Saturday, May 30, 2015

Transition from Assistant to First Engineer

Here is a first draft excerpt from my forthcoming book, Music, Magick and the Game of Life:

In the late '80s, the next step for a successful staff engineer at a commercial New York recording studio was to become a freelance engineer.  To accomplish this one needed a regular clientele. I began engineering low budget sessions at Platinum Island  within a month or two of bring hired as an assistant.  Ironically, the first project they turned me loose on involved a therapist who made tapes intended to reprogram the victim's (patient's) habits in a floatation tank through binaural cross-synchronization.  He would tell two stories that were hard panned left and right to the extreme sides of the stereo field.  Now and then a word from the left  story would subliminally connect with a word from the story on the right imparting subconscious messages like "DON'T DRINK" or whatever subject was being covered, there were a number of them.  The subject's deep relaxation in the floatation tank would help the message sink in that much better.  It was ironic for two reasons - I had heard of floating, but hadn't tried it, yet within a year I would have a tank at home and become an enthusiastic long time user.  The second irony was that the therapist seemed in urgent need of his own techniques.   An Otari 8 track recorder with dbx noise reduction was rolled in the control room, a poor cousin to the majestic Studer A80 24 track recorder that normally assumed the duties. 

The New York studio training system was highly disciplined and rigorous;  a great apprenticeship.  I didn't realize how disciplined it was until I started working in studios outside of the City.  An assistant engineer in a state-of -the-art recording facility in New York is expected to be fully aware of what's going on at all times down to the smallest detail - how many tracks are open, is the recording level good, does it sound good, at what number does the second chorus start at etc. etc. etc. to such a degree that if the main engineer were to suddenly drop dead, the assistant would be able to jump into their shoes and seamlessly continue.  The assistant engineer knows the room inside and out, knows which gear is a little funky or which hidden audio weapons sound great and isn't reluctant to suggest them when appropriate.   She is the liaison between the client and the studio.  Assistants make the studio work allowing the engineer, producer and musicians to maximize their creativity.  Assistant engineers started getting credited as second engineers because that's what they did, a second engineer on the session backing up the main engineer, always observing and looking out for mistakes or oversights while also making sure the musicians and producers are comfortable and have what they need.  Assistant/second engineers are invaluable to the process of making a record.

As mentioned, I began assuming the first engineer post from time to time almost as soon as getting hired on staff at Platinum Island.   Not only with the low budget projects which were fairly steady, but also in the higher profile sessions I assisted on.  Engineering background vocals for the Meat Loaf Live at Wembley record while producer/engineer Tom Edmonds took leave of the board and produced; engineered all the vocals for Information Society's self-titled release which had a couple of tracks that cracked the top 5 on the Pop Charts and went platinum.  A lot of engineering work came through from having done that including mixing a song for Information Society used in the film Earth Girls Are Easy.

At a certain point I began experimenting in the recording studio with approaches and techniques that would distinguish my engineering from every other competent engineer out there.  I bought a used 1500 watt tri-amped P.A. which I used to reamp sounds in the live room.  This was the era of drum machines, triggered drum samples and  sequenced synthesizer patterns.  The P.A. helped give those sounds some non-linear character.  I usually miced the room the reamp was in with a cardiod condenser pair aimed at the corners of the room focused 180 degrees away from the P.A. to minimize the direct sound.  Once I did mic the P.A. fairly close with a Neumann FET 47 when Bill Laswell was doing a fretless bass overdub for Anton Fier on a Golden Palominos record.  Bill played in the control room going direct into the board with the P.A. functioning as a huge amp for the sound.  It sounded good and worked out well.

Another series of experiments involved using visual images and graphics in the control room to influence the listening aesthetic in a creative way.  John Lilly documents his audio/visual repeating word tape loop experiments in The Center of the Cyclone with the verified conclusion that what you see affects how you hear.  I wrote an article for TapeOp magazine, later reproduced in their book, Visual Images in the Recording Studio  that covers some of my research in this area.  Bill encouraged this and was open to whatever I wished to try so I got permission to take it as far as possible by covering up every possible inch of wall space in the control room for a Bootsy Collins overdub session.  I arrived three hours early to set it up and used Tibetan mandelas, art pictures by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, psychedelic images, graphics from an illustrated Egyptian Book of the Dead and all kinds of other esoteric and fine art pictures.  It ended up feeling very intense in there, almost uncomfortably so.  You could feel the walls pulsating with light and image producing a natural high, a waking state. I was concerned that I'd gone too far, but the session went quickly and smoothly. Bootsy and Bill didn't seem to mind.

Effective invocational recording depends upon setting up a space.  Invocation, that aspect of magick concerned with "drawing down from above," in this case music, is a science that has much to offer the creative artist. You could just as easily say that good creative recording depends upon setting up a space.  The first thing we learn in ritual magick is to draw a circle which divides the Universe into the area of our working and everything outside of it.  Anything not concerned with our objective aim gets banished outside the circle.  Similarly, we conceptually draw a circle demarcating the recording studio environment and banish anything not useful to the endeavor including any concerns, worries, or emotional issues about mundane life problems.  We want to be fully present in the space, fully receptive to whatever might come through.

We learn from J.G. Frazer's research of primitive folklore in The Golden Bough that there appear two basic laws of magic, the Law of Similarity and the Law of Contagion.  The Law of Similarity, resonance magic, operates under the principle of like attracts like.  Or as E.J. Gold puts it, the model of a thing becomes the thing itself.  A space consecrated to ritual or explicitly dedicated to an intentional music session can be called a chamber.  We set up a space in the recording studio that appears resonant with the musical aim or resonant with a chamber where all musical possibility exists.  This can get done materially (artworks, figurines, statues, incense, lighting etc anything that creates a particular mood), astrally (through visualized imagination) or both.  The chamber where all musical possibility exists is also known as 'the crossroads' as in the Robert Johnson legend where he suddenly acquired mastery of the blues.  The crossroads legend also got attached to Bob Dylan as, according to peers, he went from being an amateurish wannabe to a talented, charismatic performer within a few months.  You can tell in any interview where he talks about his early songwriting process or his own writings that Dylan appeared directly wired to the crossroads chamber, able at any time to access a rich flow of musical content and expression.

Every once in awhile we get tangible evidence that the resonance of the space set up in the studio influences the physical world.  I was fortunate to assist for a week on overdubs for the first Danzig album produced by Rick Rubin which I've been told is a classic by aficionados.  They brought in some occult paraphenalia, I don't remember exactly what, but typical of what many heavy metal/hard rock bands incorporate in their graphics.  They also set all the digital readouts, mostly digital delays, to read 666.  One night I wore a T-shirt adorned with a large upright pentagram and they told me it was upside down so I think they were going for the darker side of occult iconography.  That was the extent to which they set the space, there wasn't any other visible reference to the occult or ritual other than making music.  The space didn't feel particular sinister to me though it did create a unique mood.  The music was great and everything flowed well.  I engineered a session the day after Danzig left.  Everything was going well, I'd just finished recording a couple of tracks with multiple drop-ins along the way when the logic circuit of the multitrack remote freaked out, automatically rewound the tape to the beginning then started playing, going into record and erasing the two tracks we'd just finished.  Fortunately, I was right there and caught it before any damage was done.  The remote was powered down which reset it making it fine again.  That never happened to me before or since so I've always been tempted to attribute the logic freakout to leftover reverberations from the Danzig chamber.

One of the most powerful shamanistic recording sessions I've engineered, Yothu Yindi in Sydney, Australia was also one of the more elaborately created chambers I've experienced in a recording studio.  The indigenous Australians (they consider the term "Aborigines" insulting) brought in a lot of relics, banners, and traditional instruments from their 40,000 year-old culture transforming the Control Room and the live space into a different world.  After 10 - 12 hour sessions I felt completely altered and naturally high like after an extended floatation tank session. They didn't have to be told to set up a space, they were experienced shamans and knew that is what you do to tap into the magic, to go to the crossroads. Read this for more details, continued here.

One attribute that set me apart as an engineer was that I knew how to set up an invocational space.  Another overall approach to becoming a better engineer consisted of fine tuning my brain and nervous system as much as possible for maximum alertness, attention, presence and focus in the studio environment.  To this end, I practiced a lot of yoga and did other exercises to increase the concentration of my attention.  I experimented with diet though didn't get consistently disciplined with this until later on.  Things changed dramatically after purchasing a used floatation tank from my friend, Sam Zeiger.  I would float in it everyday for about an hour before a session and get out with  sharpened perceptions, able to process information rapidly and clearly; High Velocity.   The recording studio is a high energy environment even if it doesn't always appear that way.  Every electrical circuit generates a magnetic field at right angles to the electric flow and those fields impinge upon the electromagnetic field that surrounds the human biological machine which has always been regarded by me as the most complex piece of equipment in the recording studio.

Staying at the top of your game, being as present as possible in the studio because that's what the job demanded meant that your brain was thinking ahead, anticipating what might be needed next, allowing the flow to go as quickly and smoothly as possible; staying out of the way.  Working fast and efficiently is a big plus to clients who are paying anywhere from $1,000 - $2,000 a day just for the room.  It's also a big plus to musicians to not get slowed down by technical considerations once they've turned on their creative tap.  I remember taking over engineering duties to record horns with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker for  the Bootsy's Rubber Band album Jungle Bass.  Everyone was waiting while I set up the song.  I put on a pair of "cans" (headphones) and dialed up a headphone mix on the fly taking a second to balance each track, getting it ready in less than a minute.  I noticed that Nicky Skopelitis saw the speed it took to get a good balance and pointed it out to Bill Laswell.  Previous years of mixing live sound certainly helped there. 

Going freelance is scary.  I recall my friend Knut Bohn's trepidation at the prospect.  At the time, Knut worked mostly as Nile Rodger's engineer.  It was a prestigious and steady gig, but he was wanting to move on.  We had met at the Institute of Audio Research, the recording wing of NYU.  Knut dropped out after the first quarter and got an internship at Skyline, a major studio then.  I completed the full year of school then moved back to Canada for a couple of years trying, and mostly failing to get studio jobs.  One night I got booked to assist a session for Arto Lindsay's group Ambitious Lovers when in waltzes Knut, the engineer I was to assist.  He was moonlighting from his Niles gig to fill in for another engineer.  At that moment it seemed that one of us had made the wiser career move.  We had a good time reconnecting on breaks.  Knut graciously invited me to visit him at Skyline where he showed me the new Sony digital multitrack they had with programmable punch in/punch out features and introduced me to his boss.  At Skyline we talked about working freelance which we both seemed to view as jumping off a cliff.

I'd had some previous experience with the anxiety of working independently, going off the fix of a guaranteed steady income, when moving back to Canada after recording school.  This was 1985 and I was seriously researching Buckminster Fuller and magick and keeping up a regular yoga practice.  To help get my engineer career going I made a 10 day retirement where I didn't leave my apartment spending the time studying Synergetics and practicing magick focusing on an invocation of Mercury as an archetype of communication.  It was at that time that I wrote the High Velocity Sound Engineering Manifesto where I defined my direction with the first paragraph:

"The essential aim of High Velocity Sound Engineering is clear aesthetic communication.  The information is communicated through the form of music.  Music is taken to be a high order language containing the possibility of evolutionary change.

The idea to name this operation High Velocity came from Dr. Tim Leary's book, The Game of Life.

I understood very little of Syngertics, the little I did seemed valuable.  Reading it definitely put me into a different kind of receptive space quite different from what I was used to.  At night, there were wild geometrical interdimensional chambers in my dreams of a totally alien kind.  I didn't have any noticeable epiphany or tremendous realization with the Mercury workings though only a couple of months later Terry Tompkins enlisted me to record his band The Now Feeling, my first time multitrack engineering an album in a professional studio.  It was recorded on an 80 series Neve console at the Columbia School of Recording in Calgary, Alberta.  The sessions went great even though I was moonlighting from my live sound gig at night and was getting a little stretched thin; burning the candle at both ends and in the middle.  The Neve board sounded amazing.  The people who ran the place, Mark Goodman and Lanny were mostly helpful and friendly guides though Lanny started scaring me with warnings about recording the cymbals too loud that would make the record skip.  I was dubious of this advice but didn't really know so I called Bernie Grundman Mastering down in LA to get their advice.  Bernie himself answered assuring me saying, "hell no, we can take care of it, we get tapes in here to master where the VU meters are pinned and don't even move.  Be reasonable with your levels and you won't have a problem." 

One night in a movie theatre, distracted by paranoid thoughts regarding the uncertainty of income, I flashed back to Buckminster Fuller's story of going independent and how he dedicated himself completely to working for what he called Scenario Universe.  He anticipated an effect of precession to support himself and family with their basic needs.  By precession he meant a scientific term for a "side effect." though that's a simplification.  Basically, he felt that by working for Scenario Universe with great integrity, that Scenario Universe would indirectly provide ways and means to support him and his family.  Fuller lived in poverty for a few years but eventually became a millionaire without ever directly trying to make money.  This memory eased my worried mind.  I felt encouraged and empowered.  If I worked for Music always with the greatest possible integrity then my basic needs would indirectly get taken care of.  So far, I've been right, knock on wood.

A new student of sound recording recently asked me for one piece of career advice. I told him to try to find some idealistic reason or higher purpose for choosing this line of work beyond looking to get rich and/or famous.  There's a lot of hard work and long hours ahead so it seems helpful to find enjoyment and reward from the process rather than waiting for a superficial goal that may or may not ever happen.  It could be as simple as you just love music and want to see more of it of better quality in the world.

Serving in the citadel of Music has turned out well for me.  Though unprovable, I suspect the wide diversity and tremendous amount of incredible music and musicians I've been exposed to results from adhering to the vision of the power of music over industry politics and the lust for success and recognition.  One turning point to this direction occurred in the early '90's.  Bernard Fowler asked Bill Laswell to recommend a mix engineer for an album he was co-writing and co-producing with Ron Wood for his fifth solo album, Slide On This.  Bill asked me if I wanted to be considered for this project.  The scheduling of it meant that I would miss working on another project that Ornette Coleman was producing.  I had only met Ornette, never worked with him.  The Ron Wood project would have been much higher profile if I'd been chosen but it had been an ambition of mine to engineer Ornette Coleman since I heard him say in a film that he wanted to make music like Bucky Fuller's synergetic geometry.  Jason Corsaro got the Ron Wood gig and did an excellent job, far better  than I would have been able to pull off at that time.  I got to hear some of it in Howie Weinberg's mastering suite at Masterdisk and it sounded huge.

to be continued...

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