Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Blinkin' Lights, episode iii


a recording memoir by Leo McClusky and Gordon’s Gin


There is a vast, dark chasm that exists between The Plan and The Moment of Fruition. Inhabiting this chasm – maybe it is composed of them – lurk the Goblins of Random Malice and Spite. They are perverse. They exist to thwart and emperil (fuck you Spell Checkk I like this word) the Recording Engineer. Especially when said RE is a flailing hack with a mediocre complement of tools for combating the evils he IS capable of hearing. And morespecially when that flailing douchewagon has to worry about PA, too. But that was my choice. Better than risking a communication gap with the house sound guy - which could mean compromising our recording schematic.

So June 17th arrived. Show time was set for 8:00pm.

Ron and I loaded in around 3:00pm and got right to it. We set up on a large raised platform where several rows of seats used to be. This situated us in the rear/center of the theater. Originally I wanted to set up camp in another room and monitor with speakers, but we were hindered by numerous practical problems. We were also running PA, so our remote Control Room was not to be. We would have to monitor the recording with headphones.

I have a nice, inexpensive pair of Audio Technica M30s. They are very comfortable to listen to, however they tend to exaggerate low end in a dangerous way that might prompt excess cutting and shelving, thus leeching signal of crucial body. But after a few years of using them, I know this. Besides, we’re not EQing anything on the way in. The main thing was to listen for distortion as we dialed in optimum recording levels. We would also be able to listen for any source that just sounded plain bad or wrong due to bad mic choice/placement.

Faker drummer Johnnie D loaned us two Presonus M80 mic preamp units – each good for 8 clean, powerful signals.

For vocal recording we brought along the Joe Meek VC6Q British Channel. This thing has flattered every voice we’ve ever run through it. It’s also great for saving a shitty snare drum recording, FYI. Had we been monitoring on speakers I might have tweaked the EQ a tad – the built-in Meequalizer is a powerful and pleasing-sounding tool.

And the piece de resistance? The ancient Akai tube reel to reel recorder Ron picked up at a garage sale for $3.00. This thing kicks ass. I have no idea how old it is, or how much it went for new. It no longer plays tapes, but the built-in mic preamps are slamming. We set aside one channel of this puppy for the kick drum.

Oh yeah, track count? A whopping 15. 14 when you subtract the Center Room Mic I neglected to patch in. Ah… doucheIamdoucheamI.

Setup was fairly smooth. Despite our best efforts, we wound up with quite a tangle of mic cords onstage. “Neatening” meant shoving them all into one cluster at the back of the riser. I decided not to get too worried about the whole trip-hazard thing, though. I’ve never really seen horn players headbang a la Priest or run around the stage like Mary Lou Retton on crack a la Classic Van Halen. Although I might pitch this idea to Andy…

One little ripple during the setup phase:

Ron, always on top of safety concerns when we do any sound work, dutifully taped down every cable on that stage, and the 100’ snake harness that ran directly under the audience seats to our mixing station.

That’s when Lenny, the theater’s technical director approached me. To this day I applaud his calm – scarce and frayed as it may have been.

“Is that duct tape going to pull up our paint?”

The stage had recently been painted a fresh coat (or several) of flat black. We should have brought gaffer tape. Damn it, I knew this – but do I always think of shit when I should? Evidently not. And now the possibility loomed that when we went to pull the duct tape up at the end of the night it most certainly would grab every coat of paint with it. The results would be ugly.

Much as it killed me – seeing as this was a non-profit, volunteer gig in the first place, I swore to him I would buy paint and come back the very next day and re-do the whole thing. He did not warm to this idea.

(Has word of my criminally bad painting skills spread around NJ? The world? I knew my wife’s blog would be trouble.)


Ron acknowledged.



Ron didn’t seem to think there would be a problem. Since this tangent is actually a little boring, I’ll conclude it by telling you that Ron was absolutely right. Thank Christ.

The band started to trickle in around 6ish. Horns, Piano (Andy), and the drummer.

The drumset had not yet arrived with the bass player – they were on their way in to Jersey from Brooklyn. A nightmare traffic scenario for a Friday night. Ha Ha Ha. We set about soundchecking the horns, vocal mic, and piano, which was useful as far as making sure individual mics and lines worked, etc.; but pretty friggin worthless as soundchecks go. It helps to have all the musicians playing, and at 7:30 we were still without the bass player and the drummer was without a drumset. He had sticks, though.

So my wife showed up, thank god. Elaine is, as, they say, a trooper. How many gigs – from the sublime to the subpar – has she come to now? Almost every one of them. She is my lifeline. She makes me smile and laugh, and stressful moments are less painful when she’s at my side. I could go on…

Unfortunately I tend to be kinda distant when I’m working, but she understands. Hell I bet she’s been paying attention, and someday will probably engineer circles around me.

So shit it is getting really close to 8:00. People are piling up in the lobby.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was about 7:45 when the bass player arrived. The drums were hustled down to the stage. Dan Schnelle (which I believe is German for “fast”) put the set together, well, fast. The mics were already plugged in and nearby, so we moved them into position.

“Are we good to go?”

It was Lenny. Or it might have been Bob. But anyway, why is Len/Bob asking me? Oh yeah, cause right now I’d be the guy that’s supposed to know. So, Ron and I did a quick checklist, confirmed with Andy that the band was ready and decided that yup, it was showtime.

After a feedback-plagued introduction by Bob Carr (on the harmonica player’s mic. The harmonica-ist did not make the gig, but this mic was destined to become vitally important), the quintet incarnation of the group took the stage. They opened with “Pasty Mofo.” What a wild and brave choice for an opener, as there’s a long trombone-and-cymbals breakdown featuring lots of squeaks and gurgles. Screw you, commercial appeal! God Bless the IJG.

Oh and fuck, we’re not getting a bass signal to tape. Mother of crap. We had a DI on Kevin’s bass and now it was sending us nothing. I decided there was not much we could do about it without disrupting the band and wrecking their Mojo. The bass was plenty loud in the room, so I gave hope to the possibility of having ample low end from the ambient mics. The trick would be locating the detail of the bass sound in amongst the blend of the other microphones. Fuck indeed. But everything else was working, and the PA seemed to need constant attention, so I chose not to sweat it. We would fix the problem at intermission. Of course, this meant a discrepancy in the recorded bass sound between Set 1 songs and Set 2 songs, but what the hell - this is the fun of live recording. And besides, what was the likelihood of more gear crapping out on us? Chill, baby, and enjoy some of that swinging bop.

There was a funny smell in the air. Something… electrical? Hm.

A little while later we decided we could no longer stand to not have the bass going to tape. The anxiety it was causing actually resulted in us thinking up a decent plan. The plan was to move the kick drum mic so that it was pointed partially at the bass amp – since bass guitar and kick drum kinda work in the same department musically and sonically speaking, why not combine them for now? Ron handled this mission, and no musicians were agitated in the process. Soloing the track in the headphones revealed that the mission had been worthwhile. The kick sounded slightly thinner, but it was still good and present, and now we could hear the bass. Hah, cha cha cha…

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