of me at the age of 61. And that I may have, in fact, discovered the meaning of true success.


Recording Mythology, Pt. 47 / Habits Were Made To Be Broken



I was listening to one of those radio stations on which they loosely format their programming around Big Band era music, but will play almost any contemporary vocalist whose tune has, over the years, achieved ‘standard’ status. There was a Barry Manilow song being played, and I was paying attention to the arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment.



Barry came up in music the working man’s way, through jingle writing. He was responsible for the old MacDonald’s commercial tune, you deserve a break today, so get up and get away to MacDonald’s. His own break came in the way of getting discovered by Bette Midler.



It occurred to me that, since his accomplishments in earlier recordings, that as his carreer progressed, his arrangements had become somewhat formulaic, and as a result, all his tunes had taken on the same shading. In other words, Barry had begun to sound like himself.



I soon began to wonder if this wasn’t actually true in everyone’s case to a great degree, even my own, and what could be done to thwart the development of this, what I considered to be, a terrible hinderance to creativity.



I recalled a thread on Facebook of which I’d been a participant, where scalar practice was being discussed, during which time another individual, who was not only a formidable guitarist, but instructor as well, repeated the mantra “practice, practice, and then forget it all”.



Practice, practice, and then forget it all.



This is a rock of advice which will always contain more secrets than it will reveal. The problem is that barnacles of habit will begin to form, and the rock itself is forgotten. More often than not, one may come to repeat the phrase like a parrot, for the dissemination of such advice is generally much easier than heeding it.



Those who discover the true purpose of practice understand the value in ‘forgetting it all’.



Many individuals fail to take the same advice regarding production work, however. These habits may begin innocently enough via ‘favorite settings’. After having recorded for over twenty-five years, I cannot for the life of me understand the logic behind these favorite settings, be it on an guitar amp or a stereo compressor. The fact of the matter is that, for every new recorded tune, the dynamics will change considerably. Unless you are recording all of the songs at one time (unlikely) or the style is identical for every tune (Boston), you are going to want to change the settings of one or both in order to convey the difference in feel of that respective song.



Albeit I have a ‘basic’ setting for my vocal mic compressor, I still have to torque down the attack or release time depending on whether I’m recording an alpha screamer or a beta boy tune. Sometimes I may crank up the compression for the effect itself. Fact is, you simply can’t ‘set it and ‘forget it’.


The constant redialing of settings assures that at least every tune won’t suck, just in case one may.


And turning the knobs also keeps potentiometers from oxidising.



Another habit that may creep in is the order of processing units. It’s too easy to lay out all of the stomp boxes based on how they look coolest, but in what order will they achieve the best sound? This is a point of contention among guitarists and shouldn’t be discounted.



Then there’s the subject of which instruments to include in the composition. We might be tempted to follow Barry’s lead and involve the entire symphony orchestra on every number. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every tune that I write to emulate the sound of God emerging from the clouds.



For instance, during one session, I was working on an elusive sound bed. The finished product was destined for a tense underwater scene in a big movie production with a colossal budget and a cranky client. I was so desperate to capture an ambiant sound I was hearing, that I groaned down into an empty coffee can and… good Lord, that was it! But dare I take such a low-tech risk with Mr. Cranky himself? Well, if my procedures were drawn into question, what he didn’t know would be referred to as a trade secret, and therefore could do him no physical nor emotional harm.



I socked on the headphones and held the closed end of the can to my guitar mic and groaned hard and loud. I laughed as I reached over and turned the reverb onto ‘cathedral’ or ‘oil tanker’ or whichever, and blended a wee bit in. Presto. I hit the record button. It took a few dry runs to get the breathing breaks right and then it required double tracking both groaning and humming so that the proper ‘ethereal feel’ was achieved, but after a little work and a bit of oxygen deficit, I had the sound bed that I needed. The rest was just guitar swells using false harmonics, a slide, a volume pedal, and delay.



How did my ‘trade secret’ end up sounding?



The point here being, if we don’t continue to try new ideas, devices, and/or settings, we risk falling instead into the same predictable habits, thereby becoming boring, and we’ll never know what we may be missing.



Playing it safe and falling back on a proven technique only sounds fresh for so long, kinda like Tom Morello using that ‘wild & crazy’ string stretching effect in every single freaking lead that he plays, and that becomes pretty tiresome rather quickly, according to reliable sources.



One might do well to ask oneself, ‘What does the song call for here?’ rather than pouring over banks of presets and asking ‘What sounds are available for me to use?’ The first question is open ended, it allows our mind to ponder different possibilities. The second question limits our imaginations to some other goofball’s ideas.



In another scenario, I was tapping on everything I could find, using a drumstick, a mallet, even my fingertips. I was hearing something between congas and tabla, but not bongos. Nothing I had was giving me the sound that I required and soon I was in my milk crate, throwing boxes around. With nothing to be found, I went to my repair bench and picked up a coconut shell half that I used primarily to create wood dust. I clattered it on the bench ala Monty Python horse hoofs. Ah! An idea. I picked up the other half and re-mated the two halves with hide glue. After it dried, I bored out two of the three ‘eyes’ of the shell and alternately slapped on the openings using my fingers. Knowing that I was almost there, and realising that one more larger hole would give me more variance in tone I needed, I used a paddle bit to make a one inch hole in the side of the shell over which I could cup my palm while slapping the first two holes with my fingertips.



Many of you may be thinking, ‘Dude, that’s too much damn work,’ but in the end I got exactly the sound that I was looking for, and all it cost was a little time. Granted, it wasn’t very loud, but that’s what clever use of proximity effect and reverb is for.



Just in case I’ve piqued your curiosity, here is how the resulting ‘percussion’ turned out:



Remember, the hard part is the fun part, so if you don’t enjoy being uncomfortable by constantly having to break old habits to make room for new ones, you’re probably in the wrong business.




Recording Mythology, Pt. 45/ Ghosts In The Machine

Recently, I was at a client’s home tuning the family console piano when he asked me if I’d like to take a look at his latest acquisition.

This fellow is in the habit of acquiring some pretty interesting stuff from time to time, so of course I told him that I’d be glad to have a gander at his new toy, at which point he held up a finger and slipped away, reappearing momentarily with an old acoustic guitar case. He popped the latches, opened the case and extracted an old Martin.

“Oh! An old 00-18!” I enthused.

He peered into the soundhole, “Ahh….yes, indeed it is. Reputedly a 1961. Here, tell me what you think about it,” he said as he passed it to me while I still sat at the piano bench.

As I began to chord the instrument and play, my smile slowly melted. I held the guitar out and looked at it in disbelief. All it wanted me to do was play The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” on it.*

“Where did you get this guitar?” I asked him. “This is awful. This guitar has hardly been played.”

“Why do you say that? What do you mean?” he asked with a confused look.

“As you are well aware, these instruments are made of several types of wood from different trees. Well, it’s only through continued playing that the seperate pieces of wood become familiarised with one another, and that the instrument becomes whole, and learns to talk. I don’t mean to get all esoteric with you, but these things open up as they are allowed to resonate. They have to be played before they can learn to talk.”

“This guitar isn’t familiar with itself at all,” I said, staring at it, “It doesn’t speak music; it doesn’t even recognise it’s own voice. This is a terribly sad guitar. It has spent nearly it’s entire existence in this coffin of a case,” I continued, waving at the case in disgust. “The worst kind of afterlife for a living tree, is to be killed, and then turned into an instrument that is never allowed to breathe, let alone speak. This poor guitar only knows a couple of songs.” I said.

My client stood there with his arms folded looking somewhat incredulous.

“So where did you get it?” I asked, handing it back to him.

“Well, I can’t believe that you can tell all that just by holding it and looking at it, but you are correct indeed,” he said, “it has hardly ever been played.”

He went on to tell me the story behind the 00-18. It was a tale that is repeated far too many times: Some well meaning parents invest in a really nice guitar to present to their only child on his 13th birthday. The kid plays around on it until it becomes apparent how much work is going to have to be invested in becoming proficient on the instrument, at which time the guitar goes back into the case and into the closet, never to be pulled out except when the owner moves from place to place, or someone wishes to see it.

If android phones had been invented back in the 60s, a lot of the guitars made at the time would still be like new, but luckily, most kids weren’t as lazy back then as they are now.

Most like-new old guitars (or ‘closet classics’ as Fender likes to call their clones), are really a mixed blessing when you find one, and almost every one that I’ve ever played hits me on a visceral level in the same way.

Guitars that are destined to become pretty but miserable trophy wives for some wanna-be guitar player are sad instruments once they’re discovered and unchained. They can’t rock and they can’t play the blues. They haven’t been taught any language by their owners.

They sound like Buddy Holly’s Stratocaster did, new and virgin.

It’s weird, but the first thing that most players will do is play some lick from the appropriate generation when they first pick up one of these instruments. It is as if that is all that the instrument knows how to do. It is the only language. The musician merely responds; he is generally unaware that he is attempting to communicate with the instrument.

There is no soul, no mojo, no voodoo. Only the ghosts of dead trees.

It may only be my imagination, but when there are ghosts in these instruments, I hear their stories, they talk to me.

My client had obtained this particular Martin via the original owner in lieu of losses contracted through the same. He was hoping to recoup some of those losses in the sale of the guitar.

He told me that he had already received several offers of varying amounts, but none that quite suited his expectations.

“Why not give it to one of the girls?” I asked him, knowing that both of his daughters played.

“Oh, it’s too nice for that; it would just get banged around at coffee houses and stuff. I’d like to see someone get it who would really take care of it.”

“Dude,” I replied with a bit of exasperation in my voice, “this damn guitar has been ‘taken care of’ its entire existence. What it needs, is to be played for a change. Why not forget about top-dollar this time.” I suggested, “Do this guitar and your karma a favour instead and let the player who you believe will give it the best voice have it. This instrument deserves a home and a loving pair of hands. You owe that much to it.”

That’s how I feel, and that is my advice to anyone who has such an instrument tucked safely away inside some closet: Play it or sell it to someone who will.



* The song was originally an old Blue Ridge Mountain folk tune called “Tom Dula” which ingeminated a true story. I have been unable to determine who the songwriter was.

Recording Mythology, Pt. 44 / Why I Never Use The Presets


My guitar effects are utilitarian…and digital. That’s right, I said it.

To be honest, I’m not one of those ‘analogue or death’ junkies. I’m not averse to using digital processors when it comes to cleaning up my signal, and old analogue effects were as noisy as a first grade classroom.

Starting out, I had a collection of DOD effects pedals and a Dunlop Crybaby during the seventies and into the eighties when I’d installed a Bill Lawrance pickup in the soundhole of my Yamaha acoustic. I’d use the wah as a notch filter and coax all kinds of noises out of my poor old Yamaha. Once, I’d removed the strings from the guitar and had it sitting on a stool. The pickup was still plugged inline, and eventually the monitors achieved feedback. Wow.

“How can I possibly use this?” I wondered.

Well, I had a Radio Shack ‘Realistic’ stereo reverb unit that I’d patched into the loop somehow. I discovered that when I’d crank the depth, then plunge the delay at resonance, the monitors would walk around on the desk. The effect sounded haunting. I recorded a piece with that setup before I fried the tweeter crossovers.

Then came the ‘all-in-one’ units. I resisted for a few years until they’d worked the bugs out.

So now I’ve gone digital, but my effects bank is already vintage. Actually, I still use one of the first generation digital pedal boards that Boss produced. As was almost always the case, Boss got it right the first time out. At $689.99 in 1994, their Expandable Multiple Effects unit, or ME-X as it was called, kicked serious ass, and is their most flexible unit in my opinion. Other individuals must concur with my assessment; when you can find one, the ME-X still commands a respectable price.

What made the ME-X so cool, is that the user could augment the digital effects – delay, flanging, chorus, and echo (all stereo) – with three other analogue effects of their choice in the form of stomp boxes. Boss units, of course. The conclusion was a logical one: everybody knows that digital overdrive and distortion sounds lame and lousy, and the Boss team realised that at the outset, so why not allow the user to tailor their grind, coarse to fine? Excellent idea.

But then, there are the presets. As a matter of fact, all of the presets on any multiple effects processor end up sounding corny and dated, and those on the ME-X are no exception. They make me want to don makeup and Lycra. Talk about wet to the point of saturation. One even makes the guitar sound like a Koto. I reckon the folks at Boss Nippon had a sense of humour.

Still, I always wondered why the manufacturers ever went to the trouble of building presets into these units, anyhow. Maybe some people needed a ‘jumping off’ point, but I can’t imagine why. If they’d ever used an effect with knobs (and in ’94, most everyone had) effects started out at clean and ‘turned up’ to extreme. On digital units, the parameters began at zero and went up to some value of effect, so the same logic could be applied with the same results.

Using the presets on an effects unit to record with will always come back to haunt you. I don’t care how cool they sound, they’re always modeled after some hot-shot guitar slinger of the manufacture era, and God only knows how history will later regard the fool. You don’t want a poor recording decision following you around like a lost dog ten years from now.

I swear though, I believe that in the beginning,  some folks thought that the presets sounded so cool, that they actually used them, even some of the ‘professionals’. Don’t believe it? Just listen to a Bryan Adams album. If he wasn’t using the Walking Hammers preset on the Zoom 4010 when he recorded several of his tunes, I’ll be dashed. Their ‘brand’ of drive (or distortion) along with the mids curve on that preset was an obvious clone, and so, uh…’Zoomy’.

I suppose that I might have a better ear for tone than music, because although I will never be the musician I aspire to be, I I can run through banks of presets and name nearly every weasel whose ‘tone’ the presets are designed to approximate. A players sound is like his fingerprint. And tone or no tone, using another players tone is tantamount to plagerism, because if you are not in posession of that player’s fingers, you ain’t gonna sound like them, regardless what you buy.

My advice to the aspiring artist is – since there’s already one of somebody else – why try being number two? Be yourself. Open your ears and your mind, and break into those presets. Start developing your own tones and you’ll create your own sound. Therein lies the reward.

Recording Mythology, Pt. 43 / The Scenic Route to ‘Vintage’

In 1996, Fender introduced a new model of low-wattage tube amplifier called the Blues Junior. I was wanting to trade up from the Pro Junior which I’d bought four or five years earlier, and it just so happened that the timing was perfect, because now I was working in musical instrument sales at a well respected retail outlet.

At 15 watts, the Blues Junior qualified for the power rating I was needing for recording purposes. The circuitry of both amps was pretty much the same, except that the Pro didn’t have a seperate preamp gain, nor a reverb. I don’t rely on the reverb much, but I like to manipulate the pre drive against the power section drive. Also, everyone’s ears have a unique response curve, and some ears like the tone of a 10″ speaker, but it’s too crisp for me. The Blues came with a Jensen 12″ rather than the 10″ which the Pro ran, so I paid the $289.50 (10% over cost ya heard me) and took it home.

After burning up the first set of preamp tubes, I considered the amp broken in. The first thing that I did was reconfigure these preamp tubes. I pulled the 12AX7As and installed a 12AY7 in v1, a 5751 in v2, and v3 gets the 12AT7 since that’s the phase inverter.

The tone was noticably improved.

It seems amp manufacturers had begun using the 12AX7A for everything, but it really isn’t the best choice for the phase inverter. I don’t like the way that the 12AX7 goes into saturation, either, which is a little too abrupt for my ear, of course, being I’m outgunned by the Mass Distortion Army, the 12AX7A gets the majority vote. Besides, it’s cheaper and more plentiful.

Next thing to go was the lame plastic surface-mount 1/4″ input jack. Whoever invented the plastic jack needs to be dug up and shot.

One of the things that I wasn’t crazy about when I purchased the amp was that it was a fixed-bias design, so you can imagine my chagrin when I noticed that the EL84 power tubes were running hot, and thus underbiased. After the third set of power tubes, a resistor replacement was in order.

The tone was noticeably improved.

Then I found and was in heaven. Bill does amp mods, and his mods are devised for the Blues Junior exclusively. He even shows how to do these mods right on his website, just in case you happen to be so inclined, which of course, I am.

He showed how to lose the molasses-thick stock reverb and rewire it to achieve the bright ring of the original Fender. He explained how to recap the power section to stiffen up the flubby bass response. Needless to say, the tone was noticeably improved in both instances. Thanks Bill!

He even posted the schematic for his famous and beautifully simple ‘twin stack’ mod, which allows the owner to completely scoop out the mids in order to get the ratty Marshall sound that one may require on occasion. (This mod does not improve the tone, but it, coupled with a Boss OS-2, will save you the $3000. that it otherwise takes to cop that industrial grind.)

Earlier in that same year, I had decided that I needed to quit destroying my acoustic guitars by removing the finish, installing knobs and pickups, et cetera, so I decided that a good, utilitarian electric guitar was in order. The Telecaster appeared about as plain-jane as they get, and Fender’s Japanese plant was importing an especially impressive build for the price, so I ordered one. Left-handed, to be sure. ($329. Ya heard me?)

I almost immediately set about altering it. First I installed compensated saddles so that it would intonate properly.

After carefully weighing my options, I replaced the stock pickups. A Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound went into the bridge position to provide more beef, and his Vintage Stack was chosen for extra pork in the neck position. The QP was tapped so it could be wired for a vintage Tele tone, or a meatier midrange with the flip of a switch. I then installed a push/pull pot so that I could run the VS in either parallel or series mode. After more playing with schematics, I routed a cavity for a center position PU and opted again for a Duncan, the reverse wound, reverse polarity Quarter Pound Stratocaster model with staggered pole pieces. (Can you say ‘oh heww yeah’?) I added another mini toggle switch so that I could flip it in or out of phase and then wired it and the bridge pickup to a stereo pan pot, and soldered that lead to yet another pan pot to which the neck pickup was wired. Now all three pickups were part of a continuous circuit which I could tweak in wee increments to my heart’s content. This wiring scheme took me three years to dial in. A small adjustment in any of the three pots affected the impedance and inductance of the circuit and would completely alter the sound of any of the three pickups. In other words, I was capable of achieving any single coil tone imaginable, even that of a P90, or that of a Filtertron, as I’ve demonstrated to more than one doubting Thomas. I didn’t want to turn into a guitar collector, I preferred to remain a guitar player. And the one instrument took the place of several for me in my search for tone. Lastly, after the cable jack got yanked out for the umpteenth time, I replaced it with a roadworthy alternative.

So last week, after I’d finished refretting the Tele for the third time (note: my guitars do not receive names nor do I refer to them in gender), I caught a glimpse of my ‘new’ guitar through someone’s else eyes as I wiped it down. It appeared terribly road worn, although I’d never played a single live gig with it. The butterscotch finish had taken on a nicotine-brown patina and was riddled with nicks and dings. The top edge of the lower bout where my arm rubbed against it was devoid of finish. The brass saddles were brown, and the maple fingerboard was a roadmap of my favorite box scales down it’s entire length. The nut was yellowed and the nickel plating on the tuning keys was half worn away, with dull copper showing through.

The Japanese plant where my instrument was built closed down in 1998.

I turned to look at my trusty amplifier with the same eyes, and saw a tweed nightmare, discoloured with cat vomit, stained by body oil (adjacent the preamp knob which I constantly tweak to get the phasing right), with edges and grille ripped to shreds by the claws of cats long having passed. At $699. they’ve begun making NOS yellow-board ‘reissues’ of this amplifier now, but I’ll put mine up against the new ones any day of the week. It won’t win the beauty contest, but mine stands head and knobs above the stock units in terms of tone and response.

My rig is closing in on its twentieth birthday, and becoming ‘vintage’ equipment. Man, what a ride!

Recording Mythology, Pt. 41 / So You Want To Release A Vinyl Record

You’ll get no argument out of me, vinyl records are to CDs what CDs are to mp3s. I don’t care about a little surface noise or so-called ‘comprimised’ top-end; comparatively, vinyl LPs are to mother’s milk what CDs are to canned formula. It has been made crystal clear precisely why I feel this way in previous rants, but basically, it comes down to the fact that we hear in analogue. Whereas it may be that digital is a more compact storage medium, that is the only advantage that I will attribute to it. Analoge tape is the real item and digital sound reproduction is akin to the projected image on the screen. Digital ‘sound’ is an illusion to our ears and more importantly, our essence. The adverse effect is in what you don’t hear. Sterility is fine for the hospital but awful when used in the music industry. For instance, those drop-dead sound-proof studios back in the 70’s were the worst. They’d suck the life right out of you. You could even lose your balance in them, which I personally did. I always wondered if that wasn’t why the session players usually sat.

Now, I could argue that the eventual ruination of popular music can be traced directly back to the introduction of digitally recorded music. But I’ll save that for another article. After all, pop music has always sucked a little bit in some way or the other, it just sucks a whole bunch more now.

So you and your band are considering a vinyl record release? If you record to tape, due to certain limiting physical anomolies of the medium, you already have a bit of a fail-safe built in. If you are recording in the digital realm, get ready for a bunch of new rules, but I hope that, either way, you haven’t started mixing yet. And you’ll be better off if you haven’t even begun to record. Your involvement in the entire process just got bumped up several notches and it starts in the studio. For you folks who record digitally, it isn’t a as simple as finalising and torching the hottest CD possible. Physical limitations carry over to the vinyl and stylus, too.

First, it pays to bear in mind that, on a stereo LP, there are three ‘channels’ of information being cut into the groove that the stylus runs through, and how well that happens depends largely on your mixing skills. Not only do we have discrete left and right information (and a combination of the two, depending on the stereo pan), there is mono information as well, and this information is cut into the bottom of the groove. During the inception of stereo records, mastering engineers quickly discovered that the best sound resulted when bass guitar and drums were reproduced using the mono channel. Here, better response is achieved, because reproduction of these frequencies require deeper grooves. If these instruments were panned, tracking would become increasingly problematic as levels would decrease, increase, and then decrease again. Harmonic distortion would increase, or finally the stylus would be bounced plumb out of the groove.

Say you’ve mixed a hard L/R pan of a rumbling, gurgling B3 in track 3 at 2:28? That doesn’t represent a problem on CD, but the mastering engineer will really appreciate your giving him a heads up in detailed programme notes. I would suggest discussing the cutting of your record with the engineer and asking what his requirements are. The main thing to remember is to keep the mix sensible and leave post-production EQing to the mastering engineer. Why?

There are two types of record albums: epic sounding ones and horrible sounding ones. Sure, the music starts at the session with the musicians, but the magic that makes those performances memorable is in the mastering. It isn’t such an odd thing that many Gen-Y folks don’t know much about the process of album cutting, but there’s a lot of people who grew up listening to vinyl who are as clueless about how the sound is transferred from the tape to the LP. As I briefly hinted above, it’s a complex operation. Let’s take a look at the entire process.

After delivery of the master tape (or .wav file or whatever) containing the final stereo mixdown, the mastering engineer prepares to cut a ‘lacquer’ (actually an aluminium disk with a thin layer of acetate). The blank is placed on what is called a lathe. There is an arm which runs laterally above the blank on which rides the cutting head. Within the head are big coils which send electrical impulses to the cutting stylus, which makes the groove in the spinning acetate disk. The engineer adjusts the pitch of the stylus depending on the programme information. The louder the information, the more the stylus vibrates, thus, the pitch is increased, resulting in increased distance between the grooves. If the pitch is set too shallow, the grooves may converge and a skip may result.

The head coils generate quite a bit of heat, requiring that the head be cooled. This is achieved using any number of cooling agents, the most common being water and the most exotic being liquid oxygen. This seems oxymoronic, because at the same time, the cutting stylus is heated so that it slices neatly through the lacquer without tearing it. Then, there are other factors which the engineer must control such as cutting head resonances, and ad nauseam. The closer the stylus gets to the center of the disk, the greater the pitch must become, and the worse resonance issues become, so it pays to remember to leave the engineer some room. Keeping the album short is a necessity to preserve sound quality. Longer albums became a double release. Four or five tunes per side is the norm for a vinyl record.

Most times, the artist will want a lacquer to listen to so that, if any problems are apparent, he or she can get back to the mastering lab with his or her concerns. The lacquer is a ‘temporary LP’ at best, as the acetate is quite soft, and sound degradation occurs with each successive play.

After the artist is satisfied, another lacquer is cut which is then electroplated with a fine layer of silver. This is referred to as the metal master. After the metal master is created, a ‘negative’ is produced from it, which is referred to as a metal mother, and from that, the stamper is made.

With each successive step, a tad of audio detail is lost. In the heyday of the LP, a copper disk was sometimes cut in place of the lacquer, and then the stamper was made directly from this. In addition, the master tape was sometimes played back at half-speed while the cutting also took place at half speed. The process was more time consuming (and expensive), but the albums sounded spectacular. These were pressed in limited quantity and offered, sometimes by special order only, at a premium. At a time that a normal album would run in the neighbourhood of $7.99, the price of the ‘half speed direct to metal master recording’ was steep at around $20.98, but daaaaamn, the difference was amazing. One of the most impressive albums I ever heard which was manufactured in this fashion was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. CDs never reproduced as well, but the gold Ultradisc came closest.

After being produced, the A and B stampers are afixed into the press, a biscuit of vinyl is placed in between, and the stamper is heated, pressure is applied, mashing the vinyl flat as the grooves are embossed into it. After the vinyl cools, it is removed and – tada! – an LP is born.

Biscuits come in different weights and the artist gets to choose which weight they prefer. The choice is also given pertaining to how much virgin vinyl as opposed to recycled vinyl the biscuits are composed of. It was once believed that LPs which consisted primarily of virgin vinyl offered a lower noise floor and better reproduction. On the other hand there were those who believed that recycled vinyl produced the same results.

Me? I believe I’ll allow you to decide for yourself. Let me know when you have the release party.