Serendipity

The studio schedule had an important session booked and I got to work early in order to ensure everything was prepared. Weeks earlier, we’d recorded the basic tracks (or “backing track”).

Drums, bass, guitar, and electric piano were recorded first.  As previously instructed by the engineer in charge, I’d prepared for that session by setting up the microphones per his usual arrangement, selecting the individual mics from the studio mic closet and placing each, as directed. I placed one mic near the edge of the snare drum, just above the skin, perhaps an inch away.  Other mics were placed in similar proximity, just above the tom tom, one on the floor tom, one at the bass drum (or “foot”), one just above the high hat (or “sock”) and a pair of “overheads” to capture the cymbals.  He had selected dynamic, cardioids (directional) microphones for all the drums and condenser mics (also directional) for the cymbals.  Each mic, selected for its characteristic sound, was used on a particular instrument (or part of an instrument) for which the engineer felt it appropriate.

More dynamic cardioids were placed very close to the grill cloths of the bass and guitar amplifiers.  A pair of “direct boxes” took the “stereo” signal from the electric piano.  (A direct box is used to connect a high impedance, unbalanced, line level signal to a low impedance, balanced, mic level input – or, in English, used to connect a signal from an electric instrument to a sensitive input usually used for the very low level signal from a microphone.)  The day after we’d recorded the basic tracks for this project, overdubs began with the grand piano.  For that session, as instructed, I placed two cardioids condensers just above the hammers of the piano for a “stereo” pickup.

Once I had the instruments, amplifiers and microphones in position and connected the cables to the panels on the studio wall, which would then route the signals to the console in the control room, it was back to the control room to check each signal on the console and to prepare the tape machine.  First, the heads, guides and rollers were cleaned with 99% isopropyl on cotton swabs.  Then a test tape was threaded onto the machine to check head alignment (i.e., azimuth, etc.) while watching the customary Lissajou pattern on an oscilloscope, and to ensure electronic alignment of the playback and record circuits in the machine.  Finally, the first reel of blank tape, ready to capture the sounds routed to the tape recorder from the console.  With everything ready to go, all that remained was to await the arrival of the players, the producer and the engineer.

By this time, I’d been working in the studio for about a year and was familiar with the process:  Basic tracks first, then overdubs of other instruments, sometimes sections of instruments like strings or horns.  In those days, it was common to have real string sections and real horn sections.  Nowadays, improvements in synthesizers have resulted in real strings and horns being the exception rather than the norm.

It had been a few weeks since the basic tracks and preliminary overdubs had been laid down on tape.  The engineer had taken a vacation and was due back for the important overdub session today.  We were adding a large group of strings — violins, violas and cellos.  The players, as usual for the string or horn overdubs we did, were top shelf players from New York City.  (Well, perhaps with the exception of one of the cellists, the concertmaster’s wife.  When checking all the mics in preparation for recording, the engineer might use a “solo” button on the console to mute all inputs except the one being solo’d.  When this particular cellist’s mic was solo’d, we’d hear the other players at some distance but not her instrument.  A visual check through the control room glass revealed that while her bow was moving, it wasn’t in contact with the strings.  To paraphrase Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the concertmaster’s wife!”)

I prepared the studio, ensuring instruments and amplifiers not in use for the upcoming session were all moved well out of the way.  I set up the customary rows of chairs for the string players with a mic and a music stand at each position, as the engineer had shown me.  Once the mic cables were connected, I returned to the control room and checked all the signals at the console, then cleaned and aligned the tape machine.  Next, I got the first reel of tape from the tape closet and threaded it onto the tape machine.  Using the tones we’d recorded at the front of the reel, before we laid down the basic tracks, I ensured the playback and record electronics were aligned and ready to go.

Shortly afterward, the arranger and producer arrived.  The arranger went out into the studio and began placing the day’s charts (sheet music) on each player’s stand.  Musicians started filtering into the studio and control room and the energy was already starting to build for the day’s session.  The engineer was not yet there, so after getting the players set up and comfortable, I went back to the console to get preliminary settings on the console.  The arranger was already starting to go over certain parts of the day’s music with the players.  These folks were getting union scale and there was no time to waste.

When half an hour after the appointed session time had elapsed and there was still no sign of, nor word from the engineer, the studio owner entered the control room and told me to run the session.  Instant senior engineer!  Instant very nervous engineer!  Since I’d assisted on a good number of sessions by this time, including string section overdubs, I realized I knew what to do and all that was needed was to just proceed, step by step.  Still, it is one thing to sit on the side, next to the tape machine, keeping track of takes and it is quite another to be “in the seat”, effectively driving the session.  The upshot is that the session was a success.  The arranger even commented on the “brilliance” of the string sound, something he’d not heard at our studio before – a lucky EQ choice on my part, I suppose.

It turned out, we never did hear from the engineer again – though I did run into him many years later.  (I guessed he’d found something else and just didn’t want any further contact with the folks at this particular studio.)  As a result, my title was changed.  I was the new “Chief Engineer”.  There was still so very much more to learn but now my opportunities had expanded geometrically.  I just saw it as a glorious new freedom to try out different approaches.

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