Behind every musical milestone there's a pioneering engineer. In the first of an occasional series, Richard Buskin looks at classic recordings from a technical angle. This month, former Van Morrison engineer Elliot Scheiner talks about the 1970s sessions which produced the 'Domino' effect...
ARTIST: Van Morrison
LABEL: Warner Brothers
PRODUCER: Van Morrison
ENGINEER: Elliot Scheiner
STUDIO: A&R Recording (New York)
Elliot Scheiner started out in the music business in 1967 as an assistant to legendary producer Phil Ramone at the latter's studio, A&R Recording, located on 48th Street in New York City. There he remained until 1973, during which time he learned how to cut discs, and even how to work with film on his way to becoming a fully‑fledged engineer.
"They believed in well‑rounded engineers in those days," he recalls. "A&R was a full‑service facility, and back then people didn't make tape copies, they had reference discs cut — so you had to know how to cut a disc. On top of that there was a lot of film work being done, so you also had to know how to deal with things such as magnetic stripe, not to mention learning how to mike practically everything that came into the studio."
After going freelance (see boxout), Scheiner continued working for A&R until the start of 1977, by which time Phil Ramone had sold his interest in the studio. That year he won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Recording for Steely Dan's Aja, and four years later scooped the same prize for Gaucho. Other nominations in this category have included those for Donald Fagen's The Night Fly, Glenn Frey's Soul Searchin', and Jennifer Warnes' The Hunter.
Now, however, if you are sitting comfortably, let's travel through the time warp back to 1970, and the recording of Van Morrison, His Band And Street Choir, Van's follow‑up to his hit album, Moondance, which had been released earlier that year. Morrison was nominally the producer of Moondance when it was recorded in 1969, but when the time came for mixing, he wanted to return home to Woodstock in upstate New York for Christmas. Thus he asked Elliot Scheiner and drummer Gary Malabar to take care of the mix, and then send him copies of their work.
This they duly did, prompting Scheiner to ponder his role in the process. Back in 1970 he was to have co‑produced the Street Choir album with Morrison, but during the sessions the two men fell out, and so the task fell to Morrison and his new drummer, Daud Shaw. Scheiner ended up with only a 'Production Co‑ordinator' credit. Yet it was 'Domino', one of only two cuts on the album mixed by Scheiner, which became the major hit of the album.
In 1970, A&R Recording was equipped with a relatively new 32‑input, 16‑output Neumann console. "By that time we had onboard EQ, but there was nothing beyond that," recalls Elliot Scheiner. "There were no in‑line compressors, and no gates or anything like that. There had already been a console with all of that in‑line, but this one just didn't have it."
While the control room measured about 18 x 15 feet, the recording area was wrapped around it in an L‑shape and measured about 40 x 20 feet, with an additional 20 x 20 feet at the tail of the 'L'. Fabric covered all of the walls, there was carpeting on the risers and in the vocal booths. A composite was utilized for the floor in the basic part of the studio, and the ceilings were decorated with acoustic tiles.
"Back in those days they built rooms as much for appearance — and maybe sometimes more for appearance — as for sound," Scheiner explains. "In the case of this particular room, however, I think they lucked out, because the sound was good."
In the fall of 1969 much of Moondance had been recorded in this room with a Scully 8‑track machine, whereas the Band And Street Choir sessions upgraded to 16‑track. The monitors were Altec 604Es, with Mastering Lab crossovers, and in terms of the effects... well, there weren't any.
"In that room we had three EMT 140s," Scheiner recalls, "We used an analogue tape machine to delay the send to the echo chambers, and that's about all we had. I mean, there might have been a Cooper Time Cube and there might have been an old Eventide digital delay, but that was it. Whatever processing you did, if you were going to flange something you used machines for it. That's what I ended up doing on Band And Street Choir, and I remember using a couple of different machines to do it. But the primary outboard gear consisted of echo chambers and delays, and that was all we used."
Morrison and his band had already rehearsed much of the album's material in Woodstock, prior to arriving in New York City for the recording sessions. Then he and Scheiner worked on the songs' arrangements in the studio.
"The drums were placed on a riser against the back wall of the recording area, front‑center of the control room," he recalls. "For the foot drum I used an EV 666, and then there was a 57 on the snare, 251s for the overheads, Sony C37s for the toms, a KM84 for the floor tom and a salt shaker on the hi‑hat. The bass player was positioned to the left of the drums as we were looking at them, and he was playing a Fender — probably a Precision — which was DI'd. The guitarist was standing on the other side of the drums, and his guitars would have probably been going through Fender amps, and all miked with 57s. Then, further to the right, there was a 12 x 6 feet vocal booth, in which Van was playing an acoustic guitar and singing live, and for the acoustic I used an 87.
"Actually — I'm embarrassed to say this now — but back in the early '70s, the 87 was the mic of choice! After all, people were getting off of the old tubes, because they required more maintenance. They were just getting rid of them in favour of these new all‑purpose mics. I mean, we'd put up the U47 for a vocal, but we didn't have pop filters specifically designed for it. We didn't have wind‑screens either, and so somebody would be singing and spit into it, and the mic would close down for 20 seconds.
"So studio owners were just buying these 87s,, as they thought they were the best things around, and I myself liked them. It definitely was an all‑purpose mic, and you could literally use it on so many things; we used it for horns and we used it for strings, vocals, drums, piano... I mean, it had so many uses. The tube mics were definitely warmer, but back then we didn't know enough, and we weren't discerning enough — you know, we were making rock 'n' roll records. There really wasn't much thought put into it, because we were limited as to what was available in the studio. You just went in and did it. There was no such thing as renting mics from rental companies — that wasn't done. So, you worked with what you had, and if that was what the studio owned, then that was what you used. You put anything else out of your mind...
"At A&R Recording, when they started getting in the 87s, they also began selling off all of the old tubes. In fact, the 251s that I used on the overheads (for 'Domino') were the last remaining tube mics there, except for maybe a couple of 47s and a couple of 48s."
In the light of all this, it is not too surprising to learn that those new‑fangled 87s were also used to record the piano, positioned to the left of the bass guitarist and in front of another vocal booth (this one measuring about 6 x 10 feet). A Fender Rhodes, meanwhile, was DI'd. As for the three horn players, positioned in the tail of the L‑shaped studio to the right of the control room, Scheiner employed Sony C37s for the reed instruments and 87s for the brass. All of the aforementioned parts were performed live, and thereafter there was a horn overdub and a re‑recording of Van Morrison's vocal.
"For many of the tracks on that album, however, we retained his original live vocals," Scheiner points out. "I mean, this guy was a great singer, a really phenomenal singer. He'd just get out there and sing, and he was always in tune. He was just wonderful to work with. In terms of him singing and playing acoustic at the same time in the booth, we always had that problem where we'd get vocal in the guitar mic. It never seemed to be a problem with the acoustic going into the vocal, but it was always a problem the other way around. Yet I still don't ever remember replacing the guitar part because of that."
For Moondance, a week had been put aside at the end of the project in order to take care of the mix. In line with this modus operandi, an afternoon was all that was required when Scheiner mixed 'Domino'. Having been absent from most of the mixing sessions, Van Morrison returned for this track, and was inspired to make some late changes.
"I remember him wanting to add a little bit of a rap at the end," says Elliot Scheiner. "'On the radio, on the radio...'. It was a very last‑minute thing. On the other hand, I don't remember too much editing going on with any of that stuff. There may have been one or two cuts where we tagged on endings, but primarily the songs consisted of entire takes.
"You have to remember that back then, even the cuts didn't make the sound great. You know, we went for a vibe, and we cut only when something was really bad. So, if we liked the body of a take, and there was one section which we weren't at all happy with, we'd try to cut it in. We'd look for a take that had the right part, and just try to edit it. You definitely could punch in back then — you couldn't punch in in the middle of a piano part, but we were pretty good at vocals. We wouldn't even attempt punching in single syllables, but we'd punch in a word or two... and pray. Those machines were slow getting out. You could get in with no problem, but getting out was a problem."
And listening to those recordings today, does Scheiner think, 'Ouch!' every time he hears one of those edits?
"No, because I don't listen to them anymore! I can't go back that far. It depresses me. It's just too long ago. I have to say, however, that I had a great time making records back then. Generally, it was more fun than now, because everybody was live. There were so few overdubs; we made records very quickly. The primary thing was the music and not the sound of it. We went for as good a sound as we could get, but nobody worried about that. Everybody was just concerned with the music: 'Did we get the take? Did we get the performance?' and that was an approach that I could really relate to."
"There was nothing sophisticated with regard to effects. In general, people just wanted their instruments to sound on record the way that they sounded in a room"
2: Kick drum
6: Fender Rhodes
7: Electric guitar
8: Acoustic guitar
11: Room mics
12: Horn overdubs
13: Vocal overdubs
14: Not used
15: Not used
16: Not used
Who Dares Wins
After six years at Phil Ramone's A&R studios, Elliot Scheiner began feeling taken for granted:
"As part of the studio staff, I had been bringing in more than a million dollars a year in business for them — a phenomenal amount of money," he says. "Meanwhile, they were paying me $40,000, and I thought, 'Gee, this isn't right!' So, I said, 'Look, I don't want to do this anymore. I want a commission for all of my clients,' and they said, 'Sorry, but no.'
"Then, I called all of my clients and told them I wasn't working at A&R anymore, and everybody cancelled their sessions, so the studio called me back and said, 'Okay, what do you want?' I said, 'I want 20% of everything,' and they said, 'Okay.' But when my cheque for the first week was like $5,000 or $6,000, they called me back and said, 'This isn't working!' So we ended up with a deal comprising 20% on time and 15% on tape, and that worked out pretty well.
"When the other guys saw what I was making they all decided to do the same, and that was the beginning of the demise of the staff engineer."
The Way We Were — Recording And Mixing In The '70S
"Back when 'Domino' was recorded, mixing amounted to balancing, EQ, reverb and echoes," recalls Elliot Scheiner. "Everything was always cut dry. We didn't necessarily cut it flat — we'd use compression and EQ while we were cutting — but we never used reverb when we were cutting. When you hear one of those recordings now, you go, 'Wow, man, there's nothing on this record!' but, you know, you forget that we really didn't put much on it. We were so unaccustomed to echo and reverb that when you put some on it sounded alien, because that's just not the way instruments sounded. There was nothing sophisticated with regard to effects. In general, people just wanted their instruments to sound on record the way that they sounded in a room, and so that's what you went for.
"Things like double‑tracking with the Eventide we used only very occasionally, hardly ever. Personally, I was far more into flanging stuff. Like on 'Domino', I remember flanging the horns, sending them to one mono tape machine and then to the other, and then having a variable‑speed oscillator on one of the machines and just cranking it ever so slightly, so that it would go out of phase.
"Apart from that, if we wanted an effect going for live stuff, we'd sometimes employ a room mic sparingly, or I'd face a guitar amp into a piano and then pick up the harmonics off of the strings. Doing stuff like that we thought was very arty — it turned out to be a crock of shit! People couldn't hear it anyway! You'd say, 'Oh, you know what I did here?' and they'd go, 'What?' 'Oh, really?' Nobody cared, but it was just a case of who could be cooler than the next guy, and in that respect I think that the English were definitely more adventurous than the Americans.
I remember the first time I heard Elton John's records over here, I thought, 'Geez! How did they record those strings and those drums?' It was unbelievable, and what it turned out to be was the difference between the CCIR curve and the NAB curve. When I eventually went over to England and worked in a studio, I thought, 'This doesn't sound so great,' but when I brought it back to the United States and played CCIR‑recorded stuff on an NAB curve it was a totally different thing; a phenomenal sound."