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A Sound Education

The Birth of Home Recording

"I bought a Dutch barge and turned it into a recording studio. My plan was to go to Paris and record rolling down the Seine."
Pete Townshend, The Who

I'm conflicted on the topic of recording music at home. The business part of me frets about studios losing out on billable hours. The musician part of me relishes creating art in a non-pressure environment. But the history of artists recording radio-ready songs in their humble abodes goes back further than you might imagine. Let's explore how affordable home music recording for the masses came to be, but also look back at the origins of this revolution in recording.


11th Hour Message

1-field op

"Hostilities will cease along the whole front from 11 November at 11 o'clock."
Marshal Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces via radio atop the Eiffel Tower.

This week marks 100 years since the end of the war to end all wars, known today as World War One. In 1918, on the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1,500 days of fighting came to an end. The armistice was agreed upon just six hours earlier in a railway car halfway between Paris and the Western Front. What's remarkable is the speed at which most troops were informed of the impending armistice. This war, like in so many other ways, forever changed the world of communication.


Video on Vinyl and Other Turntable Transgressions


"Hello from the children of Planet Earth"
From the gold records aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft

Vinyl is the format that won't die. It'll probably still be around after humans are extinct and our sun has gone supernova. Perhaps in eons, Voyager spacecraft with the golden records aboard will meet distant stars and future vinyl lovers. But in this eon, people will not stop pushing vinyl to its limits. Mad scientists and crazy artists like putting something other than music on it - or in it. More on that later.


As Seen on TV


"Treat the recording studio as a laboratory for conceptual thinking — rather than as a mere tool."
Brian Eno

When I was young in the...cough...60s and 70s, the only real glimpses I got inside a recording studio was through television and movies. There was a smattering of documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage of studios and radio stations. I was always straining to see the control board and tape machines, or marveling at the cavernous studio on the other side of the glass. It was absolutely riveting to peek inside them and see how a record was made. The 8-foot long mixing console was often shot through a fisheye lens. Long-haired musicians were sunk down into a couch smoking cigarettes (?) and listening to their masterpiece. And there were close-up shots of that big fat 2-inch tape rolling past the heads of the recorder.


In the Moment


"He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
Lao Tzu
Father of Taoism

When is enough, enough? When do you stop finessing, polishing, correcting, perfecting, or otherwise fixing something important you're working on? When you're done – either because of deadline, budget, or exhaustion – are you satisfied? Don't overkill your project.


The Elephant in the Room


"My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It's in the apartment somewhere."
Steven Wright

The deep seismic audio world holds many secrets, including how elephants communicate over long distances. Find out how ultra low sounds affect how a recording studio is designed and built.


Golden Ears


“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
James Bond
"Goldfinger" (United Artists)

The other day, someone said to me, "You must have golden ears." He was referring to my profession as an audio engineer. He assumed that I physically had much better hearing than the average person. I don't. In fact, I often have trouble hearing conversations at loud parties and can't hear high-pitched whines that drive 20-somethings crazy. But I do think I have better hearing than a lot of other middle-aged folks only because I've protected it all these years.


Listening to the Enemy


“The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.”
Amaryllis Fox
Writer, peace activist, former CIA Clandestine Service officer

These days, it seems nothing is secret. We can't talk on the phone, cruise the internet, or walk down the street without being snooped on electronically. Enemy anxiety, especially since 9/11, has driven governments to monitor everything being said. Think it's bad now? During World War II it was even worse. Everyone had to be careful about what they were saying and who was listening because "loose lips sink ships." There wasn't the level of electronic communications in the 1940s as today, but the groundwork was being laid for modern tech that we use every day. Even snooping technology.


How Hollywood Hears History


"The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What did Paul Revere's famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington sound like in April 1775? If you were there, you might recognize the approaching horse as a Narragansett Pacer mare. This once popular breed of horse, now extinct, was known for its ambling gait: a smooth riding four-beat gait that is faster than a walk, but slower than a canter or gallop. You might also notice the calm surroundings interrupted occasionally by crow calls, trees rustling in the wind, or the occasional farm dog barking at the stranger barreling down the rough dirt road. Just someone in a hurry.


Ghost Whispers


"I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."

Thomas Edison, 1920

What if you nonchalantly recorded something around your house, let's say a music practice session. Then when you played it back, you clearly hear someone whispering. You didn't hear it when you recorded it, so what was it? Many unfamiliar sounds throughout history can be attributed to nature, machinery, and even hoaxes. As our post-industrial society grows, so does the list of unexplained sounds, like trumpet sounds from the sky, humming cities, and ocean whistles. The proliferation of audio and video technology has generated its own tally of the strange. Specifically, weird voices that have been inadvertently and unknowingly captured. These recordings and transmissions sound eerie but have a very unsexy-sounding name: "Electronic Voice Phenomenon," or EVP.


We're Fifteen!

Neil at 12 playing DJ

"I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am."

Francis Bacon

Dynamix turns fifteen years old this month. Well technically sixteen, because I incorporated a year earlier and did small jobs out of my basement until I could step out on my own. When I did, I couldn't have timed it better. As I wrote about in our ten-year anniversary newsletter, the Great Ice Storm of 2003 delayed our opening for a week. In fact, I was stuck in Dayton, Ohio for several of those days. Our entire Lexington clan was there overnight for a wedding when Mother Nature dumped a ton of snow onto Dayton. Back home, Lexington was covered with inches of solid ice. All of our houses were without power, our pets were starving, fish were freezing, and everything from the Ohio Valley to the northeast was at a standstill. For several days, Dayton police were restricting all travel and most of Kentucky was shut down.


After four days in a hotel with two days worth of clothes, I had had enough and decided to make the 150-mile trek back into Kentucky, police be damned. I don't remember how long it took, but I was exhausted when I finally pulled into my neighborhood. It was on a small hill, and I remember looking down over several neighborhoods with drooping, ice-laden trees. Everything had a Disney-esque feel to it with the layers of ice glistening in the sunlight. Except for the house fire I saw churning out a column of black smoke. The fires would continue over the next week as 65,000 people without power tried everything to keep their homes heated. I grabbed my pets and headed for my mother's house to check on it. In one of those stranger-than-fiction moments, the power kicked on just as I opened the front door. With this good news, the rest of the family ventured home the next day. We all camped out at Mom's (with pets, including surviving fish) until power was slowly restored in our neighborhoods. Meanwhile, I anxiously awaited for power to be restored at my new location off Alumni Drive.


So a cold start to my first studio. It was sandwiched in the back of a sports medicine facility alongside Post Time Productions and Filmburn. In order to cut a voice-over, the talent had to walk around through the kitchen to a former closet now lined with foam. Make a wrong turn and you might wind up getting an impromptu physical therapy session. Knowing this was temporary until the whole group of production companies could find a new, larger space, we operated in these small confines for the next year. It was a little embarrassing when 20th Century Fox booked an ADR (dialog replacement) session with Dakota Fanning for the film "Hide and Seek." But the ADR editor, R. J. Kiser, who coincidentally was ADR supervisor for another film we recently worked on, "War for the Planet of the Apes," calmed my fears. He had worked all over the world in small studios that didn't specialize in ADR, and said that he actually envied studios like mine that were able to do a variety of projects. Over the years, we've been lucky to do ADR sessions for a number of films and television series with other great actors such as Steve Zahn, Sam Shepard, Kevin Pollack, Boyd Holbrook, and Muse Watson.

Three studios later, we've been graced with some interesting projects and people. Though music is my first love, sound-for-picture is my bread-and-butter. Manipulating the viewer's emotions and perception with music and environmental cues is as rewarding as composing a piece of music. Historical documentaries have been the bulk of my work and fun. Some interesting moments include:

  • Chumming up with Civil War reenactors for authentic battlefield sounds.
  • Meeting Coach Homer Rice, a real life conduit between Jackie Robinson and the SEC's first black player.
  • Interviewing the first woman to command a major U.S. military installation.
  • Creating the soundtrack for the Emmy-nominated documentary A&E Biography: The Monkees. Being a child of the sixties, at one time they were more important to me than the Beatles. Imagine that.
  • Getting to work with William Shatner again (I did a 5-year stint with him in the 1990s for Rescue 911).

Commercial and corporate soundtracks are also a large part of our business. Who says you can't have fun doing these? Some of the good times include:

  • Making dogs talk. An anti-drug PSA featured dogs in school admonishing a pot-smoking beagle. Casting and directing different young actors for "Poodle," "Golden Retriever," or "Collie" was one of the most rewarding jobs I've ever done.
  • Recreating a video soundtrack from scratch of an airliner's near crash landing after a lightning strike.
  • Creating a surround sound experience for a manufacturer's new model rollout, synchronized to multiple video screens with REO Speedwagon, AC/DC, and lots of THUN-DER.

Some interesting people have come into our studios over the years, some of which you might recognize:

  • From the stage, cinema and TV: Richard Thomas, Tara Summers
  • From the music world: David Gans, Beau Haddock
  • From the broadcasting world: Marv Albert, Tom Hammond, Charlsie Cantey, Tom Leach
  • From the political arena: Mike Huckabee, Steve Beshear, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Jim Gray
  • From the literary and arts world: Nikki Finny, Ada Limon, Helen Oyeyemi, Charles Edward Pogue
  • From the sports world: John Calipari, Matthew Mitchell, Dermonti Dawson, Chad Pennington
  • From the comedy world: Adele Givens, Godfrey, Greg Warren, Jesse Joyce

Some other thrilling moments are:

  • Going to post-Katrina New Orleans and working with kids benefitting from the NCAA's efforts to rebuild neighborhood ball fields.
  • Following singer Jimmy Rose around Pineville, KY for America's Got Talent as he is celebrated by the town for his achievements.
  • Working with ESPN filming the young phenom singer Marlana Van Hoose at her home and at an NCAA Basketball Tournament game as she belted out the national anthem.
  • Producing an NPR-style radio feature on blown glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell, including sounds of the entire process of making a very large multi-colored sculpture utilizing several people on scaffolding.
  • Running live sound at the UK Football home games, pumping 50,000 watts out to screaming fans. When I first started that job, I remember getting the go ahead to crank it up to 11 and play AC/DC's "Back in Black."

It's been a fun 15 years. I've officially got 33 under my belt as a professional. But in truth, I've been doing this since I first got my hands on a cassette recorder as a kid. A lot of my friends were radio jocks or musicians, so I've spent most of my life in studios and radio stations having fun. I'm looking forward to another fun 15 years - only without any ice.

A Myth-terious Thing

2015-March Myth-terious

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Arthur C. Clarke

To the average person, audio can be a mysterious "myth-terious" thing. Many people don't want to admit that they are intimidated by the technical side of it, and that makes sense. The closest most people get to manipulating audio is adjusting the volume on their stereo. I bust 10 common myths about recording audio.


The Shadow Knows


Shadow: No, Mary. I suspected a trap, so after I opened the door, I walked across the room and stood behind them.
Apple Mary: But your voice.... it came from near the door.
Shadow: Ventriloquism. A simple trick of projecting the voice.

The Shadow
"The Blind Beggar Dies"
Radio broadcast: April 17, 1938

We're fooled by Mother Nature all the time. She uses light to conjure up a mirage on a hot desert day and Aurora Borealis on a cold Alaskan night. She also has a bag of tricks for sound, like flinging noises a hundred miles away. But one of her best is when she makes sound disappear. This slight-of-hand by Mother Nature may have even changed the outcome of several battles in the American Civil War. What are these shenanigans of sound? Magic? Illusions? Sorcery? As the old radio serial hero said, "Only The Shadow knows." They're called acoustic shadows.