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Mike Stahl Recalls: Mixing Chicago Live In The 1970s
The engineering approach with a seminal fusion group, along with anecdotes and experiences from a unique time...
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From the author: After performing in bands throughout high school, college and thereafter (simultaneously spending three post-graduation years as a middle school history and math teacher), I began my career in audio by owning and operating a small recording studio in northeastern Pennsylvania.

My studio created and recorded advertising jingles for local businesses and also provided audio equipment for live events. When the early ‘70s gasoline crisis limited the ability of clients to travel to my studio, I had to close the business. On the upside, I was immediately hired as a sound engineer by Clair Bros., which was (and still is) the largest live audio company in the United States, spending the following 13 years as one of the chief sound engineers for the company’s road staff, traveling the world to provide the highest level of sound quality for major rock n’ roll concerts. 

In 1982, wanting to get off the road, I was hired as a general manager for Mountain Productions, one of the largest scaffolding companies in Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter, another large East Coast audio company, Maryland Sound International (MSI), asked me to open and manage its first West Coast division. I accepted the position of general manager of MSI and remained there for three years.

I was then offered the position of general manager at a competing company, ATK Audiotek, and after nine years in that role, my partners and I took ownership of ATK and my title became that of president. When I joined ATK, there were six employees. As of today, the company is in its third location, a 56,000-square-foot facility in Valencia, CA, with more than 90 employees.

ATK is recognized as a premiere audio company, counting The Super Bowl, Grammy Awards, Emmy Awards, Academy Awards, American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice and Dancing With The Stars among its many clients. After 21 years at the helm, as well as 20 previous years of live audio experience, I decided to retire and pursue both recreational and professional interests at my leisure.

On a personal note: I’ve always been interested in sound and in how every “noise” has its own unique and distinct collection of frequencies. When I was growing up, I had no idea as to how these sounds could be changed or modified. I think my fascination was due, at least in part, to being surrounded by glorious classical music.

My mother was the co-principal cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and many of those string quartet rehearsals were held in the living room of our house. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the string quartet was composed of superior musicians who were playing on handmade, extremely high-caliber instruments. Couple that with great acoustics, and one has the beginnings of a great introduction to sound. 

I kept asking myself: Why didn’t every string quartet sound like this one? What makes the difference? Is it the players, the surroundings, the instruments—what? I had to know. And I could not have asked for a better initiation into the world of audio.

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I was lucky that during the Summer of ‘75 Tour, my mixing skills for The Beach Boys attracted the attention of Chicago’s road manager, Jack Goudie. He liked how I achieved a balanced mix (a blend of both vocals and instrumentation) as well as the “in your face” sound that felt up close and personal.

Jack had started talking to me and asked if I’d like to become Chicago’s full-time live audio engineer. While I was still enamored with The Beach Boys, Chicago was a “current” entity who were churning out and charting at least one top 10 Billboard hit every year. Over time, Chicago would become second only to The Beach Boys in terms of Billboard singles and albums chart success.

Chicago’s popularity was huge in the mid-to-late ‘70s. They were selling out every venue regardless of its size. But the band knew, after the summer tour with The Beach Boys, that their sound was more tailored for smaller venues with better acoustics. The best venues were the open amphitheaters (called sheds then and to this day), which had covered and reserved seating for about 6,000 and open seating behind them for an additional 10,000 to 12,000. These were excellent sounding venues and were the perfect place to see a technical group like Chicago. During the summer, we started doing shed tours where the entire summer was spent at these types of venues, doing multi-night bookings of eight to 12 days at Pine Knob outside of Detroit, five to seven days at Merriweather Post outside of Baltimore, and at least two or three days each at numerous other sheds throughout the country. 

A much more current photo of the author.

When I started with them, the band had just released their eighth album titled “Chicago VIII,” which contained two hits, “Harry Truman” and “Old Days.” The songs were totally different from each other, with “Old Days” being the more rock and up-tempo of the two. Most of Chicago’s songs were well balanced with jazz, rock, and fusion instrumentation, a big reason their sound became so popular. The band was also well balanced instrumentally; no single section of the group would overpower the rest of the instruments, and they always blended together as integral parts of a song.

In other groups, the brass sections were piercing and many times painful to listen to. That was partly because brass players, especially trumpeters, have to blow very hard into the instruments to hit the higher register of notes. This results in higher sound pressure levels (SPL) coming from the brass section, which is why they’re always the loudest in a band or orchestra and why they’re always placed at the rear or to the side of the stage—so they don’t overpower the audience’s ability to hear a full blend of the other instruments. 

Being one of the first groups besides Blood Sweat and Tears to achieve a balanced sound gave Chicago that extra dimension of sound with brass “woven” into the “fabric of their music.” This group was exciting to listen to and exhilarating to work with. 


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