A Quarterly Guide to the world of Audio
THE BOSTON PHOENIX
August 30, 1977
By William Manning
Chris Kimsey, the producer of Peter Frampton's Camel and Winds of Change albums, padded conspicuously about the 19th-century frame house at Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. While everyone else wore the obligatory T-shirts and denim, Kimsey was decked out in a pair of green swimming trunks, sandals and a blue-and-white print shirt, all of which seemed a bit out of place: he looked like a Nikkormated tourist who had missed the stop marked "Riviera." (Pictured here: Carillo, Markle, Kristy and Chris Kimsey.)
He was, however, exactly where he wanted to be – at Long View, a rural recording studio in the rolling hills of central Massachusetts that is on its way to becoming one of the premiere facilities of its kind on the East Coast. The casual dress and relaxed atmosphere belied the importance of the sizable investment Atlantic Records was making in a new group by the name of Carillo, an amalgam of musicians who had been sidemen to the likes of the Bee Gees, Chuck Berry and Peter Frampton. The English producer was to oversee the sessions that would last for five weeks and hopefully result in another monster album to his credit. Kimsey's presence was the latest coup for Long View and its owner, Gil Markle, a sign that the studio's days of struggling to make ends meet were over. (Frank Carillo pictured here.)
Markle, a 36-year-old businessman, is the founder of the American Leadership Study Groups, a multi-million-dollar operation conducting overseas student tours for academic credit. With PhDs from Yale and the Sorbonne, he might, one would think, be involved in loftier endeavors than playing around with tape recorders.
But a hobby that started with a four-track machine used for making demos and copies of friends' albums has turned into a 145-acre residential recording facility complete with goats, chickens, cows, and horses – not to mention two state-of-the-art recording studios that boast a 24-track apparatus located on the ground floor of the farmhouse, and a 16-track machine (soon to be converted to 24 tracks) on the second floor of the enormous red barn. Markle made the investment (well into six figures) to deliver himself from the boredom of merely duplicating someone else's sounds. It would be more fun, he decided, to originate the signal himself, and after several years of scrambling after business, Long View is finally over the hump. Markle's attempts, over the last year or so, at soliciting business by speaking with artists, producers, and agents (and by mailing them his brochure) came to fruition when Long View hosted Stevie Wonder's press party for the release of Songs in the Key of Life. Then came a taping session with Stuff, the house band on NBC's Saturday Night, followed by another with Don McLean, who liked the place so much he bought one of the farm's horses (he visits it regularly). Kimsey was more icing on the cake, the latest confirmation that the fledgling studio had finally hit the big time.
Initial contacts were almost entirely by word of mouth," Markle said from the Worcester headquarters of the American Leadership Study Groups. "That word of mouth is stimulated by having people who are well known recording here. The second most efficacious means was to distribute literature about the place. Stevie Wonder was there at Long View in response to our mailing of the brochure; his PR firm picked it up and said 'This is the place for Stevie to come.'
"This business is all hype, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. It's like getting a snowball rolling; once it starts building momentum, it gets bigger and bigger, a phenomenon that's happening with us now."
If hype is the number-one reason for the success of the farm, then the facilities themselves run a very close second. For recording pros, Long View is, quite simply, heaven with horse manure, a renovated but still rustic house and barn that shelter an anything but rustic array of electronic paraphernalia as imposing as it is unfathomable to the uninitiated. Each of the two buildings holds a studio designed from an aesthetic, rather than an acoustic, point of view – a sound move (can we ever forget the acoustic fiasco of the first Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center?) and an approach that turned out to be a plus because of the interesting things that are supposed to happen in the midrange of sounds (they come across more brightly) made in the cozy wood and glass enclosures. With the curtains pulled up in the studio, a little more "life" is added to a recording. When they are closed, people with an ear for this sort of thing describe the acoustics as ranging from "dead" to "semi-live." Unlike urban studios that have resorted to suspending the recording and control rooms, from the rest of the building so they float on a kind of shock absorber and remain unaffected by the vibrations of traffic. Long View has planted its rooms on terra firma. Unfortunately, we weren't able to observe the studio's circuitry in action. Artistic temperament rules in the control room, and Chris Kimsey would not countenance non-essential visitors to his bailiwick, Studio A.
Studio A is both more and less than the average nit might expect a recording studio to be. The imagination conjures up a Hollywood sound stage with enough room for Andre Kostelanetz and his boys to saw away on an orchestral accompaniment for anyone who happened to be recording at the moment. Instead, there were two rooms of ordinary size (together, they might have constituted a large living room) separated by a pane of glass; one room was filled with guitars, amps, and mikes, while the other was dominated by the central clearinghouse for all this circuitry, a 24-track MCI console that must have been five feet square, decorated with a veritable scrub forest of switches, meters and levers. The console controls the volume and balance of the instruments and voices that wind up on the 24-track tape recorder, and is again called into play when the 24 channels are mixed down to the two tracks on the master tape that is eventually sent to the factory where the records are pressed.
Twenty-four-track equipment has become the staple of the industry and Gil Markle and his staff have found that in order to get the business it needs a studio must have the hardware that engineers and producers want, one reason why Long View opted for the MCI. The control board doesn't have a reputation for being among the more durable, according to in-house engineer Jesse Henderson, but it is one of the more advanced electronically, with one bank of buttons hooked up to a computer that can remember eight mixes. In other words, an instrument can be assigned to one of eight tracks and each track programmed so that a particular effect (some reverberation, for example) or a correction in the volume or tonal quality can be "kicked in" automatically when that track is replayed. Another convenience of the MCI is the "grouper fades," a series of eight levers on the control board. One or more of the 24 tracks can be assigned to any one of the grouper fades, which are really just volume controls. If, for instance, a producer has six mikes positioned around a set of drums (one for the cymbals, one for the snare, one for the bass, etc.), with each mike leading to a separate rack on the console and ultimately to the tape recorder, it could be awkward to play with a half-dozen switches to bring up or fade out the drums. All six tracks, however, can be assigned to one lever to simplify the task of the producer.
Why a four-man group needs 24 tracks still remains something of a mystery to this observer, but the recording industry has always spoiled itself with gadgetry, much of it overkill. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the most complex albums ever recorded, was made, we were told, on a four-track machine, but it has become necessary to offer the option of 24 tracks to pull in the high rollers.
Along with the question of what kind of console a studio has comes the inevitable inquiry about the type of ancillary gear a facility has to offer – synthesizers and gizmos that can brighten sound or creatively distort it. Long View has a mechanical menagerie of these devices that rivals anything to be found in New York or LA studios. Groups that have recorded in sub-professional facilities (and have tape to prove it) may find they have unwanted background noise. For them, the farm has the dbx noise reduction system; it isn't used often on rock 'n' roll because it usually interferes with transience (highs and lows are cut out, resulting in an overall sound that doesn't come across as brilliantly). It's more commonly used on quiet tunes where strings and other instruments with a soft sound are employed. Or let's say you have a lead singer whose thin, reedy voice doesn't project much farther than his nose; the farm's Aphex oral stimulator can give that pathetic whine some presence. And then there is the Even Tide Digital Delay for echoes, and the same company's Instant Phaser, which creates a "whooshie" sound that can be heard on that oldie but goodie, "The Big Hurt" by Toni Fisher.
A Kepex noise-gate for eliminating extraneous sounds, a Gain Brain for automatically correcting for sudden increases in volume that may overload a tape, an Orban Parasound Stereo Matrix Synthesizer to split a mono signal and make it sound like stereo, a half-dozen synthesizers from Mellotron, Elka, Hammond, and Arp – the list of hallowed names in recording and special-effects technology goes on and on.
Studio A's 24-track recording and mix-down rooms rent for $135 per hour, with a maximum charge of $1500 per day (less than that on a weekly or monthly basis). That may sound like a lot, but it includes all editing, copying, the services of one in-house engineer, meals, drinks, and overnight lodging for up to 8 people if the studio is booked for two or more consecutive days; tape (they use only Ampex) is extra. If that still sounds like a lot, there is Studio B, the 16-track facility in the barn, which rents for a modest $80 per hour; there is a three-hour minimum for Studio B with no lodging, meals, or drinks included except by special arrangement.
It should be remembered that at $1500 per day one has the exclusive use of the farm and studio, so there is no pressure to rush and throw a mix together because another group is about to come in. Gone is the hassle of schlepping in and out of urban recording studios, of grabbing a hamburger in a spare moment. The staff assembled by Markle and managed by Kent Huff, himself a musician, gears itself to the needs of the performers who come there, scheduling meal times and menus to conform to the requirements of the farm's guests. Cigarette butts and beer cans from a night's work in the studio disappear as if by magic before any of the renters get up the next morning – all in the interest of having the group start the day with a clean slate. Esprit de corps, you know, but sometimes a little friction with the staff.
"People's heads are the biggest problem, how the musicians feel in this environment." Kent Huff reflected. "The tension can be incredible. The ones who come here have their egos and reputations coming down on a two- or three-week period in which they basically put their signature on a piece of tape, and others will say 'Well, that's what so-and-so is.' They are defined by the last product they put out and the tension makes them snappish and defensive when they're in here recording. Like maybe a guy is getting a great vocal together and a machine breaks. The pressure at that point is all on the studio and the responsibility is tremendous."
It's enough to make some New York studios keep two of everything on hand. In New York scheduling is tight and many studios are in use 24 hours a day, but Long View has a more leisurely pace. There isn't two of everything yet, so if recording equipment fails it fails, and you wait until it's fixed. It's a problem handled deftly by the management, which can always fall back on horseback rides or a swim in the farm's pond to keep guests amused until services are restored. One goes to Long View, after all, with the idea of taking one's time, of getting a decent night's sleep and a chance to eat home cooking. It is fast becoming an oasis for groups from England or the West Coast who are finishing tours and appreciate the chance to unwind and put their latest ideas down on tape.
So far, Long View has confined its recording work to reel-to-reel tape and cassettes (they have a Nakamichi 550, one of the most advanced cassette recorders on the market). A new dimension may be added within the next two years, however, when video discs, those remarkable pieces of plastic that will reproduce music stereophonically and supply a video tape performance through the family television, make their long-heralded debut on the market. Anticipating the coming breakthrough in home entertainment, Studio B in the barn is currently being renovated in modular units to accommodate the new technology once it arrives – an event that, five years ago, was expected to take place in 1977. Now, because of technical and legal difficulties, the ETA has been pushed back to 1979, a move that has given Markle a little more time to recover from the nearly four years of construction and renovation that have made sawdust as much a part of Long View Farm as is magnetic tape. With the recording end of the operation finally paying for itself; Gil Markle and company can look forward to the introduction of electronic images with a measure of financial confidence, calmly taking the additional capital outlay step by step – or, as he put it, "Each million dollars, at a time."
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.