Monday, July 19, 2010

Iggy Pop's Family Affair

Several times in this illustrious career things have happened where I thought, 'this is it, it's all over.' Like Terry Gilliam, hearing of Heath Ledger's untimely death in the middle of filming "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," immediately thinking, 'well, that's the end of this picture...' But with the generosity of friends and a higher Will the film got made and I highly recommend it.

One such instance nearly ended my relationship with Bill Laswell and Material before it even started.

It was only the third or fourth time Bill and Bob ( Robert Musso) came in to work at Platinum Island. This time it was to mix a track for Iggy Pop. The song was, Family Affair an old classic from Sly and the Family Stone:

"Family Affair" is a 1971 number-one hit single recorded by Sly & the Family Stone for the Epic Records label. Their first new material since the double a-sided single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"/ "Everybody is a Star" nearly two years prior, "Family Affair" became the fourth and final number-one pop hit for the band. Rolling Stone magazine later ranked the song #138 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

- from Wikipedia

We were mixing in Platinum Island's Studio East on a 72 channel G Series SSL desk that was only 6 months or so out of the factory. For non-technicians: the SSL is a computer automated mixing board that will remember and play back every volume level change you make. The computer can also take a picture of nearly every single fader and knob position so that a mix can be set-up then recalled at a later date. That function is called Total Recall.

Mixing on an SSL, when all is well, is like driving a Caddilac, though I've seen some engineers, such as Jason Corsaro, drive it like a Ferrari.

Everything went smoothly at first. Bob spent a few hours getting sounds and setting up a basic balance of all the tracks. Then Bill sat at the SSL and made a few adjustments with the faders before they started to automate the mix. Bob operated the computer while Bill automated the mix faders, usually one at a time.

My job, at this point, was to keep an eye on Bob to make sure he was ok with the computer commands. With this system, it was fairly easy to lose information through human error if the operator wasn't completely familiar with SSL's somewhat idiosyncratic automation procedures.

They worked on the automation for a few hours, at least. Bill was using the automation more extensively than anyone else I'd seen do it. This brought a lot more dynamics to the sound and made the mix breath in a way that gave it excitement and life. I was reminded of Brian Eno's concept of the recording studio itself being a musical instrument. Now I was in the presence of someone actually taking it to this level.

Using the automation this much did eat up a lot of memory but still safely within system parameters. However, at the end of one pass, it crashed. Not only was the pass we'd just finished lost, but it crashed the entire floppy disk where all the previous mixes were stored. This meant that the last few hours of work had been completely lost. The mix had been almost finished.

We brought a maintenance tech in who was unable to determine what had gone wrong. The computer worked just fine when the tech tested it with a new disk. "Maybe it was just a bad disk", he said.

Bill and Bob persevered and began building the mix again with automated passes. After about 90 minutes the computer crashed again. It seemed like when it reached a certain memory capacity, it couldn't handle anymore load although there wasn't any logical explanation as to why it wasn't working up to capacity. Bob had been giving all the correct commands and doing everything absolutely right with the computer.

Fortunately, they'd booked 2 days for this project. "We're leaving," Bob said, "you guys can figure out what's wrong over night and we''ll come back tomorrow and finish."

Our Chief Tech, Carl, who incidentally was also Les Paul's tech, came in with his minion, Mike, to track down the glitch. They couldn't find anything wrong and insisted the problem was human error ... not theirs, of course. Luckily, I'd been paying attention to Bob's automation operation the whole time and could vouch 110% that he'd done everything by the book. I argued this point with the techs. They insisted it was human error and said that was that! In my opinion, they were just covering themselves. This problem hadn't come up before because noone else used the automation this creatively.

So there I was faced with the a problem that required a different kind of solution. I was very concerned that the computer would crash again the next day shutting down the mix forcing Bill Laswell to take his business elsewhere.

The next day I arrived for the session an hour earlier than usual. It was standard operating procedure to get there one hour before the start time, I got there 2 hours ahead of time. I cleaned the space then proceeded to practice the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram which I'd learned from the Golden Dawn system of Magic. The intention with this is to banish any influence inimical to what you wish to do in the space. I wished for a successful mix!

I did this ritual a couple of times just to be sure.

Bill and Bob arrived and began working. So far, so good! I tried to keep my will focused throughout the session on not allowing any disruption. Luckily, the computer behaved perfectly and we got a final mix on Family Affair with no additional complications.

The next day a large label project began a 2 week lockout in Studio East. They were paying top rate, which was about $2200/day back then. Thankfully, I wasn't booked for this one. They worked 10 hours before the computer crashed losing all their work. The client immediately pulled the project and the studio lost all that revenue.

The following day, after much troubleshooting, the techs discovered that something with the computer wasn't grounded
properly resulting in the malfunction.


  1. amazing story....I'm glad that track finally made it's way's an interesting version. Nice to know a little of the history behind it.

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