News From The Woods - April 26,2005

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published April 26, 2005


"Goldrush Revisited, Part One"


NOTE: For the entire background story on “Goldrush”, go here.

In the fall of 1977 our rock n’ roll band “Goldrush” went into a professional recording studio in Springfield, Missouri. It was the culmination of two years’ work. We began as a simple 4-piece cover band and over the course of the next 24 months as we started writing our own material, the band developed into a first class rock and roll act. We had carved out enough tunes to have our own album, and had spent a considerable amount of time in our own studio doing the pre-production on 4-track. On the basis of our demo we secured a financial backer who promised to foot the bill for the “big time” session on speculation. It was a dream come true for all of us.

We spent two weeks in September holed up in American Artists Recording Studio. Thankfully we had done our homework and most of the session went according to plan. However, we still wound up spending more time overdubbing than we had figured on, which in turn kept pushing our final mix time back until we realized in horror in the eleventh hour that we would not have enough time to make an adequate master mix on the project. By the time the last booked day came around we had spent over $14,000 and had nothing we could actually play for people. The studio management took pity on us and threw in an additional half-day at no charge just so we could make some reference mixes. We gratefully accepted the generous offer and sped through some pretty complicated mixes in the time allotted. One particular song, “Desert Isle” actually segued into the next track, “That’s The Kind Of Man I Am”, which proved to be the most difficult mix of all. Those two tracks (almost 12 minutes long as a piece) took over 3 hours alone, which left little time for the remaining seven tracks. Consider this: We spent over 80 hours in the studio recording these tracks, but only had six hours to mix the complete album project.

This was long before the day of automation. Digital technology was just beginning to make its presence known. The only effects we had at the studio was an EMT plate, which was the standard reverb in professional facilities. The studio had some (then) brand new Kepex “GainBrains”. These were the very first noise gates on the market. I used them to keep the drums quiet when not being played, but the gates could make the toms sound like cardboard boxes if used too heavily. I also discovered (years later) that the Kepexes also gave a “digital” quality to the overall sound of anything passed through it, resulting in a 5-10ms delay in the signal. In the rush of the session I either failed to notice the altered sound or probably more likely just missed it because we never got a really good mix. I never noticed it before as the drums were buried so deeply in the mix.

From the first I had convinced myself - and everyone else - that the reference mixes would be good enough to get somebody’s attention in the industry and then we could go back into a studio and take our time to do the “real mixes” for album release. However, we had fallen far enough behind that our time allotted for reference mixes dwindled from a full day to only half a day, and the results were less than exciting. First of all, even the “easy” songs on the album were complicated in structure. The majority of tracks were crowded with instruments and arrangements. Many tracks had multiple guitar tracks. Midway through mixing I learned that the only way to create enough room for the vocals was to do some heavy EQing across the board. There simply was not enough time to do that so we flew by the seat of our pants and rushed through one mix after another, muttering to ourselves “That’s good enough for that one…..”

But it wasn’t.

To make a long story short “Goldrush” never did get even a glance from a major record label. I sent cassette after cassette to as many labels and contacts as I could find, but all we got were rejection letters. Evidently the music industry did not share the same vision as we in the band shared for our music. Simply put, the reference mixes could not generate the excitement needed to demonstrate our true worth and potential. It was a bitter pill for me to swallow. I learned a painful lesson too late (hindsight is always 20/20) and now the band would suffer for it. To say I was feeling guilty would be an understatement. I was the captain of the ship and I steered us into troubled waters. I miscalculated by not allowing enough time in the budget to mix the project, and the setbacks ate up what remaining time we did have. In effect, it appeared that we had wasted our time and our investor’s money.

The band kept busy gigging and we wrote additional original songs as a possible follow up in the event we DID get someone interested, but nothing ever presented itself and I eventually ran out of places to send demo’s. I was pretty tired of the inferior mixes anyway, and ultimately I stopped sending the project out. The band broke up in June of 1979.

But this story does not end here. This is not about the demise of a potentially great rock and roll band, but rather the story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, and proving that the music on those tapes WAS worth the time, trouble, and expense after all.

Everyone has a story to tell from their own lives of looking back in hindsight and wishing they had another chance or had done something differently. For instance, I wish I’d have had the foresight to hang onto my first car, a 1964 red Plymouth Barracuda. It was a sweet and unique-looking sports car, but after a couple of years I traded it in for a bigger, faster Detroit muscle car. It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, because today I still look through vintage auto magazines - yearning to once again be behind the wheel of a ’64 Barracuda. There are still a few around, but I have never found one exactly like my original car.

This story is about being able to travel back in time and reclaim what was thought to be lost forever. How can that be done? No one can actually travel in time.


(Click on the image above to see where Curt is today)

FOR A WINDOWS MEDIA CLIP OF THE STUDIO SESSION, CLICK HERE.


THE ARCHIVAL PROJECT

In reality, thanks to modern technology, I did just that. I have held the 2” 24-track master tapes of the Goldrush session in my tape storage closet for safe keeping. The tapes were played twice since 1977. Once in the mid-80’s I had an opportunity to play with the mixes in a recording studio, and again in the mid 90’s I scored some free studio time and attempted to work with one of the tracks. However, as was the original problem, I simply did not have time enough to spend on the mixes and as soon as my time ran out I was once again in possession of master tapes but no machine to play them on. So they went back in the tape storage closet. I noticed however, that during my time with them in the studio in the 90’s that the tapes were beginning to act a little “gummy”. After playing the tape, particles of the tape medium was shedding off onto the multi-track head stack and the deck had to be cleaned thoroughly after playing the tapes.

I began to do some research into this subject in 1995. It seems that the largest problem surrounding the care and storage of analog magnetic tape is that age makes the tape itself become unstable. The very magnetic particles that align themselves on the tape as it is being recorded become “loose” and no longer want to adhere to the plastic coating on the tape itself. The end result is that eventually the oxide sheds off the tape as it passes over the magnetic tape heads, leaving a residue of sticky goop in its wake. As the tape is being played, the residue builds up until it actually interferes with the tape path and causes the capstan motor to work harder to maintain proper tape speed. When the build up reaches a point of maximum saturation, the motors grind to a slow crawl and eventually stop completely as the goop on the head bonds with the tape being pulled across it. This is not good for several reasons. First, it’s not good for the machine, the heads, OR the motor. And you can imagine what is happening to the music recorded on the tape…… the first thing that goes (very quickly) is all the high frequencies in the music. You CAN stop the deck and clean the heads, but the next time you pass by that spot where you stopped you will encounter an audio “bump” which will probably cause the tape to start shedding more and more. With each successive pass the tape gets in worse shape, and it certainly isn’t doing the tape machine mechanism any good either. If it were a stereo mix you could rewind back a little and then pick up where you left off and finally make a composite stereo master by editing all the “good pieces” together. However, with multi-track that just isn’t possible – unless you are dubbing from one analog 24-track machine to another machine with new media loaded on the record deck. With the demise of analog recording gear these days it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a suitable studio with TWO analog multi-track decks at your disposal – not to mention the COST of such a venture.

But because the entire music industry is suffering from the same problem, alternative means of archiving audio masters has come into view. I learned years ago that the industry has discovered that if the master tapes are “baked” they resist shedding long enough to copy and archive to more modern digital media. This “baking” consists of placing the old analog master tapes into a box (I am over-simplifying here) which has some kind of a heating element in it, and leaving the tapes there long enough to “dry out” the goop, returning some form of stability to the tapes for a short while. At least long enough to perhaps get several passes at the master during the archival process. Obviously there is a bit of science involved here. Too much heat and the tapes would just melt or burn up. There are several companies specializing in tape archival that are making careers out of restoring old masters for major record labels.

I discovered that a friend with a recording studio right here in my own back yard – Jon Raney at Raney Recording Studios in Drasco, Arkansas - was familiar with this process and in fact he had built their own “oven” for such purposes. The box had several large wattage light bulbs in it and although it wasn’t calibrated and constructed to exact specs, the low-heat unit did quite a good job without endangering the tapes stored within it. I delivered the now 27 year old master tapes to my friend’s studio and he placed the tapes into his oven for several months. Yes, I said months. It is a slow process. When the time was right I got a call that he was ready for the conversion process. He placed the tapes one at a time on his 2” machine. The audio outputs were routed through a TASCAM digital recorder so we could then take the digital outs and go straight into the studio’s analog-to-digital converters for their ProTools digital audio recording system. I held my breath as he hit the PLAY button and started recording to the hard drive. Of course there was no way to set playback levels during this process so all levels were at maximum as we converted, but I cold tell all the music was there! I was excited and scared at the same time.

The first song on the tape 1, “Love Has Strange Ways”, went without a hitch. We stopped recording and then stopped the tape before the slate announcing the next track. We went into the machine room where the tape deck resides and pulled the tape away from the playback heads. There was a bit of goop on the heads but the tape still seemed to be in pretty good shape, considering it’s age. The next two songs were “Desert Isle” and “That’s the Kind Of Man I Am”. These were the most complex arrangements on the entire project, but the tape held up through the entire process and we were able to save the entire contents of tape one without a hitch. I was feeling elated as we rewound the tape and took it off the machine, but my smile faded as we took tape two out of it’s box. The reel had a “musty smell” to it and the edge of the tape itself was coated with a fine layer of - for lack of a better description – mold. The tape was sticky from the start as we wound it on the machine. The first pass on track one, “The End Begins”, was a disaster. It did not even make it halfway through the 3 and 1/2 minute song before the tape “wowed”. For just an instant, as the tape slogged it’s way through goop, it drug the tape speed down just enough to cause the music to briefly “slur”, making the prominent instruments and vocals to sound slightly “sour”. We stopped the tape and when pulling it away from the heads we were horrified to discover a thick coating of oxide had completely covered the head stack. The tape restring against the head was literally stuck to the head itself and had to be manually pulled away with some effort. Jon applied an ample amount of denatured alcohol with Q-Tips and finally cleared away the film, which resembled a thin layer of shellac. Then he thoroughly cleaned the tape guides, capstans, and any other parts that came into contact with the tape. A few moments later after rewinding the tape we once again attempted to archive the analog master to digital hard drive. The very first thing we noticed was that the high frequencies on the first half of the song were not as prominent as on the first pass. Although the tape “wowed” one more time towards the end of the track we felt that to make a third pass would only mean the high’s would be even worse the next time, and so on. I made the painful decision to quit while we were ahead and just live with the slurs in the converted masters. Maybe I could mix the damage to a sonic minimum later on. Two other tracks on that tape, “Now You’re Gone” and “Piece Of Mind” also had bad spots in them but no manner of cleaning would yield better results than the first pass on each song.

I don’t know why tape #2 would be in so much worse shape than its partner. They were stored in the same location and in the same manner. The only thing I can think of is that the tape in the best shape was the same one that I had previously used in the 80’s and again in the 90’s. If that is the “X Factor”, then it is possible that not running a tape through a machine is more detrimental than one with some history on it. In any case I still felt pretty lucky to get what we were able to during the dubbing session at Raney Studios. Jon saved each song out into it’s own folder, using ProTools protocol. Each folder had 24 audio files saved in .WAV format. These files were then burned to DVD. All in all, it took a bit more than five hours to get the job done. I was really only half way there in this project but at least now the original audio tracks were preserved in digital format.

FOR A WINDOWS MEDIA CLIP OF THE ARCHIVAL SESSION, CLICK HERE.

Next month, Part Two and the “Restoration Project”.

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