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Renaissance Audio Engineer
In the insane world of recording and record production, we occasionally stumble across someone whose work puts him or her at many important junctures in music history, yet their name remains unknown to the general public. Richard Alderson is one such man. What's he done? Personal audio technician for Sherman Fairchild, of Fairchild 660 Compressor fame? Uncredited engineer of Bob Dylan's Live at The Gaslight 1962 album? Live sound mixer of Dylan's notorious "electric" tour of 1965-6? The main recording force behind ESP-DISK Records' free jazz and avant-folk heyday? Creator of the first tape-collage piece in popular music - "Virgin Forest" by The Fugs? Engineer of Nina Simone's most renowned live recordings? Documentarian of the indigenous music of Chiapas, Mexico? Mixer and recording engineer of Winelight by Grover Washington, Jr., featuring "Just the Two of Us" with Bill Withers? Provider of loudspeakers to the stars? Designer of studios around NYC for 40 years? Yes, Richard's done all this and more. Artists diverse as Leopold Stokowski, Albert Ayler, The Last Poets, The Fania All-Stars, Ashford & Simpson, Gloria Estefan and Johnny Nash have benefited from his audio engineering skills. Too good to be true? Here's his story.
How did you get involved in recording?
Sound and music were my hobbies as a teenager. I aimed to be a poet, philosopher or a scientist. The year and a half I spent in college, I took a triple load of majors, but when it came time to make a living, I ended up working in record stores. I worked at the original Sam Goody here in New York (the biggest and best of the old time record stores). After I had sold LPs for a while, they asked me if I knew anything about hi-fi, so I set up the hi-fi department. I ended up working on Madison Avenue, installing high-end hi-fi systems for wealthy people. By then I had decided that I wanted to be recording engineer and an avant-garde composer. I started off working for Sherman Fairchild, famous audio pioneer and the richest man in America at the time. I also did live sound for a lot of clubs around the village and for a number folk music acts. Then I got my hands on a tape recorder, some microphones and a little tube mixer and just started recording. I began engineering by just doing it. I started with live recording because I didn't have a studio of my own. I recorded some stuff on the sly at the Village Gate. I built and ran the sound system there and I hid a microphone above the stage. My career started with the guy who did the lighting there, Chip Monck. Chip convinced everyone I was a great recording engineer, and that's how I got my first major gig recording Nina Simone. I recorded Nina's Live at the Village Gate and then I did her album, Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall. The Thelonius Monk that I surreptitiously recorded at the Gate [Live at the Village Gate] was eventually issued commercially and I was given producer credit. The Dylan recordings that I made after-hours at the Gaslight Cafe during this period were issued on Starbucks [Live at The Gaslight 1962] a couple years back (unaccountably uncredited). After I'd been on the road with Harry Belafonte doing live sound with a system of my own design (Harry was the first artist to carry his own gear), Dylan's manager [Albert Grossman] asked me to do the same thing for Bob on the '65-'66 tour with members of The Band.
Dylan's infamous "electric" tour.
I built Dylan's road systems for this tour. I built one system for the western leg (Hawaii and Australia) and a second one for Europe. But more than anything I wanted my own recording studio in New York. Dylan said, "Do the sound on this tour and I'll help build you a recording studio when we're finished." Unfortunately, by the time his tour was over, we were burned out with each other and went our separate ways.
You were the front-of-house sound guy?
Front-of, back-of, wherever!
Fans complained about the excessive volume of those Dylan shows.
In fact it wasn't loud enough. We didn't have the equipment to properly fill the halls we were in. The music itself was some of the most incandescent rock 'n' roll ever made. If the audience thought it too loud, it was because they wanted to hear some acoustic folk from Bob. The audiences we played for just didn't get it. They were way behind Bob's evolution as an artist. The backup group was The Hawks (soon to be known as The Band) without Levon Helm [on drums]. Levon was replaced by this kickass drummer from Texas [Mickey Jones]. Mickey actually put out a video of the tour, but it's only backstage stuff, not performances [Bob Dylan - World Tour 1966: The Home Movies]. You can see me in that. There was also a movie made [by D.A. Pennebaker] that was never finished, called Eat the Document, and that's got me in it too. A lot of Eat the Document was later incorporated into the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. I'm on screen quite a bit in this, and also mysteriously uncredited.
It seems like Dylan was hard to deal with.
Not particularly. I was pretty wild and hard to deal with myself. Bob had a lot going on after that '66 tour, and helping me build a studio was obviously not high on his list. When Belafonte asked me again to go back on the road with him, I said, "Only if you invest in my recording studio." Finally, Harry became my partner and put up enough money up to make our studio very well equipped.
You already had a space?
Yes. A friend of mine who was a painter had come to me and said, "I found this place on West 65th Street for $200 a month. The building's been condemned, but who knows when they'll tear it down?" They didn't tear it down for seven or eight years. It had no hot water, no heat and it was pretty small. A young lady I knew from the Village who had some family money bankrolled me for a seven-foot Yamaha grand piano and some basic equipment. We started off very simple with a 2-track, some Altec tube mixers and a couple of microphones. The studio was about 30 by 25 feet, and the recording booth was 6 feet deep by 12 feet wide - quite small. It was first called RLA (my initials), and after Belafonte invested it was renamed Impact Recording. Harry recorded some really good tracks of his own at Impact, which for unknown reasons have never been released. We had one of the first 8-track tape machines ever, 4- and 2-track Ampex decks, a big EMT stereo plate and a transistor-based recording console that I assembled myself. I'm not really a genius electronic engineer, but I'm a good at DIY. That's where all the '60s recordings and the ESP Records stuff was done.
What sessions happened there before ESP work came in?
I didn't have that much business initially. Then I started working with Don Schlitten from Prestige Records, for whom I recorded quite a number of excellent, straight-ahead jazz records. Unfortunately these sessions often don't get properly credited on CD reissues. The session information either just gets left off, or they assume that Rudy Van Gelder [issue #43] was the engineer.
When did you start doing sessions for ESP Records and Bernard Stollman?
Before I even finished the studio, I did a couple of things for Bernard. The Bells LP with Albert Ayler and Charles Tyler live at Town Hall was the first thing I did for ESP.
Was Bernard in the studio for any of the sessions?
Very seldom. Two or three times he showed up, said very little and left quietly. I recorded 90 percent of the ESP catalog on my own, just myself and the artists. After I recorded the Bells concert at Town Hall, I became friendly with Albert Ayler. He was the only one of all those free jazz players that I got to know well. Regrettably we only did one studio recording together. Other than Ayler, my favorite free jazz artist was Sun Ra. I had a lot of respect for him, and I did some great recordings of his Arkestra.
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra albums must have been a challenge to record.
Unfortunately I wasn't ever given much information about the instrumentation or personnel for ESP sessions in advance. The studio was completely overcrowded with Sun Ra's big band. Just getting all the instruments in the room was a challenge. Because I didn't have enough microphones, channels or space to separate everybody, groups of horns were on single microphones. Only the piano, the bass and drums had their own mics. Sun Ra and the band were happy with it. I feel that I captured the emotional focus of the band very well.
You recorded Patty Waters' underrated debut, Sings.
That was unforgettable. [Pianist] Burton Greene really had to stretch to figure out what she was going to do on "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair". She seemed right on the edge of madness. Patty was really unique, performing with complete abandon and extreme intensity. I encouraged her not to hold back.
ESP became known for supporting free jazz music.
The free jazz thing took off because Stollman encouraged it. Those artists would show up, blow their brains out for a couple of hours on tape and then ESP would issue it. We were just trying to capture the force and flavor of whatever the artists intended. It is generally assumed that the free jazz players and so-called psychedelic folkies I recorded and produced were stoned out freaks. That is an exaggeration.
I wouldn't think so from their music.
A lot of people around me had reputations of being drugged out. It does often sound like they were stoned and crazy, but it's just not generally true. It is difficult to be stoned out and consistently creative.
They were just naturally eccentric?
Tom Rapp (Pearls Before Swine) was not a druggie. Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg (The Fugs) were pretty sober guys, all said. The free jazz players weren't any more stoned than many more straight-ahead jazz artists, as far as I could tell. There were some leaders and band members who had bad habits, and I personally never met a drug I didn't like back in those days.
The Fugs and others have said that Bernard and ESP didn't treat them well financially.
I've never gotten one cent as a producer from Stollman, even though whatever serious money ESP made was (by Bernard's admission) from sessions I had produced. I got my session recording fees and that was it. Nobody has gotten serious money out of Bernard, period. I don't think any large fortune has gotten into Stollmans's pocket either. Every five years or so, he calls me up out of the blue and says, "I owe you a lot of money and a lot of credit." And I say, "That's right Bernard, send me a check and give me some producer/engineer credit." That's the last I hear from him-until the next time.
What was the incentive for you, if the session fees weren't that much?
Working on ESP albums wasn't the same tame thing over and over again, like many of the conventional sessions that I did. The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine allowed me to be creative as a producer when nothing else did. I did expect to profit from those productions eventually. Was I was dreaming?
What experimenting was going on in the studio?
Certainly some of the very first avant/electronic stuff was part of these sessions. What was innovative in Pearls Before Swine and The Fugs was the use of natural sounds [musique concrète]. I wasn't much of a synthesizer guy. Sun Ra had one of those early, three-tube, one-octave keyboard things that kind of imitated a Theremin. The Holy Modal Rounders' album [Indian War Whoop] had a lot of strange sounds mixed in. It's a pretty elaborate record, and I did have a hand in shaping it. Exotic-tuned percussion has always been an important part of my productions. Warren Smith, a world-class percussionist and all around great musician, is omnipresent on my work from this period, such as the six-foot high contrabass marimba he played on "Suzanne" from the second Pearls LP [Balaklava].
Bernard certainly allowed all of these amazing people to make their debut albums.
Yes, but he could've made it work a whole lot better than he did. Bernard's still standing. He still has a record company. He's still issuing the records, whereas most of ESP's original artists don't have careers any more. The reason I don't have a great reputation from producing The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine? It's the same reason that many ESP artists have never been recognized for their genius. No nurturing and no investment from ESP.
Did you ever play on any of the records you recorded?
I played some percussion. Ed [Sanders] and I wrote "Virgin Forest" together. My instrument was the tape recorder. I have always seen my role as the musician whose axe was the tape machine. Today I play the hard drive.
You were among the very first to utilize creative tape splicing and sound design in pop music.
I was influenced by musique concrète and composers like Pierre Henry. One of the records that influenced me deeply was his Le Voyage. Henry made this music by breathing across a [Neumann] U47 microphone. It was structured after the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
What other recording was going on during Impact's heyday?
We did the first Last Poets session. We had a steady gospel music clientele. We recorded a chart hit with the folk/pop group Spanky & Our Gang. We recorded over 20 LPs for the salsa pioneers Fania Records. We did several recordings for a Latvian performance group. I produced the audio for a Belafonte TV special, A Time for Laughter, about Afro-American humor through the years. We did all the prerecording for the network broadcast at Impact. There was hardly an area of the recording arts that wasn't covered at Impact in the 1960s.
Did you never think to suggest to anyone that you do your own album?
That was my initial goal in becoming a recording engineer, that I would master the technology and then make my own electronic music. It just never happened. When I finally got around to making music, it was with a bunch of hippies in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. I built a little studio there high in the Sierra Madre del Sur.
Why did you split for Mexico?
I was burnt out. I had enough money to live in the mountains and grow vegetables. I moved to Mexico in '69 and stayed there for six years. I had a thirst to learn about indigenous American music, and that was the place where there was more indigenous American culture than anywhere else I had heard of. I gathered a lot of information about Chiapas from friends that had gone down there to visit and study. I wanted to immerse myself in an indigenous culture and discover as much as I could about it.
Was your own band in Mexico influenced by local native music?
We did our interpretation of their music. They loved that we did it and they played our recording every day on the local radio station. I had a 25-acre ranch, and I wasn't really a hippie, but the hippies came and stayed with me. They camped out on my ranch and we made music together.
You made some of your own instruments?
I made several drums, a guitar, a viola da gamba and three flutes. Only one drum and flute remain.
I know you recorded some of the indigenous music of the region [released by Smithsonian Folkways].
When I returned from Chiapas, I sold the indigenous recordings to Folkways. The original tapes had some crude cuts due to the fact that my editing and mastering facilities were quite limited. When owner Moe Asch died, Folkways Records became part of the Smithsonian, and these tapes were issued as LPs and cassettes for a while. Then they made them available as CD-Rs. They sold two or three of these a year. The Smithsonian sent me these versions and they were pretty screwed up. After two years of writing to them and pleading, they finally agreed to let me remaster them properly. It was a lot of work, but it resulted in a licensed commercial release on Latitude/Locust Records and some worldwide recognition. I am very proud of this work and am grateful to everyone who contributed to it. These recordings continue to be licensed and distributed by the Smithsonian and were recently used in a widely distributed documentary.
I know you were unhappy with the Pearls Before Swine CD reissues.
The original Pearls tapes sound marvelous, and the original vinyl sounds as good as was possible for that time period. Nothing that I have recorded pleases me more or sounds better to me than these originals. I would think what one would want would be to make the CD reissues sound as much like the original vinyl or tape as possible, with an archivist's clarity and the great new technology available today. Instead someone took it upon themselves to EQ things so they could say, "I think I made it better." There seems to be a contagion of these remastering engineers running about who, although considerably less talented than the original engineers, think they know better.
Do you like digital audio recording?
I'm the opposite of those guys who want to get back to tape. I couldn't wait to get into digital. It's not that I don't see a lot of virtue in analog. I love tube microphones, tube microphone preamps and loudspeakers without digital processors built in. However, I've been a transistor/digital recording person since the invention of the technology and I remain so. I admit there were a lot of early missteps in the digital realm that gave it a bad name, but with today's technology digital recording is rich and deep without compromise. It's time to move on.
After your return from Mexico, how did you get back into recording again?
My return to the states in '75 was like arriving from another planet. Recording had advanced to 24 tracks from the eight I was accustomed to. Disco was the music of day. Disco recording has some strange qualities I have never understood, like recording in acoustically dead spaces, total separation of instruments, weird-sounding consoles without any depth or air in the sound, and gates on everything. There are few disco recordings I like, but the whole aesthetic is the opposite of what I stand for as an engineer and artist. However, I had no choice except to adapt and learn. I was lucky to find percussionist Ralph MacDonald and his Antisia publishing company willing to fund a new studio. I found another low-rent, small studio space at 48th and Broadway. The landlord said as long as we didn't play any of that "loud bongo music" we would be okay tenants! Again, I built my own console and did the build out of the room myself. I was joined by Eddie Heath, my longtime assistant at Impact. I was also back working with Bill Eaton and Bill Salter, old friends from the '60s and Ralph's partners at Antisia. Our first hit was Ralph's "Calypso Breakdown", which was included in the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. We called the new studio Rosebud Recording, and there we recorded Roberta Flack, Bobbi Humphrey, Ashford & Simpson, Grover Washington, Jr. and Bill Withers, to name just a few. The house rhythm section was usually Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale and Marcus Miller with Ralph McDonald on percussion. "Just the Two of Us" was our biggest record with Grover Washington, Jr. and Bill Withers. After a few years of this I was seriously burnt out again on hard drugs and had to give it up.
What was your next adventure in audio?
This time (the early '80s) was when the home or project studio revolution began. Basically this is what I had been doing all along - building small studios without big money or corporate backing - so I was ideally positioned to start building small rooms for artists and jingle houses. In the beginning it was mostly connecting a lot of MIDI gear. By the '90s I had moved up to designing five-story media complexes.
What sort of music were you recording after Rosebud Recording?
I did a lot of jingles and TV commercials and began regularly working with producer/keyboardist Rob Mounsey on his music projects, which I continue to do today. Some of what I have done with Rob includes Michael Franks, Gloria Estefan, Sadao Watanabe and Aaron Neville. This year we have been nominated for a Grammy [Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical] for Leslie Mendelson's Swan Feathers CD.
What about producing?
I have produced two excellent CDs of Jamaican recording artist Suzanne Couch, and I am currently working on a live recording of the black string band, Ebony Hillbillies. I am back doing live recording with my own rig.
And Alderson Acoustics?
I have some new speaker designs coming out. I have a number of corporate clients to build post-production facilities for soon. I hope to expand my European base with some new studio construction in Ibiza, Spain, in 2010. I guess there's no slowing down!