Recording Lavender Hill Express' Visions
The story behind Sonobeat's first complicated recording session
The broadcast industry's workhorse microphone during the '60s, the ElectroVoice 665; Sonobeat borrowed six EV665 mics from KAZZ-FM for its 1967 recording sessions
The Sonobeat recording sessions with the Lee Arlano Trio, a jazz combo that used only acoustic instruments, was relatively easy; simply place microphones strategically to cover the instruments
Austin, Texas-based Sonobeat Records begins modestly, without equipment or facilities of its own. During its first year of operation – 1967 – Sonobeat borrows professional tape recorders and microphones from KAZZ-FM, where Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) work, and rent Austin-area night clubs during off-hours to use as makeshift recording studios. KAZZ-FM's chief engineer, Bill Curtis, designs and builds a battery-powered six-input stereo mixer for Sonobeat. The little mixer is first used in May 1967 for Sonobeat's practice recording sessions with rock band Leo and the Prophets.
Not too difficult yet
The first few recordings Sonobeat makes aren't particularly challenging; for example, Sonobeat's July 1967 sessions with the Lee Arlano Trio, a jazz combo, require only six microphones – two covering piano, three covering drum kit, and one for upright bass. Except for one song, there are no vocals, so the Arlano tracks – aggregating two singles and an album – each are recorded in a single take through the mixer to a two-track Ampex 354. The resulting tape is simultaneously the final mix and a first generation master. That's as clean and as simple as it gets.
Also in July '67, Sonobeat records its first 45 RPM stereo single release, A Picture of Me by the Sweetarts, a five piece rock band. This session is a bit more difficult than the Arlano Trio's since there are more instruments to mike, the instruments are amplified (creating a distortion overload issue with the homebrew mixer), and there are vocals to overdub. Sonobeat prefers to record the basic instrumental tracks and vocal overdubs in separate sessions. Adding vocals requires the use of both of KAZZ's 2-track Ampex recorders. First, the basic instrumental track is recorded using six microphones covering drums, lead and rhythm guitars, keyboard, and bass. The resulting stereo instrumental backing then is fed into two inputs of the 6-input mixer; the remaining four inputs are used to mix in the vocals and any additional instrument overdubs. The resulting mix is recorded to the second 2-track Ampex to create the stereo master. This is the recording configuration Sonobeat used during 1967 and through most of 1968.
Starting to get interesting
Sonobeat records its fourth single, Lavender Hill Express's Visions backed with Trying to Live a Life, in autumn 1967. The two songs are an upbeat rocker and a slow ballad, respectively. Inspired by top 40 hits of 1966 and 1967, such as the Mamas and Papas' Monday, Monday, the Righteous Brothers' (You're My) Soul and Inspiration, and the Beatles' All You Need Is Love, producer Rim Kelley wants to add an orchestral backing to the LHE tracks, but the cost of an orchestra is too great for Sonobeat to undertake. However, a simpler string accompaniment is within Sonobeat's modest budget for the single.
The basic instrumental tracks for Visions and Trying to Live a Life are recorded during mid-October 1967 at Swingers Club in north Austin. The sessions occur during the day, when the club is closed to the public, so no audience is present. In order to minimize sound reflection, the band sets up on a carpeted section of the club floor. The Joseys, who have mounted one of KAZZ-FM's Ampex 354 recorders in a simple wood frame for portability, set up the recorder and six-channel homemade mixer about 20 feet from the band's equipment. The left and right output channels of the mixer are plugged into the Ampex line inputs, and Rim, who engineers the session, monitors the mix through headphones plugged in to the Ampex.
The instrumental tracks feature Rusty Wier on drums, Leonard Arnold on lead guitar, Layton DePenning on rhythm guitar, Jess Yaryan on bass guitar, and Johnny Schwertner on keyboards. For Visions, one Sony ECM22 electret condenser microphone is placed on a stand slightly in front of and above Rusty's kit. The front skin of the kick is removed, and an ElectroVoice 665 dynamic mike is placed in front. The drums are miked slightly differently for Trying to Live a Life in order to get greater stereo separation. The lead, rhythm, and bass guitar speaker cabinets are close-miked for both tracks, also using ElectroVoice 665s and Sony ECM22 electret condenser microphones, but the output from Johnny Schwertner's Farfisa transistor organ is plugged directly into the mixer, bypassing its amp and speaker box. No vocals are recorded during these instrumental sessions. A "live" stereo mix – one that can't be remixed later – is recorded to the Ampex, creating a first generation master.
The original instrumental tracks recorded by the band
Now it's getting difficult
Sonobeat engages Richard Green to arrange and conduct a string quartet for the first overdub session, giving hinm an open-reel reference dub of the basic instrumental tracks. About four weeks later, when Richard has completed the string arrangement, Sonobeat schedules the overdub session for which Richard engages musicians from the Austin Symphony Orchestra. The session is recorded at the KAZZ-FM studios in downtown Austin. Sonobeat rents a harpsichord, which is set up in KAZZ's reception room for the session. The reception room is barely large enough to accommodate the harpsichord and string quartet – two violins, a viola, and a cello. Rim uses the KAZZ production room, which also houses KAZZ's two Ampex stereo tape recorders mounted in racks, as the control room for the session. Using a technique known as "bouncing down", Rim plays back the basic instrumental tracks from one Ampex into two channels of the 6-channel mixer and uses the remaining four channels to add in the string quartet with three mikes and harpsichord with a fourth mike. The output from the mixer – basic instrumental tracks plus strings and harpsichord – are fed both to the second Ampex recorder and to a stereo hi-fi amplifier that drives six sets of headphones, one for conductor Richard Green, one for each member of the quartet, and one for Rim. For no apparent reason and probably accidentally, the left and right channels of the original instrumental tracks are reversed in the overdub. The resulting tape is a second generation master that will serve as the instrumental backing for the vocal overdub session to come.
The string and harpsichord overdub recorded by members of the Austin Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Richard Green
The final challenge
In the second overdub session, held on November 26, 1967, Lavender Hill Express records the vocals. This final session also is conducted at the KAZZ-FM studios, but is recorded after business hours in order to use the long hallway outside the KAZZ studios. Again, Rim uses two inputs of the 6-input stereo mixer to feed in the instrumental backing, now sweetened with strings and harpsichord. Three of the remaining four channels of the mixer are used to mike the vocals and reverb using KAZZ's ElectroVoice 665s. Rim sets up the singers' mikes in the hallway just outside the KAZZ office door, running the cables into the production room. Why use the hallway? It provides a deep, natural reverb, which is captured by placing a mike at the far end, some 40 feet from the singers. A stereo hi-fi amp connected to the mixer output feeds headphones for the vocalists and Rim. The vocals are "live" mixed with the instrumental tracks to create the final stereo master – now a third generation tape – for the Lavender Hill Express's first Sonobeat single. Sonobeat sends the master tape to Houston Records, which cuts the lacquer masters, manufactures the metal pressing plates (matrices), and presses the vinyl 45 RPM stereo discs.
The final vocal overdub, recorded in a long hallway to add natural reverb, completes the master for Sonobeat's fourth 45 RPM stereo single release
Analog recording equipment in the '60s is far from perfect. Each overdub requires the previously-recorded tracks to be "bounced" from one tape deck to another. Each bounce reduces the quality of the bounced tracks, resulting in high frequency loss, reduced dynamics, and increased tape hiss. So, the basic instrumental tracks sound muddier in the final mix because they've been bounced not once but twice. In the late '60s, newly-introduced but expensive multi-track recorders, such as the half-inch 4-track Scully 280 that Sonobeat purchases in 1968 and the one-inch 8-track Studer A80 used to record the Beatles' Abbey Road album, make the overdub process significantly easier since fewer tracks must be bounced. Multi-track recorders reduce tape hiss and preserve sonic fidelity and dynamic range that is compromised by bouncing tracks from one recorder to another. In 2019, recording, mixing, and mastering the multi-layered Visions and Trying to Live a Life would be a relative breeze using digital audio workstations that support hundreds of tracks, which don't exist in the '60s.
Recording Visions and Trying to Live a Life is an important milestone for Sonobeat. It demonstrates that the fledgling record company can produce relatively sophisticated recordings on a shoestring budget, using unlikely facilities as substitutes for real recording studios, and stretching marginal equipment to its limits. But, more importantly, it reinforces the fact that even in the '60s small-town rock 'n' roll bands can make recordings that transcend the typical garage sound of the era and compete with national releases from the big record labels.
Visions, composed by Layton DePenning, and Trying to Live a Life, composed by Johnny Schwertner, remain two of producer Rim Kelley's favorite Sonobeat recordings, equally because they give Sonobeat an opportunity to push the envelope and because they're terrific tunes, well performed by both band and string ensemble.
One more time...
Sonobeat repeats the multiple overdub recording process in 1968 with its Bach-Yen stereo 45 RPM single This Is My Song, but with the sweetening and vocal overdub sessions reversed: the basic instrumental track is recorded first, followed by Bach's vocal overdub, and then by the string and horn session.