Is there a forum for professional audio gear? I am an 68 year old recording engineer who spent my life work in and building professional recording studio and mastering facilities in Hollywood and the mid Atlantic region of the US. Would love to find a group to discuss and share info on microphones, consoles, amplifiers, equalizers, speakers, disk lathes, cutter heads, plating. disk making equipment etc, My experience spans decades of the industry beginning in the tube days thru today's digital equipment.
Hi Darrell! Wow that is an amazing discography you have over on Discogs http://www.discogs.com/artist/600605-Darrell-Johnson you cut a lot of amazing records!
I'm an ex recording engineer, did most of my work in the 90's. Still remember the 2" tape machines with fondness.
Would love to hear any stories you have, or chat about gear :-)
agreed, i want to hear more about the ole days of recording :)
Hi Meatsock, What is your relationship to recording? I will start with a little into but not to much at once. I went to work at Sunset Sound (6650 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, CA) in the summer of 1966. We were still heavily laden with tube electronics in those days. The original building had been an auto body shop when Tutti Camarata (https://d23.com/walt-disney-legend/tutti-camarata/) purchased it to build a place to work on Disney projects. Word began to circulate around town in the mid sixties about what a great sounding room studio one was and lots of independents were knocking on the door begging for access. Tutti immediately saw the opportunity so that he could get the funds to expand and build the studio of his dreams. Believe me Tutti was a giant of a dreamer right along with the likes of his best buddies Walt Disney, and Jimmy Johnson (https://d23.com/walt-disney-legend/jimmy-johnson/). I was a documentary film student at UCLA then and initially saw this as a part time job. As the son of a mining engineer I had been a life long electronics hobbyist building a simple 3 tube push pull audio amplifier when I was 12 years old. Naturally I fell into a home away from home at the studio and before long I spent every waking moment that I was not in class at the studio. A little bit about Studio One. At the beginning we had only two studios at Sunset. One was in the back and had been a multi bay auto shop. I has a full brick wall on the east side and a slanted wall on the south side. This made for a unique shaped room which provided an unusual acoustic environment. To add to the sound shape we had one of the few live acoustic reverb chambers in town. It was long, almost 30 foot, room that had been the utility room for the auto shop. The walls had multiple layers of enamel paint and a single Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater speaker at one end a mic stand on a movable track at the other end. You could alter the reverb characteristic by changing the microphone and/or moving it on the track. Most of the time we used a stationary Electro Voice Dynamic mike because the room was simply to hot for a condenser mic. This room became the talk of the town in a quick time. Once the Doors recorded "Light My Fire" in Studio One the traffic manager could not keep up with the phone calls wanting to book time in the room. The studio itself was a little on the slack side but mostly OK for the time period. The console was a four bus built by Allen Emig the original chief maintenance engineer for Tutti.It was built around the core Langevin huge rotary knob faders with telephone switches and hard wire everywhere. See this excellent story on Bruce Botnick one of Sunset's biggest and most successful recording engineers. http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec03/articles/classictracks.htm) When I went to work there Bruce along with producer Paul Rothchild were the first major influences and mentors for me though they were both only a few years older than I. Intro to sixties recording...to be continued....
Wow, awesome story Darrell!
Were you always a cutting engineer, or did you do any recording / production?
What lathe were you using?
Hi NIK. Thanks for your compliment. Like a lot of people in the recording studios I began as a gopher at Sunset Sound in 1966. Within a few months I was seconding on sessions with Bruce Botnick, Bill Lazerus, and Brian Ingoldsby, Mostly as a tape machine operator and then a recordist. I developed an early interest in mastering and became fascinated by the process. At Sunset we had two cutting rooms. One was an older fixed pitch AM Series Neumann lathe with a Grampian mono cutter head and the other a new state of art Neumann VMS 66 variable pitch lathe and stereo SX cutter head. Bill Robinson was the studio and he began training me on the mono system. It was mostly used to cut demos for publishing companies when they wanted an artist to consider recording a song in their music catalog. The VMS system was used to cut finished lp product recorded in the studio. It was not available to outside clients. It wasn't long before I was cutting lp's with Tutti Camarata and Jimmy Johnson for release thru Disney. I cut lots of reference disc for music being recorded and mixed in the studio complex. I began night owling at another studio DCT Recorders just a few blocks down the street on Sunset Boulevard before long. It was the beginning of the independent mastering house days in Hollywood and there simply were not enough cutting engineers to fill the need. DCT was a hosh posh collection of surplus gear gathered from the remains of the Armed Forces Radio Networks previous operations out in the San Fernando Valley by Hank Waring who was a business man quick to see and opportunity. At DCT we had a variety of equipment in four cutting rooms. All of them had Scully Lathes with a variety of cutter heads and drive electronics, mostly Westrex cutter heads driven by HAECO electronics. The mono room had an older HAECO Modified Westrex cutting head mounted on a very early fixed pitch lathe. The buzz of the day was "hot" 45's. I cut many sizzling singles at DCT from artists like Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night. I also did a lot of cutting there for Specialy Records with compliation producer Barret Hansen. As I moved along through my career in the studio world I worked on many film sound projects mixing sound for Roger Corman's New World Picture released where I worked with Director/Producers John Davidson and Ken Dixon. Ken and I also co-produced motion picture ad campaigns for New World. Radio advertising for national distribution was released on 7" 33 1/3 discs with several spots of varied length. Usually with one side being mono for AM stations and other side being stereo for FM stations. the spots included what we called donuts with 10 and 15 second bland spaces for the local affiliate to inset show times and theater locations etc. I continued working with New World through my MCA days. The next big change for me came when I took a position with MCA Recording Studios. My old pal Brian Ingoldsby had already gone to work there and he kept prodding me to come along. The studios were located in a small bungalow on the Universal Studio motion picture lot in Studio City. When I arrived they had already setup one cutting room and I began to work there. It was a Scully lathe with modern Westrex 3D cutter head and a custom mastering console of all early tube type processing gear. Langevin equalizers, Holzer filter bank, and the famous Tektronix LA2 series limiters. The first year I was there MCA made plans to shut down the Decca Records studios in New York and move the recording and mastering operations to California. I was tasked with overseeing the move. Boy oh did I bite off more than I could chew...it turned out to be monumental task. We accomplished amazing tasks such as taking the plate glass windows out of a New York City skyscraper and lowering a 1,000 pound Scully lathe with block and tackle three stories to the street level for loading onto a truck. To be Continued....next phase MCA builds a "Mastering Giant"
One glaring omission above, Bill Robinson was the Chief Engineer at Sunset Sound. He was a heck of a guy who had been a navigator on World War II bombers over the Pacific.
Next installment, MCA builds Mastering Giant starts out with Scully lathe serial # 25....
BTW I am attempting this in real time first person narrative form as if I were telling a friend about my experiences. Please forgive grammar, spelling, and structure errors, I will create future episode off line with a word processor and cut and past to improve the finished outcome. Thanks, Darrell
Before continuing the saga with MCA builds a "Mastering Giant" I want to pay tribute to two industry giants. Both of whom I had long lasting relationships and great experiences. First, just for NIK; Ray Doly and the first two inch 16 track multi channel audio recorder from Ampex.
Next HAECO founder Howard Holzer and his long lasting influence on the Hollywood Studio world.
When I was a young second at Sunset Sound multi channel audio was in its infancy. Ampex had long been a leader in audio tape recorders. Their AG100 and AG 300 series machines were mono and stereo standards in the early analogue studios. They began the multi channel revolution with early four channel machines and were very popular in many studios of the day where four bus consoles were the standard. Ray Dolby was a young engineer in the late sixties at Ampex headquarters in Redwood City, CA. Ray was the lead engineer on a team developing the first 16 channel recorders. Sunset was chosen to be a test bed for their first 16 channel machine the MM1000. This thing was a monster. It was built on the chassis of a 2" Helical Quad Video Transport. The unit was just over 4 foot wide which made for a long and tricky tape transport with lots of rollers and guides. Tom Harvey who was one of the maintenance engineers at Sunset and I drove a pickup truck (early Ford F100) up to Redwood City on the San Francisco peninsula to pick up the machine. It was still a prototype and both Ampex and Ray Dolby did not trust to let it out of their site to a shipping company. Ray, Tom, and myself crowded into the cab of the F100 drove the recorder back to Hollywood. Fortunately we were all three slim young guys back then. Ray stayed with us for a week or so while we put the machine thru its paces. I hate to say it but it was a kluge. The tape transport was a nightmare and it was slow to work with in the studio. Any of you who have done multichannel work know that it requires a machine quick to respond on the rewind and fast forward command. It became quickly known as the "Master Muncher 1000" Here is a You Tube video that gives one the opportunity to see a well restored and working MM1000
Next I would like to speak just a little bit about Howard Holzer and HAECO. Howard was a giant in the sixties of studio design and construction as well as a developer and modifier of existing studio gear. He built many of the great studios in Hollywood and worked or had a hand in so many aspects of professional audio. Perhaps his most famous studio creation was A & M Records studios which were built on the site of the old Chaplin Film Studio. See this excellent article on the A&M Studios now known as the Henson Recording Studios: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul14/articles/sf-07-14.htm
Perhaps one of Howard's most famous inventions was the Haeco-CSG or Holzer Audio Engineering-Compatible Stereo Generator. We had one of these at DCT and used it extensively to make stereo releases from original mono recording. It was a a tricky gadget to use and one had to be extra careful not to induce so much phase displacement as too cause the stereo cutter head to lift right out of the groove. I have not said anything earlier about another one of my great passions in life and that is piloting general aviation airplanes. It was also a great passion of Howard Holzer and the bond that began our friendship. Unforgettably Howard died on July 29, 1974, in a plane crash in Mexico. He was flying his much loved Cessna Skymaster. Howard was also a go getter when it came to the business of studios. He would build a new state of art facility in LA and salvage and then rebuild the older gear he had taken out and resale it in Mexico. Howard Holzer pioneered stereo disc mastering and designed and constructed some of the first quadraphonic mastering systems in the world. For these and other contributions to the audio industry, the Audio Engineering Society made him a Fellow in 1965. For a wonderful friend and fellow pilot goodbye Howard.
excellent story right here, the csg looks like fun!
Hey Meatsock, Thanks for the link. Excellent reference material. Like I said above this gizmo was very tricky to use. It was especially difficult because it was easy to destroy the original mix especially when used to create a mono compatible stereo record. It was not to bad when used to make synthetic stereo images and perhaps that was its saving grace because the record companies of the day did not want to bear the cost of going into the studio and making an entirely new stereo mix when for a few dollars processing equipment fee in mastering studio they could issue a so called stereo release. Plus there was kind of gadget craziness in audio at that time which even extended into the consumer audio magazines.
Hi Meatsock, Thanks for these links. I remember the Recording Engineer Producer article in 1970. The darn device was controversial in mastering houses from day one. Though it came into wide use as I said earlier by the demands of the record labels. One must remember what an impact radio had in those days on record sales and especially so by AM radio on the sale of 45 rpm singles. At DCT we frequently cut 45's with the same song on each side. One side was the original stereo track intended to be played by stereo FM stations and the other side CSG processed for AM mono stations. Remember also in those days it was very common to issue radio releases (some time called promos) in addition to disc for public sale. One of the things I have noted on the Discog database is that sometimes if a single became a big hit the mastering facility might end up cutting 20 or more sets of masters. Sometimes just to fight the level wars so prevalent of the time. Frequently the producer would call me up and say can we cut this thing just a little bit hotter. He would come into the studio with the master tapes and we would cut reference disc with each one progressively raising the level one or two db at a time. We would each take them home and to our friends houses and offices and playthem to figure out how far we could push until the distortion and or tracking became unbearable.
Hi Darrell.... thanks for posting these stories! As someone who grew up with digital recording equipment and CD-burners, hearing things about the analog past is always very fascinating (and often very insightful).
I noticed on your credits page on Discogs that you worked on some albums that had quadrophonic sound. Could you maybe tell us what the mastering/cutting process was like?? Quadrophonic technology is a very interesting yet foreign topic to me...
Hi Accraze, Thanks for your interest in my Quadraphonic experiences. As soon as I finish the segment on MCA a "Mastering Giant" the next section will cover JVC Cutting Center and my tenure there. Note that there were basically four competing systems for the public's ears. SQ, QS, CD-4 and UD-4. The first two were strictly matrix phase processes and the following two were Discrete Four Channel (CD-4) and a combination of matrix and discrete called UD-4. I will focus on CD-4 the system I have the most experience with and the most widely used Quadraphonic technology. Standby as it will be a few days before I post that segment. Regards, Darrell
Thanks Darrell for laying down some amazing knowledge! That Ampex MM1000 is a beast! Thanks for the history behind that, very interesting. Lowering a lowering a lathe with block and tackle out of a skyscraper sounds hairy, to say the least!
Which lathes / cutting heads did you prefer, the Neumann or the Scully/Westrex? Did you notice a difference in sound between them?
Hi nik, You really present a tough question there and to give you fully developed and complete answer will be a spoiler on the continuation of my saga a couple of posting back. But a little more now. The Scully and the Neumann both are excellent mechanical lathes. One must remember that mastering is a unique part of the recording process where the combination of art and science reaches its pinnacle in both aspects. After all it is truly described as an electro-mechanical transcription process. The late itself represents the mechanical aspect and the cutter head and drive electronics the electronic aspect. There are also other lesser known lathes and electronic system in the arena. If given a choice at putting together an optimum system it would be a Neumann lathe combined with the Ortofon DSS cutter head and Ortofon drive electronics. I am speaking here of systems put together from commercially manufactured components and in wide common use. The lathe and the supporting systems for its control have little to do with the actual sound characteristics. That lies mostly in the cutter head and drive electronics and of course in all the components that go into making the mastering engineers job a special one. I am referring to equalizers, limiters, compressors, dessers, filters, etc that are components of the mastering channel. The special skills one acquires with years of experience and apprenticeship under the guidance of an expert eventually lead to becoming good at mastering and knowing how to use all thse components to achieve an excellent sounding master disc.. It requires the mechanical skills of a diamond cutter and the ears of an orchestra conductor when looking at the overall picture. In future installment I will talk about the various components and about the special half speed processes used in CD-4 Quad and Audiophile mastering. And the story behind the Cybersonics mastering lathe which was born out of the engineering expertise of the Southern California Aerospace industry combined with audio engineers having a combined total of more than 100 years or recording studio experience. A personal note on the Cybersonics lathe; the first commercially sold unit bears my birth date as it's serial number. Next; MCA the last of the big label in house mastering operations.
Hi nik, One more comment on the various lathe cutter head combinations. As I said above the lathe has little to do with the overall sound characteristic though it does come into play in areas I will discuss later. The principle characteristic differences lie in the cutter heads. The three most commonly used ones are Neumann, Westrex, and Ortofon. Companies like Fairchild, Grampian, Presto, and even RCA have made cutting heads going back into the past of disk recording.. The Neumann and the Westrex are both of the 45 degree coil mounted to a torque tube design with a stylus inserted in the forward tip of the tube, while the Ortofon is a T-Bar design with the stylus inserted in the center of a cross plate with each end of the plate connected to the coils. The overall sound characteristics vary greatly. The Westrex has a quite punchy and hot mid range though with higher mid-range distortion and a weaker high frequency section while the Neumann has very uniform across the spectrum response with very low distortion in the full range and in my opinion the sweetest sounding and best responding in overall range is the Ortofon.
Thanks Darrell, interesting stuff indeed!
Are all cutting heads compatible with all lathes? Is there a standard 'fit'?
This is very interesting. Thanks, Mr @Darrell_Johnson .
Hi nik, Sorry I did not get back to you sooner on this. I have been out of town for a week or so dealing with aging family issues. Here is the low down on lathe/cutter head compatibility issues. Essentially there is no standard "fit" when it comes to mounting cutter heads on a lathe. In the early days thinking before the mid 70's the two primary lathe makers were Scully and Neumann. The units varied greatly. The Scully was old fashioned American hunk of steel machine shop looking system while the Neumann was a modern West German laboratory instrument looking device. Both are defined as having a bed (base of device) with a sled (top piece) that rides along a lead screw. The sled has the cutter head suspension mounting unit, vacuum suction tube, and helium cooling regulator attached to it. As Scully did not manufacture cutter heads or drive electronics it left this up to the head manufactures to create the mounting jig. Their early alliance with Westrex and Scully means most systems that you see will have Westrex 2B or 3C/3D heads attached. The Neumann lathes were mostly delivered as a packaged system and the only other common head that you might see on a Neumann lathe is an Ortofon. Ortofon manufactured a machined steel jig to mount to the Neumann lathes supplied with their head and drive electronics package. I did see a few early fixed pitch Neumann lates with mono Grampian Cutter heads. Not many Westrex or HAECO heads were attached to Neumann lathes because the heads are very heavy weighing perhaps 5 times or more that a Neumann head. The Westrex/HAECO heads therefore had a large counter weight balanced mounting system along with an advance ball that actually tracks about 3 groves in advance on the lacquer to help control vertical modulation issues and inconsistency in early lacquer surfaces. TAs I move further along with this forum I plan to add photo links and document links as I have literature from the manufactures as well as photos and other memorabilia going back to the late sixties when I first began mastering.
Thanks Darrell, interesting info indeed!
You and I met back in 1977 when you were recuperating after an airplane crash in Mexico.
I was the little guy next to you in Ms. Thackers math class at Southwest Va Community College.
It's good to see you've done so well.
This is great. Thanks for sharing. Is there more?
Please re-post this at www.LatheTrolls.com