Jazz In The Back Room

An Overview Of The Digital Revolution… and,

A Mini View Of The Midi Revolution

“Midi” stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Basically it’s the electronic language that allows synthesizers and computers to connect to each other by speaking the same language.

Watching a a cool series called “Halt And Catch Fire” on Netflix last week, I was intrigued by the first episodes that seemed to center around the development of the Commodore 64 computer back in the ’80’s. It appears to me the programmers were trying to make the Commodore into something it didn’t have the architecture to grow into, so they were using it to develop new soft ware. I love the show… It’s a peek into the techno world that I was never aware of, except as a consumer who purchased much of the product that had music applications within it. So it was, back then, that I used a Commodore 64 for nearly all my electronic music projects for over two years, until the first McIntosh came out in 1984. That Mac carried a huge 128 K. OMG, it was a techno revolution!

 

Dillon and me in my Commodore studio at Doppler in ’87 where most of Jazz In The Back Room was recorded

This is one person’s view of the transitional time between live musicians and the midi revolution. And depending upon whether you were an audio engineer or a composer, the change from the analog world to the digital world was either fairly fast, or fairly slow. In this article, I am totally open to being corrected on my memory…I know a few of you will jump all over that. And that’s okay. We were all in that together, and we all have a perspective.

I left Doppler in ’87 and set up a small studio in my home. As one might expect, my weekly business dropped off dramatically… immediately. I had started a small project of jazz tunes at Doppler before leaving… writing and recording some random ideas in the late afternoons and early evenings. Having time on my hands after leaving, I continued the project I had already called “Jazz In The Back Room.” This series of experimental tunes bridged the time between ’87 and ’91… and three studios. But more than that, the project bridged, to a degree, the changes from the analog world of audio to the digital domain… a monumental transition for those of us who dealt with the restrictions and the realities of analog recording for some 30 years or more.

In The Heart Of My Favorite Project

My project, “Jazz In The Back Room” was made with a DX-7, two Prophet-5’s connected by midi, and a small Korg drum machine. Recording and sequencing were done with a Commodore 64 computer and some 4-track software called Passport. The computer was synced with a Tascam 8-track recorder with DBX. (If I remember right, I think we had to turn the DBX off if we laid down time code on a track, as the noise reduction messed it up.) For my non-audio pals out there, remember that time code was one of the first ways we could sync recorders to computers and recorders to other recorders. I used to put the time code on track 8 of my 8-track. That would reduce my 8-track to a 6-track, as the code on track 8 always ‘leaked” onto track 7, making it unusable. Funny what silly stuff we had to deal with back then, isn’t it?

The face of the original Emax Sampler

I bought an Emax sampler… a big hardware box with a tiny green window that you had to squint to read. It had a lot of editing functions in it, but by the time you worked with it for an hour you were cross-eyed. It was a cool box, nonetheless, and at around $2500 it paid for itself in no time at all. I bought a bunch of floppies for it, with sampled sounds of live instruments, but most of them were lame. Their trombones, tubas, tympani and flutes were good, but hell… all the tone generators had good trombones and flutes, etc. But I did some sampling of my own… some Peruvian flutes I had brought back from the Bora tribe in the Amazon rain forest, and those sampled flutes sounded great, and paid the bills quite well for a time.

Hee’s a sample of those sampled Peruvian flutes from my album, “Jazzed For Peru.” The song is “Brazilian Sunset.”

 

My audio console was an 8-in 4-out Tascam. I forget what kind of outboard reverb I had, but it wasn’t the old spring unit I’d had for years. Remember those? You couldn’t drive them very hard or they’d twang. Anyway, the digital world of audio was just getting off the ground when this album was made, with new and better equipment rolling in every couple of months. The Korg Wavestation came out right at the end of this project, as did bigger computers and better software, so this project, in a way, heralded the end of the old analog era for me. Within the next year, new, bigger Mac computers hit the scene. Digital Performer came out with the new software that recorded live audio, with 99 midi tracks, and the landscape of the home audio recorder was instantly re-invented.

In 1984 a new Prophet-5 cost $4500. In 1992 my 24-in 8-out Mackie audio console cost $3500. Today one can put an entire digital studio together for under $4500. When I first learned to be an audio engineer, back in 1970, there was a limiter/compressor called the UA-1176, put out by UREI in ’67. Today the hardware version can be bought at Sweetwater for $2K. I don’t know what they sold for in 1970, but the studio I worked in had two of them. My point is, Today we can buy the entire MOTU Digital Performer recording/mixing software, with the Masterworks FET 76 included, for $500. Imagine that! Not long after I began using DP, I went looking for a good limiter for a vocal I was recording. There, among the other software choices, was the 1176… now called the FET 76. I couldn’t believe it! To my ears, it acts and sounds the same as the original, and I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s barely the tip of the iceberg of the reasons why the digital era of recording hinted at the eventual downfall of many of the large studios across the country in the last 15 – 20 years.

A Not-So-Brief History Of My Recording Studios

My story is pretty much a microcosm of what happened to big studios, I think. It began in 1987, when the first digital samplers began hitting the market, and the sequencer in a Mac became fairly standard equipment for the home recording enthusiast. Several of my Atlanta A-list composer pals and I began noticing that our stream of work from the Atlanta ad agencies suddenly began slacking off. At first we thought it was simply a dip in the seasonal work… we’d had those before. But now we began hearing some cheesy electronic music under some of the radio and tv spots around the city, and we finally figured out what was going on… our price per jingle was being seriously undercut by garage composer wannabe’s who had a computer and a synthesizer, and could suddenly record a “finished” product in their basement or bedroom! I found that instead of having 5 or 6 serious competitors for the ad agency music, I now suddenly had 30 or more. I asked several of my agency contacts what was happening, and their answers were frighteningly consistent – all these new guys were showing up and offering to do original music for the agencies for $100-to $500 a shot, whereas we’d been getting $2K to $5K just several months ago! I asked my contacts why they were using these amateurs, whose music basically sounded like shit. They just shrugged and said, “We’re saving a ton of money on production costs.” And when I asked them how they could justify putting that crap on the airwaves, they simply shrugged again, saying “Who cares? The audience doesn’t know the difference…”

And it was true. Sadly, nearly no one in Atlanta, save the few hip media folk and the real musicians who know quality from bullshit, knew that a huge shift in music for media and picture was taking place. I, for one, found it hard to actually believe for a long time. In the long run, however, it turned out to be a turning point for both composers and recording studios.

The first live players to be hit by the coming technology were bass players and drummers. The first Moog synths had a sweet, fat bass sound that got trendy right away… as did the drum machine. Soon several players came to Doppler, asking, “What the hell is happening? Why haven’t you called me lately? I hear your stuff on TV, but I’m not on it…” And our answers were usually lame, but true… “We’re just trying to stay current here, and the electronics are the new, cool thing…” Not satisfactory. To anyone.

What the players didn’t realize right away was that we composers were being slowly put out of business as well, much of it caused by the new sound libraries that were suddenly appearing in droves. With the advent of the sound libraries, an agency creative could book a small room for $50 an hour and go through the studio’s sound library, searching for the right piece for their :30 or :60 ad. We called these little short pieces on the library CDs “needle drops.” If a creative could find the right piece of music for his spot within an hour, he then paid the $50 for the studio time, plus $75 for the use of that needle drop for 13 weeks, for the cool total of $125. Bye bye, live composers… y’all are history!

Within several years the digital samples of real instruments rolled in, affordable to everyone with a computer, and the six of us original composers, who helped the Atlanta ad scene become the national player that it was, were now scrambling to do five minutes of music for a paltry $500-$800 a crack. One of the saving graces for me, anyway, was that the prices for good electronics came tumbling down about the same time… so the same availability of good digital equipment for a WAY lower price, which made it possible for the wannabe’s to be competitive, also helped guys like me keep current and stay in the mix. It was weird… several of us composers would go to lunch and laugh about how good the new equipment was, and how cheap it was getting, not realizing that all the time it was slowly putting us out of business, as the amateurs were able to afford it, too.

And I think the same thing happened to the large studios. Much of their equipment didn’t get cheaper, and their margins of profit kept slipping. The basement studio began to rival the big studios in sound quality. Top quality was still huge in the record business, but in media, it simply didn’t matter as much. And in time, the larger studios had only three advantages to set them apart from the basement studio… space to record large groups, and good to great audio engineers who could put out a sparkling finished product, using experience and expertise that we “home-brewers” couldn’t really touch. And the third advantage, an almost intangible element we referred to as “client glitter.”

 

Doppler’s big control room – studio B, I think it was. We all loved it… best studio I ever worked in! Best engineers, best vibe, I could go on and on about how lucky we all were to work there as long as we did.

 


Client glitter and “bells and whistles” were two elements the big studios had in spades. Bells and whistles consisted of the really big console, with flashing lights, tons of buttons, and a huge rack of expensive amps and outboard gear, all beautifully displayed. Soft lights, big tables and easy chairs and sofas were key in the client glitter game. The big studios made it easy for its clients to feel important, sipping coffee, taking phone calls and telling the engineer to tweak the mix a bit. The big studios were able to send a mix to L.A. over a DSL line, a perk that took the smaller studios a while to get a handle on, if ever. My little studio didn’t bother with it and seldom needed it.

Anyway, all that to explain why my “Jazz In The Backroom” project is so important to me. Obviously, with the decrease of business, I had more time to do a project like this. It was as much an experiment with the existing equipment as it was a musical project. I hadn’t done any jazz for 5 years, even though Pete Caldwell, the co-owner of Doppler Studios, probably gave me more freedom to write jazzy jingles than I deserved. Even so, this project was the first one that I began with no motivation except to have a good time with it and show what I could do with the existing gear. It was also a welcome relief from some of the dumber jingles I had been forced to write lately. My focus was in trying to see how real I could make my new brass samples sound. The sections, especially the trombones, sounded pretty decent, but the solo instruments, the trumpet in particular, sucked, and all the acoustic piano samples were cheesy. Still, I learned a lot about what I could and couldn’t do with these new sounds, and that would become increasingly important if I were to stay in business on any level.

Here’s one of those experiments, So Pretty, So Young

Some attitude in my new studio in Crawford in 2003

Within a year of finishing this project I had a new studio on the outskirts of Decatur and a new room full of digital gear, good quality, affordable gear that completely upgraded my musical sound and my studio’s ability to record outside projects. By ’93 every piece of my studio was new/different except my two Proteus modules, which I used occasionally for several more years. They sat quietly blinking in a new rack mount Bill Orisich, owner of “Whoa Films,” had built for me, and were, to a great degree, the closest thing I could come to “client glitter.”

From ’75 to ’92 my little studio moved around Atlanta several times. It stayed busy, always paid for itself and then some… but was considered a “home studio” and used by ad agencies only when their projects were considered to be down and dirty, quick with small budgets. I recorded other musician’s projects from time to time, and cut an occasional album for friends. It kept me busy when Doppler was slow, and helped me continue to grow as a composer and audio engineer.

By the time I had what one could consider to be a serious recording studio, I was no longer one of Atlanta’s cutting edge composers. I had just turned 50, and was old by music and media standards. The young guns had taken to the new technologies in a flash, and I was now playing catch-up… and not that well. A new term had emerged… “sound design” and I didn’t like it. My old school ways started to show, and it hurt me in the downtown music arena. I didn’t want to put additional sound effects in my music tracks, nor did I want to offer sound effects for my several clients. Unfortunately, my younger competitors were all over sound fx and sound design, and I found myself eating their dust in the potential jobs where we were required to submit demoes of our work, or a demo of what our potential client might have wanted. By the time I figured out that the new clients wanted more sound fx and less music, I was nearly out of business. In the last 10 years of my career I was able to barely stay afloat with the help of my previous reputation, some faithful friends in the biz and the fact that I offered a really good-quality recording studio for $50 an hour.

At one point I had to sell off all my old keyboards and synths… and that really hurt. I had a Clavinova – a clavinet with a Rhodes-sound that you could mix in and out… it was sweet. And my best piece of gear, a Fender Rhodes suitcase model with outboard stereo speakers. I did some of my best composing on that little keyboard. It had a killer sound and I still miss it (and the other equipment) to this day.

My best years in music were from ’75 to ’87. I did a lot of good work during that period, and made a good amount of money. In ’87 I had a cabin in Montana, a cabin on Lake Burton, a house in Virginia Highlands, a Ford Bronco, a ’56 Chevy and a motorcycle. And a new wife and baby.

In retrospect, I was probably at the peak of my creativity when I did “Jazz In The Back Room.” My work had fallen off dramatically in the preceding years, but my creative juices were still flowing. At that point I was, what my rock musician friends called, a “studio rat.” I could spend all day in any dark studio doing music, and it was like my safe haven. So I guess, in a way, “Jazz In The Back Room” became the final statement of my career and creativity up to that point. I hasten to say that I did a lot more good music before I hung it all up.

As the new digital orchestral samples became better and better, my orchestral composing chops flourished, as I’d always been a good orchestrator and arranger, thanks to my Berklee education. It became great fun for me to compose and record an orchestral piece, using oboes, flutes, string sections, trumpets and french horns. Percussion samples were terrific at that stage… one could get a great timpani roll in a heartbeat. What used to take 5 days and 20 musicians to record now took maybe 2 hours. Talk about immediate gratification… it was a new world for me. But now the Atlanta agencies weren’t wanting orchestral music any more… they wanted “beats” and sound design, and that was the first big, major change in the music biz that I wasn’t able to make.

 

Playing the Intercontinental hotel in Buckhead in 2005

During the last 5 years of my “career,” I had to begin playing live again, usually in restaurants and hotels, with a trio. It was different, moving back into live playing again, after 28 years in Doppler, and other studios around the country. It was easier now, in several ways… portable pianos were much easier to carry, and restaurants and hotels were no longer smoky. I was able to pay some of the bills, but not nearly all of them, and in the last 6 months of 2005 my entire studio sat in the garage… in boxes.

 

My little “studio” today

Am I bitter? Yeah, I guess… a little bit. No gold watch, no “good bye” party, not a peep… the phone simply stopped ringing, and on the rare occasion that I was asked to submit a demo for a job, I rarely got it, either because my connections with the right people were long gone, or because my approach was now dated. For a long time I refused to believe any of that, and it became clear to me only after several years of evenings in my Montana cabin, rocking in front of the fireplace with brandy in hand, still wondering what the hell had happened back then.

As the memories came floating in, it became evident that I had messed up some things in Atlanta far more than I’d previously realized. Having visualized myself as something of a renegade, I acted that out far too often, always with bad results. I talked about people I didn’t like too often, and too loudly. I didn’t show up for an awards dinner in ’85, when I won the Southeast Composer of the Year award. I didn’t even hang the plaque up, as I was “all about the music, not the awards.” Bad choice. Wrong image. And I got over-confident. I didn’t know it at the time, it’s hard to see some of that stuff from the inside, but I think my ego was getting pretty large, which is weird, considering back in ’80 I was asking Steve Davis if he thought I might possibly be good enough to attempt an album. Everyone responds to success differently, I’m not proud of how I handled it. It’s one of the few times in my life I’d like to have another crack at.

 

Pete Caldwell in the break room

Long after I’d retired and returned to Montana, it finally became clear who and what I was all those years. I was never a Keith Jarrett, never a Henry Mancini. I wasn’t a John Williams or a Hans Zimmer. What I was, was a slightly better than average composer/arranger who could play. But what I really, really was, was an incredibly lucky guy who was given a chance by Pete Caldwell. Pete helped me into a perfect niche, that of a Doppler composer, and for quite a few years I was just right for that niche, and it for me. I finally left Doppler in ’87, and in hindsight, that was, for me, the beginning of the end.

Me, Pete and Joe Neil in the control room

I don’t regret any of that… hell, that’s life. We all think we’re doing the right thing at the time. A broader view of my life and new family would have revealed that I now needed Doppler more than ever. The problem there was, Doppler no longer needed me. They now had new, fresher talent in-house, who were brilliantly continuing the Doppler standard of music (and jingle) quality that Tom Wells had started, and that Jimmy Ellis and I had continued. For me, at that point, the magic Doppler years were over. But my god, what a time it was… and what a time we had!

Steve Hulse