sessionsfromhell.html


THE PRODUCER

Back in the early 70's I was working as a 2nd Engineer on a session doing an album project for a band who's "producer" was also the band's "Daddy Warbucks". He was paying for the session. This guy was a 50-year old local businessman who knew as much about producing a session as I know about wrestling alligators. However, he intended on keeping control of everything so naturally he sat at the console throughout the entire session barking out orders and shaking his head every time either the 1st or I touched a knob. It was indeed pure hell and we were wondering what to do when it came time to mix.

Well, this old console has a channel strip at one end that used to be hooked up to a tape transport but was no longer active. It had 4 big square buttons and two knobs on it. When it came time to mix, the 1st Engineer sat the "Producer" down in front of that strip and told him "Whenever you hear something you don't like or would like to change, just adjust the sound using these two "Producer's knobs" and it will "fix" the mix one way of the other. No matter WHAT we do, these two knobs will override the final mix." So, every time the guy wasn't satisfied or needed to "earn his money" he just leaned over the console and tweaked one of those knobs, then leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms with a satisfied smile on his face. At one point he even had us stop tape so he could push one of the disconnected buttons and said, "Okay, go ahead. I got it". It took ALL of our composure for the rest of the session not to let the cat out of the bag.

We never told him.


"OH BABY, REVERB ME!"

At about the same time (at the same studio) we had a typical rock ' roll group come in to do some tracks. We spent most of the day doing basic tracks. By mid afternoon we had started working on guitar overdubs and the singer was getting restless doing nothing hanging around in the control room. His girlfriend showed up and they spent the next half-hour huddled up on the couch that was situated in front of the console looking through the glass into the studio. After a while the guy gets up off the couch and comes up to me and whispers "Hey man, is there a place we can go around here that's private?" I informed him that the only room around here with a door on it was the Reverb room. The 1st says "Yeah, NOBODY'S ever in there and it's completely soundproof."

Well, for the uninitiated, the reverb room is a 12 X 20 empty room with the walls covered in foil, a 12" speaker at one end up at the ceiling, and a microphone on the floor at the other. This was long before the age of digital reverbs. Well, the two of them go into that room and shut the door. While still doing the overdub session, the 1st directs me to load up a reel of tape on the mono machine and routes the reverb room mic send to the R-T-R and we continue on with the session. About 30 minutes later the two of them come back out into the control room looking disheveled and pulling at their clothes. The guitarist leans down by me as they exit and whispers "Wow! Man, that was a WILD EXPERIENCE!"

Now I ask you, how could you NOT go back after the session and listen to that tape?


THE GUITAR GOD

This incident happened to me a couple of years ago here at my studio. I had just earned a couple of Gold Records working with Krokus on Arista and got some album credits as well. A guitarist in LA had somehow heard about my studio and wanted to come here to Arkansas to cut some demo's for a prospective record company.

To make a long story short, this guitarist had an ENORMOUS ego and upon arriving at the studio he insisted that he be allowed to engineer the session as well as produce it. In such cases like this I simply back off and let the client do what they want. After all, it IS what the studio business is all about, making money.

Well, this control freak blew his entire budget fooling around before he even had all the basic tracks done, much less overdubs. It was painfully obvious to the rest of the band that he didn't know the signal flow of my setup but he refused any suggestions on my part. I finally shrugged my shoulders and went back to the kitchen where I spent the rest of the session hanging with the rest of the band.

Every once in a while one of the guys would show up in the kitchen with a real scared look on their face and telling some horrific new tale of Mr. Ego's ill-fated journey into engineering. I wandered into the control room during mixdown and couldn't believe my ears. I had NEVER heard something SOUND SO BAD coming out of my facility. This guy had EQ'd all the guitars way off the scale! There was not ONE channel strip that did not have the EQ cranked all the way up in some fashion.

After the mixes were done I informed the guy that I would prefer the studio's name not be included anywhere on the tape box, citing that it was "his project", not mine. But I felt so sorry for the rest of the band that I actually sat down after they left and remixed the entire project (4 songs). I sent those mixes to the other guys in the band with instructions that this was on me and not to tell Mr. Ego. I received several grateful letters of thanks from California about a week later.

........Needless to say, Mr. Ego did NOT get the record deal.


THE ANNIVERSARY

Here's another "one of those days":

So I get a call from a woman who books an hour of studio time. She shows up on the appointed day with her husband of 25 years. They're both in their mid-50's and she tells me that they are going to re-do their marriage vows. He wants to sing a song to her during the ceremony but he's afraid he might not be able to pull it off as he might be overcome with the feeling of the moment.

So they talk about it and decide he should record the song then play the tape at the appropriate moment in the ceremony. It makes sense to me, so I prepare to bounce the music track they've brought to the multitrack so he can do his vocal track. I place the cassette in the drive and wait for the music to start so I can set levels to tape and LO you guess what the song is......?

Well, I won't keep you in suspense...... it's "The Wind Beneath My Wings".

Now we ALL know how difficult that song is to sing for several reasons, not the least of which is that it was designed for a woman's voice, plus there are NO drum cues in the entire first half of the tune. As I dub the track over I am starting to get a cold chill up my spine when she casually mentions that her husband has never done this sort of thing before. Oops!

Well, I won't bore you with the gory details of how the session progressed. Suffice to say that my wife took the boys out somewhere in the car, the dog howled at the door until I let him escape as well, and the cat threw up a hairball right on my desktop. To this day I will never hear that song again without breaking out in a cold sweat.

I hope the ceremony survived the playing of that tape. I plan to be on vacation on their 50th.


THE NAUGHTY NEWS DIRECTOR

Many years ago when I was a Disk Jockey I had an interesting development occur. We had a news director who took himself a little too seriously. Think of Les Nessman in WKRP. Anyway - he was always so prim and proper and anal about everything even remotely related to a newscast. He insisted on "ripping the wire" himself so he could be the first to read the news and berated anyone who pulled any of the copy off the AP wire before he entered the newsroom. He actually went into the newsbooth to clean off the table 5 minutes before each newscast. In short - he was a real PIA!

One day I had had enough and decided to bring him down a peg or two. Each morning I recorded his newscast to reel-to-reel. Then I waited until the day that literally nothing had changed in the news for several hours. When the magic day finally arrived that the news was unchanged I set my devious plan into action. I called the station secretary upstairs and filled her in on her part in my little play. I cued the morning newscast up on the machine and waited. Sure enough, at 5 minutes before newstime, our hero entered the little news booth adjacent to the control room. He started cleaning up the desk, and just 20 seconds before newstime the secretary entered the booth with a "phone message". He was startled but before he could say anything the news opener erupted on his monitor.

Now, the particular Gates console we used in the control room was set up for PROGRAM or AUDITION. If you toggled the MIC (or any other) switch to the right it would route to PROGRAM. If you toggled it to the left it would be sent to AUDITION. EITHER WAY it would switch ON the "ON AIR" light to both the control room and news booth. My plan was simple enough: At just seconds before the actual news time I switched all the speaker monitors to the audition channel, then hit the NEWS OPEN cart and sent the audio to the audition channel. My hapless victim thought he was listening to the news opener, but in fact I had already started the reel-to-reel with the morning newscast over the air on the program channel. I had five minutes of free time to play!

I let him go for almost a full minute before signalling the secretary who was just standing in the news booth being very quiet. After a minute he had almost forgotten about her and was reading his news in earnest. Then...... slowly, she began to silently move toward his news desk. He began shooting nervous glances at her as she then sat on the edge of his desk. She sat there smiling at him as he read on. Another minute passed and then she slowly started rubbing her hand across his cheek. He was getting red now, and was starting to misread his news and stutter. Another thirty seconds passed before she got up and sat in his lap as he read on. Now he was really in trouble and giving me the "cut" sign to close his MIC (fortunately there was no cough switch in the news booth). Of course I pretended to not be looking at him. After reading the same line over three times in a row she bent down and kissed him on the cheek. THAT did it! He was now a babbling idiot who saw his career flash before his eyes.

Did I mention that I was recording the AUDITION channel to a second reel-to-reel for the upcoming staff Christmas Party?


THE MOTHER OF ALL SESSIONS FROM HELL

In my career of over 40 years of audio engineering, I have had a lot of nut jobs, wackos, and "eccentric artists" pass through the studio doors, but recently I believe I have encountered the epitome of horror stories regarding music clients. Read on:

Several months ago I got a call from a fellow… we'll call him "Burnt Out Dude" (BOD), and I set up a pre-production appointment to discuss his project. When he arrived in his broken down van, he brought his dog out of the van on a long wire cable, walked across my yard, and tied the animal up to a tree. Once inside the studio, I detected the faint odor of dirt, grime, and motor oil. He looked in his 60's but it was hard to tell as he looked rode hard and put away wet. During our introduction he rambled about living in California during the sixties, and named dropped several famous recording studios and engineer/producers that he had worked with. While I found it hard to believe, he DID seem very knowledgeable of technical things and said he was an electrical engineer as well as composer and recording artist.

He told me he would be happy to fix a reel to reel needing some service, and also said he could repair my old Kat kick drum pad which was sitting in a corner after I could find no one to repair it. This seemed to be too good to be true. He said he had some master session tapes (recorded in L.A. in the 60's) which he was having converted over to hard drive. His goal was to "update" his beloved songs. He asked if I had access to musicians and I assured him that my friend Ron Miller would be happy to come on board for the sessions. A date was set and he collected my gear and his dog and left for parts unknown.

When the day of the session and Ron arrived, I gave him a little heads up by telling him this guy was "kind of eccentric". BOD arrived in the same trashed-out van, with the dog and an external hard drive. I was eager to hear these great sessions on the drive. However, before we got to that BOD produced a cassette tape and insisted that we listen to it first. I tried very hard not to look at Ron as we listened, for the tracks were like some kind of weird flashback to Dick Dale and the Del Tones. . . . . Fender guitars awash with reverb, surrounded by at least five guitar parts wanking off. The song we were listening to turned out to be BOD's version of "Ghost Riders In The Sky", only with sound effects of big block muscle cars and Indy race cars flashing by in stereo. He called it "Ghost Rodders In The Sky".

I tried hard not to react as he went into great detail of the recording process they used. He was obviously proud of his composition (such as it was not his in the first place) and his intention was to duplicate EXACTLY the same sounds heard on the cassette, only with modern equipment. Ron and I assured him this would be no problem. I dug out an old Univox guitar amp from the 60's that had a reverb tank in it. Ron brought out his Strat, plugged it in and started tuning up his guitar. About 60 seconds into the tuning, BOD jumps up off the couch, obviously irritated, and starts screaming "That's not right! That's not it at all!" Confused, I didn't at first know how to react. Quickly recovering I said "Ron is just tuning up his guitar!" Ron's eyes were like saucers! BOD turned around and walked outside to pet his dog. We just smiled and Ron finished his tuning chores.

As I pulled the files from the disk to my computer and lined everything up for playback, BOD re-entered the studio, a bit more subdued but still wearing a scowl. It took about ten minutes to line up the tracks and get levels. There were more than six lead guitar tracks. BOD identified each track and gave us the full story on who did it and where it was done. He obviously had spent a lot of time with this track and knew every detail, no matter how obscure. There were also eight sax tracks. Each track was recorded with sax parts blowing all the way through the song, so that when I soloed just the sax tracks it sounded like a cat fight in a seafood factory. Together it was pandemonium. It took another fifteen minutes of balancing just to get the song to a point where it sounded close to his cassette mix, with BOD standing over my shoulder suggesting EQ settings and volume/pan decisions. He was particularly adamant about the handling of the automotive sound effects, continuously demanding more volume on them until they actually pushed the music to the rear of the mix. I did as he asked despite my own reservations because… the customer is always right….. right?

All this time Ron was writing chord charts for the song, making notes of deviations from the arrangement, as he and I both wanted to give the client what he wanted. As I toiled over the mix, Ron began to quietly play the chord structure n his guitar. Every once in a while, BOD would turn around and glare at Ron disapprovingly. Finally he just yelled "Stop! Stop the playback!", then whirled around and s aid to Ron "That's not the way to play it at all!!" Ron assured him he was just going over the arrangement and when it came time he would play it more like it needed to be played, but BOD was not convinced, so he grabbed up MY Strat which had been sitting in its stand in the control room and began thrashing it as hard as he could. I actually thought he was going to break the strings! Ron, looking at me and by now getting a bit peeved, said "You mean more like THIS....?" and began abusing his own guitar, making it sproing until the strings went out of tune. Then he stopped and glared at BOD, who responded with a sour "Well, that's closer but still not exactly right."

I was aghast! I did not know how to react to this. I turned back to the mixer and hit the play button to fill the room with volume. BOD sat back down on the couch. Ron walked over and gave me a sidelong glance. We both stifled laughter.

Our client was so incredibly picky and since he insisted that we play along with the track, Ron had to play along with the mistakes as well. Each time Ron would play the correct chord where the original guitarist made a mistake, the sound of the two guitars would clash. But instead of realizing Ron was playing the correct chord, BOD would glare over at Ron and shake his head like HE was making the bad chord. I could tell Ron was getting frustrated and I was struggling myself. Again, he left the control room in a huff and went outside, as Ron said to me "What does he WANT!??" I just shrugged my shoulders. It was taking far too long just to get to this simple arrangement. What with BOD's lengthy history lessons and tales of the old days and his incessant badgering over the arrangement, a session which should have taken about two hours had already gone two hours and we had yet to record one track. However, I figured if the guy wanted to obsess over the session and spend his money I was up for it.

When he returned inside I asked him if he felt we were ready to start recording. He shook his head "no" but said "I don't think we're ready but let's hear what you can do", and he plopped down on the couch with his head in his hands. I asked if he was all right and he replied he had a horrible headache. After a few more adjustments to the amp ("More reverb"… "Less distortion!"… "It's too bright!"…. More distortion!") Ron began to play along with the track. With each passing moment BOD got more and more agitated. He began pacing the floor. Ron was getting a look of fear in his eyes. I felt on edge myself. In the middle of the take, BOD left the room and went back outside. When he returned we had stopped and I said "Is everything all right?" His reply was "I had to go to the van to get a pain pill". We started again and by the time we got halfway through the take he was up pacing again. He stomped over to a speaker cabinet and whipped out a checkbook and began writing. When we ended the take he came over to the console and threw a check down and said 'Here! This is for your work. I'm going to leave. Do what you want". Before he got to the door I said "Look…. I will not cash this check and we will not take any of your money this way. We are trying hard to give you something that you are happy with. I cannot in good conscience take your money this way." Ron just stood there, guitar still in hand. He said "I've got a terrible headache and I am not doing you any good here. I will drive into town and you continue to do what you think is best. I'll call you later" and he retrieved his dog and took off in the van.

For a full minute we just sat there in silence. Finally Ron said "What the hell just happened?" I assured him I did not know. Ron asked me what we should do. I said "I tell you what. We were hired to do this song and by God we're gonna' do it. If he doesn't like it then so much for that but at least we tried." Ron said that at least we might be able to work better with him gone and I agreed. I turned back around and we began to work, and without any interference we had three guitars and bass recorded in 25 minutes. Then the phone rang. It was BOD calling from town. He said "I'm coming back by and I want to pick up my hard drive". I said 'Okay, and while you're here you can listen to your track."

"You mean you have it finished?"

"Well, I'm putting drums on it right now and by the time you get here it should be done"

He arrived fifteen minutes later, came in, and sat down on the couch as I was putting together the mix. He didn't say a word until after I stopped playing the track. We turned around and he said "Well, that doesn't sound too bad". It was like a veil had been lifted. Perhaps his drugs had kicked in.

He wound up leaving the hard drive and setting up an appointment for the following week to do another song. After he left, Ron and I talked about the session for at least an hour, wondering what the hell had happened, and regretting not charging more money for the session. It wasn't nearly worth what we made for the hardship.

I'll bet you think this is the end of the story, right?

Wrong.

He returned the next week, and Ron and I had steeled ourselves for the session. We thought perhaps it was just a bad day for BOD, and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He showed up, with dog, and beckoned us outside to his van. He had fixed my reel to reel and the kick pad, so we schlepped the gear inside and set it aside. This new track was along the same lines as far as sounds and effects. It was a slower track with a whistling solo track (I kid you not). At least this was a truly original song. Since we had the cassette to go by, Ron had already charted out the song and was more familiar with it. He even mentioned to BOD that he had a "whistle" patch on his synth keyboard which we felt would emulate the original pretty close. Of course, BOD wasn't buying into that, but when I asked if he was going to re-whistle the part I did not get an answer. The melody was very simple. The whistling had been drenched in reverb on the original and our client had lived with his mix for so long he simply could not get it out of his mind and so we had to emulate the track as closely as possible. For every trial take there was a scowl. Although he started out subdued enough, with each take he got slowly more agitated. I felt that familiar old feeling come creeping back in.

We were still working on the first rhythm guitar track when the client came unglued and left the control room to consult with his dog. Ron said "I can't take much more of this" and I nodded "Me neither".

When he returned we had recorded the guitar and began working on the bass. He interrupted with "Did you bring your keyboard?" Ron nodded yes and he told him to bring it in, that he wanted to hear Ron's idea on the sound of the whistle. Ron put down the bass and did as he was directed. As we hooked it up we got the entire dissertation on how the synth couldn't possibly sound even close to the real thing. As Ron began going through his patches, looking for the right one, BOD kept harping "That's not it!....No!...Not it!...Not it!...No!...No!..." while all the time closing in on Ron, sitting at his keyboard. Ron shot me a look as BOD hovered over him from behind. In seconds he was almost in Ron's face, critiquing each sound. Ron hadn't even found the one he was looking for and this guy was berating him from behind. He reached around Ron and started messing with his keyboard. Ron completely stopped and sat there as BOD walked around in front of the keys barking insults. I saw that Ron was about to blow and I jumped up and said "Hey! What are you doing? While you're at it why don't you just go ahead and beat the shit out of Ron?" The comment struck him like a lightning bolt and he turned around and sat down at the couch.

I said "Look! It worked pretty well last time, so why don't you just go into town and run some errands and come back? We seem to do better when you're not around insulting us." With that he left in a huff, got the dog, jump-started his van off the spare battery he kept in the passenger seat, and drove off.

Ron said "I need a drink!" and we both laughed. We spent the next hour recording, and when our client returned we once again had his track completed. He entered studio Just as we were laying down the whistling solo part. Ron had called up the perfect sample and I ran it through some vintage reverbs and delays until it sounded eerily close to the original. Even BOD was impressed! (For ONCE). When he left he seemed satisfied and even set up another session. After he was gone, we collapsed in chairs and recounted the past few hours. We agreed this was really not worth the trouble. As badly as we both needed some ca$h, this session was simply the most bizarre job either one of us had encountered. And between the two of us we've seen a LOT of session work.

Ron left for a week to go do a recording job in New Mexico, and while he was away his cell phone continuously rang. It was BOD, trying to get through to Ron. He had also called me asking for another number for Ron but I told him there wasn't one. He told me he needed to talk to Ron and "fill him in" on what would be our next session. Ron frankly did not want to interrupt his work in New Mexico by dealing with whatever was so important. There wouldn't be anything he could do about it anyway, so he elected not to answer his phone until he returned to Arkansas.

The day Ron got back home, he answered the very next call from BOD. He was curtly informed to "return the box of materials I gave you" to the studio. Ron showed up with a smile and a box and said "I guess I'm fired". We both laughed. Our client had finally provided us with a way out. I told him I could not do his session with out Ron and that was it. He had finally cut off his nose to spite his face. Thank God.

Oh... by the way... the reel to rell wasn't fixed, but he DID repair the Kat pad.....



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