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Studio Insider #223

Download Article ▶ April 2017 - Go Back and Walk

I remember the hall monitor yelling at me because I was always in a hurry, needing to get to the next classroom, the bathroom, the playground, the principal’s office. I was the little kid, the low guy in the pecking order.

“Go back and walk!”

“But I wasn’t running! I was just walking fast!!”

Going Back Again

The last album of my own that I released commercially was “Swanee ~ The Music of Stephen Foster.” That was in 2000.

Producing an album is expensive and time-consuming. Writing, arranging, contracting, playing, recording, editing, and mixing are all detail-oriented and demanding of my energy and creativity. When album sales provided over 50% of my income in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, my work was paying off economically as well as creatively. But as the music industry changed dramatically throughout the ‘90’s and 2000s, the distribution channels that I used to exploit my work commercially deteriorated and ultimately vanished. Music distributors that bought my products, and the retail outlets that they sold to all withered away, often while owing me (and my peers) large sums of money.

Of course, I still produced original film scores, as well as recorded and produced for other artists and labels (for cash on the barrel head) but the income stream from selling my own recorded music declined steadily. First file sharing, then downloads, and finally streaming ate away at the previous economic model. File sharing took the work that I and other creative types did and didn’t pay us. Downloads, like iTunes, provided us a reduced sales-based income. Streaming pays rates that are laughably low. Nobody who releases music in a non-mainstream genre will be able to survive economically from streaming revenue.

I did keep my own catalog in print, and I continue to sell my own work, although most of the sales are now retail. But even though I couldn’t see an economic business model for continuing to release albums, I didn’t stop writing and recording my own music.

It probably comes as no surprise that some of the great rewards from writing and producing music are not economic. The artistic release, the creative challenges and returns still make my heart glow and give me a sense of worth and artistic fulfillment.

A few years ago, I looked at my career and my body of work, and said to myself, “I’m not done. I don’t feel like throwing my lifestyle out the door and going after it like 20-somethings must do today, but I do feel compelled to put together a collection of my own material, build a themed project, and make it available commercially.”

But how do I do that today? Whereas I toured happily in the 1970s and ‘80s, I no longer feel the magic or mystery that justify living in a mini-van and motel rooms.

The answer starts with “Go back and walk.”

It’s time for me to re-examine the avenues of music distribution and exploitation in today’s world, and make a plan. I’m not going into this foray with delusions of repeating the monetary successes I had in decades past when the music business was very different. But I will look at the existing structures for promotion, airplay, and economic opportunities that will help me get my music out to the acoustic music community.

I already have my previous CD titles on, which is a good site for retail sales of CDs. Of course I’m also very happy to make retail sales myself, but the paperwork, packaging and shipping can be time consuming. So, CD Baby makes great sense since they do the busy work. They also can manage digital distribution of projects, including getting them on iTunes and other download sites, and getting them up on streaming sites as well.

But I don’t want to put all my CD eggs in one CD Baby basket. So I’m exploring additional avenues for distribution. Since I write this monthly column for fans and players of roots-based acoustic music who may also be interested in promoting their own work, I plan to share my journey as I try A, B, and C, throw out B, try D, re-imagine A, and move on to F, G, and H. I won’t dwell on this every month because I’ll also write about other developments in the industry and the recording worlds. But I will occasionally return to this topic as long as I can provide helpful guidance and creative suggestions for others as I discover new ways to share my original music with the public.

As for right now, I’m culling and editing the tunes for my new release, “Two Steps West of the Mississippi.” There’s a story behind that title, provided by my daughter Katie Weed. One time as we were driving up the coast from her home in L.A., I explained that I was having trouble finding a good title. The album is fiddle-centric, and based on my personal roots. I explained to Katie that as I developed my own playing over many years, the voices that spoke most to me came from the great country fiddlers, whose rich sounds complemented the two-step dance tunes popular in clubs and dance halls all over the west. After Katie thought about it for a minute, she said “Dad, how about “Two Steps West of the Mississippi?”

I could only agree.

To finish the project and make it ready for release, I need to track a few more final fiddle parts, edit, and finish mixing this thing.

OK — time to go warm up these old fingers.

Copyright © 2017 by Joe Weed

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Studio Insider #221

Download Article ▶ March 2017 - Shameless Commerce and Keep your Press Vigilant

Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers
Have you ever listened to Click and Clack (Tom and Ray Magliozzi), also known as the Tappet brothers? Their radio show “Car Talk” has long been a regular weekend feature on NPR. Perhaps you’ve heard them promote souvenir items at their “shameless commerce” department. In fact, their website’s home page claims to have registered “shameless commerce” as a trademark. Of course this expression is part of their comedy schtick, but it prompts reflection about whether commerce is indeed shameful. Do we need to brand some of it as “shameless”?

Since I’ve been selling my music for over 30 years, I’ve thought about this a bit. There is a popu- lar view that the artist, to be true to her or his art, should create art “for art’s sake,” and not for the soiled goal of financial remuneration. Somehow the commercial aspects of making a living from selling music, or painting, or photography, or acting, etc., are dirty and shameful and should be avoided. But don’t artists deserve to make a living from their life’s work? Must the artist hold a “day job” that provides economic support, and relegate their art to an unpaid, part-time pursuit? In many cases, producing good art is a tedious and exacting activity, and striving to be paid for the results of that work is surely just as noble as expecting to be paid for building a house or pro- gramming a computer. A farmer produces food for the body, and a musician produces food for the soul.

Once an artist has become “successful,” do we then forgive his/her economic strivings, and feel that somehow the commercial approbation makes the art valuable and the work honorable? Is a large amount of financial success proof of a great artist, while a mundane, day-by-day or year- by-year artistic career that supports the creator a “shameful” activity? In other words, is it cool for Garth Brooks to earn millions of dollars from record sales, but shameful for Doc Watson to go on the road to earn money to help with his wife’s medical expenses?

My own feeling is that commercial success is desirable for artists, and it’s good for them to earn rewards from their endeavor. I don’t equate financial success with the quality of the art, just as I don’t equate mainstream public acceptance as a determiner of an artist’s worth.

What are your thoughts?

Think of others, not of yourself.

Here’s another issue I’ve pondered as a writer and composer. In our culture, we are taught to think of others first, and not to be narcissistic or self-centered. In general, I think that’s an impor- tant value that helps people live together and helps societies survive. But for an artist to fully de- velop a seed or a theme into a composition or a painting, that creator has to delve deeply within, to listen intently to his/her own internal voice, and then nurture, sculpt, tweak, edit, and cultivate that seed into the finished work. If the artist can combine the intense look inside with a knowing and compassionate look at the larger society that surrounds her/him, then the artist’s work can speak to many in society and have potential for wide success.

Hold on tight to your internet. Net neutrality is under attack, and Obama hasn’t even left the building.

I’ve written several times about net neutrality, and have stressed its importance for a responsive and consumer-friendly internet. I think it’s time to review what net neutrality means, and under- stand why large corporations don’t want to abide by it. And it’s time to take a close look at your reporting media to see if they are allowing themselves to be played by the large corporations, as they have in the past.

“Net neutrality”: a quick review/primer of what it means.

The Internet was founded as a collection of network software and hardware that enabled comput- ers to share activity and communicate with each other. Faster and better equipment allowed larg- er and faster wire traffic. As the Internet became ubiquitous and capable of transmitting enter- tainment at a quality that rivaled cable TV, the major Telecoms began to acquire more and more of the Internet and try to mold it into their own private distribution networks. They acquired “content,” which means shows, movies, music, and other forms of broadcast entertainment. They even began creating their own content. (For example, Netflix now produces its own shows.) Large companies began to inspect traffic that flowed over the cables and routers that they owned, and slowed down traffic that contained content produced by or transmitted by their rivals. They would allow some traffic to go over the network without impediment, especially if they owned the content in question. Yes, they would inspect your email and downloads and figure out what movies you watched and when, and more. Comcast was caught red-handed in 2008. From an ear- lier “Studio Insider” column a few months ago:

“After attending a public FCC meeting at Stanford in April, 2008, I wrote about this adventure, which Comcast first denied, and then admitted to after being faced with evidence. Comcast was slowing down and blocking file transfers that were using BitTorrent technology. This was an attempt to keep its users from sending content at fast rates across the Comcast network. The FCC eventually ruled that Comcast must stop that practice. The argument over net neutrality-- the principle that all content be transmitted at equal speeds--was in full swing. According to at- torney Lawrence Lessig, BitTorrent was blocked by Comcast, Pearl Jam was blocked by ATT, and pro-choice (abortion rights) texts were blocked by Verizon.”

Now, with a self-described pro-business administration about to take office in Washington, DC, the FCC’s classification of the Internet as a pubic utility that’s subject to FCC monitoring and regulation is under threat. Will the press report this threat and monitor the ways the industry re- acts, or will it simply adopt the misleading language supplied by the corporate interests and yawn? The corporate story is that net neutrality is inappropriate government meddling into indus- try’s interests and a threat to innovation. They like to say that the government is trying to prevent them from creating “Internet fast lanes” to better serve the public. But in reality, the opposite is true. Their plan is to create massive “slow lanes,” to slow down and deliver less reliably the net traffic of their competitors. The “fast lanes” they talk about are simply unencumbered free-flow- ing Internet pipelines. These already exist.

Stay vigilant, read your news sources frequently and skeptically, and go buy some music!

Copyright © 2017 by Joe Weed

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Studio Insider #219

Download Article ▶ October, 2016 - Mastering Mastering (No, that’s not a typo)

What is mastering in audio production, and what should you know to do a better job of mastering your clients’ audio?
“Mastering” refers to the final batch of jobs that are done when readying a project for distribu- tion via audio CD or download/streaming. These jobs traditionally include trimming of song be- ginnings and endings, adjustment of volume levels, correcting EQ problems, fixing stereo imag- ing, sequencing the tunes, and more. As a project moves through production, the focus changes from the narrow to the wide. The tracking engineer works with the artist, room, and gear to get the best possible performance. At mixing, the engineer works with all the discrete tracks to make the best sounding mix. The mastering engineer strives to make all the tunes work together to make the best sounding album.

Mastering for high-end productions is often done at professional mastering houses, where the artist or client can safely assume that an experienced and discriminating set of ears will go over their music files meticulously and make sure that what goes out to the duplicator or download/ streaming site is clean and expertly finished. The mastering engineer is the guardian for the gated community of “good audio.”

As the audio industry has fragmented, more artists have begun to do their own mastering in home and project studios. While this may mean a savings in money to the artist, it also means that the project may be distributed without the review of more experienced and capable ears. It’s like a professional writer sending a book off to press without the review of an editor. Blogs, on the other hand, are sometimes exactly that — collections of short, personally-edited musings, spontaneous and reflective of the creative mood that bore them. They’re not intended to be build- ing blocks of a larger whole. What they lack in structure or finesse they make up for in stimula- tion and attention grab.

Know your audience (if you can).

So the place for mastering depends on the type of impact the artist wants her music to make and how she views her audiences’s expectations. Is her project shaped and developed as a trans- portive, uplifting performance, intended to take the listener on a carefully crafted and presented journey? If so, then traditional mastering will definitely help. The homogenization (equalization of volume levels and overall sound quality) that mastering provides makes each component piece a working part of a beautiful whole.

On the other hand, if the project is more a series of snapshots thumbtacked to the wall of the lis- tener’s hallway, each to be experienced briefly as a series of “ we are today in this town,” then mastering may have an entirely different purpose and process.

In this latter case, volume optimization can certainly have a place, so that listeners can experi- ence a piece effectively, and not lose it in the noise floor of their listening environment or blast away the detail through a shock-and-awe overload of the audio circuits. But making a “collec- tion” from a series of pieces that are conceived as individuals, and spending time and resources corralling those cats into some semblance of a herd may not be the best use of a client’s re- sources, and may even blunt some of her desired effect.

As vernacular music has moved to the forefront and displaced classical music as a valid end for performance art, many things have come together:

People make up their own music; they don’t just play what old white men wrote several hundred years ago;

The monolithic audio production/manufacture/distribution industry that worked in much of the twentieth century to shape how music was made, distributed, and appreciated has broken down;

People have gravitated to new tools that have been made available to them through economies of scale, and often produce their own music.

Listeners can now experience music in a much more raw form, closer to its creation and closer to how the artist intended it. As listeners experience a wider palette of music that is colored by different production techniques, their sophistication and expectations change. The skill sets needed by mastering engineers remain widely varied and influential in the production process, but need to encompass a much wider set of destinations than in previous generations.

What are some of the jobs that mastering engineers still need to do?

Trimming the beginning and ending of tunes is still important.

Listening to music takes us to a different place, an alternative reality. If we’re listening closely, our eyes might slide off to one side, our mood soften, and we slip away from the cares of the moment. During that magical time when the recording returns us to the real world at-hand, any clicks, pops, or other unintended noise will interrupt that transition, and alter the effect that the artist was trying to achieve. So mixing and mastering engineers work carefully to construct a beautifully crafted fade to black.

Level optimization should still be just that — optimization — and not just a crank to “as loud as possible.”

Experienced engineers who work with acoustic instruments know that those differences between various guitar models, or round hole vs F-hole mandolins, or metal body vs wood body resonator instruments, etc., are important. If volume level maximizing is done to an extreme, those differ- ences are bulldozed in the drive to drown out the track that is playing next door. Work with an optimizer that allows you to carefully tailor the threshold and other aspects of the maximizing algorithm.

EQ and stereo imaging

These concepts may seem a bit eclectic or subtle to an inexperienced listener, but these two sets of processes contribute greatly to enhance the overall sound of a track, as well as the sound and function of many of its elements.

So there is still much to be gained from working with a mastering engineer. Her/his contributions are important for a track, whether it’s a stand-alone portrait or part of a larger project. The mastering engineer can be your gate-keeper, your editor, and your best friend when you’re sending your work out to a world populated with opinionated, self-taught experts. Have fun!

Copyright © 2016 by Joe Weed

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Studio Insider #212

Download Article ▶ March 2016 - Cleaning Up and Looking Back

Many in today’s music business can remember the time before file sharing, copying, download- ing, and streaming changed everything. People’s livelihoods have certainly been demolished as walls have fallen, taking with them professions and their ethics.

But it’s been OK to see some walls go away...

When we designed and built Highland Studios 25 years ago, it was important to me to have a dedicated machine room for all that big, noisy and heat-producing recording gear. Tape ma- chines, power amps, computers and hard drives all made a racket, and if I was going to be able to monitor silence, I couldn’t work in a room with all that gear grinding and fanning and blowing in the background.

So we designed a dedicated room with space around the perimeter for the large analog tape ma- chines, and included space for equipment racks and storage of tape and equipment. The room served very well for many years. But now the analog tape machines are long gone. The monitors I use in the control room have their own built-in power amps, designed into the speaker enclo- sures. They don’t have any fans, so when there’s no audio playing, they’re totally silent. The computer that runs the studio has only one small fan, and during a typical audio recording ses- sion, it only needs to run internal drives. I’ll soon be switching those to solid state drives, which have no moving parts, so computer noise is diminishing to almost nothing.

I’ve been eyeing that machine room jealously for a couple of years. It looks into the adjacent control room, with soundproof double-paned windows and a double-wall system keeping it acoustically isolated. I’ve already installed mic lines and a headphone circuit, so it has been functioning as an iso room for scratch tracks, as long as the musician working in it doesn’t mind feeling cramped.

Jealousy finally won out. While my daughter and her fiancé were here over the holiday, Wes and I carted out the remaining seldom-used gear, the racks and cabinets, almost doubling the open floor space. We got rid of lots of wiring and hardware, as most modern gear uses dedicated audio snakes with 25-pin connectors. The result is a new iso room, with a large window that communi- cates with the control room. There’s comfortable space to track an acoustic guitar or for two to sing a duet. And there’s a nice view of the Pacific Ocean, which never seemed to impress the machinery that used to live there.

As Wes and I labored together to make the new iso room, I thought about additional changes in recording technology that are reflected in physical ways in my studio.

I used to use midi gear to automate much of my mixing work. Midi (an old music computer lan- guage) automated my analog audio consoles; now I use a digital desk that was designed to work with Pro Tools. At first glance, it looks like an older desk, but the controls actually give the com- puter instructions on what to do within Pro Tools, and reflect what the software is doing: the faders move up and down, tracking each channel’s volume moves in real time. Meters glow as their green and yellow LEDs jump up and down, showing me the levels on each track. However, the moving faders don’t actually lie in the audio path; they tell the computer to lower the volume of a particular channel, communicating instantly and reliably without putting any noisy resistors into my audio flow. The channel strips have LCD displays that tell me the names of the various tracks in a recording session; gone are the long strips of white adhesive tape that we used to place below the faders to tell us where each instrument was in a 24-track session. The console measures only about four feet wide, and produces far less heat than the old behemoth analog consoles we used to use. The console alone has a bigger brain than the entire computer that used to run my studio.

Typical signal processing, such as compression, equalization, reverberation, echo or chorus ef- fects, used to be handled by dedicated and expensive units that we mounted in 19-inch equip- ment racks. I remember when people coming to the studio would bend down and study the gear in the producer’s desk and the console, looking for familiar and/or impressive equipment to form a basis for judgment of the studio. All that gear had to be plugged in to AC power, and then con- nected to the patch bays with carefully built custom cabling. Getting every manufacturer’s scheme of chassis grounding to work with everybody else’s mounted in the same rack could be a real fight.

But not anymore. The world has moved inexorably towards “virtual” systems, in which the pro- cessing of audio happens exclusively inside the computer. Specialized companies have invented high-quality signal processors that take the place of all the ones I mentioned above, but with sev- eral significant advantages: Each signal processor is a software unit, which doesn’t require a metal box, or a power cord, or cabling to a patch bay and connection to the signal chain with patch cables. All the parameters of a signal processor are now automatable, and the automation works within the host digital audio workstation. In my studio, I use Pro Tools. Automated para- meters mean that the signal processor, whatever its type, can be made to vary its response over the course of a tune or a verse, and repeat those moves every time. Perfectly. For example, a re- verb unit can start out with a very short, almost undetectable decay length, during the sparse be- ginning of a piece. Later, if the arrangement so dictates, it can change its decay to several sec- onds long and change the quality of the reverb from a medium sized room to a concert hall. All that can be done automatically and with absolute repeatability.

So we’ve been able to get rid of large numbers of metal boxes and the associated cabling.

When digital microphones are perfected and economies of scale make them available to profes- sionals at affordable prices, then we can get rid of one of the last analog holdouts: mic preamps.

For now, I’m happy and excited with the way these changes have affected my professional life. They’ve made it better. I’m just hoping that there won’t be a digital replacement for me — at least during my lifetime!

See you next month, unless the column comes from a robot...

Copyright © 2016 by Joe Weed

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Studio Insider #153

Download Article ▶ October, 2010 - Biking the Camino del Norte in Spain

I’m in the tiny medieval town of Santillana del Mar, on the northern edge of Spain, where I’ve been bicycling with my wife Marty. We’re riding from France to the western reaches of Spain, and are about 1/3 of the way there. The mourning doves woke me up this morning as they cooed in the apple tree just outside our terrace window, which overlooks the tiled roof of the patio below. Most of the buildings have been here since the middle ages, and many have been handed down in the same family for hundreds of years. Every- thing we see is made of stone.

Spain is a noisy country. It’s a constant acoustical adventure for an inquiring mind and a professional ear. Most of the tiny villages have cobbled or paved streets and tiled walk- ways. Building construction is almost uniformly plastered bricks and stone, and these hard, acoustically reflective surfaces throw back all the racket created by people, motor- cycles, cars, and equipment. Sound absorptive materials such as lawns and trees outside, or stuffed furniture, carpets, or drapes inside, are in short supply in these little villages. Here, inside the café where Marty and I are having breakfast, the owner/manager just fin- ished a deafening cacophony of clattering plates and saucers as he cleaned up the first round of dishes. Marty had to stop talking until he finished, because it was impossible for me to hear her across a small table. The floor is tile, the walls are plastered stone, and the exposed wooden beams are highly polished. The concave bays between the ceiling beams are plastered. There are enough irregularities in the room’s shapes to prevent a build-up of a high amount of reverb, so once the noise-making stops, the roar recedes fairly quickly. And then it starts again, from the dog outside, or the guy honking in the street, or the argument at the next table about the best way to drive to Santander, or the bartender washing more dishes.

Telephones, washing machines, radios and televisions, traffic noise, and people’s chatter are amplified to a high degree as they combine through acoustical reflections and lack of absorption. In contrast, once we cycle out to the countryside, there is a beautifully subtle pallet of bird songs, cascading creeks and streams, wind sighing through the trees, and sometimes the distant ocean roar from far below the cliffs we ride. We hear gulls, spar- rows, cows and horses, dogs, chickens and roosters. Much of our cycling route takes us away from the main thoroughfares, so we are able to enjoy the sounds of daily Spanish life from a forgiving distance. We love the murmur of the pavement beneath our wheels, or the crunch of fine gravel, or the pops and thunks from our tires bouncing over larger stones.

Spain is also a very musical country, but you wouldn’t know it from our experiences so far on this “camino del norte” (the northern route.) When we’ve traveled in the center, south and west of this fascinating peninsula, we’ve been struck by the quantity and quali- ty of street musicians and performers. Some are Spanish, but many of them have come from eastern Europe or Russia, forced to abandon their own countries due to failing economies. In the streets and parks in these other parts of Spain, we’ve seen professional level singers and performers on violin, viola, clarinet, flute, and other concert instru- ments. We’ve also seen seen folk musicians playing guitar, accordion, flute, percussion, bagpipes, and other instruments I can’t identify. The Spanish are generally quite appre- ciative of street performers, and there’s a steady flow of coins into the open instrument cases or change boxes. But here in the north, we haven’t seen as much public perfor- mance, possibly because of a different culture, and possibly because of efforts by law en- forcement to reduce street performers. Another factor may be that we have been in only two large cities so far on our trip, and street performers tend to seek those out for their faster turnover of audiences. Perhaps we’ll see more of them when we come to our next big city, Gigon.

As a recording engineer and producer, I’m often tuned in to the acoustics of my surround- ings. As we walked to the café this morning, church bells tolled nine o’clock (OK, we slept in today after a long ride yesterday). The nine clangs resounded noisily in the plaza and streets we were crossing, and I delighted in hearing their echoes bounce back to me from the different stone walls around us. I could use echo-location to find the church if they continued long enough, since the louder echoes were from closer surfaces and the quieter ones from farther ones.

As we head west, Marty and I will soon be entering a region called “Asturias,” and just west of that, Galicia, our destination. The similarly-named Gaelic cultures of the British Isles are almost due north of Galicia, and the two have much in common. Both include bag pipes of different types and sizes, hand drums, flutes and whistles, and both enjoy marching and dancing music. I’ve met American musicians who have gone to Galicia to study the music, and if our timing works out, we may have dinner in Santiago with Bay Area musicians Sylvia Herold and Chuck Ervin.

The next time you listen to a bluegrass band, take a few moments to appreciate the acoustics of the setting, and think about how the physical properties of the location are affecting what you are hearing. And imagine yourself in a far-away place and time, with no electricity, playing or hearing music that is shaped by long traditions as well as by the physical environment and surroundings.

And keep your chain lubricated!

Copyright © 2010 by Joe Weed

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Studio Insider #96

Download Article ▶ December, 2005 - A day in the life

Recently, a college student called me. He wanted to know about life in the music business in general, and life in a recording studio in particular. He was not the first to ask. When young people inquire about the music business as a career, I often find myself conflicted between knowing how much I love what I do and then having to level with them about the huge amount of work needed to survive economically in this odd industry. I reflected on a few recent hectic days, and thought that you might enjoy reading about a “day in the life” here at Highland Studio.

The alarm clock starts it all...

The alarm clock doesn’t even have to be plugged in any more. At a certain point in life, one’s body performs the wake up service automatically, regardless of the hour one went to bed, and in complete disregard of the excitement and ensuing fatigue that come from playing to a packed house at a small but vibrant concert venue in Berkeley, followed by an hour and a half drive home to the Santa Cruz mountains where I think I got into bed before falling asleep.

Balancing on the bouncing bike

So I roll out of bed, blindly slide into my cycling clothes, and stumble out to get on the old mountain bike for the daily ride up Loma Prieta. The 30–minute climb up the mountain gradually coaxes my mind into cogent thought and my eyes into an awakening appreciation of the beauty of the coast 2400 feet below, dusted with fingers of fog as the marine layer slowly slips away and reveals the towns of San- ta Cruz and Soquel. Some days the ride seems impossibly hard, but cardio-vas- cular health comes first for a guy who spends most of every day sitting in front of a mixing console. After I turn around, the coasting return ride takes only five min- utes, capped off with a several hundred foot climb up the driveway.

Eat, drink and be busy

After my ride, I eat, shower, shave and leap down the house stairs, two at a time to the studio below, to put on some strong coffee and have a magical 45 minutes of practice time on the fiddle. When I’m lucky, I’ll get a longer session in and work on some guitar or mando too.

Then it’s into the office to check the calendar and inspect an order of CDR’s we’d run the day before for a reading teacher who is recording the next great reading program here. The labels were all printed OK and the disks were waiting in the “done” bin, so out to the shipping room to package them up and get them ready for UPS to pick up. Then back into the office to check email and phone machines and confirm an upcoming session at the studio with the Zaida Swedish Singers, for editing and mixing the tracks from the concert we recorded the month before. We’d sent them CDR’s of roughs of all the tunes so they could listen to them all on their own time and jot down comments and instructions.

Gourmet recording

Back into the studio to inspect a 1/4” analog master tape of a fiddle student I had recorded back in 1986. He’s called and wants to make CD copies for his family and close friends. Turns out the tape is Ampex 456, which was a fine top of the line recording tape back then, but which has been found to have some problems with aging. The binding agent that holds the precious oxide (i.e., the music!) onto the tape has become unstable over the years, and the tape will need to be “cooked” (literally) to renew it before it can be played. So it’s into the oven with the tape, after removal of one of the metal reel flanges. Set oven for 130 degrees and set timer for two hours. Write note to put on the console to remind me to re- move tape at lunch time.

If it’s 10:00, it must be Chuck

It’s 10:00, and Chuck McCabe arrives, lunches in hand, ready for recording horn overdubs on his tune “Bonifay Rag.” The horn player, Rik Siverson, has driven up from Gilroy, and gets here just a few minutes behind Chuck. We’ve already made Rik some charts, but, due to the keys of the horns he’s bringing, we have to pre- pare a few extra ones in different keys. That goes pretty fast, and in this case, I’m glad I didn’t do these charts in Finale (the computer music notation program I use for making charts), because between the Mac, the Ethernet switch, the airport express printer server, and the Epson printer, communication from the studio big boy computer to the printer is often like a Mongolian shouting instructions at a Basque deaf-mute. My music pencils don’t usually have that problem.


We help Rik unload a tuba, several mid-voiced horns, including a restored nine- teenth century alto horn, a French horn, trumpets and cornets, a soprano sax, an alto sax, a bass sax, and a few more horns whose names are new to me. While Rik is assembling these instruments and warming up, I re-voice the studio to a dead environment, set up a main mic and headphones, as well as a “room mic” in the far corner of the studio. For this latter application, I use a Neumann U89 condenser mic set to the “omni” pattern. This means it will pick up sound equally from all directions, not just from the horn. I plan to record two tracks for each horn we record – one track with the main mic, placed close to the horn, and an- other fed with the U89 omni from across the room. I’ve done this before when recording multiple passes by one or two horn players to be used in putting to- gether a simulated “town band.” The roomy, distant sound of the omni room mic, when panned to a different location in the mix from the main mic, provides an audible spaciousness and delayed set of reflections that do much to help smear the images of all the close-miked horns. For the main horn mic, sometimes I use a dynamic mic to help soften the brilliance; on other horns I use a large di- aphragm condenser.

The session goes great! First, Rik lays down the melody on a trumpet that he mutes subtly with his hat. Next, he records the tuba part, playing the typical marching band bass lines. The middle voices are next, played on alto horn. The parts vary from chord chops (like a bluegrass mandolin) to sustained tones in harmonies. Then out comes the soprano sax, an old silver model with a bent bell and mouthpiece. Rik plays it like a clarinet, and we’re in trad jazz heaven as he blows a wonderful series of solos over the band accompaniment he’s just laid down. More soloing follows on the alto sax, and finally, a stylized melody on the trumpet caps off the arrangement.


I read my note on the console and head to the oven to carefully remove the pre- cious plate of rejuvenated Ampex memories. Back to the studio. We eat our sandwiches in the control room, listening to various versions and arrangements of what Rik has just done, and then make a few decisions and edits in ProTools. We help Rik pack up, he leaves, and Chuck soon follows, looking forward to the next session when we’ll really study the tracks we have just gotten and finalize our arrangement and mix.

Gear Head

I head back into the control room and remove a piece of non-functioning vintage gear from the rack. It’s an old Urei equalizer, a model 546. It seems like the pow- er supply has died, and I use the internet to find and talk with the guy who restores and repairs old Urei and Universal Audio gear (James Gangwer, at The problem with vintage gear is just this – it’s old and tends to break down. I decide to risk the expense and ship the unit off to James. While in my gear head uniform, I install our new Avalon VT737SP into the rack. It’s a combo mic preamp, compressor, and equalizer that has wonderful features, great sound, and incredible build quality. And it’s brand new...

Time now to back up all the files from the day’s sessions onto the alternate set of firewire disk drives and then shut down the studio. It’s off to Los Gatos to meet my wife Marti Kendall and friend Neal Hellman, owner of Gourd Music, to attend the premier screening of “Los Gatos Then and Now,” for which we had recently recorded narrations. No time for dinner in between, so we all head out for dinner afterwards, after which I realize, “Man, I’m tired. What’ s up for tomorrow?” Oh, yeah – write the Studio Insider column for the Breakdown and send it off to Zeke after the Swedish Singers leave.

Copyright © 2005 by Joe Weed

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Studio Insider #82

Download Article ▶ October, 2004 - Tony Flores

I just said goodbye to a dear old friend and musical partner who died this week after a long battle with cancer. I decided to dedicate this month’s column to him, both to honor his memory and to remind us all that a successful musical life can be long and fulfilling, even if it doesn’t involve massive record sales or nationwide recognition.

Tony Flores was a wonderful mandolin player. He was born in 1914 in a little fishing village in Sicily, and came to the United States in the early twenties, after his father had found work with the growing Italian fishing community in Monterey. The family eventually moved to San Francisco, where Tony attended high school. His brother and sister were both musicians, and Tony, who started playing violin, soon moved to his preferred instrument, the mandolin, taught by his sister. By the 1930’s, he was playing mandolin with the Aurora Mandolin Orchestra in San Francisco. San Francisco was a melting pot of great music then, with Italian musicians, Spanish, Mexican, Mexican-American and other latin musicians interacting constantly, playing each others’ music and writing and co-writing a growing repertoire for the large and small acoustic ensembles that played for social functions. Tony’s playing blossomed, and he absorbed this great music while perfecting a beautiful, interpretive style on the mandolin.

After marrying his sweetheart Lorrie, he raised five children, some of whom became musicians too. I met Tony in the early 1970’s when my band hired his son, Vince, as bass player. Our group had been auditioning bass players, but when Vince showed up with his electric and upright basses, we knew instantly that we wouldn’t have to look any farther. There was a special quality about Vince, aside from his remarkable musicianship, and he instantly fit in with the rest of us, creating a strong family vibe. “I’m Italian,” he told us, ”and the whole family comes with me. You’ll see...” And we did. At the fist gig we played with Vince, there was the entire Flores family in the front row, listening intently, cheering us on wildly and appreciatively. They showed up at many of our south bay area shows, particularly when we played a favorite spot in Los Gatos, “Mt. Charlie’s Saloon.” Our band played original music, classical music, jazz, old time, bluegrass, ethnic musics, and a widely eclectic mix of roots based music. The Flores family, with a deep appreciation for artistic and ethnic music, were our unflagging boosters. Innumerable times they would haul us all out to “breakfast” after we’d finished our last set and torn down our gear -- making sure that we skinny kids had at least an occasional hot, full meal in our bellies as we toiled away the months writing and arranging our show. There were gatherings at their beautiful home, built by Tony on Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We got to meet Tony’s father (nicknamed “il quarararo,” or, “the tinker”) who had brought the family to America so many years before. Even in his uncomfortable old age, he’d throw down his cane and dance precariously to the old Italian mazurkas that Tony would play on his bowl back mandolin.

As Tony Flores’ children moved on into their own lives and careers, Tony began to play out again. In the late 70’s, I went to Santa Cruz to see a trio of Tony on mandolin, his son Vince on bass, and Santa Cruzan Billy Packard on guitar. I was astonished at the dignity, the respect and the artistic interpretation that flowed from Tony’s remarkable playing. The trio was playing many of the tunes Tony had played so many years before in San Francisco, and they were making incredible music. People who watched and listened to Tony play were astounded at the quality of what they were experiencing.

Eventually, Manuel Santana, who owns Jardines, a beautiful outdoor restaurant in historic San Juan Bautista, heard Tony play and decided that this treasure had to have a regular home. He installed Tony as his regular entertainment at Jardines, and Tony continued to play there every weekend for almost 25 years. In the mid 1980’s, I got a call from Tony one morning. “Joe,” he said, “I need another guitar player. You know this music, and if you could come and practice a little, you could play guitar for me. You’ll love this place, and especially Manny, the owner. He loves music more than anything. And I get lots of playing jobs from all the old Italians who I knew as kids in Monterey. They’re all wealthy landowners now, and love to have the old music for their anniversaries, parties, weddings, etc. What do you say?” It took me about five seconds to say, “I’ll be right over.” So off and on for the next ten years, I played guitar for Tony. The mu- sic was his only livelihood -- he’d had a variety of jobs while raising his family, but none of them turned into a lifelong career with a substantial retirement. So he gigged. And his playing was as strong and artistic and beautiful as I ever heard.

We drove together on Saturdays and Sundays from Tony’s place in Santa Cruz to Jardines restaurant in San Juan Bautista. It’s still a beautiful drive through rural Santa Cruz County, past Watsonville, Aromas and on out to San Juan. Tony taught me to stop the truck, get out, and pick mustard greens from the large fields we’d drive through. He showed me how to get the best ones, and how to cook them in a frying pan with a little garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper. He showed me how to pick olives from the prolific trees at Jardines restaurant, take them home, and cure them the old-fashioned Sicilian way with salt, and put them up for storage and later treats. Sometimes we’d listen to music on my truck’s great sound system, turning it up loud and grooving with Sabicas, Escudero, and many other great old european masters as we drove through golden hills on our way to play music. Those were times that I cherished then and cherish today.

Most people were surprised to learn Tony’s age, since he looked so young and vibrant. He went for fast-paced daily walks to the beach and back. Sometimes, even in the dead of winter, he’d wade far out in the frigid waters of Monterey Bay and go fishing, wearing only a bathing suit and sweat shirt. Eventually, though, he developed prostate cancer. Tony put up a long and gallant fight against the disease, beating it back again and again so that he could continue playing. Earlier this year, advancing illness forced Tony to move up to Sonoma, where he could live full-time with his daughter and her fiance, Norton Buffalo. Norton welcomed Tony (and of course, the whole Flores family) into his home. There, surrounded by his adoring children and wife, he finally passed away early Sunday morning. I played him many of our favorite old tunes during his last hours, and will always feel honored and lucky that I was swept up into this remarkable family and musical life.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Weed

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Joe Weed

Joe Weed is a fiddler, recording artist, writer, and producer. He has released six albums of his own. His music productions have been used by Ken Burns, PBS, NPR, the Martin Guitar Company, and at Arlington National Cemetery. Joe has composed music for film scores at The Lincoln Museum, the National Steinbeck Center, and many others. He has written fiddle tunes that are played at contra dances, festivals, and jam sessions across the country.