smokebox interview with sound restoration and mastering engineer doug pomeroy: part two

Now understand that Jeff [Beck] seemed pretty paranoid – he didn’t say a word to me, he just went into the studio and played with this guy for a while and left. I had turned on a mono tape machine in the back room, and sent to it the mono mix I had up on the monitor speakers. Afterward, Beck’s manager came in and said ‘Did you record that?’ What was I going to do, lie to him? So I said ‘Yes’, and he said ‘Let me have the tape!’ So I gave him the tape. I don’t have a copy, haven’t heard it since that day – that hurts!”

 

 

Welcome back down to the Root Cellar. If you recall, last month we had a great conversation with Doug Pomeroy about Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. (Click here if you want a peek at part one). Doug is a well-known and well-revered sound restoration, mastering and recording engineer, and over the course of our conversation about the Dust Bowl Ballads, some other interesting stuff came up about his life in music. This month, we continue the conversation and talk about his work at Caedmon Records, Columbia Records, and his other restoration and recording projects. Here’s what he had to say:

JP: Let me ask you about your musical background – what was your earliest experience with recording and with playing music?


DP: Well, I grew up in Altadena, California – my father had a chemical consulting firm in Pasadena. When I was a kid, he bought the first manufactured home tape recorder made. It was called a Brush Sound Mirror. Previous to that he had had a wire recorder. Naturally, I became interested and started playing with the tape recorder before I was a teenager. This was around 1948 or 1949. Then I got a Wilcox-Gay portable, and since I was in an amateur traditional jazz band, I used the tape recorder to record all of our sessions. It had the world’s worst microphone, but I didn’t care – I just thought it was so great to be able to record this stuff. And I still have those tapes.


JP: Really?!


DP: And they play fine!


JP: What was your instrument in the band?


DP: I played the C Melody Sax and the Baritone Sax, and we also had a Skiffle band…


JP: Lonnie Donegan, right?!


DP: Well, we pre-dated him…


JP: Oh, so you were the original Skiffle band!


DP: Yeah, we were the original! I played jug, comb, washboard and washtub bass, and I’m really quite good on those instruments, if I do say so myself. In fact, I came to New York party to play with a guitarist named Mark Spoelstra – he’s on an album that Elektra put out. I came to NYC partly to play with him, and I’m on that album playing washboard. Poorly, I might add!


JP: So you started recording those early sessions – fast-forward to New York– what did you do to get into recording work there?


DP: I found a job working in the Copyright Department of ASCAP, just because I was interested in music. After returning briefly to California and then coming back to NYC, I found a job with the Richmond Organization, which is a group of music publishing companies. They had an Ampex 600 (tape recorder) and I started recording all their vocal and piano song demos. A lot of interesting people would drop by the office at Columbus Circle: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Alec Wilder, Tadd Dameron, Hoagy Carmichael, Pete Seeger, and so on. After a couple years, I realized I wanted to work for a record company. Through an ad in the NY Times, I found a job at Caedmon Records, the company which made spoken-word recordings only. There I cut tape for 8 hours a day for two years, and learned to be very good with a razor blade, cutting mouth noises out of the tapes. I could do anything with a razor blade!

(Ed. note – this is the description of Caedmon from the HarperCollins website — the current Caedmon catalogue is available through the HarperAudio division of HarperCollins. And I quote:
“Caedmon was founded in January 1952, when Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney sat with Dylan Thomas in the bar of the Chelsea hotel and persuaded him to record A Child’s Christmas in Wales along with five of his poems. From these humble beginnings, Caedmon grew into the premier spoken-word company it is today. Among the many voices Caedmon has published through the years are those of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, as well as those of actors such as Charlton Heston, Sir John Gielgud, and James Mason, to name only a few. The Caedmon tradition continues into the twenty-first century, with new releases such as James Joyce’s Dubliners and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.”)

DP: That was the studio in which Steve Reich had done his seminal recording, called Come Out – he did it on those very same old Ampex tape recorders. (The same recorders which had belonged to Cadence Records, and on which the Everly Bros. hits had been recorded.) Reich was, briefly, the tape editor at Caedmon before me. While I was there, I worked on the poetry of Langston Hughes, read by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the poetry of Emily Dickinson read by Julie Harris, and poetry by Richard Wilbur, who was Poet Laureate of the U.S. at that time, read by him. This was around 1967. By the time I got there, they were well established as a company, so I never had any chance to run into Dylan Thomas! I wasn’t on all the recording sessions – I was cutting tape. I would get the raw tapes from the sessions, and they would give me the poem (printed copy). So it wasn’t a very creative job, although I did have to understand the pacing. It was serious editing, not just cutting tape.


JP: That sounds like a pretty pivotal role to me!


DP: I guess it was important, because they just gave me the raw tapes and said “Here – make the album”.


JP: Sort of like mixing a musical recording?


DP: Sort of.


JP: So what happened next?


DP: Then, after a stint as a music editor for Marc Aubort’s Elite Recordings – the company which did all the recording for Elektra/Nonesuch – I saw an ad in the New York Times that said “Recording Engineer Wanted, Night Shift”, and it turned out to be Columbia Records, and I got the job.


JP: Wow – just like that!


DP: Yeah, I had to pass their physical exam, but I got the job and was on the night shift for the following seven years. Made more money in those years that I have ever made since! That’s when all the rock bands were recording, and the overtime was incredible, because they would go all night long. I worked on sessions with most of the artists signed to Columbia and Epic at that time.


JP: So you were doing a variety of things?


DP: Oh, I never knew what it was going to be. Classical one day, Glenn Gould, or John Cage, or the Juilliard String Quartet, and the next day it would be Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan. I never knew what it was going to be. I was running the tape machines in a little alcove on one side of the studio control room. Eventually, I moved up and became one of the control engineers. Unlike most of them, I also worked upstairs as an editor/mixer. The one hit record I mixed was Free Ride by the Edgar Winter Group. Because I liked old music – they found out I liked the “old shit” as they called it – I started doing reissues. I did the Lester Young Story (for which I got a Grammy nomination), and a John Kirby set, a Roy Eldridge set, and a compilation called 50 Years of Jazz Guitar.


JP: And were these all produced by John Hammond?


DP: He was the executive producer, which meant that he oversaw the projects, from a distance. They were actually produced by Michael Brooks, who is still there. He’s amazing… You say “March 14, 1938, Take 3 in studio B”, and he will tell you the matrix number! He’s an Englishman who came there in the early ‘70s I think – he’s also worked for RCA. He’s a real discographer, I mean, he knows more about what’s in Columbia’s vault than Columbia does.


JP: What was it like to do the reissues?


DP: Compared with what I’m doing now, it was pretty primitive, and Columbia didn’t take it as seriously as they should have. In general, the producer would tend to say “OK, make a transfer – get an old 78, transfer it, put it on an LP and that’ll be the reissue”. George Avakian did some great stuff with several series in the ‘50s – he was the first one to create jazz reissues for Columbia on 12 inch LPs. He did Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke. Louis Armstrong, too – that series was called the Louis Armstrong Story. These were all reissued again on CD in the 80’s – some songs were apparently re-transferred at that time. And, now we have the most recent and most complete version of the Hot 5 and Hot 7 Armstrong material, in Sony’s recent award-winning box set.


DP: [asking John] How do you think the new reissues sound?


JP: I know they did some pitch correction, and they put a lot of effort into it and it’s critically acclaimed, but to me it sounds really tinny and too bright. There’s no warmth there like I think there should be. I don’t like them!


DP: Well, I think Phil Schaap (noted jazz scholar and producer of the box set), like a lot of amateur engineers, has the idea that if it’s bright-sounding, it’s hi-fi. But, I ask, is that real? Is that what music sounds like in the real word; in a recording studio or on a stage or even in your living room? Is it realistic? I would say no. I believe what Phil does is transfer and release “flat” transfers, which means he does not impose any roll-off of the high frequencies, nor apply the proper bass boost, which should be done, based on the EQ curves used by the record company when the discs were originally recorded. What he’s done sounds just plain wrong to me. And, I think he likes it because the boosted high frequency response exaggerates detail. I love detail, too – I want to hear it all – but on the other hand, I don’t want to falsify the overall sound of the music. However, I do take my hat off to Phil for his having insisted that Sony find every possible original disc source to be used for the new transfers.


JP: Getting back to the Columbia reissues – How did you go about preparing the stuff? I assume it was transferred to tape and then edited?


DP: We did a lot of splicing with a razor blade to get rid of clicks, but it removes program. Most of the Columbia albums that I worked on and others worked on during that time are permanently scarred by the fact that, in removing pops and clicks by taking tape out, we shortened the program. This is a falsification of the music. But this was the way it was always done for 20 or 30 years. Of course, we found ways to minimize the problem, but it was always there. Later, John RT Davies started scraping the oxide off the tape where the “clicks” were, which did not shorten the music, and I developed a method of using paint applied onto the tape surface to achieve the same result. But, with digital, there’s no need for any of that anymore.


JP: What are a few of the more memorable recording sessions you participated in or witnessed?


DP: This is quite a story, most people don’t know. Roy Halee was recording Simon and Garfunkel in Studio B with what he called twin eights. For their early albums, there were no 16 track machines, so to get 16 tracks, Halee would use two 8 track Ampex machines. He lined them up physically, next to each other, and ran the 1″ tapes from both machines through the capstan of one of them. Two pieces of tape running together through one capstan and pinch-roller. He’d put a mark on both tapes, line ’em up, and he’d say “OK, Ready… Hit Start!”, and the start buttons on both would be hit at exactly the same time (with any luck at all), and both machines would then play those tapes, more or less in sync, at least long enough so’s that nobody ever noticed and said “Hey, these guys are getting out of sync!

One story I was personally involved is about Jeff Beck. He came in to audition a piano player. I think it was Lyle Mays (longtime pianist and collaborator with Pat Metheny). So I set up the studio for these guys – they werent recording, they just needed a place to play. Nobody told me what was going on, but I thought “Well, I’m gonna mic this!”, so I miked it so inconspicuously that nobody looking into the studio would’ve even known it was being recorded. I miked the cymbals from underneath – you couldn’t see the mics anywhere! And I got a recording that sounded so good – I’ll never forget how good it was! Now understand that Jeff seemed pretty paranoid – he didn’t say a word to me, he just went into the studio and played with this guy for a while and left. I had turned on a mono tape machine in the back room, and sent to it the mono mix I had up on the monitor speakers. Afterward, Beck’s manager came in and said “Did you record that?” What was I going to do, lie to him? So I said “Yes”, and he said “Let me have the tape!” So I gave him the tape. I don’t have a copy, haven’t heard it since that day – that hurts!

And, there’s an amusing story about George Harrison. What happened was that David Bromberg was working on a record, and I was sent down to Studio C for an overdub on a recording he was making, and it was going to be George Harrison. (Ed. note: the song Doug is referring to is “The Holdup”, written by David Bromberg and George Harrison. It appeared on the album entitled David Bromberg, which was his first release for Columbia) So I got all the guitar amps in the studio – Fenders, Marshalls, everything you can think of – and I stacked them all in a line in out on the studio floor. Studio C was a gigantic room. I mean, there were 4 or 5 stacks of these amps, and I miked them all and had them all coming up on the console. Then George walks in carrying this little tiny amp with him, and he put it on the desk by the console, and I miked it there, and we never used any of the studio amps! I was a little embarrassed, but nobody ever said anything like “What are all those amps doing out there?! What are you, crazy?!?”


JP: So he played right there in the control room with you?


DP: Yeah, no earphones, he just listened to the track through the studio monitors. I remember he had a little trouble playing – there was one comment he made that was so sweet. He was having a bit of trouble and he just said “It’s me fingers!” And I think the only payment he got for playing was when Bromberg went with him out into the studio and gave him a guitar lesson. George realized he could learn something from him, and Bromberg probably showed him everything he knew!


JP: So that was right after the session?


DP: Yeah, he recorded his part and then went in and had his free lesson! It was just great. George is not credited on the album, but when you hear it, it sounds like him. He gets his sound – that kind of lyrical thing he does.


JP: Why did you finally leave Columbia?


DP: Well, it was one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I loved the company, and I was SO into the job. Columbia’s studios had the best equipment in the world – custom-built consoles with the best parts – and the studios were beautifully constructed. There’s nothing like it today. Most of the studios today don’t sound as good either. Studio C on 30th street was one of the greatest sounding studios ever – all the classic Mile Davis recordings, etc. were done there – but they sold it! It was perhaps the greatest asset the company ever had! And Columbia’s studios uptown, on 52nd street were great too. But those studios were built when all the producers were Columbia staff A&R men. Just before I went to work there, in 1969, that era came to an end, and the company relied more and more on independent producers (Teo Macero [jazz musician and Miles Davis’ producer] was a holdover from the old days). Now, these new producers had an incentive to use independent studios because they could get kickbacks, money and cocaine. Clive Davis was dismissed after a scandal involving cocaine, but that’s another story. They also disliked Columbia’s studios because there was an inescapable corporate flavor to them: they were rather sterile in look and feel. More seriously, there were no drum booths and no drum sets in any of them. The artists – most of the rock and roll people – wanted to go to the inde studios because they seemed more “hip”, had colored lights, and you could smoke anything you wanted, and waste time and do anything. Of course, you could smoke anything you wanted in Columbia’s studios too, but there might have been a feeling that “Big Brother is watching”. Furthermore, there was no union in the inde studios, where, for example, you have to take meal breaks or else you pay a premium. I believe the artists had the studio costs ultimately deducted from their royalties, so if some union guy gives up his lunch break so that a band can finish recording a song, it was really costing the artists more money, and they resented that. The Union – the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or IBEW – was a major part of the problem. I am an old pro-union person, so it broke my heart to see what happened. There did exist some of what is called feather-bedding – making a job unnecessarily complicated to make more money, like putting two guys on a job that could easily be done by one. It’s a well-known thing. And, because of the union’s jurisdiction, any recording done by Columbia Records in New York City had to have a union engineer on the session. If the sessions were at an inde studio, they would send us out to sit there in the lobby and get paid while someone else did our work! This did not happen overnight – earlier on, I had recorded an album at the Record Plant for Columbia, and did all the engineering myself. This was at the time that John & Yoko were also recording there. But, the “standby” assignments did it for me – that was the end of the line and I resigned. I could see that it was the end of an era; the beginning of the end. And it was – within a couple of years, the uptown studios were destroyed and made into offices. So, in 1976, after seven years, I walked away from the best job I ever had. You have to do what your heart tells you to do. But, it was really tough: I had no clients to take with me. I had nothing. I really hit bottom. Eventually I did teaching – I taught at the Institute of Audio Research and a few other places, and eventually I got a job at MZH (also known as Celebration Recording), which was one of the top jingle-houses in the city at the time. In my opinion, there ‘s nothing worse than recording commercials, but it was a job.


JP: And some time after this is when you co-produced the Beastie Boys?


DP: Yes, at that MZH studio. I happened to know one of the Beastie Boys, who grew up on State St. here in Brooklyn – I’ve known his parents since he was a little kid (ed. note: this is Adam Yauch), so that was how I got involved with them. They were on Rat Cage Records at the time, doing their version of punk rock. I said “Hey, you want to come and record – I have the keys and we can go in on some weekend night and record”, and they said “oh yeah, let’s do it!”


JP: You recorded Cookie Puss and Beastie Revolution there?
(ed. note: The All Music Guide says “The Cookie Puss tracks signal the initial transmogrification of the Beasties into the hip-hop monsters of the later ’80s”)


DP: Yeah, we did it in two days, and I mixed it later on. But when they came in, they recorded a whole lot of stuff. I had no idea what they were going to do, they just did a whole bunch of songs. There was a bunch of percussion instruments in the studio, and they were playing them all! We left the studio in a total mess! I sold them the tapes for a few pennies, and I gave the studio a percentage for using their facilities.


JP: So they must’ve been excited to be able to use a good studio!


DP: Yeah, they loved the fact that they could go to a studio that had fairly decent equipment. I will say that the drum booth was awful – I mean unbelievably bad – like a little closet. Poor Kate had to get in there and play. (ed. note: this is Kate Schellenbach, who later went on to be a founding member of the band Lucious Jackson). I will go to my grave regretting the sound of the drums on the record that was issued! But you know, we were just goofing off – just recording what we could, spontaneously. Cookie Puss is the song that became popular on the college circuit. What happened when that song was created was I told them that we could plug the telephone line directly into the recording console. Adam Horowitz wanted to call up Carvel and order an ice cream cake, called Cookie Puss. (ed. note – Carvel is a famous East Coast Ice Cream Shop – like Baskin and Robbins, you West Coasters!) So I rolled the tape, and he calls them up – it’s all there, you can hear him dialing, he gets this gal on the other end and she says “May I help you?” and he says “Yo – you got the number for Cookie Puss?”. It’s all unedited, it’s all there! They also overdubbed some scratching onto that track as well, using a Steve Martin album! Then I spent weeks chopping up tape at home, making a dub version, which I loved doing. It was issued as Bonus Batter.


JP: So you didn’t sign a contract or receive payment for this, right?


DP: No, I was doing it as a favor to them and to keep from going crazy working on jingles. There is no contract. But when they eventually reissued all this stuff on CD (as Some Old Bullshit), they decided to list me as “Co-Producer”, so I received a great deal of royalty money, which I thought was a great gesture on their part. They didn’t have to do it, but they did. The thing that did get us into the lawyer’s office, though, was that British Airlines stole part of the dub version and put it in one of their commercials!


JP: Really?!?


DP: Yeah, can you believe it?! Michael Diamond caught it. I almost caught it – I saw the commercial one night and said “Damn, that sounds familiar!”. But he called me up and said “Hey, they stole part of the dub version!” So I then got a copy of the commercial and spent 3 solid days figuring out what they did. They had edited little fragments of the record, and I was finally able to reconstruct exactly what they had done. We then went in to the law offices, and I played them our stuff on the left channel and the commercial on the right channel, perfectly syncronized, and they said “We got ‘em!”. They received about $40,000 from the big ad agency that was representing British Airlines. They counted me in as a Beastie Boy, and we all shared the money equally. It was a very nice!

I’m still in touch with Adam – He called me recently about the possibility of transferring lots of the Dalai Lama’s cassette recordings to some kind of archival format. There’s a chance they may not decide to do this – the problem being that there are hundreds of hours of the Dalai Lama and other important figures, speaking. Do they want to preserve all of it? Probably not, which means that somebody has to sit down and listen to it all before they give it to me. This could take years! It is possible – we’ll see what happens.


JP: One last big question – what is your ultimate take about CDs versus vinyl?


DP: (Laughs) I should’ve known you were going to get to that – I should’ve known!


JP: I mean, for an example, let me use Neil Young, who refuses to have a classic album like On The Beach reissued in CD form because he hates the way CDs sound.


DP: Well, I don’t like this question, because there’s only so much time, and you’re asking me to cut myself short and give you a dumb answer to a question that requires a smart answer, which would take a l-o-n-g time. So I don’t like the question! In Neil’s case, he’s probably been listening to that recording on LP for years, so he’s used to the sound of the LP, and of course he’s not going to like any other version. In general, though, I think it is possible to make an extremely good-sounding CD that accurately reflects the source, be it analog tape or live recording in a studio, or the playback of a 78rpm record. For instance, I record everything carefully to “exercise all 16 bits”, because if you don’t, you lose resolution. I always record to the absolute digital maximum and allow disc surface noise to clip digitally. Pops and clicks should be allowed to clip, because if you don’t clip them, you’re recording the actual music about 10dB below where it should be. I do think that, properly implemented through converters of high quality, it is possible to make extremely good-sounding CDs at 16 bits and the 44.1K sample rate. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be doing it.


JP: I think most of the CDs I own sound great. When there’s a bad one, I notice it, but by and large, they all sound good. I guess the standards are high now, and they’ve worked out some of the bugs.


DP: There have been various problems, real and imaginary, but over the years systems designers have really been zeroing in on jitter and other things that can degrade CD sound. On the other hand, I agree that PCM digital has a subtle sonic signature, just as analog does, meaning that neither is perfectly transparent. But, I do believe that if a CD is well made and very good converters are used in the recorders and players, the results can be damn good. Meanwhile, people who say “Oh, I like my 78s better!”, I find that 90% of the time they’re playing their 78s on an LP player through the RIAA EQ curve, so they’re getting too much bass, and they’re rolling off too much of the highs, so they don’t hear too much noise…


JP: So they’re doing their own inadvertent mastering job!


DP: Yeah, inadvertent! (Laughs) When you asked me about tape and CDs, there is a question not only about the audio quality but about which one is going to last longer.


JP: I’m glad you brought this up, because I just assumed that if something’s on CD, it’s archived, and it will last forever.


DP: No, there ‘s no such thing as a permanent medium. The Library of Congress, for example, is convinced of this. They are, as of now, still transferring everything to analog tape at 7 ips (inches per second), which seems archaic to me, but they do not totally trust any digital storage medium. But they are also recording to DAT along with the analog tape. By now they may be archiving to CD-Rs instead of DATs, since some of the CD-Rs promise to last at least 200 years. But who knows? I personally would use CD-R, and I would use those made with phthalocyanine dye, which is the most stable and least affected by sunlight (but not happy being recorded in real-time). My feeling is that within 100 years, you can put your CD-R on an analyzer and see how much deterioration there has been and with the error-correction, which is extremely robust, you can easily transfer the audio to some new media as soon as you see signs of deterioration. You can’t do anything exactly equivalent with analog tape (there’s no such thing as a perfectly transparent analog tape copy), so I say go digital.


JP: So what are you currently working on along these lines?


DP: Well, I may be doing a job for the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers – the WNEW broadcast recordings of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, from 1945. The job would be to archive the original 16″ discs (lacquer on glass) to CD-R. Also, I’m the engineer who was chosen by the late Boris Rose to transfer his legendary collection of broadcast recordings, and I will be working on more of that material in the coming months.

Final Note: The story of the late Boris Rose is a good one – in fact, it is still developing, as Doug plans to meet with his daughter soon to discuss what to do with all the valuable broadcast performances that were recorded by Mr. Rose from 1945 into the ‘60s. A few months down the road, I will devote a column to this story, so stay tuned. As for next month, I’ll be writing about a few unsung jazz greats and also introducing a new live music review column, which will be written by committee. Should be fun!

 

Originally published:
Issue Eight
April 2001

 


Recording engineer Doug Pomeroy has more than twenty years experience in the field of audio restoration, having begun this type of work while a staff engineer for Columbia Records in NYC, from 1969 to 1976. He is the engineer for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors, a member of the Technical Committee of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, and a long-time member of both the Audio Engineering Society, and the Boston Audio Society.

 
John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

 

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