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Author Topic: Big Star/ # 1 Record  (Read 29451 times)

Andi Gisler

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Big Star/ # 1 Record
« on: February 07, 2005, 05:55:02 am »

Terry,

were you involved in this amazing record? The CD reissue I got once again provides NO cedits at all.
I especially dig the incredible acoustic guitar sounds throughout, like on 'Thirteen'. Would you share any secrets how this was done?

Merci

Andi

Steve Folta

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2005, 04:03:16 pm »

I'd love to hear *any* stories about the first two Big Star albums.  I once heard a rumor that Chris Bell destroyed the multitrack masters to #1 Record, as he thought the mixes were perfect and he didn't want anyone ever to remix them.  Any truth to that?
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Leo

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2005, 04:32:36 pm »

I beleieve the rumor you speak of (not sure of the record) ,but John Fry and Larry Nix where mastering one of the albums to vinyl and they just finished and Chris came in picked up the ingraver and asked what it was and dropped it on the master ruining it. But i maybe wrong. I'm going by Ardent Studios later today, so i'll ask. If Terry doen't beat me to it.

p.s. I know about the GTRs on the Kangaroo Song. Very Happy
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Leo Goff III

compasspnt

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2005, 11:33:25 pm »

Hi Andi, Steve and Leo!

Remembering this particular record is one of the toughest for me of all.  For many, many years I wouldn't even talk about it.  In fact, I wouldn't even listen to this album for more that two decades.  But a couple of years ago, a writer from the UK, Rob Jovanovic, called me to ask if I would talk a bit about the whole Big Star scene.  Rob was writing a book for Harper Collins about the band.  He turned out to be a real nice guy, and before I knew it, he had me talking some.  By the end, he was asking if there were any out takes, extra mixes, etc., as he was hoping to release a companion CD with his book.  I said that I didn't really know, as I had a LOT of boxes of very old tapes and momentos, which I hadn't even opened for a long time.  But he got me looking through boxes, and before I knew it, I had found some things...

But to the whole Big Star story, as I knew and lived it.

This whole thing is one that's hard for me because I am such a HUGE fan of the band, and as well as having been integrally involved with it, the way things turned out weren't always for the best.  Just today I listened to #1 Record on the way to the studio, and again it made me very nostalgic, happy, sad, excited, and depressed...as it always does.

The band grew out of two things.  One was a group co-founded by Chris Bell, in which in which he was the lead guitarist, and sang some leads and backing vocals as well.  I was the keyboard player, backing vocalist, engineer, co-producer, and somewhat of a mentor to Chris.  This band was, amongst other names (Christmas Future, Icewater), basically called Rock City.  Chris was my best friend for about 10 years back then, and we were both totally into music composition and recording.  I had been working as engineer and producer for Stax Records, and as chief engineer for Ardent Studios, owned by my other great friend at the time, and my audio mentor, John Fry.  There was a group of other guys with us who sort of revolved in and out of the various groups we would put together.  We would practice at Chris' 'back house,' which was also our darkroom (one of them at least...I had one in my apartment, and our friend William Eggleston had a big one in his house).  I was recording a lot of my own things, in addition to the 'day job,' and Chris wanted to get into recording and production.  He started writing original songs, and would bring them to me to see what I thought.  They were getting pretty good, so we started recording an album.  On drums was Jody Stephens, eventual BS drummer, and on bass and lead vocals was Tom Eubanks.  We worked long and hard on the album, going into Ardent late at night (we had free run of this great place).  An album was completed, to be called "See Seven States" by Rock City.  We mixed it and sent it out to labels, but got almost no response from them.

The second thing from which Big Star sprung was Alex Chilton.  Alex was lead singer for The Box Tops, who had been having several big single hits, including the biggest hit of one of those years, 1960-something, "The Letter."  But Alex was unhappy working under his producers, who  were telling him everything to record, how to sing, basically running his life (...and making him a star...!)  But he wanted to do his own songs his way.  I had been engineering and playing on the Box Tops recordings, so I had worked with Alex a lot, and we had become good friends; he felt that I understood his plight.  AC asked me if I would produce an album of him, doing his songs.  I said OK.  So we recorded his first solo album, and shopped it to labels as well.  Atlantic wanted it, but wanted to release a single or two first; Alex was tired of singles, and preferred to have the whole album out first.  Then Brother Records (The Beach Boys' label dist through Capitol) were interested; The Box Tops had toured with the Beach Boys, and AC was friendly with Carl and Brian Wilson.  So we all met to talk about releasing it there.

In the meantime, Chris and Alex had hooked up, and Chris saw an opportunity to get this talent into HIS band.  So another new album was started, this time with Chris, Alex, Jody on drums, and Andy Hummel, another friend-to-all, on bass.  I played some keyboards, sang backing vocals, and engineered some.  John Fry was the main engineer, and certainly, especially, was for the mix, and Chris had learned a lot about engineering by now, so he did a lot of the overdubs.  We took two of the songs which had been recorded for the Rock City album as a starting point, plus one we had recorded as Icewater, and Chris and Alex wrote separately and together the other songs (Andy wrote and sang one).  Chris basically sang the songs he instigated, and Alex the same with his.  I also sang co-lead on "When My Baby's Beside Me."

This new one was coming along so well, and with minimum response from labels for at least one of the other two albums, The Rock City and Alex solo ones were just put aside in their relative tape boxes.  The RC was fully mixed and edited, but the Alex was still only multitrack.  We then pretty much just forgot about these.

I produced another group about the same time, Cargoe, and also a third artist, a solo guitarist named Gimmer Nicholson.  These three artists were to be the first on our newly formed label, Ardent Records.  We were tired of looking to the majors for releases, and were going to do it ourselves.  Gimmer was to be the first release, then Cargoe, then the new Chris/Alex group.

We named this group Big Star, after the supermarket across the street from the studio, at whose sign we were always staring.  The album was finished, and I came up with the star idea with the 'Big' in the middle for the cover, and had another friend, a neon sculpture artist named Ron Pekar, make it up for us.  It was photograped hanging on the wall of John Fry's office, with black photo paper behind it.

We decided that, because The Beatles didn't really put any credits on their records at this time, we wouldn't, either.  We thought that the public group should only be four people, and they should be named and featured, but not much else...this was to be right in line with The Beatles, as usual (much like the BS music was, or so we thought).

As for the recording, this album was completely crafted over a  long period of time.  It was not thrown together quickly.  Many months, in fact, years if you include the resurection of the Rock City/Icewater tracks, were spent in putting this together.  Chris Bell had become almost fanatical about getting things just right, and would do and redo, and redo parts.  Andy played a new bass part on "Feel."  I had done the one on the Rock City/Icewater version.  There was no designated <Producer> as known today, but if any one person was the closest to that, it would have been Chris Bell.  I cannot overstate my admiration for the songs and the talents of Chris and Alex.  Not to mention the engineering and mixing talents of John Fry.

The acoustic guitars were very carefully done.  Neumann mics were usually used, I think KM 84's and/or 86's, and in some cases 87's.  Almost always only one mic was employed.  Most acoustic tracks were fairly heavily compressed (for those days, at least), usually by one of the UA 176 limiters we used so much.  On "Thirteen," multiple parts were done to almost simulate one big guitar.  There was almost no strumming of these acoustics, though; most of it was single note playing, or at least arpeggios.  Most people I have seen attempt to replicate this try strumming first...that's not it.  Chris and Alex would both play different acoustics.  I remember AC had a Martin then, and I think CB had a Gibson.  Alex was a great acoustic player, having done the Greenwich Village thing as a solo acoustic artist also.  And Chris could play anything, on any guitar.  He played some "finger picked" parts close to the bridge.

But the little known fact about these acoustics, especially "Thirteen," was the influence of Gimmer Nicholson.  His solo acoustic guitar album was loved by all of us, and it was very much in this style.  It just ended up not being released for many years, so outsiders hadn't heard it then.

The early tracks were done on 8 track Scully 1", and the later ones on 3M 16 track 2".  Ardent moved locations during the long period of recording this, so the earlier ones were done at the National Street location, while the later ones at Madison Avenue location.  The console(s) were always SpectraSonics (by Auditronics...but NOT the later Auditronics).

Much of this basic story, plus a lot more, I think is now out in Rob's book.  I'll find the Amazon link, and out it on the bottom of this post.  Haven't gotten it yet myself, though.

What is so sad about this all to me was the fact that Chris was killed a few years later, and never knew that so many people really love his music so much, because it wasn't until years after release that major success came...and it seems to grow every year.  Also, there is a lot of emotional conflict in these songs; they were to some extent written about what we were all going through at the time, and it is sometimes hard to hear that again.  Of course, the most truly real emotional conflict I think I've ever heard in a pop song was in Chris Bell's solo effort "I Am The Cosmos," which was never even a real, finished record.

Anyway, back to the "opens-old-tape-boxes" part of this now-too-long story.  When I started looking for things, I actually found the long-lost, and almost forgotten, Rock City album, inside a mis-marked box.  So I only had to master it, and released it on my small label, Lucky Seven (shameless link below), the same label on which I had finally put out the Gimmer Nicholson album, a couple of years earlier.  The Alex solo album was called "1970" and was released about 1996, finally!

As for any damaged tapes or lacquers, I think there was an incident about Chris dropping the stylus while writing or marking on a finished acetate master (we always wrote something, or made some mark), but I don't remember exactly what it was, or how that happened.  But I do know that he tried to destroy the mixed 1/4" masters before it could all be released.  Chris was a wonderful person, and extremely talented artist, but he did have issues at times,  and he had decided that this music wasn't going to come out as it was.  I got wind of this, and hurried to the studio to replace the reels inside those 2 boxes.  Chris did burn those tapes, but I had the real ones hidden.  Of course, there were safeties, so it wouldn't have really mattered anyway.  But in that same box where I looked recently, there were the original #1 Record 1/4" masters, inside the other boxes I had put them in long ago!  I have them now, and when REM were here recording last February, I had to get them out so they could all look at those tapes.

Well, again, a far too long story.

All the best,

Terry


SHAMELESS LINKS:

Rock City:
         http://www.rounder.com/index.php?id=album.php&catalog_id =6491

Gimmer Nicholson:
         http://www.rounder.com/index.php?id=album.php&catalog_id =3383

Alex Chilton "1970":
     http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000005D80/qid%3D1107 839298/sr%3D11-1/ref%3Dsr%5F11%5F1/103-7466694-2384653

Big Star, The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band, by Rob Jovanovic:
         http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0007149085/qid=1107 836943/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_8_1/202-8777433-6050244

Chris Bell
   http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000009OD/qid%3D1107 845619/sr%3D11-1/ref%3Dsr%5F11%5F1/102-5643972-1861707
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Andi Gisler

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #4 on: February 08, 2005, 08:24:02 am »

Terry,

thanks so much for your reflections and info!
Yesterday I was listening to ' # 1Record'  on headphones and was completely blown away by it.
That such a great record was 'overlooked' in its day seems almost beyond belief. At least time has done justice to it!

thanks again

Andi

Steve Folta

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #5 on: February 08, 2005, 04:28:35 pm »

Quote:

 Well, again, a far too long story.


Never!  Thanks for a great post.

Quote:

 But in that same box where I looked recently, there were the original #1 Record 1/4" masters, inside the other boxes I had put them in long ago!


Does that mean we've all been listening to the safeties all these years?
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neve1073

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2005, 07:46:03 pm »

Re: Thirteen

I love this track. The acoustic guitar sound is something to aspire to. Can you give us an idea of compression settings you used on this? I dont have a 176 but do have an 1176.

Thanks also for the Gimmer tip. I've been relistening to thirteen and to gimmer and it totally makes sense.
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compasspnt

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2005, 08:24:11 pm »

neve1073 wrote on Fri, 11 February 2005 19:46

Re: Thirteen

I love this track. The acoustic guitar sound is something to aspire to. Can you give us an idea of compression settings you used on this? I dont have a 176 but do have an 1176.

Thanks also for the Gimmer tip. I've been relistening to thirteen and to gimmer and it totally makes sense.




Hey JF,

You want exact settings???  Ummmm...

I do know that a general starting point would have been 4:1, input 9 to 11 o'clock, output 1 to 3 o'clock, attack 11-ish, and release 2-ish, but that would all of course vary with program material.

The 176 was VERY DIFFERENT from the 1176.  Not at all the same beast.  I have both, and know this very well.  The 176 (tube/valve) version was much warmer, softer, bigger, while the 1176 to me is sharper, brighter, punchier.  The 1176 will not do this "thirteen" guitar sound at all.  But if you can get a 176, it will be hard to maintain.

I have always loved this 176 more than any other compressor, so that was the inspiration for with our custom in-house Lucas Limiting Amplifiers.  They have the same basic controls and tubes, but we improved reliability, noise floor, added some of our own circuitry, etc. (they are NOT clones).   These Lucas are the compressors I have used for almost everything I've done for the past 15 years (all of Lenny's vocals on "5" went through them, and he bought a couple for himself).  Just this week I had to change a tube for the second time.  This 176 concept uses the tube itself for the gain comparison and reduction, not an opto or vca or anything such as most do.  The Fairchild also used this method, and the EAR 660, of course.

Yes, when you hear Gimmer, it's easy to see the Big Star acoustic guitar sound inspiration.

Thanks!
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Lee Flier

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #8 on: February 12, 2005, 01:04:17 am »

Wow, wow, wow.  These are some of my favorite records ever.  Too cool to hear these stories Terry, thank you. Smile

neve1073

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #9 on: February 12, 2005, 04:43:30 am »

Thanks for the reply and forgive my ignorance. I did an image search for the 176 and there it was in all its tube glory. What a buxome looking piece of gear. It made me drool!
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strawberrius

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #10 on: February 12, 2005, 11:28:51 am »

hi terry-

how awesome that u r here!

i have always wondered about the strat sound on "september gurls"
especially the overdub solo-ish gtr  pre V2 that ends in the "hard days night" chord.

can u shed any light on how this tremendously awesome sound came to light?

- doubled with slight varispeed?
- D.I. or amp?
- is it alex playing or chris?
- which compressor? the 176 again?

also what phasor pedal is used on the ballad of el goodo?

thanks-

john fields
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compasspnt

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #11 on: February 12, 2005, 07:33:49 pm »

strawberrius wrote on Sat, 12 February 2005 11:28

... about the strat sound on "september gurls"
especially the overdub solo-ish gtr  pre V2 that ends in the "hard days night" chord.

can u shed any light on how this tremendously awesome sound came to light?

- doubled with slight varispeed?
- D.I. or amp?
- is it alex playing or chris?
- which compressor? the 176 again?

also what phasor pedal is used on the ballad of el goodo?



Hi John,

Alex played all of the guitars on September Gurls.  Chris was no longer in the band, having left because of certain "creative differences," shall we say.  He did contribute to the second album a bit, especially with a couple of songs which had already been written, but played very little, if any, on Radio City.  The first album was really more Chris Bell's, instigation, with some of the songs his, plus tremendous Alex contributions (such as When My Baby's Beside Me, I think one of the all time great pop songs; this one was all Alex.  Also 13, Give Me Chance, Sunrise, Goodo, etc.).   The second album was fully Alex's baby.

The SGurls sound is two things.  One is definitely a Stratocaster, a late 60's or early 70's one that Alex had, played through a Fender Super Reverb silverface amp (just post the CBS changeover, as I recall.  This amp had the 4 x 10's.)  As I understand it, these amps were the same basic circuitry as the pre-CBS ones, with cosmetic differences.  CBS hadn't gone in and "messed them up" yet, as some believe they did.  There may have been one or two tracks of this.

The second part of the sound is Alex playing a "mando-guitar" type thing, with double strings (4 sets of 2).  This was somewhat like a mandolin, but electric, and bigger.  I don't remember how it was tuned, but I think it may have been closer to 4 string guitar tuning, rather than classic mandolin tuning.  This gave a bit of a 12 string sound, but not as full, and brighter.  Very distinctive, I think.  I have one of these mando-guitars, and recently played it through my Super, and there was the sound.

As for the compressor, I don't really know, but it probably was the 176.  There were also some 1176's, and SpectraSonics ones there too, so it might have been one of them.

The El Goodo sound was also a Strat through a Super.  Alex had some kind of a leslie-simulator pedal that he ran through.  It may have been a UniVibe (???), but I'm really not sure.

Thanks for your questions!

Terry
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Arf! Mastering

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #12 on: February 12, 2005, 09:31:36 pm »

I just ordered all the discs. Thanks for the history.
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bblackwood

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #13 on: February 12, 2005, 09:51:51 pm »

About 5 years ago (while I was still at Ardent) I was put in charge of archiving all of the Big Star masters, which we did to both 1/2", 30ips analog tape and digitally at 24/44.1kHz. It was stunning to hear these mixes, cut in the early 70's, that were so clean and crisp, sounding amazing even today.

John Fry was a genius engineer. No wonder so many great engineers have gotten their start there (not talking about myself, of course).
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compasspnt

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Re: Big Star/ # 1 Record
« Reply #14 on: February 12, 2005, 10:18:41 pm »

bblackwood wrote on Sat, 12 February 2005 21:51


John Fry was a genius engineer. No wonder so many great engineers have gotten their start there (not talking about myself, of course).


Well, I think it's exaggeration to say that any really great engineers got their start there (yourself excluded, perhaps).  And to be honest, there is nothing really magic about the Ardent Studios on Madison (but there was magic on National Street!); although maybe I say that knowing too many 'inside stories.'   BUT...

John Fry is a true unsung hero of audio.  John did things the careful, simple way, "by the book."  He was a true gentleman, and was always the utmost professional.  He cared about recorded audio in a high fidelity way before that was fashionable.  John wrote part of the book on modern recording, and those of us who were privileged to be around when he was actually doing it, learned a lot from him.  We had to make much of it up, as there were no studio guidelines yet.  There were strange mistakes, of course, such as with the first set of monitors installed in the new Ardent professional location on National Street, about 1964 or 65.  These were AR home hi-fi speakers, which were excellent for their day.  But they couldn't take the raw power of single instruments with high transients blasting through them, and we kept blowing them up.  The audio dealer couldn't understand why, so he came around to see for himself.  When he heard a live bass and drum track crashing across the stereo soundfield, he jumped back, and said to just forget it with these speakers!  He had never heard anything like that.  So we had to go to JBL's.  Another funny thing about the monitors was that, because we had four tracks on our Scully, we thought we needed four monitor speakers, one for each track.  So that's what we put up, hung from the ceiling by metal poles and flanges bolted to the top of the speakers (of course, on the first try, the screws were too long, and they went right into the inside of the cabinet!)  It wasn't until a while later that we realised we really only needed two speakers, and we'd spread the number of tracks across the stereo field!  (But we did keep one in the centre for mono!)

John stopped engineering after just a few years, and went totally into the business side of things.  But he sure left a legacy!

TM
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