Monday, October 20, 2008

The roots of love grow all around

The Four Tops' Levi Stubbs dies at 72
Levi was one of the most talented, nicest, professional people I ever worked with, and the same goes for all the original members of the Four Tops.

My main claim to R&R fame is the Gold Record I got with the Four Tops. Well, I didn't actually get the Gold Record, somebody has to pay for the thing and neither the label, the record company nor the studio was going to shell out the bucks for someone (that's me!) whose album credit was 'additional engineering.' And I never thought it was worth the money for the ego boost. And it was by accident.

Here's how it happened: I was a studio manager & chief engineer in Las Vegas and the Tops were performing in town. They needed to record final vocals on an album so The Producer of these tracks came to town with his engineer to record in my studio.

The first day we set up for vocals and playback. The Producer's engineer was really great, understood he wasn't in a world-class studio, but that we had good equipment, (3M 24 track, custom API EQ & fader console, LA2A compressors and vintage Neumann 87 & 47 tube mics ... for you audio geeks.)

I was happy to be 2nd engineer. The Producer and his engineer had worked together a lot. The Producer was world renowned as a musician, songwriter & producer and I counted myself lucky just to do a 2nd engineer's work and learn from the masters.

We all knew going in that the Tops would be recording late after their show. What we didn't know was that The Producer's engineer would get food poisoning that first night. (hint: never eat shrimp in the desert!)

The next night it's just The Producer, the Four Tops and me. The studio in LA had sent a 24 track, 2" reel with a rough mix of the music on the first 2 tracks, SMPTE time code on the 24th track, and all the tracks in the middle for vocals. Laid down twice.

For 4 nights we recorded, and re-recorded the lead and BG vocals. The background vocals took awhile because The Producer wanted them all gathered around the same mic for that tight street corner harmony sound. And he was right. All Four Tops sang in harmony for the BG vocals, but Obie (bass vocal) was so strong we did several takes asking him to step back further and further from the mic so the vocal harmonys seemed balanced. (Even then he just came soaring thru, it was lovely.)

We nailed one chorus, which would be flown in for all the choruses, except for the chorus out. Then we recorded group and solo chorus out tracks to give the mixing engineers as many choices as possible.

The next two nights we did the lead vocal. Levi was so patient. He'd finish their performance at the showroom and then came in to the studio around 10-11 PM to cut his lead vocals.

Here's another one for the audio geeks: The Producer had me live mixing Levi's previous vocal tracks for Levi's inspiration on foldback while I was live mixing from different tracks for The Producer and punching in on new tracks for the lines The Producer wanted to keep. Considering we didn't have automation, that's a lot of fader & pot movement, not to mention the bright red 'launch' button I had to be ready to hit at any time.

What Levi heard in the studio, what we heard in the control room and what was recorded were very disparate, but as a technique for getting the best performance out of a singer it was inspiring. What wasn't inspiring was The Producer's barely disguised contempt for me and my studio.

It was a tough 4 days but working with gracious talent like Levi, Obie, Lawrence Payton and Duke Fakir made it worthwhile. The sessions ran long but the soul ran deep. Thanks for all the music and all the love guys.

Cross posted at VidiotSpeak