Overcoming Aural Adversity
By Steve Murphy | Originally published in Pro Audio Review magazine
by Stephen Murphy
I trace my start as an audio engineer back to my brother David, older by four years. He was already a good guitar player at 16, playing in a rock band that practiced in our basement.
More than anything else, I wanted to be in the band, too. And why not? I was getting better at the guitar and I could sing OK. Since I had nothing to lose, I swallowed my little twelve year old pride and begged — a lot.
“You’re too young, not good enough and your voice hasn’t even changed yet!,” was his dismissive mantra.
Being a stubborn little bugger, I was not going to some minor technicalities stand between me and the band. So I tried a different approach: I pleaded my case that I
could bring a unique musical angle to the rock band.
“No clarinet, final.”
Come on, man. What band doesn’t need an electric fuzz-wah clarinet? Hey! Gimme back my reeds!
Good thing I didn’t ask about my bass clarinet.
I decided to try another tack: I offered to be the “soundman” for the band, not that I knew what a “soundman” was yet. I found out quickly.
What’s a Soundman?
A “soundman” is the one who runs upstairs and shuts the basement door when it is accidentally left ajar, preventing the “sound woman” (Mom) from shouting at us during rehearsal.
A “sound man” is the one who breaks down microphone stands, unplugs cables and cleans up after rehearsals – again, preventing the “sound woman” from becoming irate.
So began my long quest to ever improve my engineering skills and make higher-quality recordings. Once I figured out that the two tracks on the Revox could be recorded separately, I suggested to the band that we record the music first so they could concentrate on their not-so-stellar vocals later (yes, I am still bitter about them rejecting my “high-pitched girlie vocals”).
The infectious Recording Bug bit hard, and I schemed about how to add tracks and improve fidelity. Complications arising from the Recording Bug led directly to my contracting the chronic Accumulate Audio Gear syndrome, for which there is no cure. Except money — or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
So I made do with what I had, adding new bits here and there. I bounced tracks between two cassette decks, and later, open-reel decks. I bought a noisy mixer and built my own electronic projects (thank you, Craig Anderton and PAiA).
At one point, I am embarrassed to admit, I dreamed of owning a couple of Radio Shack High Ball microphones for recording. Nineteen-seventies home recording veterans take note: that’s the High Ball, not the better fidelity High Ball II model pictured.
The beauty was that my budding audio engineering career could only go up from there. That is to say, there is inherent value in aural adversity.
Certainly I am a better and more versed engineer for having survived “innovative” recording techniques, time-consuming electronic kits and tedious troubleshooting. The old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind (although some of those improperly wired electronic kits came awfully close to the former).
Most professional engineers, producers and studio owners will conceed that they started the same way: making the most of what they had available at the time.
And at that time, all my recordings had the same non-musical opening – a tide of white-noise modulated by the wow and flutter of recorders in service well beyond the manufactures’ best expectations.
Maybe one day I’ll be asked, “Daddy, why did you always start your old songs with the sounds of the ocean — and what’s up with those high-pitched girlie vocals?”