NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published October 6, 2003


"How I Got Started In Recording"


A question I am asked a lot - especially by clients who are visiting the recording studio for the first time - is: "So, how did you get into this business?"

Wow! Talk about a loaded question……….. How DID I get into the recording business?

I suppose in a way I was born into the business. My Mother was a professional entertainer in the 30's and 40's, before Dad swept her off her feet. She was a "natural entertainer" and always hovered around a piano, be it in the parlor of the house, in church, or sitting below and to the side of the local movie theater screen. She played for family, for the church, and for the audience in the theater. As the magic screen came to life during the era of silent films, Mom would sit and accompany the action as it unfolded on the silver screen. Later, she joined the technical crew at one of the first television stations in the nation, W9XBY in Kansas City, which later became KXBY. For more on her career, click HERE.

In 1947, when I was only a year old, my parents moved here to the Ozarks and began operation of Blackberry Hill Resort. Mom oversaw the preparation of meals, cleaning of the cabins, the laundry service, and the general upkeep of the Lodge and Resort. Dad arranged and conducted the fishing and hunting expeditions into the wilds of Arkansas, and was the chief cook and bottle washer as far as promoting and marketing the Lodge was concerned. He attended trade and sports shows all over the country and schmoozed folks with his rugged charm. My mother once told me when he returned from a trip to Florida or Illinois, that his pockets would be stuffed with business cards and tiny slips of paper with names, addresses, and dates folded around wads of money intended for advance reservations. Guests poured in from every corner of the nation, brought here by the promises of good times, exciting sport, and the notion of a "private getaway" from the mundane. The Lodge remained open during all four seasons. Fishing and hunting was good all year 'round, and evenings usually brought long card games in a smoke-filled dining room. Mom would always entertain the guests from her Steinway after dinner almost every night. It was the highlight of the day for most guests.

Dad wanted to preserve some of these great times so he bought a phonograph, which would also cut blank discs. I still have several of these acetate discs and have since transferred them to CD's. I was too young to really grasp the technology, but I do recall what it looked like. It was about four feet tall, made of wood, with a curved top. In the face of the top was a round radio dial, which was lit from the inside after you turned it on. Several knobs lay on either side of the tuning dial. The bottom half was mostly a speaker grill, and it all pulled out to reveal the phonograph section. If I stood on a chair I could peer down inside the thing. The phonograph actually had two arms. One was for playing and the other contained a cutting lathe and needle for recording new blank discs. In the front corner there was a small metal dish containing many tiny needles. These were replacement needles for the cutting lathe. A simple thumb-screw held each needle in place. There was a knob for selecting the radio or a microphone, which was hardwired into the inside of the unit. The microphone was made up of a small crystal element inside a plastic case with a grill covering the face of the element. A hinged wire pulled out from the rear of the microphone, which enabled it to be placed on a desk facing the sound source. The entire piece of furniture resided against the wall just to the rear of where Mom sat at her piano. There was just enough reach of wire to place the microphone on the corner of the piano, facing Mom. The recordings were quite good, all things considering, and I was fascinated at listening to the records as they were played back after a live performance. I seemed to grasp what was going on even if I didn't know HOW it was being done. It didn't matter. I just loved to watch my father mess with that phonograph!

I don't know how long we actually had that device, but one day I realized it was gone, and in it's place was something new! I suppose I must have been around 10 or 12, and I remember recognizing it as some new kind of recorder that used reels of plastic tape (Scotch brand). My father had decided to get with the program and move up to the age of tape recording. The deck was a Webcor, and I didn't learn until recently the model number was a 2130-1A. This was an early reel to reel tape deck, housed in a portable case, with a hinged top, which had fasteners to hold two plastic reels and the microphone. It was burgundy in color and on the faceplate were silk-screened markings designed to indicate how much time was left by how much tape was left on the reel. One dual-control knob was for volume and tone. Another was for play/rewind/fast forward with an additional button in the middle which, when pushed down while simultaneously turning the knob, would place the deck into Record mode. There was also a 4-position Output knob that routed the sound to several different destinations (presumably speakers, line 1, line 2, etc.)

Over the next couple of years I was allowed to thread tapes to play them, and then I learned how to record tapes using the microphone. Dad showed me how to use the "Magic Eye" to record, which was the most absolutely coolest thing I had ever seen. It's difficult to describe, but the recording indicator was a round device, which was lit up with a green light. The closest I can come to a description is that it reminds me of the human vocal chord - at least how it has been described in pictures. The volume indicator part, "vibrated" by the audio input source, and would move in an up and down position from both sides of the light. No light movement meant the source was not loud enough. If the indicator stayed at the top all the time, the volume was too loud. Optimum volume levels were achieved by observing uniform movement from the sides to the top of the indicator. That light entranced me, and the memory of it still intrigues me to this day. To say I was taken with this marvel of technology would be an understatement.

Many of my earliest memories are of playing with that tape recorder. When I learned that the deck had two speeds I went nuts. I learned that if I taped my voice at the slow speed of 3 ¾ Inches Per Second (IPS) and played the recording back at 7 ½ ips, I sounded like a chipmunk! I learned to talk really low in tone and talk more slowly than normal, so that when I played it back at the higher speed the "chipmunk effect" was more convincing and easier to understand. And if I talked (or sang) real high in pitch and really, really fast at 7 ½ ips, the 3 ¾ ips playback almost sounded like an adult. These antics kept me busy for hours and hours. Unfortunately, there are no existing recordings of these "sessions", so all I have are my memories of the events of my youth.

Along the way I also learned, by accident, that if I recorded my voice by talking into the REAR of the microphone, it sounded completely different. I discovered by moving the microphone far away from the sound I wanted to record, that the actual natural sound of the room ambiance was recorded along with the sound source. I was learning microphone placement by myself in the woods of Arkansas in the 1950's, and I didn't even know it!

I placed the microphone in one of my mother's cooking pots and recorded my voice six feet away. I spun the microphone around my head while talking and recorded that. If I talked really close to the microphone and turned the "Magic Eye" up too far I sounded like a 1950's "space robot" (distortion). I even discovered feedback one day when I was recording with the microphone too close to the speaker while turning the Output Selector knob. And on and on and on………

By 1959 I was in military school in Florida and somewhat of an "expert" at recording among my pals. Many of the guys there had tape recorders and I was called on again and again to show them how to make it work, or how to thread the tape across the heads, or how to CLEAN the heads. One pal had a Phillips/Norelco battery-powered recorder that used tiny 3" reels to record and play. We had more fun (at the expense of many of our fellow cadets) by placing that small recorder in the most remote places! And anyone owning a dual-speed deck was instantly educated to the "chipmunk effect". Of course this was at the time David Seville had just released his now-famous "Chipmunks" records which became so popular at the time ("Alviiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn . . . . !!!!"). I looked like a genius to my pals because I already knew how to do this.

By 1967 I was into a career in broadcasting and reel to reel tape decks were a daily part of my life. I purchased a Roberts for my home recording tasks and kept it for about 5 years until I "moved up" to a cassette deck. The Roberts is one of the few items I wish I'd have held on to, as it would be a great vintage tape deck today. It was built to resemble the Ampex 600 series machines, with stacked electronics. It had an internal playback amplifier with speakers on each side. Hinged metal flaps covered the speaker grills and could be used to direct sound out from the deck at an angle. I even had an oversized capstan wheel that enabled me to record at 15 ips in stereo. It's probably still working today somewhere………

But the coolest feature on my model was Sound-On-Sound Recording. By pressing the SOS button, I could record the second track independently of the first track without erasing the material already recorded on the first track. In essence, it allowed me to talk along with myself. I wrote scripts and recorded the second track while listening to the first track for my cues. I actually had conversations with myself. Later, I learned how to plug my electric guitar direct into the MIC inputs and then play along with myself. I would lay down an original track, then SOS the second track. By flipping an additional switch the sound would be routed automatically to the adjacent track, thus allowing me to continue to play along with a third and then fourth track. The machine was simply mixing all the sound from one track over to the other track. By learning to carefully get my levels correct as I continued recording, I could manage to play 5 or six guitars on top of one another before the original guitar track would become unrecognizable. I also learned that if I turned up the microphone preamp (which was tube, of course) I could get a sweet distorted sound from my Fender Mustang guitar. Cool! If I moved the guitar nearer to the speaker while recording I got a nice distorted sustain. Move over Carlos Santana ! (This was two years before Carlos took the stage at the Fillmore with Mike Bloomfield)

In the 70's I was fortunate enough in my radio career to learn how to creatively splice tape and how to handle several types of reel to reel decks. And in my usual overkill fashion I started doing things with these decks that they weren't designed for. I'll never forget one dull Sunday at KWHN in Ft. Smith: Sunday was my 8-hour board shift and we had a double-header Cardinal baseball game on the network. I'm not really much of a baseball fan but my job was to monitor the broadcast and at specific intervals I would break away after the cue call and play several local commercials for sponsors of the game along with station ID's at the top and bottom of the hour. After returning back to the game I usually had at least 15-20 minutes to play. I went into the production room, which adjoined the main control room. There was a soundproof glass separating the two rooms so I could look in on the broadcast and watch the clock. I kept the doors open and turned up the control room monitor loudly so I could still hear enough to know we were still broadcasting.

The production room had a small audio console, two turntables, two cartridge recorders, and two Magnecord reel to reel decks. Through experimentation, I discovered how to dissconnect the wiring on the erase head of the Magnecords. This means that as tape is passed through the head assembly and is recorded, the tape is not being erased before it passes over the record head. If there was anything recorded on the tape before, it would simply play right along with what was being recorded at the moment. Next, I threaded the beginning of a reel of tape through the top tape deck but instead of attaching it to the take up reel I allowed it to spool on the floor. Of course, if the take up reel doesn't place tension on the tape guides, the deck will just shut off. To defeat that I placed a rubber band between both tape guides which "fooled" the machine into thinking all was well. All was NOT well. I ran the tape over to the side of the room where I had inserted a paper clip into the soundproof wall tile and ran the tape through it, running over to the other side of the wall where I had another paper clip. The tape ran all along and through the room three of four times before I guided it back to the rack containing the tape decks. (Are you envisioning all this?) NOW I fed the tape into the bottom Magnecord which was also in record mode and ran it through the machine (same rubber band trick) and had some elaborate tape guiding scheme which brought the tape right back up to the input feed of the first machine. Almost done. The last thing to do was to splice the two ends of the tape together. This created a L O N G loop of tape which was endless. After setting everything in motion I recorded a "beep" on the tape and waited while looking at my stopwatch. In about 90 seconds the tone reached the second machine. I was set.

At this point I must tell you that I was running back and forth from one room to the other while setting up this elaborate system, so I wouldn't miss any breaks. Right after a station break I ran downstairs to my car, where I had a small synthesizer in the trunk. I brought it up and inserted it into the signal chain of the console. After one glance at the clock (I figured I had 15 minutes) I began playing a riff on the keyboard while all this tape was spinning around the room - literally. I was playing a very long and slow dirge of maybe three or four repetitive notes, waiting for it to come around. Finally it did, and I just kept playing along with myself from the first time around, adding another part as I went. Well, I must have lost track of the time because the next time I glanced up at the clock in the control room 40 minutes had passed! I gasped and ran into the control room, leaving everything in the production room more or less running itself. I stood there in front of the broadcast console listening intently for any clue as to where we were in the game. Just as Harry Cary was wrapping up the eighth inning (and I had calculated I had missed three breaks and one station ID) I saw my boss, the Station Manager, coming down the hall to see if I had a heart attack or what. As he walked into the room red-faced and about to lash out at me, something caught his eye (I wonder what?). As he turned to face the production room window he stopped dead in his tracks. He stared wide-eyed and his mouth just dropped open. He stood there a full ten seconds before turning around and entering the production room. As the door swung open, this …… this….. SOUND was emanating from the production room speaker… pulsating and throbbing as yards and yards of recording tape were wobbling and gyrating all around the room from floor to ceiling tiles. He did not dare enter the room. He just stood there, taking it all in. I froze and was mentally kissing my 3rd Class FCC Ticket goodbye when he did an about face and just walked back down the hall and I didn't see him again for the rest of my board shift. I will never know why I didn't get fired, but he never mentioned it again for the remainder of the five years I spent at that station. I think it just plain scared him.

During my broadcasting years I was educated on professional tape decks by Magnacord, Revox, Sony, Tanberg, Crown, and Ampex . In my home recording work I graduated from my Roberts to a Dokorder 4-track and then a TEAC 3340 4-track deck. After that I moved into professional multitrack recording machines, and today I am the proud owner of a 1" 16-track TASCAM MS-16 and a 1" 24-track TASCAM MSR-24. I also own a TEAC X-700R 2-track stereo reel to reel with DBX noise reduction, and a professional TASCAM Model 52 RTR stereo deck as well.

As much as I enjoy recording digitally on the computer, I still consider myself an "analog guy" and can still wield a pretty good splicing blade on tape. I will admit that the "UNDO" button in digital is a handy thing to have, but there's something cool about having the ability to physically splice recording tape right on a beat. Not to mention it gets the clients attention right away.

And it all started with a Webcor 2130.

So NOW, you know………..

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