Memories and Stories


Some reflections on my trip to AES 139th in NYC today (October 31st) while it’s still fresh in my mind…

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get there, and I’m really glad I made the trip today to attend.  (More like a surgical strike: 2 hrs driving up, 5 hrs on-site and 2hrs driving back home.  Whew!)

The only glitch of the trip was the parking lot charging me $5 extra for my “oversized” Toyota Van.  (Welcome to NYC, etc?)  In owning this car for nearly ten years, I’ve NEVER had to pay more for parking.  Heck, all the SUV’s next to it in the lot were bigger.   Oh well, small price to pay for the convenience; three blocks away from Javits.

I was surprised to find AES wasn’t in the usual “Central” part of the Javits Center, but like everything else in the last decade or so, it’s been downsized a bit, especially since 9/11, but it’s clear the strong have survived.  It’s hardly the over-the-top, overblown industry show-off party that it used to be, but that’s fine by me.   It was nice to see the SERIOUS exhibitors there, no nonsense; this isn’t an expo for the faint of heart.  To be at AES these days, you really have to have good stuff, or a proven track record.  There were MANY big name companies that just didn’t show.  (No Mackie, No Soundcraft, No A&H, and so on….a very lean experience, to be sure.)

This did, however, streamline my take-no-prisoners browsing.  I had a short list of folks and booths I wanted to see and visit, just to get a handle on what’s new, and what’s on the horizon.

First stop was the AEA booth, and right in the middle of it all was dear, wonderful, amazing Wes Dooley.  The man never ceases to amaze me.  I barely (re)introduced myself and we were once again talking like old friends.  He has that knack with making people feel like they’re the most important people he’s talking to.  He was on a roll demo’ing his new Nuvo Stereo Ribbon Mic package, and I was a rapt student all over again. The man never ceases to amaze and educate me.  I always come away from a chat with him having learned something new.  This time was no exception.  I’m hoping to review one of his new products soon, but in the meantime, he’s got an open invitation to come East. I promised to hook him up with the best Crabcakes in the world, right on the MD coast.

After that, in no particular order, was the GRACE Booth; with their new m108 coming out early next year.  (Want one!)   A complete package with the venerable 802 pre’s and a built in digital interface and DAC-driven headphone amp.  I’m hoping to get an early production model of this for review as well.

I also stopped by the MAGIX (Sequoia/Samplitude) booth and met USA product rep Tim Dolbear.  So great to see him “representing” for my all-time favorite (and indispensable) audio editing/mastering software.  We’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’m going to be in touch with him a lot going forward.  It’s time I upgraded the fleet as well…

I also managed to finally meet in person with Alex Kosiorek; runs the “unofficial” FB AES page; he’s also  manager of Central Sound at Arizona PBS and he’s the Owner, Senior Audio Engineer / Multimedia and Surround Specialist / Consultant at Verity Digital Mastering & recording.  So great to finally connect in person with someone who totally “Gets it”.

I saw Bob Katz and said hello; we met a long time ago, but after so much back and forth on Facebook, it was nice to connect again in person.  He was promoting the latest version of his book “Mastering Audio” – 3rd edition, and I felt it was finally time to get a copy of it – only if he’d sign it & pose for a selfie with me.  Deal!

Probably the best part of the visit was running into Steve Puntolillo and Kevin Przybylowski from Sonicraft A2DX Labs.   Steve nearly lost his voice from trying to talk over all the noise (yeah, it still gets way too loud at these things sometimes!) but it was one of those perfect moments to cap off my visit.   Steve, Kevin & co. have done some miraculous work with some of our tape transfer projects over the years, and I’m always glad to send people their way.   I never understand the DIY approach people take when it’s a one-off or a small batch of tapes, esp if they need baking and TLC.  Why waste time on this when these guys already have the process perfected?   My only beef with Steve is that he won’t let ME buy lunch once in a while, but what the heck….he’s got a perfect track record so far; every time I see him he buys me food!  Can’t beat that.  We all agree he’s got the best “Studio Pic” of his production suite.  Not only does it look good in the photo, it really DOES look that good in person.

One other interesting thing this time around was everyone once again asking for business cards.  This was a bit of a throwback for me; I thought everyone had migrated to swiping show badges, but lots of folks turned up their noses when I mentioned that.   Looks like it’s back to basics again; wish I had brought more with me!

I saw a lot of “Cameo” appearances by all the audio-world celebrities; Bob Clearmountain almost bumped into me with a water bottle on his way out of the exhibits,  and earlier in the afternoon Al Schmidt walked right past me, but I didn’t want to fawn all over him.  I saw Steve Remote and said “HI” – another FB peep I finally met in person, and George Peterson sat right near us during lunch.  Audio Royalty everywhere!

It was great to see all my favorite “peeps” once again this year.  I’m really happy to have made the trip up and back, reconnecting with the people I really wanted to see.

It will probably be another two years (at least) until I can get to one of these again, but thanks to all for a great time.  I’m humbled to be in such good company!

Joe Hannigan/Weston Sound AES NYC October 31, 2015

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It was mid-summer, 1977, and I was in my second year working as House Sound Engineer at the Robin Hood Dell East, in Philadelphia. It was (and still is) an outdoor venue set on a hillside near the Schuylkill River, above the East River Drive in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

In those days, Monday nights were Jazz/R&B nights.  The artists of the day usually traveled by bus, bringing just the basics in terms of instruments and equipment. The sound business was still in its infancy in those days, but even so, touring acts often supplied a tech rider along with the booking contract. We had a lot of equipment in-house (pianos, organs, amps, drums, monitors, etc.) but when an artist needed something specific, we’d rent it out ahead of time.

We were used to headliners pulling up as late as 6 or 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show. No GPS or cell phones in those days, so it was often a waiting game, wondering/hoping/worrying if the headliner would make it in time.  (Gigs like these were where the term “The sound check is the first song” originated!)

That July, I had seen the tech rider for B.B. King’s upcoming show a few weeks ahead of time and it included a very specific request for Fender Amps for the band, and most specifically a “Twin Reverb” for B.B. Someone else handled the equipment rentals, and I was busy doing other things right up until the day of the gig.   At some point in the afternoon I stopped and asked: “Where’s the Fender Twin Reverb Amp for B.B.?”   I was shown a couple of very inadequate substitutions (including some Yamaha practice amps and other odd brands.). I said, “we’re in serious trouble if B.B. shows up and there’s no Fender Twin Reverb amp for him!”

After a lot of frantic phone calls to the local music shops – who either didn’t have one for rent or didn’t want the hassle late on a Monday afternoon – we were almost out of luck. Fortunately, I knew the guy in my own rock band (Tony Colella) played through one, and I called him as a last ditch, panic-mode request:   “Hey man, can you loan/rent us your amp for tonight’s show?   B.B. King needs one, and we’ll throw in a pair of tickets for you and a friend to come and see the show.”

Tony didn’t need much persuasion; he got in his car and brought the amp in around 5 p.m. and we were covered. We tested it and set levels to what we thought would be ideal.

Near show time, B.B.’s tour manager found me, and said: “Are you the sound guy?” I said I was, asked him about any special sound requirements, and he said: “Here’s all you need to know for the mix…”  Holding his hand high up in the air above his head, he said:  “B.B.’s voice is here”,  then he lowered his hand a little bit and said: “B.B.’s guitar is here”, and finally lowered his hand about chest height and said: “Everybody else is here!”   I smiled knowingly, and said: “You got it!”.

At show time (no sound check!), B.B. just walked out, picked up Lucille, and (I’ll never forget this) with one majestic sweep of his hand, spun all the dials from left to right, all the way up to “Full.”   I was blown away, and VERY concerned the amp wouldn’t survive the show…this was B.B. King wailing away at full volume!

The show went without a hitch, and if I recall correctly, my friend Tony got to meet B.B. backstage. I did ask B.B. about the amp afterwards, and it if sounded ok for him. He smiled at me and said: “Man, that amp was TALKIN’ to me!”

B.B. KING  & Lucille

B.B. KING & Lucille

(And thanks, Tony, wherever you are!  Get in touch if you read this.  😉

I’ve told this story to friends and colleagues before, but it’s worth repeating here…..

It was the summer of 1976, and I was working my first “Professional” live sound season, at the Robin Hood Dell East, an outdoor venue in East Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.  It seats around 5,000-7,000 people, with more on the lawn and back picnic areas.   To cut a long circuitous story short (another time, perhaps), I had been put in charge of purchasing, assembling & operating a fairly large four-way sound system, newly installed that spring, in time for the “Summer Festival Of Stars”, as it was called then.

In July and August, Monday nights were Jazz/R&B, Wednesdays were usually Gospel nights, and Fridays were usually “Cultural” nights….anything from Eastern European dancers, to Bagpipes, to Hispanic & Caribbean Nights,  to even an occasional night of marching bands, courtesy of the local PAL organization.   But I digress….

We’d already had a number of High School graduations as a breaking in period for the new sound system in June, so by the time we’d gotten to opening night, (Ray Charles!), we were ready.   I’ll leave the overly techie aspects out, but it was basically pretty good stuff for the time; a 16 Channel board with 2 monitor mixes, a bunch of new mics (mostly Shure SM 58s, 57s, RE 20s, and whatever else I could scrounge up from my available resources of the day…)

I don’t recall the opening act (if there even WAS one), but Ray and his band – along with the Raylettes, were the headliners.   Real or inflated, the attendance numbers were put at 10,000 people, about 5-6k in the seats, and the rest all over the place, up on the lawn, in side hills, and anywhere anyone could squeeze in.   As was the case in those days, with touring bands and the industry what it was, most acts (including Ray at the time) didn’t bring a lot of gear, leaving it mostly to the promoter to provide the basics, like grand piano, electric piano, bass amps, guitar amps, mics, stands, etc.  We had it all covered, with mics on everything, ready to go.  I had the normal complement of mics already set up on the drums, amps, singers, horns, etc.

We did as much line-checking as we could until the band was scheduled to arrive by bus; sometime around 6-ish.  By today’s standards, this was cutting it pretty close, but that’s how it was in those days; pull up to the venue between 5 and 6, do a sound check if there was time; otherwise – as the old saying goes – “The first song is the sound check.”

I was ready for that, but I didn’t expect what happened next, when Ray’s road manager walked onstage, came up to me and asked:  “Are you the sound engineer?”  Replying in the affirmative, I heard him say: “See all those mics? They come DOWN or Ray doesn’t do the show….”  I was stunned, and said: “look, they’re saying we’ve got about 10,000 people coming to see this show tonight, and there will be serious trouble if they can’t hear the music.”   He wasn’t budging, and said: “Young man, do what I tell you, or Ray will know it, and he will stop the show and call you out!  We want ONE mic on Ray’s voice at the piano, one mic IN the piano, one mic over on the Fender Rhodes Piano, and one last mic on the Raylettes, and that’s IT.”  He made it pretty clear this was non-negotiable.

I was totally shocked, and more than a little freaked out…..here we were, brand-new sound system at the ready (remember, I had pitched it, helped them purchase it, and installed it for my bosses at the time, in the City’s Rec. Department. What were they going to do when there’s not much more than Ray’s voice coming out of the speakers?)   I knew the quandary I was in, and at least told my stage & venue managers what was going on.  In the end, no one could or would intercede for fear of Ray & Co. doing a walk-out over sound system issues.   Better to have bad sound than a crowd upset over a no-show Ray Charles.

Well, as they say; the show must go on, and we (I) did what we could; I’d cheat the mic up on the Fender piano when Ray wasn’t on it, trying to get the band up a little bit; ditto for the Raylette’s mic, etc.  In the end, it really wasn’t as bad (at least for the expectations of the era) as I’d worried; sure the band wasn’t full or loud enough, but there was nothing I could do.   More than one person came up to me at the sound console to complain (I was out in the middle of the house; one of the improvements of that year was to put the console & lighting controllers out IN the house – a fairly modern idea at the time – so we could see/hear better during the performances.) I would explain to each what had happened, while pointing the lack of mics on the stage: that this was what RAY wanted.

I don’t think Ray ever knew this was being done on his behalf, and even if he did, I can certainly understand how they’d probably been burned by bad sound systems (and inexperienced engineers) over the years.  Live sound reinforcement was still having growing pains in the 70’s.  Being without sight certainly added to his legendary ability to hear everything around him; and bad sound probably drove him crazy in previous shows.   I suspect the only answer in those days was to just nip it in the bud, and turn off anything that wasn’t critical.   Sure, it was harder to hear the subtleties of the rest of the band, but that’s what they’d done for decades, long before mulit-mic, multi-channel huge sound systems became the norm for big shows.  And Ray was always a LIVE guy, no question.

That first show was probably also the worst, in terms of heart-stopping terror with a huge crowd all around me, and not being able to get them the sound they were expecting.   From then on, for the next three summers, I was treated like gold from (almost) everyone that came through; and was pretty much left to do the sound as I needed.   In hindsight, this was probably the only serious “glitch of the mission”,  for several seasons to come.   Oh sure, there were quite a few other great horror stories for another post, another time, but my first time out in professional setting, with Ray Charles, of all people, was certainly one of the most memorable!

I had a real sonic treat this morning, courtesy of WRTI, in my car at 107.7 FM, down here in Wilmington, DE.

My first music of the day was a good one: Gustav Holst’s “Brook Green Suite”.

What a nice trip back in time for me, hearing this lovely work again. Not only is this a fine work for string orchestra, it’s one of the first pieces of classical music I professionally recorded, as part of the live remote crew with “Magnetik Productions”. At the time, (it was probably mid-’84, ’85?) and we were recording the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, although back then they were called: “Concerto Soloists”).

It was a remote recording at Lang Memorial Auditorium at Swarthmore College, with the gorgeous spring/summer view of trees and flowers, through the 3-story glass wall in the back, and the works for those recording sessions included Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho Suite” and Gustav Holst’s “Brook Green Suite”.

Although I was classically trained on the piano, and had been to many concerts by then, it was still a revelation for me; hearing such an amazing chamber ensemble playing such beautiful music up close, setting up the mics, running cables, then hearing it all in the control room. What a revelation!

All in glorious analog technology, too: straight to 15 IPS analog Ampex 456 tape, Neotek Elite console, MCI-JH-110 2-track machines, no noise reduction, and no digital converters, either.

Isn’t it amazing how a piece of music can transport you anywhere in space or time?

True Storeis, #1

After over 35 years of professional experience, I have a long list of clients and stories that go with them.

This is an ongoing retelling of these stories as they occur to me. Some are good, some are bad, some funny, some bizarre, but honestly, they’re all ALL TRUE. Lots of folks in these stories are no longer with us, while many still are. I have no intention of harming anyone, their legacy, or causing problems for their estates. In borderline cases, or where I don’t want to really embarrass anyone, the names maybe be changed to protect the guilty. For the most part, this is all pretty much what happened, as I remember it….

#1 Hal Prince and previews/pre-production of “Parade”. (Originally “I Love a Parade”) in Philadelphia.

In 1996, I was doing a lot of projects for the American Music Festival in Philadelphia, from Cabaret to live sound reinforcement, to recordings, and so on. One of the things that AMTF did well was champion new plays and productions. Hal Prince was a good friend of the company CEO, Margorie Samoff, and it came to pass that Hal was going to come to town to direct a “workshop” (script in hand, no sets/scenery) production of a new musical with the working title: “I Love A Parade.” (Eventually simply called “Parade” – book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.)

This was big stuff, since Philadelphia had long ago stopped being any kind of pre-Broadway tryout. Folks “in the know” were really freaking out (in a good way) that Mr. Hal Prince (the king of Broadway!) was coming to direct this. I was hired for “Sound design”, as folks in the theater biz call it: running the sound system, following the score, handling live sound for the singers and making a rough demo recording afterwards. Fair enough; this would be at the tiny, intimate 200-seat Plays and Players theater on Delancy Street in Philadelphia, and as for live sound; I was amazed they’d want to mic it at all. (The cast was going to be seasoned B’way singers, on their days off/vacations, doing this tryout for fun, experience, and a favor to Hal.) Always up for a challenge, I jumped in with both feet. (I knew Hal Prince only by his works and reputation; I was just fine with everything)

Before long, certain “staffers” and handlers of Hal Prince began to ratchet up the intimidation machine; Hal will want this, Hal will want that. Someone even went as far to tell me that, in all likelihood, Hal would probably at some point stop the production, and ream me out for something or other involving the sound. They said: “Just take it in stride, don’t worry about it, he does it to everyone.” I figured Hal was either impossible to work with, or he had a lot of incompetent folks handling his production needs. (Personally, my BS-detector starts going off whenever yes-men start this kind of nonsense. As it turned out, it was most likely the latter.)

We started production on the work, with my sound system and 16 microphones at the ready, including 12 rented wireless lavalier microphones someone ordered; for all of the principles and a few bit players. I was shocked and a bit worried: you folks are telling me we need TWELVE wireless mics for a cast of 18-20, accompanied by two pianos and a drum kit in a theater that holds 200 people, for a private audience?!?!? I could feel my gut tightening already…..

Soon enough, the week of rehearsals leading up to the performance was underway. I met the cast, the composer/music director, and most of all, Hal – Mr. Prince. He turned out to be a lovely man, nothing at all what I’d been warned about. We fell into a good working relationship quickly, and I was Johnny-on-the-spot in getting soloists up in the mix, following the script, and giving Hal his very own monitor at his producer’s table, stage left.

Troubles began soon enough, though, as the production got louder, and louder, and….louder! Some cast members would sing full voice, others were “marking”, and some simply hadn’t learned their parts yet. To be honest, they all had singing jobs to go back to; so it was a little like pro sports: all completely understandable. As anyone who’s worked in live sound might have suspected, it was fast becoming a case of “more me” in the mix for everyone, as the mix volume climbed and climbed. One of his handlers told me Hal was having some hearing issues at the time, and although we did everything we could to make him comfortable, trouble was brewing, and Hal was getting cranky.

By the second day, this wonderful new musical was going from a simple “reinforced” type of sound to live pop/rock, and it was making folks (including Hal and myself) really uncomfortable. Cues became more and more urgent, and little touches and subtleties were rapidly being lost in the overall din. A fine little musical/acoustic experience was turning into a blaring, ugly mess. An exasperated Hal finally turned to me during a break and said: “Good lord, why does this have to be so LOUD?!?!? Can’t we do something about this?” I said: “I thought you wanted everyone mic’d individually?” He said: “Hell no!!!! “I” didn’t ask for that. THEY told me it was necessary. I remember when people just SANG naturally, to a full house, with little or no mics at all. I HATE this stuff.” I said, “Hal, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk!”

We never quite figured out who “they” was, but I offered Hal a solution based on my operatic and classical recording experience. Since no one was really moving around (or dancing, etc.), we created a chorus “zone” with one stereo mic pair for all the accompanying singing, and solo spots for the big numbers. (If memory serves correct), we dropped most (or all?) of the wireless lav mics, and went with solo mics on stands, in front of their music stands, since everyone was working from a score. Suddenly, the sound opened up again, people could be heard, the noise floor dropped, and the production moved forward. Hal was again happy. So was I!

Two other anecdotes come to mind from this experience; The first was the sheer number of major Broadway producers, directors – movers and shakers – in the audience for the two big tryouts, in this tiny little theater on Delancy Street in Philadelphia. I don’t recall the entire list (and wouldn’t reveal them here anyway), but the general consensus what that if someone dropped a bomb on the theater that day, Broadway would have gone dark for a long, long time.

The other story is my favorite moment of the entire production: One day about midway through the week (and probably while we were still “fixing” the above sound issues), a break was called, and most folks left the building for lunch. Hal chose to “eat-in” and work on some cues with the musical director, and I stayed behind as well, with a lot of sound “housekeeping” issues to deal with. Of course, the lackeys and wanna-be’s got lunch for Hal, and ignored the rest of us. I was resigned to an empty stomach for the afternoon until Hal looked up from his own sandwich, (a turkey club, I think) and said: Hey, what are you eating? I said: “nothing; looks like I’m fasting.” Hal said: “well, here; take half of mine; I don’t want all of this anyway.”

So, there I was; sharing lunch on a make-shift table top over some theater seats with Mr. Hal Prince. I have never forgotten this simple act of kindness from one of Broadway’s giants. (And Hal probably doesn’t even remember it!) He could have munched away, gone about his business, and ignored my situation. Instead, he was down to earth and gregarious enough to simply split his sandwich and chips with me. So much for advance reputation, and so much for lackeys and sycophants.

I believe everyone starts with an “A”, works down from there. I also believe everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time in the morning, too.

Anyway, thanks for lunch, Hal! (Nice musical, too. It opened successfully on Broadway in 1998 as “Parade”, followed by numerous touring versions. I still have the raw demo cassettes around somewhere.)

Time Travelling Again…

Even during this hectic, crazy time of year, I had two unexpected trips back in time to the 1970’s, both about as different as could be.

The first was a pleasant surprise; I got a CD copy in the mail from an old friend who had found a cassette tape of a band I had performed in, back around 1975 or so, in my younger days in the clubs. Thinking it was just a dub of tapes I already had, I wasn’t expecting much.

It turned out to be a live recording of a club date that I didn’t have in my archives. Even the though the recording itself was horrible by today’s standards (noisy cassette, auto-level recording, too close to the guitar amp, etc.) I could still make out the songs, the various band-members who were singing on them, and the in-between song patter.

The drummer (and lead singer) Peter Wells, is no longer with us, sad to say, and I’ve lost contact with the bass player (Rob Viola) and the guitarist (Dal Bauder). Even so, the energy, excitement and exuberance just pops out of the songs – everything from the Doobie Brothers to the Beatles to Chicago to Stevie Wonder. This band was FUN, and made some great music.  (Dal, you were SMOKIN HOT on that Strat, buddy!)  I really miss you guys! Would love to get in touch with them and catch up, and give them copies of this and the other masters I saved from those days.

The other fun trip back in time was also a labor of love; I’m involved with the newly-launched Bruce Montgomery Foundation, and I have been working on restoring some of Bruce’s works, as well as making CD and DVD copies of his various projects from his amazing and varied career.

One of Bruce’s CD private compilations contains a work commissioned by William Smith and the Philadelphia Orchestra, entitled “Herodotus Fragmnets” – an orchestral and choral piece, inspired by the futility of war, dating back to the days of Sparta and Thermopylae in Greece. The recording is from the work’s premiere performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in the Academy of Music conducted by William Smith on April 28, 1970.

I don’t have any production notes with the original analog master tape, but judging by the logo sticker on the box, I’m sure it was recorded by none other than my predecessor at Magnetic Recorder Reproducer Company, Mr. Albert Borko.

I never met Al; I came to the company when it was rechristened “Magnetik Productions” in the mid 1980’s, but it’s thrilling to hear something done correctly. (It sounds like it could have been done yesterday, actually.)

Nice job to all! I’m humbled to be helping preserve the work of Bruce Montgomery, William Smith, and Al Borko….and a little bar band playing rock’n’roll in a smokey club somewhere in Willow Grove, PA.