NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published April 1, 2013
"The Session 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?
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.....