Sample Playback Emerges


The DX7 had done it…recreated “real” sounding instruments in a synth (Seinfeld” slap bass,anyone?). And the trickle down of sampling technology from Fairlight and Synclavier had made high quality sampling affordable (relatively speaking) for many musicians.

My first “Sample Playback” synth was the Roland U220. It was a 1Unit rack space (ie.very small) with a front panel interface that can kindly be described as “spartan”. This “multi-menu” layer of button pushing would be the new interface design for most manufacturers in the coming years. Some functions were so many button presses away that it was next to impossible to locate certain functions. But this new design paradigm enabled synth manufacturers to offer their units at an amazingly low price point.

My first encounter with this unit took place in a music store in NYC where I came away less than impressed..but something made me take a second look and it soon found a happy home in my rack. There were two card slots in the front that could accommodate proprietary sound cards from Roland, some of which were quite good. I had a few, including the strings and the exotic instrument ones. You can hear me playing the fretless bass from this unit on “The Pursuit Of Happiness” by Procol Harum. I tried to use the organ from it for some of the demos but the Procol crew was (quite rightly) not having in came the Hammond b3 and Leslie cabinet. Some sounds are just not made for sample playback.


Kevin Calhoun 1/14/56 – 11/2/12

I lost a great friend last week.

It’s hard to know where to begin when I think about Kevin. He was my songwriting/production/musician partner for many years and one of the most talented people I have ever known. His guitar skills were impeccable and no one could funk a Fender Strat like he could.
We first met in a small studio at 25 West 38th street where he was booked to play guitar on  a recording session. He had his own band “The Neighborhood” at that time and they had a single out called “Stop Killing Those Kids”. We hung out together after the session and he played me some of his songs. There was an immediate chemistry so we started writing songs together. I showed him the ropes as far as engineering and midi sequencing and he mastered both of them in short order.
Kevin was one of the funniest people in the world and refused to take anyone too seriously. When someone around who was trying to impress him with who they knew “in the business” , Kevin would stoop to the floor like he was looking for something. When that person asked him what he was doing, Kevin would reply “Oh, I’m just trying to pick up all those names you’ve been dropping”.

We did tons of 12″ Dance singles together and one of them led to our first publishing deal. This opportunity took us to L.A. and Paisley Park where we worked with some very “interesting” people. Kevin left behind a legacy of great songs and the positive spirit that was part of him and his entire wonderful family.

I really miss him.

Board Games

It all started simply enough…the earliest “sound recordists” needed a way to combine 2 or more sources (microphone or line) into a single destination (a mono recorder in the beginning). These units had volume controls for the sources and a selector for choosing what kind of input was coming in to the mixer. With the advent of multi-channel recordings, it was now possible to take the output of the individual tracks and process them back through the mixer, thereby giving the sound engineer the ability to change the levels of the recorded tracks AFTER they had been recorded..pretty revolutionary. Of course, this opened up a whole new range of possibilities..what if there was a way to be able to change not just the volume but also the TONE of the recorded tracks (after they had been recorded)…so simple BASS and TREBLE controls were added. Enterprising engineers kept pushing the envelope, adding ways to to process tracks with effect units (reverb and delay) and compressors and limiters. They soon discovered that it was possible to radically change the sound of the original recording by having control of all of these elements. You could have a really soft singer with an acoustic guitar actually be LOUDER than the drums in a mix..something that is not possible in an actual unamplified environment. You could use a compressor in such a way that it made it sound like the room was exploding with drums…and you could manipulate  (some would say “abuse”) the compressors and limiters  to make the recordings REALLY LOUD.

As things progressed, console manufacturing became an actual business (most of the earliest recording mixers/consoles were hand built to order) and the race was on to make a console that had EVERYTHING in it (SSL/NEVE). These consoles grew in size and complexity (and cost) but they were popular because they were the shortest path to getting a professional sound.

It was expensive for the “home recordist” to compete with the major studios. Semi pro tape machines (TASCAM/FOSTEX) didn’t have the headroom or dynamic range to compete with a Studer Tape deck and early home consoles suffered from poor mic pre amps and mixing facilities (I know..lots of people made records on these semi pro units at the time). There was also the race for more and more tracks..linking multiple 24 track machines became common. But the digital revolution was about to change everything, starting with the “DAT” stereo recorder. It was reasonably priced (compared to a half inch tape mixdown machine) and promised many things that the tape machines could not deliver on such as low cost and small medium (the DAT tapes were half the size of a regular cassette), no tape related hiss,no alignment and maintenance headaches and zero generational loss when copied (digital to digital). The reality was that the “Analog to Digital” convertors in the early DAT machines didn’t sound very good and the tapes were not very robust and frequently eaten by the DAT fact, most DAT tapes from the late 80’s/early 90’s will not play back without significant distortion and/or drop outs.

A company called Alesis figured out a way to put 8 Digital tracks on to a VHS cassette and make the machines linkable, so that it was possible to have 24 (or more) tracks of digital recording for  a significantly lower price than an analog 24 track machine. Meanwhile,a small company was putting together a computer based recording system called Pro Tools that didn’t use tape at all..and the mixdown console was built in to the software. Many other hardware and software companies developed similar products (I refuse to get in to the “DAW War” discussion) and it became possible for home recordists to have a  Pro Tools set up that was VERY similar to what the pro studios were using.

It soon became apparent that the home recordists needed a better signal chain to get in to Pro Tools (ie.better microphones,pre amps,compressors,etc) and a cottage industry of high end, boutique “single “units came to market (Avalon/Universal Audio/Vintech) as well as more budget lines (MXL/Focusrite). But as the need for more inputs,control room monitoring,talk-back (and something to alleviate the CPU drain from using many internal plug ins) arose, it looked like the time had come for an “integrated” console again (think of a really low budget SSL). Yamaha had some success in this area in the mid ’90’s with their “02R” console but at $ 12,000., it was out of reach for most home recordists.

Two companies are currently offering reasonably priced (around $ 3,000) multi-input (16/32) digital consoles with computer connectivity (with all of the major software DAWs) and an incredible array of features. The Presonus Studio Live Board is compact,easy to set up and offers almost all of the facilities you would need. The Behringer X-32 is a similar console, the main difference being that this console promises to utilize the high end technologies from 2 of the companies under the same corporate umbrella (Midas and Klark) in the all important deciding factor for ANY are the mic pre amps?

It will be interesting to see what kind of impact these kinds of consoles will have in the home and pro sector.

The “name” value isn’t great for either manufacturer…but the proof will be in the recordings.

Track Sheets…I miss ‘Em

Back in the days of Analog 2″ 24 track tape, engineers kept track of what was recorded (and when) on a piece of paper known as the “Track Sheet”. It was a roadmap for the next engineer who had to work on the project and it offered a look into the tracking techniques ( and track allocation) of the engineer.

Several artists have actually included these in their album artwork (The Rolling Stones “Black and Blue”, Todd Rundgren “Something/Anything”).

If the engineer was only working off 24 tracks (there was a way to “slave” another 24 track machine…very cumbersome and a cottage industry at the time), decisions had to be made as the song was tracked. You can see from the “Born In The U.S.A.” track sheet that,aside from the kick,snare and room tracks, the whole kit (all toms and hi hat) were sub mixed down to a stereo pair. It’s also interesting that certain outboard effects (the AMS kick and snare) were actually printed to the tape. These were probably samples, using the AMS unit’s ability to capture samples and have them be triggered by the kick and snare. Only one sample could be triggered at a time and once the unit was turned off, the sample was gone.

I’m guessing that most of the track was recorded at the same time,live in the studio. It’s funny that this massive sounding track was put together with a relatively small number of interments. As usual, it’s mainly about the song,the arrangement..and the performance. (Also kudos to engineers Toby Scott and Bob Clearmountain, two of the best).

Getting it right…on the way in…

I was doing a “live band” recording session recently (yes,they all played together at the same headphones,just a small p.a. System and no click track). It wasn’t too hard getting a basic sound for them,as they can all play and sing. We tracked to individual tracks on Protools and as usual, I used a fair amount of EQ from the console on the drum tracks as I recorded them. But something in the snare just wasn’t popping the way that I thought it should. So I put a DBX 161 across the snare and dialed in some aggresiveness.
The resulting sound was so exciting that I quickly dismissed any reservations about committing to it…and this was a sound that it is simply not possible to achieve in the world of software plug ins. And in the end, it made the mixes really come alive.
Sometimes,something worth doing is worth overdoing.


Last Saturday, I was invited to fill in for bassist Nick LaBate of Starnes And Shah at the Pleasantville Music Festival. Rain was predicted but it never came..we had a beautiful sunny day with a cool breeze. After a little confusion about the parking, we set up on the stage (great crew and sound company) and played a set. Dania and Zilpha took the front of the stage and drummer Scott Morehouse held down the rhythm section…it was a blast.

After the set, we wandered around, checking out the acts on the 3 stages of the festival. From the singer/songwriter ZZ Ward (and amazing band) to blues guitarist Davy Knowles (another amazing rhythm section) to the Americana folk rock (hard to categorize them) Good Old War and the rockingDelta Spirit, the performances,songs and sound were uniformly excellent. It’s hard to imagine a better mix of styles for a festival.

As the sun was setting, we piled into the car and were home in about 15 minutes..who knew it could ever be that easy..?

Kudos to the event organizers and the vendors..lots to do..Zilpha was threatening to take a jump in the Bouncy Castle..all that was missing was a Slip N Slide…hope to do it again next year.