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However, restoring and mixing these 50-year-old performances was no easy task. Tim Jessup, mix engineer and studio manager of Studio One Sixty Four (owned by Chicago founding member and trumpeter Lee Loughnane), recruited Vintage King to outfit the new studio with its SSL 4064 G Series console and multiple racks of analog outboard gear.
We recently sat down with Tim to discuss what it was like working on this momentous undertaking, why he chose an SSL 4064 G+ console for the job, and how modern audio processors made it possible to overcome the limitations of recording technology from the 1970s.
Tell us a little bit about Studio One Sixty Four.
Studio One Sixty Four is the third studio that I’ve designed and built for Chicago over the past 11 years, as well as various configurations for the band’s remote recording rigs. Vintage King has been there for us throughout my entire journey with the band, providing most of our gear acquisitions over the past decade.
The studio's name was chosen by Lee Loughnane, not because of its relevance to an address, but because its street address matches the exact number of pages in the AA "Big Book" — the bible of those brave and committed individuals who have chosen to jump on the wagon for the long haul. The number instantly resonated with Lee when he first saw the property, as he is most grateful to have survived the early days of rock and roll excesses, to live the life he’s always envisioned. For both Lee and myself, Studio One Sixty Four is a crowning life achievement.
Our previous studio for Chicago was basically a small 5.1 mix room with a separate overdub space. It was not designed to track the entire band live, and most of our basic tracks were recorded on the road during that time. But it served us very well as a mix room for live shows, remixes of archival material, and the band’s documentary film, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago. We also mixed or remixed a number of archival projects for Rhino Records here, such as the band’s 1970 performance at Great Britain's Isle of Wight Festival, Chicago Transit Authority and excerpts from the 1971 Kennedy Center performance.
Studio One Sixty Four was designed to be the ultimate creative space for Chicago, and includes breathtaking views of Sedona’s 7,000' red rock formations right from the control room, guest rooms, the kitchen, the deck and even sitting at the Steinway B in the piano room. Our studio views surpass many of the high-end resorts in town. It’s a very inspiring place to write new material, flesh out arrangements, experiment with new ideas, and of course, to track the entire band live — with multiple rooms and a variety of acoustic spaces.
Our drum room includes a custom DW drum set that matches what Walfredo Reyes Jr plays with the band on stage. The studio is our modern-day attempt to resurrect the vibe of Caribou Ranch Studios in Colorado, where Chicago recorded so many of their early hits with legendary engineer Phil Ramone. In fact, our control room door is an exact replica of the red wood door that once graced the Caribou Ranch control room.
Although the studio was designed with Chicago’s specific needs in mind, it is ideal for many artists and musical genres, particularly those who prefer traditional old-school electronics blended with some of the most modern digital designs in hardware and plug-ins. For instance, we utilize the Burl Audio B80 Mothership interface normalled to our SSL 4064 G+ console and locked to the Antelope Audio 10 MX Atomic Clock. This combination gives us fidelity on-par with a Studer A-827 — especially at 192 khz — but without the HF loss that occurs with tape.
Lee and I were astounded by the improvement in definition when we added the Atomic Clock. Comparing the sonics to the interface’s internal clock was not at all a subtle experience. The acoustic instruments, particularly the Chicago brass, took on a much more organic and life-like quality.
We installed a full range of traditional outboard analog processing, microphones and thousands of plug-ins to ponder and experiment with. Monitoring is ATC SCM45A for our mains, along with Genelec 1032A, Yamaha, NS10m, ADAM Audio A7X and Auratones, all switchable at the console.
During each night of Chicago’s eight performances, there were unique and seemingly insurmountable issues to contend with. Like an audio version of the game Whac-A-Mole, different problems occurred on various nights. As a result, we could not provide a delivery date for the project because it could not be estimated how long it would take to discover and successfully resolve all of the technical issues. It is likely the reason why, when Columbia Records initially released the album in 1971, they cherry-picked songs from all eight shows to compile the original release in the guise of a single show. It would not have been possible in that decade to resolve most of the issues we encountered, and the recordings would have been considered largely unusable.
Considering the union control over the New York studios in 1971, and the limited daily access to studio time (divided into standard three-hour sessions), Engineer Don Puluse had to shoot from the hip to complete the original Carnegie Hall mixes in likely just several weeks. Lee Loughnane and I spent nearly a full year restoring and mixing all of the relevant reels, with the aid of a Tangerine automation interface tying the SSL Ultimation faders to Pro Tools, and the use of other modern processing like Active Equalization from Fabfilter, Soothe 2 from Oek Sound, the marvelous Gullfoss AI Processor, and the full range of restoration tools in RX7 Pro from Izotope. None of these tools were even the wildest audio tech’s fantasy in 1971.
We were already starting to do restoration on the Carnegie Hall project while the studio was still being built. I was literally set-up in a back guest room with a Pro Tools rig that we would normally use on the tour bus, organizing all the tracks, determining which reels we needed to use for each show, and cleaning up 60-cycle hum and its harmonics and air conditioning noise — all the prep work that is required to clean up raw live tracks from this era. It took about a month to organize and clean up the reels before we would begin to mix. Then, of course, the SSL arrived.
Vintage King had recommended Bruce Millett from Desk Doctors for the commissioning. Bruce had previously maintained the desk and also de-commissioned the board at its previous location. Bruce is absolutely brilliant, having previously been employed by SSL in Oxford and he is intimately familiar with vintage SSLs and all of their typical foibles. Large format consoles never like to be moved, but Bruce was able to easily identify and overcome all issues that occurred.
We also owe a great debt of gratitude to Daniel Benoit at Tangerine Automation Interface in Montreal, who spent countless hours on TeamViewer, modifying the automation system for this particular desk configuration and our Pro Tools system. The Tangerine is so much more convenient to use than the original SSL G+ computer, as it communicates directly with Pro Tools automation lanes, and saves all automation data as a part of the session.
Chicago at Carnegie Hall was transferred digitally by Warner Studio services at 192 kHz using the Antelope Audio Atomic Clock to sync their interface. We knew from the outset that we would enlist Bob Ludwig’s facility, Gateway Mastering, in Portland, Maine, to handle the extraordinary feat of mastering this 16-CD project. Gateway Mastering also relies on the Antelope Atomic Clock in their mastering suites, so our first decision was to keep the entire project locked to the Atomic Clock from tape transfer to mix to final mastering.
We had started to familiarize ourselves with the recordings before the Atomic Clock arrived from Bulgaria, and became used to the sound of the raw recordings passing through the Burl Audio Mothership interface. Once we installed the Antelope 10MX, the whole sonic landscape changed. Suddenly, the Chicago brass no longer sounded like a vintage recording coming off of tape, but as if the instruments were playing live right in front of us. The same was true for all 16 tracks.
The 10MX Atomic Clock has a proprietary method of managing clock error in such a way that everything sounds far more organic and natural. This is exactly what the Carnegie Hall recordings have been needing for 50 years! Many argue that this is simply expectation bias and that in blind listening tests, most engineers can’t choose the Atomic Clock versions consistently. Perhaps this is true at lower sample rates, but at 192 kHz, both Lee and I can distinctly hear the 10MX over the internal interface clock every time. It truly is astonishing.
The Carnegie Hall performances were recorded simultaneously on two 16-track tape machines, which were off-set in start times, so when the tape would run out on machine A, the end of the song would still be captured on machine B. This of course created many redundant recordings of the same songs. The project began by investigating all of the takes on both the A and B machine reels to determine which takes were redundant, and which were actually needed to assemble full songs. Each show utilized between four and six reels, with several additional reels that were redundant or “backup” for each show. I tended to use recordings that included only complete takes of a song. In the entire 16 CD set, there are only three songs that required editing between reels A and B to create a complete recording of those songs. Of course, being on separate reels, these edit pieces were also separate mixes on the board that needed to match precisely.
This brings us to a global technical issue that we fought with throughout the entire project. As we proceeded to mix through all of the designated reels, we discovered that the audio quality of the B machine was degrading over the course of the entire week. It was losing high-frequency definition and gaining high-frequency distortion, which was particularly apparent on the horns and some vocals. At first, I wondered if it was a bad batch of tape, but then the issue would appear on both A and B reels. It may have been magnetic build-up on the B machine record head, that may not have been properly degaussed over the course of the week, or perhaps the problem was failing capacitors in the line amps feeding the B machine from the house mixing board. We’ll never know exactly what caused the problem, but the result was that we had to gradually modify the mixes of all B machine reels, to sound as consistent with the A machine reels as was possible, and also work to mask the high-frequency distortion audible on individual tracks.
As we moved further through the shows, I began making stereo pre-masters, rather than flat mixes for Gateway Mastering, in the ongoing battle to keep all of the shows sounding as consistent as possible. We worked closely with Mastering Engineer Adam Ayan on this issue for each show, and he also worked his magic to achieve greater consistency and mask the high-frequency clipping induced by the B recorder. Adam was able to help us achieve astonishing results in consistency throughout the entire compilation and effectively eliminate this problem on the masters. It was an extraordinary team effort.
During the mix, we used a hybrid of old-school analog processing, together with select tools that would not have existed back in the day, to surgically deal with both tonal and technical issues that came up. Even with racks of analog outboard gear, we still ended up using something like 172 plug-ins at 192 kHz! What began as a 16-track recording was eventually spread across about 42 channels on the SSL desk. Four original drum tracks became 12 tracks in the mix, including gated and parallel compression channels, blended into the original drum tracks, to bring out the power and tonal definition of Danny Seraphine’s performances.
We have often A-B’d the original mix with the final reference masters that we received from Gateway, and when you listen to the original in comparison, it sounds like it was recorded with two stereo microphones mounted about one hundred feet over the stage — very distant. This is primarily due to all of the on-stage microphone leakage embedded in the original mix. In comparison, the new mixes have very little stage leakage and sound like you're sitting front row center. You feel the power of the band coming off the stage. You can hear presence and detail that does not translate from the original mix, and the low end is as bold and solid as what you might have experienced if you had been sitting in the venue.
One of the major contributing factors to the sonic deficiencies of the original Carnegie Hall recording was how the mix handled the overwhelming stage leakage, bleeding into the open brass and vocal mics, as well as the drum overheads. On some tracks, particularly Walter Parazaider’s sax mic, the band leakage and drums were often louder than the sax itself, due to his roaming proximity to the mic and its position on stage, close to the drums. This balance changed throughout every reel and every song, as Walter moved around on stage.
The mic leakage, of course, can easily wash out all definition in the mix, and it was particularly difficult to keep Walter’s sax and flute parts present without compromising the clarity of the whole mix. Panning Walter’s mic center helped to minimize the leakage degradation of the mix. While leakage in the studio can be your best friend, on stage at Carnegie Hall it is a nightmare.
The 1971 solution to this problem was to use a high pass filter and roll-off all the bottom end on all of the brass mics. This is what led to Jimmy Pankow’s infamous assessment that the “brass sounded like Kazoos!” The same issue plagued the vocal mics to a degree. However, the actual flat recording of each horn track sounded far more natural than what actually made it into the original mixes.
To resolve the stage leakage issue, Lee and I became an Edward Scissorhands editing team. Working as a tag-team on two Pro Tools systems, we manually sliced out all of the stage leakage between notes and phrases on all of the horn tracks and vocal tracks in every show. We spent months manually cleaning up these tracks and hand drawing region fades, in order to dynamically process and EQ the brass and vocals without having to compromise their sound. With the stage leakage sounding like a complete stereo mix of the whole band, bleeding into the drum overhead mics, this was more than enough stage leakage to effectively masque all of the slicing and dicing on the brass and vocal tracks. By manually drawing the fades in and out of thousands of regions, we were able to successfully mask the patch-work of editing that enabled us to present the Chicago Brass with full tonality and presence. On certain songs, such as “Sing A Mean Tune Kid,” they now sound nearly as powerful as big band brass. Kazoos no more!
The editing process, although extremely tedious, enabled us to sculpt the brass tonality through a combination of analog processors like individual Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channels, API 5500 Equalizers, the SSL G+ EQ and channel compression, and AI-based plug-ins like Gulfoss, Soothe2, and the surgical resonance control of the FabFilter Q3 active equalizer. In 1971, stage monitoring was still very poor, and the Chicago brass developed a habit of overblowing their instruments to be heard over a rock band! This would produce harsh resonances on their instruments, particularly with Pank’s Trombone, further contributing to the kazoo effect. Tools such as those I just mentioned were invaluable in controlling specific harsh resonances and helping to fatten and warm up the historically thin brass sound.
One of the greatest sonic challenges for the Carnegie Hall project was the sound of Danny Seraphine's drums. In 1971, his live drums typically translated like cardboard boxes miked from a distance. In the Carnegie Hall tracks, they were also overwhelmed by stage leakage, and we had limited control over the drum mix. All of the drums were originally assigned to only four tracks; kick, snare, Drums Left and Drums Right. The stereo drum mix included all tom fills, cymbals, and what amounted to a full stereo mix of the entire band in the stage leakage. In addition, Danny tended to play his cymbals hard and often, throughout the entire course of a song. His cymbals were recorded much louder than the rack and floor toms and overpowered most of his fills.
Ultimately, I turned the four drum tracks into 12 drum tracks in our mix. The kick and snare each occupied three tracks including the original track blended with a highly gated version (using the Sonnox Oxford Drum Gate) and a third parallel track processed with a tuned Sasquach low frequency harmonic processor from Boz Digital Labs. This was done to add weight and density to the kick drum and snare without resorting to drum replacement, which was not an option on such a historical project. Of course, we also employed the powerful sculpting capacity of the SSL channels, including additional outboard G Series EQ, vintage Inovonics 201 limiter compressors, and Empirical Labs Distressors on the kick and snare drum parallel channels.
In the 1970s and 80s, the Inovonics 201 limiter/compressor was a secret weapon of A-list mixers such as Bruce Swedien and Barney Perkins, who I worked with extensively at Kendun Recorders. It was originally designed as a broadcast limiter for radio, but had the unique brick wall capacity to fatten and lengthen snare hits and turn a bass guitar track into concrete pavement for any R&B mix. You can hear the sonic imprint of the Inovonics in the round attack on Danny’s snare drum. It was one of the original brick wall limiters. I remember Barney Perkins canceling mix sessions at Kendun if at least two floating Inovonics 201s were not available for his session. He considered them essential to his sound. Barney was, of course, the A-list mix engineer for Motown in LA, and achieved some of the fattest R&B mixes ever heard. I am honored to have worked as his assistant in the early years of my career.
The biggest issue for Danny Seraphine’s drum sound was the overpowering cymbals, finding a way to attenuate them, while also devising a method to punch through his tom fills without taking our heads off with his cymbals. After some trial and error, I ended up using a brand new plug-in from Acustica Audio out of Italy. They recently released a unique dynamics processor called the Diamond Transient Designer, which borrowed heavily from a certain 1970s DBX dynamics processor. This magnificent device is a three-band dynamics processor that enabled me to simultaneously crush the cymbals entirely, while using mid-band and low frequency transients to trigger tom fills to jump out, without accentuating the cymbals.
The output of this processor was run through outboard API 5500 EQs and the SSL Fusion, which is normally used as a 2-bus processor. The SSL Fusion further enabled me to attenuate the cymbals with its mastering grade De-Esser and pump up the toms with its vintage drive harmonic enhancer and Bax Style EQ.
All of this was blended as a parallel pair with the original Drums L/R tracks, which were also processed to utilize the stage leakage as a part of the overall stereo mix. In addition, the heavily processed tom channels were also routed through a pair of BAE 10DCF limiter/compressors, which are Neve 2254 clones with a high-pass filter, and brought back into the mix as a second stereo parallel channel for the tom fills.
Lastly, an additional pair of drums L/R channels were filtered to feature the cymbals only, so they could be placed into a respectable balance with everything else. All of the three parallel stereo groups processed for the tom fills were grouped on an SSL VCA group fader and each tom fill was individually automated via our Tangerine Automation interface with hand-drawn automation levels, rather than fader rides. Some fills were limited in their dynamic range due to cymbal leakage, but overall, we were able to achieve a drum sound that captures much more of the tone of Danny’s drums, as if the toms had been close miked, and the cymbals now sit in a more pleasing place in the drum mix.
Terry Kath’s guitar tone is historically pretty extreme at times, as he used his wah-wah pedal as a static tone shaper, in addition to the wah effect. Especially when he would switch to his rear pick-up, the treble could become quite painful. To help wrangle some of his more extreme treble tones, we employed something not yet invented in 1971, an Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. We combined that with a parallel compression channel on the SSL and an API 5500 rack EQ, and Terry’s guitar tone became far more present, thick and round, without ever biting our heads off when he would move to the treble pick-up.
I think Terry would have surely kept a Fatso in his rig if such a thing existed in his lifetime. He was famous for experimenting with his sound, which led to his infamous use of a Knight PA amp head to overdrive the input stage of his Fender Showman amplifier. No doubt, he would have loved our tonal treatment with the Fatso, Jr. and the power of two SSL 4000 G+ channel EQs with parallel compression. Terry loved to go big. This is big!
Peter Cetera’s fretless bass, most fortunately, was recorded directly through a DI for Carnegie Hall. This gave us the ability to substantially beef up his intricate, melodic playing. Peter’s bass was patched through a Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel, an API 5500 EQ, an Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. and an Inovonics 201 Limiter. We also gave Peter a parallel channel on the console, and crushed his bass with an Empirical Labs Distressor in UK mode, bringing it up about 10% into the main bass channel to add a consistent thickness.
On the software side, we added a bit of Leapwing Audio’s new Root Processor, to bring consistency to the lowest harmonics of the bass. Peter would often play higher on the neck, in a melodic style reminiscent of McCartney. His bass could easily get swallowed up in the mix as he moved up the neck. The overall processing helped to maintain a strong bass presence throughout his range.
One of the more egregious issues on several shows was an intermittent short that occurred on the piano microphone line. The line would short out, radically changing the piano sound, losing all low frequencies. This would have been irreparable in 1971 and in fact, producer James Guercio made the decision to replace Robert Lamm’s piano part in the studio for the compilation’s one and only performance of “Questions 67 & 68.” We worked out a solution to match the piano sound whenever the line would short to ground. But because of the compromised ground on this cable, it also enabled local RF to intermittently bleed into the piano audio, creating hundreds of static clicks per second and other offensive spikes in the piano audio.
The static clicks had to each be hand-drawn out of the waveforms with a graphic tablet and pen. Not even Izotope RX7 restoration software could remove the clicks. Lee and I both spent nearly a full week repairing the piano part for “Colour My World” during a single performance of the song. I found other static spikes throughout the recordings that would traverse across all 16 tracks, imparted by the tape machines. These anomalies were also hand-drawn out with a graphic tablet.
Robert Lamm played a Hammond B3, a Wurlitzer electric piano and a mono-miked grand piano on these shows. They were all routed to the same mono keyboard track on tape. These were immediately split apart for our mix, placing each keyboard on its own track. During some shows, the B3/Leslie low-frequency drum was separately miked and merged onto Terry Kath’s guitar track on the right side, to create a pseudo-stereo effect for the Leslie. Most shows had only a mono grand piano, but certain shows presented the piano in stereo. Due to limited console inputs, this was achieved by switching the right side piano mic to the input normally used by the Wurlitzer electric piano.
In the midst of “Ballet for A Girl In Buchannon” on show number eight, all three keyboards are used. The engineer on this show switched the Wurlitzer input over to the piano-right mic for the song “Colour My World” and forgot to switch it back immediately after, for the remainder of the "Ballet." So there was no electric piano for the remainder of the "Ballet" on tape, only the off-mic electric piano leakage heard on the B3’s upper Leslie mic.
I sent Lee home with the piece and the Wurlitzer track for the "Ballet" from three other shows. On his home Pro Tools rig, Lee used the Leslie-Wurlitzer leakage from show number eight as a timing reference, and cut together a matching electric piano part from the other shows, maintaining the tempo and feel without a click track, to replace the missing part. Lee has become a great assistant engineer. Without his editorial assistance, the Carnegie Hall project would have easily taken another six months to complete. Big kudos to trumpet player Lee Loughnane for his willingness to roll up his sleeves and learn to edit minutia in Pro Tools.
Kudos also to Acustica Audio plug-ins. The raw piano recordings for Carnegie Hall were some of the worst live piano recordings I’ve ever had to work with. The Acustica Audio Navy 2 plug-in is an exacting copy of the Neve 80 series EQ and enabled us to inject a lot of body and tonal character into a very thin, off-mic sounding piano track. In addition, I used the Gullfoss AI auto EQ, the OekSound Soothe2 resonance controller, the FabFilter Q3 active equalizer, and lastly two channels on the SSL console, including a parallel compression channel. Mastering Engineer Adam Ayan was further able to bring out more of the wood tone of the piano and helped it become larger than life. As it was on tape, the piano track was sonically unusable.
As you can see, Chicago at Carnegie Hall Complete was an extraordinary, herculean feat of mixing and restoration. From a recording that the band originally objected to releasing to a true testament of their raw power and skill at such a young age, the original founding members of Chicago are now finally delighted to listen to this masterwork after 50 years.
About two years ago, Rhino Records began talking with us about the possibility of the Carnegie Hall project. We also wanted to have the ability to finally record the entire band live in the studio again. A larger commercial building became available in our neighborhood in Sedona and Lee asked me to look into it. I contacted a realtor and started looking at other properties that might serve as a safer investment for Lee. I found this place, perfect in every way, to build a full multi-room studio with lodging for band members and the most incredible views of Sedona’s 7,000-foot cliffs and canyons. Within days, I came across an SSL 4064 G+ that Vintage King was offering at a price you simply could not refuse. When Lee saw the building I had found, he put a cash offer on it within minutes. He then approved the SSL purchase, being very familiar with the sound of the desk himself, from the many Chicago albums mixed on previous versions.
What drew you to the SSL console specifically?
Many of Chicago’s biggest hits, particularly those produced by David Foster in the 1980s, were mixed on SSL consoles by the venerable Humberto Gatica. The sound of SSL is synonymous with Chicago. Those hits from Chicago 17 that first landed on radio around 1984 really stood out from the fray, sounding larger-than-life. The drums were explosive, the synth bass massive and the searing double-tracked vocals of Peter Cetera grabbed you by the guts and drove the hooks home.
I started working on SSL consoles myself in Munich, Germany in 1980 at Olympia Studios. Only a handful of B series consoles existed in the US at that time. I recall my first experience on SSL as shocking, because it was so much more powerful as a surgical sculpting tool than any console I had used previously, including Harrison, API, MCI, Quad Eight and others. Solid State Logic was clearly in a league of its own with its powerful equalizers, and no other console had a dynamics section on every channel!
When the SSL 4064 G+ became available through Vintage King, Lee and I both recognized immediately how this would elevate all of our projects. With Carnegie Hall looming in the wings, I knew that the desk’s inherent harmonic distortion, 27 dB of headroom, and the powerful sculpting capabilities would enable us to transform Carnegie Hall into something much larger than life — much bigger and more powerful than anyone had ever imagined was possible for these 50-year-old recordings.
This particular SSL came with the Tangerine Automation Interface, which enables Pro Tools automation lanes to control the Ultimation faders and mutes on the console. I actually drew most of the channel automation within Pro Tools, rather than riding faders manually, with the exception of solos and general vocal automation. It’s very easy to work either way with the Tangerine system and we would not have to deal at all with the original SSL G+ computer, floppy disks, and time code sync. The Tangerine system is truly a dream come true.
As an additional asset, we also added the Atomic Instruments S2 power supply for the console, as is used by Bob Clearmountain and other vintage SSL aficionados. It is a far more efficient power supply for the desk, cutting monthly power bills in half, extending low-end detail and protecting the desk from power surges and blackouts. It is also a safer, gentler way to power up the desk, without the risk of blowing up the power supply. The Atomic S2 automatically prevents jarring power-ups after a blackout, as you must manually re-power the desk, giving you time to switch on the buckets individually. We are also prone to some nasty monsoon storms in Arizona this time of the year. The Atomic S2 gives us peace of mind that our SSL is well protected.
I had accumulated a number of vintage pieces over the years, such as 1176 version F compressors, LA-4s, and API mic preamps. We had added three Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channels to take on the road as part of our remote recording rig. They worked beautifully to capture the Chicago brass and vocals on the tour bus and in hotel suites. The Shelford Channels enabled us to record truly uncompromising tracks that I could bring back to the studio and mix, while the band continued the tour. Rest in Peace, Rupert. Music would not be the same without your many brilliant contributions.
By the time we built Studio One Sixty Four, added the SSL console and started considering the Carnegie Hall project, I knew there were very specific outboard pieces we would need to achieve the transformation we had envisioned. For instance, they didn’t call Terry Kath “Ray Charles” for nothing. His rich baritone vocals required special handling. We purchased the Retro Instruments Sta-Level just for Terry’s ballad vocals. His rock vocals had to be treated in a completely different way, almost entirely in-the-box, and on a separate console channel than his ballad vocals. The SSL G+ EQ and channel compressor was a much better fit for Terry Kath’s aggressive rock vocals. I also added the CLA Bluey 1176 Compressors created with Chris Lord-Alge and Black Lion Audio, a perfect compliment for any rock vocal. They are so cost-effective, we added three of them to accompany our vintage 1176s. With three lead vocalists in the band, it was an obvious choice.
You can never have too many Distressors in a studio, so we added four of them, along with an Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. and several Empirical Labs Lil’ FrEQ eqs. Of course, given that Inovonics 201 Limiters were essential kit for engineers such as Bruce Swedien and Barney Perkins, I had to track down three of them for bass, snare and kick. David Kulka at Studio Electronics in Burbank did the refurb on them and I now have Barney’s favorite secret sauce to use, just as he once did on every mix.
These days, there are many designers making great plug-in emulations of classic reverbs, and I have my favorites, particularly the UAD EMT 250 and their more recent Lexicon 480L, the Capitol Chambers, and on occasion, the Ocean Way ambience processor, especially for strings, brass and electric guitars. But there is still something magical and open about a great hardware reverb, and we chose a no-compromise solution by installing two Bricasti M7 reverbs. I typically use one as a larger plate on vocals, and the other for tight room ambience on drums or electric guitar. I could not be more pleased with all of our reverb and delay options.
No console likes to be moved, and there will always be challenges during re-commissioning. We had our fair share of issues, but Bruce drove out from LA a number of times and spent night and day, entire weeks, as long as it took to resolve the issues to our satisfaction. He has the same ethics and dedication of any of the best studio techs who used to work 24-hour shifts back in the days of full time staff technicians. I am grateful to Jeff and Vintage King for setting us up with Bruce and his company the Desk Doctor. As an SSL owner, Jeff was also instrumental in helping us design the patch bay layout and the custom DL cabling we would need for the patch bay, based on our specific choices of outboard gear. When the cables arrived, it was literally plug and play.
How have you been liking the new set-up?
40 years ago, when I was a young staff engineer at Kendun Recorders (now Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank), I used to look around the control room of Studio D and think “I could never have a studio of such magnificence if I worked towards it the rest of my life.” We had the best of everything that money could buy at that time — the best consoles, the best outboard gear, microphones, Tom Hidley-designed Westlake rooms, working with the top artists of the record industry on a daily basis. I was 25 years old. In partnering up with Lee Loughnane, Chicago and Vintage King, I now have the same tools I once used to make hit records at Kendun Recorders — all that I had wished for those many years ago.
At Studio One Sixty Four, we have everything required to produce endless hits, just as we did in the old days, and now so much more. This includes a view which is not unlike that of an idyllic recording studio sitting on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Every time Lee walks into the studio, he has to pinch himself. In the old days, union rules prevented him from sitting and working at the console, unless extra hands were needed to ride faders. Now, he owns the same console that was once verboten to touch and he’s learning how to navigate it for himself.
We're thankful for the support of everybody at Vintage King — most everything we have here has come from VK over the years. We keep acquiring new gear, as we tend to move away from most plug-ins and back into the big, bold embrace of analog. I prefer to use plug-ins specifically for the things analog simply cannot do. Fortunately, multiple revisions are not much of an issue here, or we’d have to do things differently. But we learned how to commit to mixes many decades ago. I still think it’s the best practice for the sake of musicality.
We're not a commercial studio, although in the future, I would very much like to work with other legacy artists here, perhaps doing similar restorations or re-mixes like our recent archival projects. We're not quite ready at this point to do that, as we have a number of new projects with Chicago to complete, including two new albums for BMG. But I do think the day will come when we will begin to invite other legacy artists to work with us here and enjoy the magical vibe of Sedona. This is, after all, the land of Kokopelli, the mystical dancing flute player, trickster, and fertility symbol. Sounds like the essence of rock and roll to me.
What’s in store for the future of Studio One Sixty Four?
Chicago is now in its 55th year of touring and recording, as we are now recording Chicago XXXVIII, with no end in sight for new projects. Lee is just as excited as ever to write and work on new material. At the same time, Rhino Records is actively resurrecting the old Chicago catalog, and has plans to bring out more archival material that has not been released before. I expect we’ll see more restoration projects from Rhino for a number of years.
We have gotten quite adept at restoring archival recordings, solving seemingly insurmountable problems and elevating previously unreleasable recordings to the point of commercial viability. I’d like to stretch out in the future and offer our restoration and mixing techniques to other “legacy artists” who find gold locked away in some vault. And personally, as a former mentee of the late, great R&B mixer Barney Perkins, I’d love to work with some of the old school R&B and jazz artists that benefited so well from Barney’s ears and techniques. Producers and artists such as John Barnes, the Temptations, DeBarge, Steely Dan, Gladys Knight, The Isley Brothers, Dr. Strut, The Gap Band… Perhaps resurrecting, re-mixing and restoring archival recordings from the best that R&B, Funk and Soul has given us. That would personally be big fun for me.
Rhino Records will be submitting Chicago at Carnegie Hall Complete to the Academy for a shot at the Grammys next year, during what will be the band’s 56th year of touring! I look forward to helping other artists achieve similar accolades in the future, for their lifetime body of work, using the very best of old-school analog systems, hybrid with the latest AI digital techniques and tools. Many many thanks to the staff at Vintage King for supporting our long-term vision and diverse goals for the future of Studio One Sixty Four. We are particularly grateful to our fans who have supported Chicago through five decades, and we will continue to make new music for them until none of us are left standing.
Photography by Peter Pardini