Sonobeat History • 1967
The story of Austin's Sonobeat Recording Company, Sonobeat Records, and Sonosong Music in the 1960s and '70s
Birth and baby steps
The Sonobeat logo is hand set using Letraset's Calypso font, selected because of its ribbon-like design
Sonobeat's first custom 45 RPM single sleeve, for Austin's Sweetarts (1967)
Sonobeat's second custom 45 RPM single sleeve, for The Club Seville manager Don Dean (1967)
Shortly after Sonobeat releases its first two stereo 45 RPM singles (the Sweetarts' A Picture of Me and Lee Arlano Trio's There Will Never Be Another You), Cash Box Magazine gives the fledgling label some national attention
Sonobeat's first letterhead
It's 1967, the year Sonobeat formally launches after months of planning and preparation. Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Bill Josey Jr. work at Austin's KAZZ-FM and, during the first months of the year, have had KAZZ's chief engineer Bill Curtis build a six input portable stereo mixer the Joseys will use for Sonobeat's first recordings. Curtis designs audio circuits using field effect transistors, which are inexpensive, can be powered by batteries, and are easy to assemble into microphone preamplifiers. Curtis fits the prototype mixer into a small wooden box with a stainless steel faceplace (on which the volume and pan control knobs are mounted) that Bill Sr. builds.
At Sonobeat's nascent stage early in the year, even while Curtis is building the mixer and Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. (who uses the professional name Rim Kelley as a deejay on KAZZ-FM) are deciding on a name for their venture, there are many other threshold decisions they must make. Among the earliest decisions is that they will release all their 45 RPM singles in stereo. They believe stereo releases will distinguish their label from others in a way that will attract radio stations, reviewers, and consumers to recordings by a tiny regional record company that otherwise likely would be overlooked or ignored. As a result of following through on that decision from its very first release, Sonobeat becomes widely credited with pioneering the mono-compatible stereo 45 format. A few large national labels, led by 45 RPM format inventor RCA, have flirted with the stereo single format beginning in 1957 but by the early '60s have abandoned it since stereo hi-fi enthusiasts are shifting their interest to the 33-1/3 RPM long play format.
Record industry practice through the end of the 1960s is to release the majority of 45 RPM singles in monaural because almost all radio stations that play 45s are AM, technically incapable of broadcasting in stereo and whose turntables therefore are outfitted with monaural cartridges and needles. The geometry of monaural cartridges and needles results in skipping and permanent damage to the groove walls of stereo records. Although all FM stations technically can broadcast in stereo, many, including KAZZ-FM, broadcast in monaural but nonetheless have stereo turntable equipment since they play music from both mono and stereo LPs. Indeed, well into the '70s no significant percentage of the teen target audience for 45 RPM singles has stereo record players, and even in the late '60s only one in ten rock 'n' roll LPs is released in stereo. On top of those challenging statistics, stereo recording, mastering, and pressing add additional studio and manufacturing costs. Nonetheless, the Joseys are undeterred, convinced stereo singles will be the wave of the future and will help differentiate Sonobeat as a progressive, visionary label.
Bill Sr. and Rim begin researching stereo recording and mastering techniques and learn that stereo cutting heads – which create the lacquer masters from which the metal record stamping plates are made – distort with sustained high frequencies, and sustained high-energy low frequencies cause adjacent grooves to cut into each other. In rock music in particular, constant high intensity high and low frequencies – mostly lead guitars, cymbals, bass guitar, and kick drum – are primal elements, assuring stereo mastering problems when the lacquers are cut. One technique to reduce these distortion issues is to master lacquers at half speed, effectively cutting the frequency spectrum in half and providing the cutting head "breathing room". Another technique is to center bass and kick drums, where they can be mixed at lower volumes and still be clearly heard on playback. Centering low frequencies also prevents phase distortion and reduces groove skipping when stereo singles are played on monaural turntables. During the '60s, most 45 RPM singles are pressed on cheap, low-grade polystyrene. Stereo records must be pressed on tougher, smoother, and more expensive virgin vinyl in order to reduce groove damage from diamond-shaped mono record player needles (stereo needles are elliptical, a design that "rides" instead of gouges the groove walls).
Then there's the matter of naming the new company. Rim contributes the name that finally sticks, Sonobeat, combining an adaptation of the Latin word for sound, sonus, with a fundamental element of music, the beat. With the name in place, Rim starts designing the logo and record center label, laying them out by hand on Bristol board with sheets of self-adhesive film laminate textures and cut-out and dry transfer lettersets. The Joseys have seen hundreds of center label designs at KAZZ-FM and want something distinctive and different, so the final Sonobeat label design features an unusual background pattern they've seen on no other label. The font selected for the Sonobeat logo is Calypso and is hand set at 36 points from dry transfer sheets (Letraset's LG1201 Letragraphica series). The singular ribbon-like font is chosen because it resembles letters made from audio tape.
The Sonobeat label background pattern is either Letraset's LT133 or LT134 pattern (they're very similar patterns) and is printed in a mustardy yellow for all 1967 releases. Powell Offset Services at 2004 South First Street in Austin prints the center label blanks – just the background pattern, logo, and standard information around the label edges – which are shipped to the record pressing plant where they're overprinted with song title, artist, running time, and other release-specific information. Sonobeat also has special "PROMO COPY" labels printed for free copies it distributes to radio stations and reviewers. After the first two or three singles, though, Sonobeat abandons the pre-printed promo labels and simply rubber stamps "PROMO COPY" and a (to mark the "A" side) on the center labels.
Bill Curtis has completed the 6-input mixer, and it's now ready for an acid test – an actual recording session with a rock band. Besides finding a band to record, the Joseys have to find facilities to use for recording, since they don't have the resources to lease and outfit a permanent studio facility. This problem is solved conceptually by looking to KAZZ-FM's live remote broadcasts from Austin nightclubs for inspiration: record "on location". Bill Sr. arranges to record Austin rock quintet Leo and the Prophets, whose manager he knows and whose single Tilt-A-Whirl on Austin's Totem label Rim has been playing on his KAZZ-FM radio program. Rim and Bill Curtis hold the Prophets recording session – primarily intended as a practice run – on July 1, 1967, at the Lake Austin Inn, where the band frequently performs. The recordings are sonically thin and distorted, a combination of mixer circuit overload and Rim's lack of experience as a recording engineer, and suffers from background noise, since the session is recorded before a live audience. Curtis takes the portable mixer back to the drawing board, redesigning its circuits. While Curtis is revising the mixer's input circuits, the Joseys line up a cluster of recording sessions with three distinctively different bands, and when the reworked mixer is finished, they start fresh with Leo and the Prophets, this time recording the band at The Swingers Club in north Austin and adding vocal overdubs at the KAZZ-FM studios a few days later. The Joseys have approached this session with the Prophets differently: they now feel ready to launch Sonobeat Records and intend that the Prophets' recordings will comprise the label's launch single. Even though the quality of these new recordings is significantly better than the first round with the Prophets, the band has only one solid tune and can't come up with a second completed song for the "B" side, so the tapes are shelved, and the Joseys move on to the second act they've scheduled to record.
Throughout the '60s, the Lee Arlano Trio is a regular on the jazz and dinner club circuit throughout the Southwestern U.S., and The Club Seville at the Sheraton Crest Inn in downtown Austin is one of the Trio's regular tour stops. During a KAZZ-FM live remote broadcast from The Club Seville, the Trio makes a solid impression on Bill Sr. Lee Arlano, his brother Andy, and Sam Poni are formally-trained musicians, seasoned performers, and play pop standards and jazz favorites that include many of Bill Sr.'s favorites. Through The Club Seville manager Don Dean, an avid supporter of KAZZ's live broadcasts, Bill Sr. arranges to record the Lee Arlano Trio at the Club on an afternoon when it's closed to the public.
Bill Curtis is confident that he's solved the distortion problem with the homebrew portable audio mixer, and, to make sure, he participates in the Arlano sessions as co-engineer, soldering iron in hand. The first session is completed with only minor technical difficulties (the soldering iron cames in handy for some quick fixes to the little mixer) and, over a two day period, yield over a dozen tracks including backing tracks for potential vocals by other Club Seville regulars.
Only a few weeks before the Arlano sessions, Rim hosts a live broadcast of the Sweetarts, one of Austin's hottest party and club rock bands, on a KAZZ-FM remote from Club Saracen in downtown Austin. A year earlier, in 1966, Rim plays the Sweetarts' Vandan label single (So Many Times) on his KAZZ top 40 program and sees the group perform at the Austin Aqua Festival Battle of the Bands, but he's truly impressed with the 'Tarts tight, professional performance on the Club Saracen broadcast and with the audience's enthusiastic reaction. The Sweetarts are the third act scheduled to record with Sonobeat in July '67, for which the Joseys return to Swingers Club in north Austin. The session yields the instrumental tracks for A Picture of Me and Without You, both Sweetarts' originals and both solid rock songs. Days after the instrumental session, the vocals and additional percussion are overdubbed at KAZZ-FM's studios in downtown Austin. Soon after completing the Sweetarts sessions, Bill Curtis locates a pair of high quality used Thompson Stanford-Omega vacuum tube condenser microphones that the Joseys buy to augment the ElectroVoice 665 dynamic mikes that they're borrowing from KAZZ-FM along with the station's Ampex 350 and 354 quarter-inch 2-track tape decks.
Another early decision Bill Sr. and Rim make is to release as many singles as commercially justified with custom picture sleeves. The custom sleeves serve the dual marketing purposes of distinguishing Sonobeat's 45 RPM singles from others in plain or generic sleeves in record store bins and boosting the recognition value of the local talent Sonobeat records. Sonobeat's first picture sleeve is for the Sweetarts' A Picture of Me. Rim designs the sleeve using a publicity photo the band supplies. Powell Offset Services in south Austin prints the sleeves.
Even before the Prophets, Arlano, and Sweetarts recording sessions, Bill Sr. has begun interviewing mastering and pressing facilities all over the U.S. by phone, asking about their facilities and getting price quotes. He finally selects Houston Records, Inc., because it can master 45s at half-speed (one way to improve stereo separation and fidelity), can press the records on high quality vinyl, and is reasonably priced. Houston Records also is convenient, just 160 miles from Austin. Bill Sr. drives the Arlano and Sweetarts master tapes, blank record labels, and 1,000 copies of the Sweetarts' picture sleeve (Bill Sr. and Rim think a picture sleeve isn't worth the extra cost for the Lee Arlano Trio's jazz single) to Houston, where the lacquers are mastered and test pressings made. Bill Sr. and Rim both are disappointed with the test pressings, which don't have the fidelity or stereo separation of the master tapes. But they want to get the records to market and order manufacturing of 1,000 copies of each single. Meanwhile, Bill Sr. sends the Sweetarts' master tape to highly respected but far more expensive Fine Recording in New York. Fine masters and cuts new lacquers using its high end equipment, which it sends back to Houston Records for test pressings. But when the Joseys compare the test pressings, they find no notieable sonic difference between the two, so they decide to stick with Houston Records for now. They'll revisit the quality issue in a few months.
Following the Sweetarts and Arlano Trio releases, Sonobeat rapidly rolls out singles by Austin pop crooner Don Dean and rock band Lavender Hill Express to finish up 1967. It's very helpful to Sonobeat's launch that the Arlano Trio and Don Dean singles are sold at The Club Seville, where both artists regularly perform and have a built-in audience of affluent potential record buyers.
Although Sonobeat decides to self-release to record retailers in Austin and nearby Central Texas towns, it's too hard to cover all of Texas and the surrounding states. Bill Sr. initially engages an independent distributor, who works out of his home in Austin, to help, but by the end of the year, Sonobeat begins to distribute regionally through jobbers H. W. Daily Company in Houston, Santone Record Sales in San Antonio, and Jay Kay Distributing Company in Dallas. BIll Sr. chooses these distributors in particular because they can get Sonobeat singles placed not only in record stores but in commercial juke boxes throughout Texas.