News From The Woods.19


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published April 1, 1998

"The Return of Max Headroom"

I'm sure that anyone lucky enough to find themselves in a professional recording studio for the first time will always remember the experience. For me, the first time was in 1963. The studio was Charles Fuller Productions located in Tampa, Florida. My parents arranged and paid for the session so that I could cut my first record with my buddies in high school. I still have a couple of copies of that 45 RPM record. Those two sides took us about 4 hours of recording time. It was cut straight to tape and there was no overdubbing at the time. Everybody in the band played it right or you did it over. We had several takes and they finally spliced the ending to one take to the first half of another take to get the final master cut. Funny how my mind remembers details like the microphones, sound gobos, ash trays, and soda machine.

The next time was in 1965 at American Recording Studio in Memphis. My band was being produced by the legendary Chips Moman. It was 8-track this time but we still didn't do any overdubbing, just played straight to multitrack. This time we were allowed in the control room for playback and I was mesmerized by all the dials and buttons and lights and knobs. I was hooked. I also recall that as we were moving into the studio for the session, Paul Revere and the Raiders were loading out. We were in "The Big Time"! We lost our shot with Chips to a girl by the name of Sandy Posey ,who about a year later had a top 10 hit produced by him. And so goes the record business.

My first experience at audio engineering was almost ten years later in Ft. Smith when I served as apprentice engineer (read: gofer) for Mickey Moody at Ben Jack's Recording Studio. This time it was 16-track with an Auditronics console and I finally got "hands on" experience and was allowed to run the board. Now, the first thing you notice is the "sound" of a professional console. It is an intangible something that at first is hard to put your finger on. The technical term is "headroom". That's how much signal you can get to tape before distortion occurs. The more tracks you have at your disposal the more crowded the mix becomes and the more difficult it is to tell one instrument from another in the mix. Those of you with Mackie mixers and an 8-track ADAT or DA-88 (or for that matter a Portastudio) will know what I mean. You have to really work to get all the tracks in their proper listening position in the stereo spread. That is because the mixer has very little headroom and the recording tracks are very narrow.

When I moved back to my hometown of Mountain Home to start my recording business in 1973, I started with a TASCAM Model 2 mixer (6-in, 4-out) and a TEAC 3340 reel-to-reel 4-track recorder. NO headroom. But it was a start, and it was all mine. Later, I moved up to a couple of TASCAM Model 5 mixers (8x4x2) bridged together and a TASCAM 80-8 multitrack using 1/2" tape and dbx noise reduction. More headroom at the tape machine but other than more inputs on the mixer I had about the same headroom as with the smaller mixer. By 1988 the studio had been updated to a TASCAM MS-16 multitrack using 1" tape with dbx. This increased our headroom dramatically. The console was a TASCAM Model M-520 (20x8x4x2) mixer which was also a step up from the smaller Model 5's. However, as good as TASCAM gear is, the newer console didn't give us that much more headroom in the signal path. It all sounded good, but the 16-track mix to stereo was extremely crowded. Most complex mixes took at least four hands to keep the mix perspective correct. Having the capability of 16 discrete recording tracks was of course a major upgrade, and the newer console afforded much more flexibility in the tracking and mixing stages, but as far as headroom, I still couldn't hear that subtle difference I recalled from my earlier experiences in the professional studios, when everything sounded so clear and never fought with the other instruments in the mix.

We now cut to present day. Cedar Crest has recently made another major update. The new studio gear consists of a TASCAM MSR-24 multitrack recorder. It's a 1" analog machine, also with dbx NR. The console is a Soundcraft TS-12 which is configured as a 24x12x6x2 board featuring FAME VCO automation. With 6 AUX send/returns, quasi-parametric EQ on each channel and on-board TRS patch bay, this baby is loaded for bear. Mixing decisions are recorded onto 3.5 floppies for integral recall functions at the touch of a button. A large VGA computer monitor gives READ/WRITE volume setting, etc. readout. This console has just about everything but moving faders. Furthermore, with the new TASCAM ES-50 SMPTE-to-MIDI Synchronizer, we can now lock up both multi-tracks for a whopping 36 tracks of recording.

As many of you know, this upgrade has been a long time coming. Way back in 1985 I had to make a decision on which direction to take the studio. I decided on investing into video heavily. As it turned out it was a good decision and the video business really took off after I purchased the Toaster/Flyer video production system. However, that meant that for a few years the audio capabilities would remain 16-track with a modest console. Music recording had to take a back seat for a while.

Well, we're now back in the music production business full force! Bookings, as always, will be on a selected basis as I am still too busy with video projects to go hog wild at this point. Chris Patton, who started as apprentice engineer with Cedar Crest 7 years ago has now been promoted (deservedly) to 2nd Engineer. He has paid his dues and knows the "Cedar Crest way" of setting up sessions.

The new gear is now in place and all patch bays are interconnected. As a means of setting up the console and signal flow, I brought out some old 16-track masters of some of my personal projects. The very first thing I noticed when I brought the faders up was.... THE SOUND!! THERE IT WAS!!! That intangible, undefinable, special "something" was happening to the mix! These old tracks, recorded on my 16-track recorder and the previous console, sounded so much better on this new console. Why? In a word: Headroom.

This console, of British design, has a completely balanced wiring schematic and all line in's and out's have to be hardwired. It does not like unbalanced gear, which is what 80% of our studio outboard processing racks contain. We have used over 1200' of shielded wiring and we're still not done yet. Our wiring techs from Springfield have to solve some of our grounding and stereo phase problems before we will be up and running at full speed. But it's all going to be worth it. This mixing desk has the sweetest sounding EQ section I have ever had the pleasure to work on. One touch and the track jumps out of the mix. All the tracks seem to just lay in place in the mix and each track can be instantly recognized in the stereo spectrum. The difference is really breathtaking. And with the added ability to make the "perfect mix" using the system's on-board FAME automation, I can truly say I have FINALLY GOTTEN THERE! And do you know what this means?

For years I have been building up a catalog of my own songs, with the intention of "someday" putting out my own album. I have been going through my accumulated stacks of master tapes of this material and painstakingly transferring selected songs over to the 24-track. I am in the process of cleaning up the old tracks and adding some new parts and arrangements. So now I can finally release my own album after all these years. I have two working titles: "Bob Ketchum's Greatest Hits" or "30-Year Overnight Success". Let's take a vote...................

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