The engineering approach with a seminal fusion group, along with anecdotes and experiences from a unique time...
July 11, 2014, by Mike Stahl
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.
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 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.
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.
So here I was with a great batch of extremely talented musicians who excelled at their craft. My job was to make them blend together for the audience the same way they sounded on the record. If it sounds great on the stage but lousy in the main PA, that difference is noticed quickly and that sound engineer doesn’t last long at his or her console.
When I started with the band, Peter Cetera (bass) and Robert Lamm (keyboards) were doing the majority of the singing. Peter had a great soaring voice, and after the first four albums, he was singing lead on almost every song they were doing live. Robert’s voice was perfect for the more jazzy songs they played. Meanwhile, Terry Kath had a growl and gravel voice that complimented the other two perfectly when he sang harmonies.
The horn section—James Pankow, Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane (the “hole in the ass gang,” as they were called)—played exceptionally well when they were on. As I said, the brass section was an integral part of the “Chicago Sound” and when one of them wasn’t hitting the notes they were supposed to, the entire section sounded off. But when they were in sync, and that was most of the time, they were an incredibly tight unit playing their staccatos and stabs perfectly; no other brass section of any other group could come close to them when they were on.
Laudir de Oliveira, the great Brazilian percussionist, was added in 1973, rounding out the differences between the rock and the jazz environments that Chicago constantly danced between. Laudir was known for his tremendous blend of percussive fills that added to the intricate mystique of the Chicago sound. I loved having his innovative fills to work with in the songs because, as Terry would explain to me many times, that was “our sound,” a complex mixture of rock, jazz, contemporary and fusion.
I grew very close on a personal level to Danny Seraphine, the drummer. Danny was a perfectionist who knew exactly how he wanted his drum kit to sound, and more importantly, he knew how to tune his drums to get that sound. In the ‘70s, tuning a drum kit was as important as tuning the main sound system. Engineers didn’t have samples (artificial drum sounds) or Pro Tools rigs like they have today to get that perfect “crack” for every drum. Every tonality came from the drums, which made the tuning of the individual drums extremely critical.
When I started mixing name groups in large venues, the first thing I learned was to sit on the stage and listen to them perform without the sound system turned on. That way, I could hear each individual instrument exactly the way the performer was hearing it onstage, and could hear and see how the entire group interacted. This was necessary because the acoustics of large venues are usually bad to terrible, with huge decay times—you have to know what the true sounds of the instruments are before you can begin to amplify or equalize them. If you don’t, you can quickly get yourself in big trouble both sonically and acoustically.
My first few shows with Chicago were not earth shattering, sound wise. Every engineer has their special mics and wants the drum kit to sound a special way, and I was no different. I was fortunate to be able to completely re-mike the stage, and especially change the mic setup around Danny’s drum kit and Laudir’s percussion rig.
But I was having a difficult time getting the right tones from Terry Kath’s guitar rig. I attributed this to the fact that he was a fantastic jazz player and his chord structure knowledge was uncanny. This was very rare for a rock band’s lead guitarist. He would play basic rock chords that could drive the band as if they were a loud Led Zeppelin-type group, but he could also tone it down and play intricate chords that enhanced not only the brass portions of a song but also the overall Chicago big band sound. He was an amazing talent, and for me, the core of this tight group.
During the initial rehearsals, Terry and I started talking to each other and gradually became good friends. Since I’m also a guitarist, I recognized that Terry was one of the best in the world.
His fingering techniques and love of music were unparalleled. I’d never worked with anyone so devoted to his craft and so intent on getting the exact sound he wanted out of his equipment. The only other player I’d work with who came close was Brian May of Queen, who I’d meet much later.
Terry and his guitar tech, Hank Steiger, used to experiment with different models of amplifiers all the time. When I came onto the scene, Terry was using a Fender Dual Showman amp head that had been totally modified, and a new (and radical) homemade speaker cabinet.
I never found out who made the cabinet but Terry loved the sound it produced. It was a large quadrilateral speaker box about four feet tall and three feet wide with four Celestion 12-inch speakers in it, each one mounted at the top section of the cabinet.
Under high volume, this cabinet would vibrate tremendously at the loud level Terry played at and it could deliver the dirty, growling, distorted sound that he wanted on stage. But because of the cabinet design, it wasn’t as sturdy or solid as other conventional speaker cabinets.
It turned out that the cabinet vibrations were contributing to the distortion Terry could hear when he was on stage, but I wasn’t able to capture that “second distortion” properly in the main sound system. On the bluesy and jazzy songs that Chicago did so well, Terry could tone down the distortion on stage and the sound would be exactly what he wanted. But for the loud rock songs and solos that defined the “Terry Kath Sound,” it wasn’t cutting it in mix.
I came up with an idea and ran it past Terry; I already had a direct line and a mic for his guitar, but I wanted to add two additional guitar mics to two of the other speakers in order to get as much of the cabinet distortion as possible. There weren’t enough inputs on the console to do this so these two extra mics had to be coupled or “Y-d” together. This way, I could move one of the guitar mics off the speaker axis to pick up the cabinet vibrations that Terry was hearing on stage.
At first, he was skeptical about this setup, especially about the direct line, because some of his previous engineers had tried it and couldn’t get a good balance between the mics and the direct box. But he liked the idea of the additional guitar mics, and I convinced him to let me try it and prove to him that I could achieve “his” sound.
I started taping the concerts every night on cassettes and giving him the tapes so he could listen to the sound I was getting on his guitar and to the overall mix of the show. It became a ritual on any multi-night booking that Terry and I would be in his room listening to the shows, with him giving critiques of the recordings, often picking up his guitar and showing me what lick (solo and fills) he was playing, especially when I’d missed amplifying essential ones.
Terry had started by having a regular amplifier in his room, but it was always too loud and disturbed other guests in the hotel, so he would have to turn it off or run it so low that he couldn’t hear it. Then his roadie Hank found a small battery amp called Pignose and got it for him. In those days, battery amps were unheard of, especially since they were so small and weighed less than four pounds. Terry loved the Pignose so much that in 1972 he and an associate went out and purchased the company. To be able to be in a room with him as he was playing and creating songs with unbelievable guitar licks was truly inspirational; he was just one of those players who made you want to listen to him play and never leave the room.
One of the more interesting facts that I learned about Terry was that early in Chicago’s career, when they were on tour opening for Jimi Hendrix, Jimi used to sneak out in the back of the auditorium before he went on stage when Chicago was playing just to hear Terry play. Terry never thought anything about it; he was that down to earth. Over the five years I worked with Chicago, he and I became very close and I reveled in the time I could spend with him. This was a perk of the job that I really loved: not only to be able to mix this amazing band, but also to be able to spend private time with these talented people. Very rewarding!
Once the band got comfortable with the new mic and monitor setup on stage, and also with me, everyone started to relax and enjoy the shows. As soon as that comfortable feeling is attained, everyone can concentrate on what they do best—performing. I started getting a dynamic mix of the band, and both the road manager (Jack Goudie) and the personal manager were pleased with how everything was progressing.
We had just performed a show in Memphis and had traveled to our next stop in Nashville. Jack forgot to re-set his watch to the new time zone so the band came in for sound check an hour early, so afterwards, they had an hour to kill because the hotel was too far away to go back tp and then turn around again to return for the concert.
I knew that Danny Seraphine was starting a production company and was looking for some fresh talent, and I thought this might be a good time to introduce the work of two of my friends from Scranton, PA, who were playing in a local band (Jerry Kelly) and becoming a great unit. They had perfect pitch harmonies (like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), a resounding guitar-based foundation, and were writing excellent songs. I was convinced these guys were going to make it.
I had a cassette recording of four of their songs and was looking for the perfect opportunity to sequester Danny away from the touring fray and play it for him, so I now asked him if he wanted to come to the back of the bus to hear the tracks; much to my surprise, he said yes. And once he heard the four songs, he wanted me to play them again! He heard what I knew all along: this group had the sound and they were going to make it! Danny took the tape and that became a three-record deal. The group re-named themselves “Dakota” and had Danny and Hawk Wolinski (of Rufus fame) as the executive producers. It was an exhilarating time for Dakota and for me.
While Chicago had recorded their fair share of hits and had achieved both gold and platinum records for all of their previous album sales, they had never had a number one song on the Billboard charts until Peter wrote “If You Leave Me Now” in 1976. Recorded at James William Guercio’s Caribou Ranch Studios in Colorado, it was the first worldwide number one hit for the band. We toured Europe twice, Australia, and New Zealand to sold-out arenas.
Adding that song to the group’s huge catalog of hits ensured Chicago of many continued years of live performing. It was truly amazing how the band and the public became re-energized because of that song. But every time they were about to perform the song live, Terry would set down his acoustic guitar and quietly walk off stage. I couldn’t figure out why. Not that Peter was bad on the guitar, but when you have a player like Terry… I just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t playing the lead part.
When I asked him about it, he said that for whatever reason, he had not even been present at the studio on the day when the band recorded it. Someone else had played the solo part on the record and Terry was peeved that he hadn’t played on it, and what was worse, this song went on to become the biggest song Chicago had ever recorded. Since he wasn’t on the recording, he told me he would never, ever play it live. And as long as I was there, he never did.
When I got the news about Terry accidentally killing himself with a handgun in 1978, I made plans to come out for the funeral. I thought I was going to be okay until I saw Terry lying in the casket, this musical genius so needlessly gone from everyone’s lives. I’d just been with him two weeks earlier when we finished our last show of the tour at the Oakland Coliseum. It was so un-nerving that I went back to my hotel room and just sat alone by myself all through the night. That memory still haunts me today.
Chicago was in turmoil over Terry’s loss; not only because he’d been one of the founding members of the band but also because of his spirit and dedication to the band’s music. I didn’t think the band was going to recover from the pain of Terry’s death, but I totally discounted the resilience of the rest of the guys. Through all the gloom hanging over them, they made the decision to start recording and touring again, which meant that they had to audition new guitar players.
As a result, I was summoned to Los Angeles to set up a small sound system at Danny’s house so everyone could hear the auditions and see how the new players sounded and interacted with the rest of the band. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for them; the first time they had played together in months and now it was with some new guitarists who’d learned the three songs needed for the audition; especially “25 or 6 to 4,” which was a Terry Kath classic with all of his solos throughout. It was incredibly emotional to say the least.
After numerous auditions and countless players, the band settled on Donnie Dacus. He had just finished filming a part in the movie version of Hair and was a solid player with a decent voice. Donnie was young and energetic with long blond hair; he not only looked the part, but also had great stage presence. Once he was selected, the band started writing songs for their new album.
Adding A New Role
Also as part of their fresh beginning after Terry’s death, the band hired legendary record producer Phil Ramone to produce their new album (Hot Streets) and to record it at Criteria Studios in Miami.
Phil had produced everyone on the planet and had a long list of impressive credentials in the studio. They selected Criteria Studios because the Bee Gees had recorded and released Saturday Night Fever there the year before, and that record had become a monster seller.
This new Chicago record was going to involve many other firsts, besides changing the studio and the producer. The band decided to shake up the album cover and do something they’d never done before in the past eight years—use photos of themselves on the front and back cover. This was a radical departure since in the past, they had only used their name (in logo form) and Roman numerals to signify sequentially which album number it was.
Another first was that they asked me to fly to Miami and be one of the recording engineers on the record, a huge honor. I’d been a live audio engineer and now, after working with Chicago for three years, I was going to be an assistant to one of the most legendary record producers in the business. I was going to be able to learn from a master producer how to make a record. Exciting times!
The band blocked out six weeks to get the album done. The production team rented three Miami mansions to make sure everyone got a great room and that no one was crowding anyone else. The houses were fantastic and they came equipped with a cook and maid service. (What more could you ask for!) I was in charge of the brass section, which simply meant nothing more than getting them to and from the studio on time, and back and forth to the airport.
The first day at the studio was spent setting up the drums and backline for the keyboards and guitars. I quickly realized that I was actually the assistant to the assistant for Phil’s head engineer. My only duty was going to be to change the tape on the echo recorder that was used for the headphone playback. Bummer.
But I wasn’t going to let that depress me because this was still my first major recording session and I was determined to be a sponge and absorb all I could. Phil’s engineer told me which mics he wanted to use on the drum kit, and I started placing them around the drums. I finished everything except the last two floor toms when the rhythm guys, Bobby, Donnie, Peter and Danny, came into the studio.
They started jamming, which was no big deal since I’d set up mics before while drummers were playing. I heard the guys suggest trying the new song, “Alive Again,” and Danny started to count it off. I didn’t think anything about it since this was their first run-through at the studio. Then I saw Phil in the control room waving at me and mouthing the words, “don’t move.”
It turned out, unbeknown to me, that Phil recorded everything; it didn’t matter whether the band was jamming or not. He wanted everything that was being played to be caught on tape. For the rest of that song, I stood next to the two floor toms with mics and cables in my hands. When the band ended that run through, I finished miking the floor toms and went back into the control room. Phil and Jim (his main engineer) were slapping hands together and saying how great the “feel” was for that song.
I reminded them that the last two floor toms had not yet had mics, and said that every time Danny went around the horn on the drums, there was a noticeable drop in their volume. Phil looked at me and said, “Kid, you have a lot to learn. All good recordings in a studio are about feelings and the groove of the song, and that first pass has ‘it’.” As I found out, even though they recorded the rhythm track of that song another 10 times, the final rhythm take of “Alive Again,” the one that’s on the record, is that first pass with me standing in the studio holding the last two floor tom mics and cables in my hand. Go figure.
Whenever I had some free time, I liked to explore the other studios because Criteria was a great facility in those days, having leapt into prominence with the success of the Bee Gees.
In fact, Criteria had just finished building a brand-new wing on the main studio that was to be used exclusively by the Bee Gees. They were in the process of setting up to record their first album since Saturday Night Fever.
I would occasionally wander over there and just shoot the breeze with the engineers, and one day, I met Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees. He couldn’t have been nicer—I’ve never been disappointed by big-name stars because the majority of them never forget their beginnings and were always very nice, especially to me. We started talking about sound companies, music, and other groups I’d engineered besides Chicago, and he was a huge fan of the band’s big brass sound.
Later that day, I was back on the Chicago side of the building and I told Jimmy Pankow about having met Maurice and how nice he was. Jimmy said that the Bee Gees had the best vocal harmonies in the world and he would love to have the Bee Gees sing on a Chicago song. I told him that Maurice was a big fan of the Chicago brass and maybe he could work something out between the two groups.
Within two days it was all arranged; Chicago was going to play on a new song for the Bee Gees and the Bee Gees were going to sing on a new song from Chicago. Unreal! Now the stage was set for the two supergroups to perform on each other’s records. I’d never been involved in such exciting times!
Peter Cetera had written a song, “Little Miss Lovin,” that the band felt would be perfect for the Bee Gees’ harmonies. In return, the Bee Gees wanted the Chicago brass to play on a new track that Barry Gibb was producing called “Tragedy.” About a week later, the Bee Gees came over to the studio and laid down their amazing harmonies. It was just astounding! I was in the control room and there are no words to describe the feelings of hearing those soaring harmonies on one of Chicago’s songs. I was seeing and hearing true talent.
That session went well, and I was looking forward to Chicago recording their parts on the Bee Gees song. A week later, I brought the brass section over to the main studios at Criteria to begin rehearsing. When we arrived, to everyone’s complete surprise, we discovered that no brass charts had been written. I could tell the guys were upset because Jimmy Pankow always spent long hours writing the brass charts, getting them perfect for all three instruments. Since the charts weren’t done, we all assumed we’d have to come back another day.
When Barry came into the studio and introduced himself to everyone, he asked his engineer to run the rhythm tracks they’d recorded the day before. When Jimmy asked him about the brass charts, he said, “I’m going to write them now.” As the music started, he sat down at the piano and began singing and hitting single keys on the piano to signify which notes he wanted the brass to play. His transcriber sitting next to him furiously wrote down what Barry was playing and then charted it for all three of the brass instruments. None of us had ever seen anything like it!
When they ran the track the second time, Barry started singing and hitting the notes on a piano the way he wanted the brass to accent them with his voice: “Da-Da-Da-Dot Da-Da-Da-Dot Dot-Dot-Dot.” And then again: “Da-Da-Da-Dot Da-Da-Da-Dot Dot-Dot-Dot.” The Chicago guys were staring at me and I was staring at them—we were all overwhelmed. No one could play the notes, have them written down and transcribed for sax, trombone and trumpet, and then have them ready to record within 30 minutes. That just can’t happen! And yet it did.
Jimmy pulled me aside and said Barry must be doing this for show—“this can’t be real.” I told him I thought he was wrong because on many of my trips to the Bee Gees studios I’d talked with their engineer, Ably Gilbratin, and he’d told me what a genius Barry Gibb was. I knew that we’d just witnessed a true phenomenon.
After the charts had been duplicated for all the brass players, the guys were then thinking this was going to take a long time to record because again, simply, the charts couldn’t be correct. No one was that good… there were going to be too many wrong notes and too many bad accents and everything. These mistakes would then take a lot of time to correct and then they would have to be re-recorded.
The level of skepticism was at an all-time high as the brass players took their seats in the studio—until they started reading the charts and playing the parts. The sound was full and the stabs and staccatos were tight and bright. hey were literally perfect. No bad accents, no bad notes, nothing.
The song, which was the title track of the Bee Gees new album, Tragedy, was completed in under an hour, and we were out of there. When we listened to the playback after the brass was finished, the brass charts were nothing short of amazing and had a totally fresh feel which gave the song a new meaning. Barry was tapping his pencil on the console and was very pleased.
As we were leaving, everyone thanked them profusely for the experience and we got into our car for the drive back to the house. The ride back was very depressing, especially for Jimmy, who always agonized over his charts to get them perfect, sometimes taking days to perfect them. Since he was the only one who wrote the brass parts for the group, this tour de force he’d just witnessed seemed to affect him the most, knocking him for a loop.
It wasn’t that his charts weren’t good, it was just that he (and the rest of us) had never witnessed anything like that. Even superstar writers and performers need to get out of their own bubble sometimes, and this was a huge revelation. But by the time we arrived at our house, Jimmy was coming around, and after dinner, he felt he’d been incredibly inspired by Barry’s writing. Even though Chicago had finished the entire title track “Alive Again,” and it had already been recorded and was “in the can,” Jimmy still hadn’t been crazy about the brass charts. After all, this was going to be Chicago’s debut back into recording, their first album since Terry died, and he wanted the title track to be very special, and in particular, wanted the brass parts to stand out and attack the music. He was bothered because he knew they weren’t sparkling yet.
After dinner, he stayed up all night re-writing the brass for that song because he liked the sound that Barry had gotten from the instruments. Two days later, we went back to the studio and re-recorded “Alive Again” with Jimmy’s new brass charts, which gave the song a whole new feeling and the sparkle Jimmy had been looking for all along. That song, and the Hot Streets album, symbolized Chicago’s re-birth in recording and performing.
Editor’s note: We’ll be presenting more great articles from Mike on his engineering career during one of the truly great periods in the history of popular music. Stay tuned!