Old Light Gets Trippy

Actually that’s kind of redundant, isn’t it? I mean, just look at them. They look like they should be called “Troutdale Party Wizards.”

Anyway, the band was just in to mix “Space,” another in their series of 5,000 cassette tapes released this year. Needless to say, the session was a blast (despite their insistence on “cleaning” the tape heads with expired Vegenaise) and the project came off well.

I was really struck by a number of songs on the tape, but I was drawn in particular to the song “Drone,” which sounded a little like hyperspeed reggae to me, so much so that I suggested a slightly dubbed-out remix. Here’s the result!

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Take Another Little Piece of…Heart?

“You’ve never heard of Ron Nevison?!?”

Um, no, I answered.

Thus began a conversation with my friend Rick King, noted gear hustler and owner of my favorite guitar shop on Earth: Tacoma’s Guitar Maniacs. Rick was describing the Roland tape echo he was bringing in for servicing; its flight case was marked “Ron Nevison,” and when Rick professed ignorance of the name, its previous owner huffily replied: “Dude, he produced Night Ranger!!!”

“Uh, wow!” said Rick.

As it turns out, Ron Nevison did more than produce Night Ranger, but more on that later.

The first time I walked into a “real” studio (cut to 1985 or so, and Geoff Turner’s basement in Glover Park), I was instantly drawn to the Tolex-clad box emitting a slithery hiss. This, of course, was a Roland Space Echo (likely in need of a tape replacement).

Even more interesting than the mechanics of the thing was its sound: A trippy, ghostly echo that could simulate deep space (at least a noisy version of it), or be cranked into a distorted and rather scary mass of feedback. I was hooked.

Even back then, the Roland had been out of production for some years, and was starting to show its age. These days, most of the original units are in fairly sad shape. The killer on these units is the DC motor / capstan which drives the tape. The bearings at the top and bottom of the capstan inevitably wear, and the motor has a harder and harder time maintaining speed.

Replacing the bearings isn’t particularly difficult (though finding replacements can be!). After that it’s mostly an issue of cleaning up the tape path, renewing lubrication and felt pads and the like. In the case of Rick’s Roland–one of the late-model and truly excellent sounding 555s–I went the distance and ended up replacing every electrolytic capacitor plus some other minor tuneup items.

Anyway, what piqued my (admittedly mild) interest in Ron Nevison was the note taped inside the unit:

I wrote my friend Steve Perrone, source of much obscure rock knowledge, to see if HE had heard of Ron Nevison. With no hesitation whatsoever, he replied:

“From the liner notes to Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, the song is “The Rover”:

‘….mixdown, Keith Harwood Olympic Studios/guitar lost courtesy of Nevison. Salvaged by the grace of Harwood.’

That’s where the trail ended, for me at least. As it turns out, the common denominator in Night Ranger, Heart and Led Zeppelin (besides Ron Nevison) is that I don’t really care for their music (preparing self for massive onslaught of internet-borne bile for that last one, I know).

However, I DO love restoring old audio gear, and this project was a blast!

On the Mic

Not much extra room in there!

It’s rare that a fixit job makes me feel like a rockstar, but this one made me feel invincible, for about an hour or so. A client brought in a pair of beautiful Sony C-57 tube mics for rehabilitation. As far as I can glean, they use some of the same components as their highly regarded C-37A, but in a slim sculpted housing reminiscent of the Shure 300 series of the mid-50s.

Because of the constricted environment, Sony used a miniature triode wired directly to the circuit board. This tube, the 6D-H3, is apparently impossible to find, so when one dies, the mic is essentially useless. This is exactly what had happened to one of the mics (the other was usable but noisy, which apparently was par for the course with this model). I despaired of finding a replacement tube, but I was heartened when I saw a messageboard post by David Royer (of Royer Labs fame) offering to try and fix a broken C-57 and see if he could retrofit a substitute tube. I dropped him a line and got to work on the power supplies and cables.

I kind of wish I had taken a snapshot of the mic cables; they literally crumbled in my hands, and the thought of +/- 265 volts passing through them was more than a little frightening. I replaced them with new Mogami, and rebuilt / renewed the old rubber strain reliefs as needed. The power supplies were beautiful to behold both inside and out, but removing the ancient (and very sturdy) Nichicon can capacitors took a loooong time and quite a bit of patience. After adding proper 3-prong grounding and bypassing the noisy low-cut circuitry (does anyone ever really use it?), I was anxious to get the actual mics up and running.

Eventually it became apparent that, generous offers aside, Royer Labs had better things to do than repair mics they had never made in the first place. At the same time, a dim Christmas-size bulb of insight flickered to life in my head: If the mic used many of the same components as the C-37A, why not try to build the same circuit inside the C-57? One advantage of this is that, unlike the C-57, the C-37s tube (6AU6 strapped for triode) is readily available; a matched pair of N.O.S. RCAs set me back $10.

Here's the original circuit with burned-up 6D-H3 tube.

The main challenge was going to be real estate: The inside of a C-57 is an extremely constricted environment, and excess heat could damage the sensitive capsule (I learned that a later Sony mic, the C-800, used a passive Peltier cooling system for this very reason. However, with the circuit board removed, there was just enough room to squeeze in a 6AU6, positioned upside-down so as to allow the shortest possible cable run from capsule to grid.

I constructed a tiny wiring harness out of surplus tube socket pins, shrink-tubed the hell out of the connections so as to avoid a short-circuit in the cramped environment, crossed my fingers and slowly brought the power up.

Wha la! After a false start or two optimizing the grounding arrangement, the new circuit worked perfectly, and was noticeably quieter than the original. I was still concerned with heat dissipation, but after many tests ranging from a few minutes to many hours, the exterior of the mic housing was slightly warm to the touch, about what I would expect from a vintage tube mic.

In retrospect, what I did with these mics was NOT rocket science; working cleanly and carefully, I mated a proven circuit with a compatible and well-designed power supply. But as anyone who knows me knows, I can’t pass up saving old junk, especially of the audio variety (come hang out in my basement some time and you’ll see what I mean). But in turning these beautiful (and beautiful sounding) antique mics into something usable (and safe), I really felt like I had knocked one out of the park.

The mic with new tube and circuitry grafted into place

Cat Doorman’s OPB Session at the Studio

Watch Cat Doorman: Turn Around on PBS. See more from Arts and Life.

I love getting to play and record upstairs in the “big room”; while it’s not perfect for ALL types of music, it’s such a treat to hear sounds reflecting off hard wood and plaster.

For this session, the good folks at OPB asked me to run audio, as their technician was unavailable. With such an able group of players, I was able to focus on  mic’ing the room rather than the instruments. Though I didn’t mix this session, from the sound of it the editor relied heavily on the room mics, a pair of modded AKG 460Bs in cardioid mode, placed coincidentally for mono compatibility.

Julianna got an AKG D-222, a classy two-capsule dynamic with decent off-axis rejection. Garth’s Kay archtop clone went direct into the little Mackie 1202 I use for “remote” recording. My string bass went into a homebrew tube DI box, then into the Mackie.

Here’s the original article, plus a couple more songs; hope you enjoy them as much as we did!

 

More Purring About Cat Doorman….

Inspiration from Cat Doorman on Vimeo.

Not much new recording to talk about while the studio is still under renovation (pictures to come soon, I promise!). But in the meantime, Julianna Bright’s Cat Doorman project, recorded and produced at LGBS, is racking up kudos left and right:

From Zooglobble: “Fans of Frances England, Elizabeth Mitchell, Dean Jones, and Lunch Money should find in Cat Doorman a sympathetic soul…It reminds families of the worlds and possibilities that lie outside our door, if only we’re willing to see them and create them ourselves. Definitely recommended.”,p>

Also just in: A coveted “Parents’ Choice” award from the highly respected source for childrens’ media and toy reviews!!

Okay, that’s it for now. Back down to the basement, where the studio revamp continues SLOOOOOOOOOWLY. Perhaps you can understand why; here’s a glimpse of my current landscape:

Open the Door for Cat Doorman!

We’re very excited over here about the release of Cat Doorman’s “Songbook” album, which was mostly recorded here by noted Portland illustrator Julianna Bright. It’s already been named “one of the best kids’ music albums of 2013″ by About.com!

It’s “kids’ music,” at least topically, but more in the vein of Really Rosie, Carole King’s great mid-70s collaboration with Maurice Sendak.

What’s more, the release of the album coincides with a kids’ app, “Little Red Wagon,” an interactive musical game featuring hundreds of Julianna’s gorgeous paintings come to life.

There are a number of ways to purchase the album and app; I hope you take a moment to check them out, whether or not you have a kid!

-iTunes: “Little Red Wagon” app

-iTunes: Cat Doorman “Songbook”

-Cat Doorman (for hard copies of the CD)

CTB Took Care of Business!

CTB

Just a quick self-promotional blurb here…WAIT A SECOND! Isn’t that what ALL the blurbs are? Anyway: Now that the Corin Tucker band album “Kill My Blues” is out (it was released September 18th, 2012 from KRS), I can finally post a couple of MY favorite tracks (as opposed to the “singles” released on the Web).

Like the first album, it was recorded here at Little Golden Book. We did these two downstairs in the “dead” tracking area; much of the rest of the album was recorded upstairs to take advantage of the “bounce” from the big hardwood room. Here are a couple of reviews for the record:

SPIN, September 19, 2012: “…Proves that one of alt-rock’s greatest howlers can operate at full power even without pushing herself to detonation. Can the big boys do that?”

Robert Christgau, September 25, 2012: “After the feminist scolding cum rallying cry, my favorites are the happy love songs, every one about a marriage that has no time for the fantasy that wedlock is boring….”

allmusic, September 18, 2012: “The time spent touring in support of 1,000 Years only sharpened (Tucker’s) songwriting and fully rekindled her passion, and she reclaims the war whoop of her voice effortlessly, using it to decry personal and political outrages.”

TIME.com, August 28, 2012: “It’s an album that could fit into the illustrious Sleater-Kinney discography, and simultaneously shows a clarity of vision that is uniquely Tucker’s.”

“Kill My Blues”

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“I Don’t Wanna Go”

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Mystery of the Magnatone

Actually there’s not much of a mystery about this amplifier, besides “Why did anyone design an amplifier this ugly?” and “Why was Seth dumb enough to buy it?” (By the way, the photo above is NOT of my amp. Mine looks nowhere near that good.)

Fact is, I have a hard time passing up any piece of musical gear that is a) Cheap / Free, b) Odd or c) Broken. And this prime example of space-age musical technology was all three, in droves. In addition to really lush reverb and the famous Magnatone pitch-shifting vibrato (as opposed to “Fender-style,” which except for an early version is actually tremolo, meaning a change in volume rather than a change in pitch), this beast is literally two amps inside one. Why exactly, I’m not quite sure. The mid-60s stereo craze? When the “stereo vibrato” setting is selected, it IS a pretty impressive sound, more akin to a chorus effect than a standard vibrato (or tremolo, more likely).

I found this thing–or rather, it found me–through an informal Magnatone amp forum I subscribe to (and highly recommend). The owner lived not far away and only wanted $100 for the thing (although without the all-importand output tubes, the rare and expensive 7189A). I’d never met anyone from the forum face-to-face, but judging from the email signatures, I am guessing they are typically older blues aficionadoes. So I was surprised, not unpleasantly, to find the seller wearing an ancient Sonic Youth t-shirt, living in some sort of communal house on the Washington state peninsula.

Needless to say, the amp needed work. A LOT of work. New speakers, the output tubes plus several preamp tubes (and there are 13 tubes total in this beast!). All the electrolytic capacitors, plus quite a few coupling capacitors. Sometime in its life, someone had replaced the original power transformer with one from another Magnatone amp. Why this seemed like a good idea, I have no clue. I doubt the amp would have worked at all in this condition. This photo should give you an idea of how COMPLETELY HECTIC it is inside this amplifier.

A few months later, the amplifier was working, more or less. The aforementioned new parts, plus a few slight tweaks:

  • The original speakers (1 x 8″ and 1 x 3″ tweeter per side) were changed out for new Webers, an 8″ on one side and a 12″ on the other
  • Bias control was added to each side of the amp, to ensure those precious 7189A output tubes would stay happy and safe
  • A variable resistor was added to the negative feedback circuit; when the amount of NFB is reduced, the amp sounds quite a bit bassier and growlier. Needless to say, many folks prefer it this way!
  • “Slow” and “Fast” settings for the vibrato speed were added. Vibrato is my favorite effect, and for whatever reason I tend to slow it down on most of my amps

 

Out of the box, it sounded pretty great! My friend Lewi Longmire, no stranger to old and weird amps, flattered me by saying that: “For an amp with so many knobs, it sounds pretty damn good!”

However, the exterior still looked like garbage: The speaker cloth was MIA, and the Tolex so mungy as to be unusable. “No problem,” I thought. “Any dummy can recover an amplifier.” Guess who was wrong…again!

It is NOT that easy to cover a large, somewhat irregular surface with a thin, pliable covering and have it look halfway decent. After a great deal of glue, wasted Tolex and cursing, the amp looks okay. In the dark. From a distance. Not that it matters too much; the gold control plate is pretty horribly corroded, and only a few of the original knobs remain.

Almost as important as “How does it look?” is, of course, “How does it sound?” (Or do I have those two reversed?). Here are a few clips. All were recorded more or less straight to disk, through a stereo pair of Grundig GDSM dynamic mics (supposedly license-built by Sennheiser, featuring the MD409 capsule), then through modded GAP-73 pres:

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Here’s the amp “plain.” Plugging into either channel gives output through both sides of the amp, though only Channel 1 gives vibrato.

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Here’s vibrato added.

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And finally, here’s vibrato AND reverb.

Was it worth it? Sure! Another obsolete, heavy, fragile (and let’s not forget just plain ugly) amplifier to clutter up the studio with? WHY THE HELL NOT!!! Actually, it IS a pretty fantastic-sounding amplifier. Maybe not one to lug around to every gig, but a keeper nonetheless. Just wait’ll I write about the Silvertone organ I found on the sidewalk last week!….

 

 

Preamp Madness!!!

Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve been fascinated by old–especially mid-20th century–technology. Especially aircraft. Since I got to climb around in an abandoned DC-3 at a Florida airstrip in the late 1970s, the sights and smells of sculpted metal, sun-baked plastic and cracked wiring have fascinated me.

What’s this got to do with recording music? To my eyes–and nose–nothing comes closer to that experience than fooling around with old audio gear, especially tape decks. The smell of heated glass vacuum tubes, machine oil, and old fabric insulation is a direct link to that ancient airplane I got to investigate.

I’m of the age that got to experience the end of the analog-only era. (I still say that I’m “taping” a rehearsal when I use a modern digital recorder, for instance.) Nothing is more evocative of the “old way” than a tape deck. Even people who grew up entirely in the digital realm yearn for “that tape sound,” or what it symbolizes.

Lest you become too enamored of “hitting the tape REAL hard,” a telltale phrase that can indicate the presence of an audio blowhard, it’s interesting that many recording and mastering engineers prefer digital formats. In clinical terms, it’s preferable for the output–the recorded music–to match the input.

I can certainly appreciate that on a technical level, but I am always a bit tickled when a piece of antique gear–I’m thinking of the respected Revox G36 tube-powered tape deck in particular–is described, negatively, as being “euphonic.” In other words, the fact that it imparts pleasing qualities to the music is seen as a fault.

Anyways, back to me. A few years back I became interested in the Ampex 600 series of portable tape decks. They are a classic of ’50s American engineering; Alan Lomax did much of his best work with this deck. More recently, John Mellencamp recorded an album on one of these ancient–and mono!–decks. Though I’ll never forgive him for implanting “Hurts So Good” in my memory, I’ll admit I was impressed.

Anyway, over the years I would buy one of these decks whenever I chanced upon one for cheap. I had dreams of recording onto one of them, and I still may one day. But for now, they’ve proven to be more useful as preamps.

Of course, they need work, sometimes a good bit of it. Old parts need to be replaced, unneeded tubes and their associated components removed, and voltages adjusted and regulated accordingly. They’re designed to send a strong signal to tape too, at a much higher level than our purposes require. Removing a gain stage brings the output down to a usable level, and affords the opportunity to insert a master output control so the unit can be “driven” like a guitar amp.

It’s a true joy to work with such old machinery. They were truly rugged and capable machines for their day, built to endure the rigors of recording in harsh conditions. Oh, and as an added bonus, they sound great! They’re versatile and clean enough to be used on lead vocals, or for smashing electric bass through the DI input. Wish I had a few more of them lying around the shop, to be honest….

Back to the airplane: I remember climbing the dusty cargo deck slanting up towards the cockpit, and sunlight slanting through the loading door my father had hoisted me through. The cockpit was clearly the most exciting part of the plane, where the pilots had sat with their banks of switches and controls. But as I approached the door to the cockpit, a sickening thought occurred to me, one I couldn’t shake: That the skeletons of the dead pilots were still in the cockpit, and if I opened the door they’d lurch back to life. Despite my father’s encouragements, I slunk back to the hatch and gratefully climbed back down into my father’s arms.

Vox…Vibrations? No. Vox…Rocks? No, that’s worse.

I’m trying to think of a pithy, alliterative title for this post and can’t. Since I already wrote about my Farfisa, I could make some really weak pun along the lines of “Getting Organ-ized,” but somehow that would remind me of the deeply closeted, deeply unfunny photography teacher at the first high school I attended. But I digress.

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been lugging this piece of junk around for 23 years and counting. But even though it never really worked 100%, I could never let it go. It’s my favorite sounding organ, having been featured in a veritable googleplex of awesome songs in the 1960s, and finding coolness again in the 70s via Elvis Costello and the Attractions and the Damned, among others. Plus, it looks really bad-ass.

This young squire is pretty much my fashion template in high school

I took this image from a site dedicated to a young (high school?) late-60s band called “The Rubber Memory.” Judging from their age and slightly less-than-jawdropping countenances, I’m guessing that their name was an (unsuccesful) attempt to convince anybody that their virginities were now spoken of in past tense.

The shockingly well-dressed lad standing behind the organ had deeper pockets than most, I’m guessing, as a Vox organ (even the budget-ey Jaguar version he’s showing off) was the higher-class and higher-priced alternative to the Farfisa, which was really always somewhat of a joke, except perhaps later on to Brian Eno and Steve Reich. But I digress.

Like the Farfisa, the Vox featured early germanium-based transistors, which as they age tend to drift pretty radically, especially with fluctuations in temperature. After the standard electronic rebuilding, the organ was sounding pretty good, or as good as these things EVER sounded. But “B flat” was just not working. On the oscillator card, the note would make it to the first divider and just stop.

Unlike the Farfisa, the Vox’s oscillators feature sealed “pods” which contain resistors and capacitors. They’re unmarked and fragile, and it’s hard to determine if they’re truly working or not. Even after swapping out pods, transistors and resistors, I just couldn’t make the note work. I was depressed.

Those red rectangles at the bottom right are the "pods" I'm referring to....

Fortunately, some kind souls at the Yahoo Combo Organ Forum were able to help me out with a truly weird (and therefore infinitely satisfying) concept: Grafting a binary counter IC–in other words, a computer chip designed decades after the Vox organ–into the card to take the place of those troublesome transistors and R/C networks.

Essentially, this made the organ bionic, to completely misuse the term. The tone the organ produces is exactly the same, but the simple math of dividing the tone (lowering the pitch) for each lower octave is handled by a small, simple (and stable) computerized part. GENIUS!!!!

Next up: The Hammond!