The Making Of The Sound
By Jim Crockett
FROM CALIFORNIA LIVING MAGAZINE
inside of the SF EXAMINER November 8,1970
The uninviting black Hyde Street door is lettered very simply: Wally Heider Recordings. Behind it, though, lies a vast, million dollar studio complex, where many of the country’s finest rock and jazz musicians gather to record new albums.
Established less than a year ago by sound engineer Wally Heider, the place is a mixture of feelings, tensions, business and good times. Once an attorney, Heider got into the business over a decade ago when he left the bar to tape records for Elvis Presley – and later, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, The Supremes and others. Though he spends much of his time in Los Angeles, Heider still manages, once or twice a week, to visit his San Francisco studios and listen to super rock groups like Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival cut their latest records.
Inside Heider’s studio the vibes are good, though sometimes heavy. Jayne Martin, Heider’s twenty-one-year-old receptionist, says she simply sits around all day eating Wheat Thins. But the truth is, she keeps the whole operation – musicians and producers – together. In fact, today she’s scheduling recording times, keeping track of bills, setting up sessions, and so on. In the background, the screaming guitars and roaring drums of Blue Cheer can be heard, as engineer, producer and musicians work over each previously recorded song to balance the sound properly for their next album. Tapes start and stop a hundred times. Over and over again. Yet Jayne and the others, scurrying from room to room, hardly even notice.
I’m taken upstairs to Studio C to meet Santana’s producer who is working with the group on their second Columbia album. The musicians drag in one by one – an hour behind schedule – to begin dubbing a bass part. It isn’t going well at all; the studio is cold and it is tough to get into the right mood. Take after take, hour after hour.
Down the hall in Studio D, everything is different. Better vibes. San Francisco jazzman Cal Tjader and his quintet are casually getting men and music together for their Fantasy LP. Tjader hands out the sheet music for a new tune called Mountain. Wearing a short-sleeved sweater, cut-offs and tennis shoes, the youthful “old timer” of The City’s jazz scene looks like he just came off his sailboat, as he explains the music, telling each performer what he wants and doesn’t want.
“Baka~baka-baka~cheese,” he chants over and over to rotund drummer Dick Burk. “That’s the kind of rhythm I want,” he says. So Burk squats behind his chrome drums and begins tapping his cymbals and out comes “Baka-baka-baka-cheese.” A smile crosses Cal’s lips and he starts a smooth dance in front of bassist Jim McCabe and conga drummer Michael Smythe not to communicate the actual beat, but the feeling he wants the Latin-derived tune to convey.
After a few false starts with the written arrangement, the atmosphere begins to feel a little tense. The musicians, perhaps, are trying too hard. So Tjader begins tapping out at flowing, delicate melody on his vibes. Pianist Al Zulaica picks up on it and the rest of the group comes in. What they are playing isn’t written down anywhere. It’s based on the chord pattern and rhythmic structure of the tune they are planning to record.
The room fills with the Latin pulsations and swinging beauty of the vibe melodies. Cal ends the tune and turns to Fantasy producer Ed Bogus, “Is that the idea, Ed?” Bogus, who had earlier been trying in vain to explain in words what he wanted in the music he had arranged, grins broadly, “Yeah, it sure is.” Meanwhile, another young man, Russ Gary, has been coolly placing microphones in just the right spots to render the sound of each instrument as faithfully as possible. Even though the electric bass and electric guitar will be recorded on tape directly through cables instead of by mikes, Gary has arranged ten microphones around both drummers and Tjader before returning to his engineering booth to mix the sounds electronically.
Russ Gary in Studio D
Russ Gary, at twenty-nine, is Heider’s number one man. With short hair and just a trace of sideburns, Gary looks a far cry from what you would expect of the man responsible for the recordings not only of Tjader, but also Creedence, A. B. Skhy, Blue Cheer and some of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Sly and the Family Stone. He stands over the maze of dials, knobs, switches and meters, adjusting, listening, re-adjusting, and mixing until he’s found the right combination of sounds.
Bogus is satisfied the band has his tune down, and comes into the booth to sit next to Gary in the producer’s chair, where he can hear everything that goes on and talk back, via a mike, to the musicians. They run through Mountain a few more times, while Gary threads a one inch tape on the eight track machine and re-checks readings on an the meters. “Okay, Cal,” Bogus says, “let’s try a take.” The tape rolls, Bogus listens intently as Tjader kicks it off, and Gary sits down -assured that he has captured Tjader’s sound as faithfully as possible.
Russ is even more relaxed than usual. All morning he has been going over the Blue Cheer tapes, and the quiet of the Latin music comes as a welcome relief. Admitting that sometimes he lives on aspirin – the loud bands getting to him after eight or ten hours – Gary says, “Loud or soft, it all has its beauty and excitement. I just try to get involved with the music and musicians, regardless of what type we are doing. That’s the fun of the whole thing.”
Sitting on a couch in the hail is Steve Barncard, Heider’s other major engineer. The 23-year-old ex-Kansas disc jockey looks the part of a record maker, his shoulder-length brown hair tied back with a leather strap. Eating a can of zucchini with makeshift chopsticks, he peers at me through rimless glasses with a cracked lens. Russ and Steve each work differently, Gary preferring to handle groups like Creedence who come into the studio with their songs perfected, while Barncard likes to work with bands who start developing their music spontaneously in the studio. “I like people like Seals and Crofts, where I have to become almost a member of the band. We’re all working together to get something. Sure,” he says, “When a band works things out in the studio it takes more time. They make mistakes and so do I.”
It’s those mistakes, re-takes and experiments, though, which can run up the cost of a recording session. Creedence comes in, tends to business and walks out with a bill of only $7500 for an entire LP. The average LP record cost is around $20,000, with some going as high as $100,000.
“But when we’re all creating it in the studio,” Barncard says, “it’s a gas. At some magic point it all comes together, and when it does it’s the most beautiful thing you ever saw. It’s that spontaneity, that magic, that really makes it.” That magic, plus a lot of hard work. Barncard is ready to crash today after putting in sixteen-hour sessions for the last three weeks on a new H. P. Lovecraft album for Warner Brothers. “When things are really going,” he comments, finishing off the zucchini, “we’ll live on maybe five or six hours sleep.”
But this afternoon Barncard is taking it easy. He has to come in late tonight to tape Saddhu Brand, an East Indian group which uses instruments like tamboura and sarod, some of which Steve has never recorded before. “The groove of the whole thing,” he says, “will be be trying to get them the best possible sound, and capturing the instruments as accurately as possible.”
Because Tjader’s music is relatively simple and direct, his engineer uses the eight-track recorder. But when a band comes in with five or six people , and then wants to overdub a few more guitar parts, an organ and singers, the engineer is forced to use the big sixteen-track equipment. In that case, each instrument and each singer is recorded on a separate “track” which can be balanced, doctored and, if necessary, re-recorded without affecting the rest of the recording. By isolating each musical component, the engineer and producer can then. treat them separately, mixing them together for the best results.
While most of a record’s production time is still spent on the actual recording of the band, an average of forty percent of the entire effort is devoted to mixing. Some bands, with heavy electronics, many over-dubs and a lot of retakes, will spend more than six months on an LP.
Four hours later. Cal Tjader’s band has just finished three or four tunes on this their first day in the studio, while Bogus and Russ Gary start listening to the playbacks. Down the hall, Santana’s people are still trying to perfect the same tune they’ve been working on all day. Elsewhere in the building, Blue Cheer’s producers continue going over their tapes, trying to determine what to cut and what to add. Downstairs, the Indian musicians are bringing in their instruments and setting up in the hall for tonight’s session. Mel Tanner, Heider’s operations manager, is madly trying to complete the wiring of a new studio “A” scheduled to be operative in a couple of days. Jayne Martin has dashed across the street for the sandwiches which will serve as dinner for Russ and Steve. It’ll be another long night for everyone.