How did you get into engineering?
I suppose like many, my romance with sound started when I was a youngster. Not only was I interested in music, playing accordion and keyboards, but I was always active with high school musical ensembles. I also had an early mono ‘hi-fi’ and a little tape recorder. Anytime I found another speaker laying around I’d stick it in a shoebox and hot wire it into my hi-fi. My theory then was ‘more is better’…I’m pretty sure it all sound horrid as there were speakers strung out all over my bedroom. It was really quite amazing what you could do with a few cardboard boxes and some lamp cord. I could also be frequently found in my closet with the microphone taped to a music stand, trying to think of something interesting to say so I could discover how to record my voice.
When I was studying at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, near the end of my studies there was a Motion Picture Unit. I quickly gravitated to the ‘sound booth’ and spent endless hours messing around and trying, not only to figure out how to make things work, but constantly sorting and cleaning trying to create a more efficient department.
When I returned to Minneapolis I found a job at KTCA, the Twin Cities first Educational Television station and the beginning of the American PBS system. Once again I found myself in the sound department ‘messing about’ with the gear. After I left KTCA I got a job with Empire Photosound in Minneapolis as a photographer. Empire Photosound did industrial motion pictures and also produced corporate presentations. They also had a Sound Department so guess where I could always be found? I ended up doing all of their Sound Design, long before that term had been invented. As it happened another recoding company left their gear in the Empire Photosound Studio. I couldn’t leave my hands off it and before anyone knew what was happening, I was running cables down the hall and up the stairs so I could record various Jazz musicians and Folk ensembles on their large shooting stage. Obviously a pattern was starting to emerge!
Ultimately I left Empire Photosound to work as the recording engineer for what was, as I remember, called Gaiety Recording. They had a great Ampex 351-2 in road cases plus a collection of vintage valve microphones that people would kill for today. Most of the work they did was recording High School Choirs and Bands for fund raising LP’s. I cut my baby teeth on location recording, I was young and strong and had an insatiable appetite for learning the craft.
When my time in Minneapolis had run it’s course I threw everything I owned in my car and headed back to California with the dream of observing a really Hollywood recording session. As it turned out I had an acquaintance who worked for United and Western Studios in Hollywood. I put my job application in. At that time they used a written test created by Bill Putnam. Apparently I had, mostly on my own, learned enough to have outranked many of the staff engineers working for the company at the time. They hired me and had me doing tape copies for a few weeks in Hollywood and then they shipped me off to San Francisco to their Coast Recording Studio facility, which was in an old Movie Theatre, upstairs of the first topless bar in the country. Oh…the stories I could tell of paddy wagons and arrests of buxom waitresses clutching table cloths to their ample bosoms. Apparently they had started a Business Man’s Luncheon featuring topless waitresses so there were more than a few surprise interruptions to our sessions. But I digress…this was also when the San Francisco music scene was starting to explode so I had the opportunity to work with the like of Bobby Freeman, The Beau Brummels, Sly Stone (then Sylvester Stuart, radio DJ), The Great Society (The Jefferson Airplane), The Tiki’s (Harpers Bizarre) as well of heaps and heaps of demos and singles, many of which I still have stashed on my library as lacquer acetates references.
To cut to the end of this story, as you have probably figured out I was, for the most, part self taught. I gobbled up any articles I could find about recording, examining any photographs of sessions I get my hands on in the greatest of detail, which developed a skill I have to this day. A couple of minutes in a studio and I can draw up the studio set-up including the microphones used and their placement to about 90% accuracy (I can’t count how many times I’ve done that and in most cases the engineer, producer and artist were never aware what I was up to). I had the great opportunity of learning by doing, but in those days it was so much easier than it is today. You had to work with one track while live mixing a final result directly to tape with, perhaps, a 12 input mixer at the most. I had to learn to mix, to control my levels and to know what a VU meter meant. In those early days at Coast Recorders, after the mix I headed directly in to the Mastering Room to cut a lacquer reference. If anything was wrong with the mix I discovered it pretty fast and frequently quite painfully. I didn’t have individual channel EQ and compressors were very limited. Virtually everything had to be patched in as outboard gear. It was, in retrospect, a amazing way to learn…start simple and grow along with the opportunities and the technology.
I really didn’t have any mentors, as such, but I had good ears and I listened closely to the work of great talents such as the legendary RCA classical engineer Lewis W. Layton and the ever amazing Al Schmidt. I tried to figure out what they were doing and experimented until I discovered my own ‘take’ on what I had heard them do. If you do that for long enough, work hard enough and have enough passion, in time as you hone your skills, you will develop your own ‘voice’ as a recording engineer.
It wasn’t long before I found myself caught up in a sea change of engineers. Up until that point music engineers were mostly from the broadcast industry. They were generally older, male, wore loud Hawaiian shirts, had pencil protectors in their bulging pockets and smoked cigars. All of a sudden there appeared a new bred of engineers who were the same age as the artists, traveled in the same social circles, shared their politics and social consciousness. We were brothers and sisters of the same tribe, a new order of the arts, as it were. I’m proud to say that I was amongst the first of that group. I was the ‘house hippy’ and youngest staff mixer ever for RCA in Hollywood before I went back to United and Western Studios. I had long hair, a beard, wore blue jeans, worked in moccasins and of course, smoked the evil weed.
It was the start of a new music, a new social order, a new type of artists and I had the great good fortune of having a front and centre ticket to the revolution. I also had the great privilege of playing a small, but important supporting role in the new musical drama. Those were amazing, heady and unforgettable days. It was a huge party, everyone was making money and we were all having a ball making music with our closest friends.
When did you first use the Ampex 351 Machine?
Somehow Ampex tape recorders have been part of my life from the very beginning of my professional sound career. Various forms of the 351 mono machines were in use when I started in Industrial Film Sound production in Minneapolis in the 1960’s. Later, as I moved into music, I was working with a organization that owned a Ampex 351-2 in portable cases that I dragged everywhere as we primarily did location recording. When it wasn’t on the road it lived on my living room floor hooked up to my home stereo. There was also a rather remarkable, perhaps entirely forgotten little Ampex that was actually quite lightweight and portable called the 600 series. I used a 601-2 extensively, even recording the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Skitch Henderson with a pair of Sony C-37 Valve Microphones. It was a truly amazing sounding little machine.
As I continued through the early days of my career with Coast Recorders in San Francisco and eventually United and Western Recorders in Hollywood during the great Bill Putnam days…all we used were Ampex’s. Of course there was always the great Ampex 300 ½” 3 Track machine that launched multi-track recording. I still remember my first encounter with multi-track recording. I was working at Coast Recorders in San Francisco when Tommy ‘Snuff’ Garrett (a very successful LA record producer) booked a session for Gary Lewis (and the Playboys). He arrived with some backing tracks on three track 1/2” tape that he had recorded in LA and we were doing a vocal session. Two channels had the tracks from LA and one track was blank. Now I had seen the SelSync controls on the machine and knew what they were supposed to do, but I had never actually used them. Once we were set up Snuff asked me to punch in on the open track to record Gary’s vocal. I was terrified that I’d erase his pre-recorded tracks and flat-out refused to do the first punch (what a nit-wit he must have thought I was). I made him do it and watched in amazement as it worked. It was one of those seminal moments when your entire life changes in a heartbeat!
At United and Western Recorders we extensively used the 351-2 ¼” (Stereo) and 351-4 ½”(Four Track without any SelSync) machines, which I used when I did the live recording of the Bobby Darin Album “Dr. Doolittle” and Judy Collins “Wildflowers” in Western Recorders amazing Studio One. I also had a personal 351-2 in portable cases at my home, connected to my Koss Acoustech Model XI Electrostatic loudspeakers (which are still alive and still sound amazing) which I used for editing and quality control when I was Senior Mixer and Chief Engineer for Elektra Records.
What do you think makes it sound so special?
Valves and magnetic tape! Most of all, they are musical…I think that one word best sums up the sound of the 351 tape machine. The Ampex 351 was also the last of the great valve (tube) analogue tape recorders. After the Ampex 351 along came solid state machines from Ampex like the AG-440 and as others jumped on the band wagon, in America, we saw solid state machines from Studer, 3M, Stephens, MCI, Scully and more.
The newer solid state machines eventually replaced the valve Ampex machines because they were more reliable, easier to work on and align, and more stable. Circuit boards were also appearing on the newer Solid State machines, which made them more cost effective to operated for studios that were trying to make a living by keeping their overhead down. But those machines never sounded quite as musical as the great Ampex 351’s. Everything after that was a compromise and, on occasions, even a struggle to get sounding workable enough to call ‘musical’.
What is so important in having this model as a plug-in?
Many have tried to bridge the gap between Analogue and Digital, sometimes producing plug-ins that only seem to be able to make noise. Of course that ‘noise’ that many seem to embrace so fondly these days, was despised by those of us who used that technology on a daily basis.
What’s been missing was a plug-in that could contribute that somewhat magical musical quality attributed to analogue that was, ultimately, not only the sound of analogue magnetic tape, but also the sound of the valve (tube) electronics. The perfect piece of equipment to accomplish that was the Ampex 351 tape recorder.
Modelling all of the complex elements of the analogue magnetic valve recorded sound was complex and to be able to accurately and musically duplicate that sound, while at the same time providing all the control gained in the digital domain and still leaving some of the less desirable side effects (such as tape hiss and valve thermal noise and Wow) to be used or not, at the discretion of the artist is an amazing accomplishment!
What uses do you see for Kramer MPX plug-in?
Do you want to impart warmth, sweetness and clarity without any muddiness to your entire mix or just a element or two in your mix? Would you like to offset the harshness and clinical quality of Digital? Would you like a good and easy way to ‘knit’ your mix together? I think MPX answers those questions.
I guess that’s claiming a lot…and perhaps I’m bias by being a co-developer of MPX…but I also take great pride in having been a part of the development team for this particular product. It’s a plug-in I’ve been dreaming of for decades and I think Waves has finally accomplished what so many have tried to do and failed…and Waves have not only done it, they have done it in spades!
How will this plug-in change the way you work?
Since I always have that analogue sound print firmly in my memory I’m constantly doing everything I can to impart that musical quality to whatever I work on. In that regard MPX is going to make my life much easier. I frequently ‘hit the wall’ when I have to deal with Synthesizers or sampled instruments. Now I’ll have MPX at my disposal to take the digital edge of these sounds. Also using MPX across various sub-mixes of say, drums, percussion, vocals, keyboards, etc., will be of great value and, as an additional benefit provide significant processing efficiencies. Because each iteration of MPX can easily be tailored to provide a unique sonic ‘stamp’ appropriate for where and why I’m using it…MPX will quickly become invaluable.
I am also confident that many will finding use for MPX in Mastering or across the final bus of their mixes. Many of our Waves Beta Testing team, during their testing of MPX, have stated that, for them, they feel the sound of MPX is ‘game changing’.
What do you think makes the Kramer MPX so different from other Tape modelling Plug-ins?
Firstly it’s an Ampex and then it’s valves and from there on it’s the brilliance and technological leadership of Waves modelling techniques. I know there are other Ampex models in the pipeline from other companies, but I challenge them to equal what Waves has accomplished with MPX. Modelling all of what goes into the sound of this recording process is massively complicated and it seems, from the plugs that I currently own and those that I’ve heard so far, something has always been left out. This has been a classic case of ‘the devil is in the detail’ and that’s the part I think Waves has handled so masterfully with MPX.
Without wanting to sound immodest, I also think a company needs someone with a vivid ‘Aural Memory’ who is, not only, intimate with the original machine, but also able to communicate with the engineering team as the design process evolves.
In the course of my time working with Waves on the MPX I’ve discovered that really outstanding modelling is actually a hybrid of science, of art, perhaps a bit of luck and I’m now beginning to think there may even be some metaphysics in the mix as well.
What do you think is the key element in getting good tones from the MPX?
Upon initiation MPX is designed to provide the original Ampex sound I remember. For me that is, in and of itself, exactly what I need. All the defaults are my preferred settings with regard to Bias, Flux, Speed, Wow and Noise. This has also extended to the tape modelled (3M Scotch 207, 1 millimetre stock for a more intimate head wrap and thus a better high frequency performance) and the recording pre-emphasis curve used (NAB, the American standard for a classic American machine). Of course modelling allows you to have all the great sonics of an analogue tape machine and you can still turn all that valve thermal noise and tape hiss off (which is what I have always dream about being able to do, and now can) or if you prefer, wind the noise up. Also turning the noise up or down has no effect whatsoever on the core sound of the machine which is about Intermodulation Distortion, Harmonic Distortion, and that mysterious magnetic recording by-product called Saturation, which develops as you increase the drive level to the tape and provides another, rather unique form of compression (Rock and Rollers love this quality on drums).
And a word about meters. For those of you who are not familiar with American style VU (Volume Unit) meters I’ll like to share a few tips. I grew up in the analogue days I had to become expert at using a VU meter…it was everything to me…it was my lifeline. Firstly, 0 VU is there for a reason. The meters on MPX behave identically to the real machine which were very close to the classic Weston NU meters. 0 VU was defined by Ampex as 1% Total RMS Distortion (right out of the Ampex Manual). In the Digital World that’s actually quite a lot of distortion, but that was the analogue tape standard. So 0 VU was generally accepted as the maximum level you wanted to see on the meters. Between 0 VU and +3VU the meter scale is red, and that’s for a good reason…it’s dangerous territory and an area where you need to tread lightly.
And once you hit the ‘pin’ or ‘peg’ the meter, although it says +3, even if only for a moment, for all you know you could have gone to +1,000,000dB …because you have now gone off the scale of the meter. If you are going to go into the red it’s more acceptable, and less audible, with low frequency signals (kicks, bass, etc.), less desirable but occasionally workable for mid-frequencies (say vocals, guitars, etc.) and really risky for high-frequencies (cymbals, percussion, etc). Quick short excursions into the red or against the pin may be OK, but sustained activity in the red or on the pin is trouble.
For me, and depending on the musical genre’, I liked to see the meters ‘dance’ between say -7 to -5 and 0. For some pop music to sit between -3 and 0 is pretty normal. But don’t make the mistake of trying to ‘fill the meters up’…because that will have the same result with MPX as it would have had with the real hardware…it will add excessive amounts of distortion. Now distortion might be just what some will want and that’s OK, but a better way to get there would be to raise the Flux control or use the Link control and raise the Record Level (Link will keep you at unity gain when you adjust the Record Level).
Most importantly, use your ears! If you like what you hear, that’s great, and in the end those choices are your job. But if you want a super clean sound out of MPX you can drop the Record Level to -18 (again Link will automatically raise the Playback Level to +18) with no deterioration of the performance of MPX, and you will gain an additional 18db of dynamic range, or headroom. And don’t forget you also have a massive range of tape drive in the Flux control so the combination of the Flux control and the Record Level control (in Link) will give you a huge sonic range to play with…while all the time keeping the meters looking good!
Can you tell us a bit on the MPX modelling process with Waves?
When Waves started a hardware modelling project with Eddie Kramer, it was always their mutual intention to create a model of the original recording chain from Olympic Studios in London that Eddie used on his great recordings of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. The model of the Helios Console Channel was challenging, resulting in the Waves Kramer HLS Channel. Next was the modelling of the famous PYE compressor which was released as Waves Kramer PIE Compressor.
Missing from the ‘golden’ chain was the Ampex valve analogue tape machine that Eddie used for these recordings. Waves acquired what they believed was the right machine and set about modelling, knowing it would be difficult based on what was already on the market. As it turned out, the task was much more daunting than anticipated and Waves’ first attempt, the initial Kramer MPX, was withdrawn shortly after being introduced into testing. It turned out that this third piece of the Kramer Olympic chain was going to be the hardest.
Waves discovered (along with the guidance of some of their Beta team) that they were missing a number of things, each one extremely complicated by itself, and in total representing a huge challenge. Thanks to the guidance of Bob Ohlsson and myself, Waves were ultimately directed to the Ampex 350 Transport with Ampex 351 Valve electronics. With Bob’s help, one of these rare beasts was found in Florida owned by Eric Shilling. Eric kindly agreed to let Waves do some preliminary testing to ensure that this machine was producing the sound that both Bob and I felt Waves had missed in their first effort
With the modelling project still sounding reasonably workable, it turned out that the recording pre-emphasis curve, tape speed, tape emulsion, tape thickness, flux or level recorded on the tape, and the bias settings all greatly impacted the final result. So again Bob and I collaborated with Waves which resulted in endless discussions and tests to clarify the tape types and alignment techniques that were going to be considered for Wave’s modelling. Over time and with much experimentation, sample recordings were made that both Bob and I agreed had established a solid baseline from which to proceed. It would be these initial samples of the test recordings that would later be used for detailed comparison to ensure that each model was performing accurately.
Once again Eric Shilling came to the rescue and agreed to do the massive testing and modelling runs required to model the two primary tape speeds, a number of tape emulsions plus variations in flux and bias settings including various approaches to alignment techniques
With the modelling files in hand, Waves began the excessively complex task of creating models, not only of the variety of analogue tape recordings, but the variety of bias levels, flux levels (tape saturation) and speed settings. When Waves began evolving early stage Alpha plugs, they were painstaking submitted to subjective analysis by comparison to the original samples recorded on the original tape machine and then through feedback to the Waves development and engineering team, the models were honed. Because Waves felt they could best do their development using only one platform at a time, Waves chose to do their final development for the Macintosh, at which time Bob who primarily uses a PC, offered to take a back seat and I volunteered to take up the slack and became a more or less full-time a co-developer of MPX.
Why did you sell your Ampex 351 Tape Machine?
Dammed if I can remember! I’ve struggled to recall when and why I parted with my machine. I think I can remember still having it in the early 90’s. Perhaps it was theft, or perhaps, in the course of one of my many moves, I just decided that I was tired of lugging that machine around. The Ampex 351 was built like a tank and weighed a ton. That was fine in my early 20’s but by the time I got into my mid and later 30’s perhaps my ‘heavy old’ Ampex was just too much to cope with. They were also really hard to align (all the adjustments were inside on the top of the electronics surrounded by those really hot valves) and also being a valve machine they could be a bit temperamental. I also didn’t possess the technical skills to keep a machine like that in top condition.
That said, today I think I should have my head examined for getting rid of my Ampex. Even knowing how expensive valves are these days and how impossible it would be to find experienced technicians willing to work in the Bush in Tasmania to maintain it…I guess if I still had it I’d get immense pleasure from just polishing it and sitting and looking at it for hours and remembering ‘the days’. And perhaps if it worked good enough, I’d load it up a roll of tape and shuttle it around from time to time. I realize as I’m writing this that still I think of my Ampex 351 as a really dear, long lost friend.
Do you feel that back then, tape calibration was considered part of the engineer’s sound signature
Not really. There are so many different things that go into an engineers/mixers ‘sound signature’ that I always viewed whatever I recorded or mixed to as simply ‘media’. Media’s job was to be as transparent and truthful as possible so it would accurately represent the artists and my vision for the sound we wanted to achieve. Of course, even today, it’s almost impossible to achieve that idealized goal of ‘invisibility of media’, so whatever the decade of technology I was working in, I just picked the best tape available at the time, and if it wasn’t completely transparent (and of course nothing was), then I selected the stock that sounded appropriate for the artist and that was the most musical. Considering the large variety of tape I have used over the years, I still find that my work still sounds like my work no matter what the tape stock…and I think others who are familiar with my work would agree.
How did you use to set up your machine (bias, flux, what tapes did you use)?
At the start of my career I felt that I was a better engineer/mixer than technician so I always left the alignments to the technical engineering staff. I was petrified of messing up a good mix with a screwed up tape machine alignment. Once I learned how to do my own alignments I trusted a very few to do my alignments, doing the vast majority of my tape machine alignments myself.
Of course over time bias, flux and the choice of tape varied greatly as technology progressed. I started with Ampex 131 at Ampex zero (Ampex reference recording level) and Nominal (or normal bias). As time progressed we evolved better ways of adjusting the bias (the MPX has an option that is modelled on what many engineers preferred, which was an overbias at 15Khz of -3db) and a wide range of newer tapes arrived that supported higher flux levels. Over many decades I used a vast array of tape stocks. The list is much to long to publish here, but let’s just say, if anyone made it, I tried it and if I liked it and there was good supply, I used it. But with regard to bias and flux, I always chose the most conservative alignments. Those which resulting in the lowest saturation, that sound now treasured by so many…one must remember, was once considered a necessary evil associated with the media of the day. As I did most of my work at 30ips and used Dolby Noise Reduction when the project required it, I could, for most of my career, stay with Ampex Zero (185nWm/b) for maximum transparency and minimum print through and let the Dolby Noise Reduction handle the noise. That said, a very large percentage of my body of work is with acoustic music. Since it’s always the music that drives the process, including the technology, one needs to always stay open to change and new directions.
Of course I have used the newest tape formulations, such as GP9, extensively and I like them very much…but these tapes were not an option during my analogue ‘heydays’.