These are original masters of a radio show that was done from 1954 to 1956. Some of the tapes I got had 3M numbers on them, and it's among the earliest known tape. The Buddy Cole Band was four guys, with keyboard, bass, guitar, and drums. It was like a cocktail band, and Bing would sing. It was all done live; there was no multitracking in those days. They went into a studio, and each guy had a mic. These were guys that could play. — RK
Let's talk about the Bing Crosby radio project.
It's probably the biggest splicing project ever done in analog tape. I did over 50,000 splices.
Just having to restore the splices that were on the original tapes?
The tapes were poorly stored. Many of them had been flooded, the boxes were melting and the tapes were molding, and I had to go through inch by inch with a camel hair brush to wipe off the mold, restore each of the splices, and fix where they had torn. It was acetate tape. It was before the poly tape that they use now.
That's more brittle, right?
It's brittle, and it doesn't stretch — it breaks. It just snaps. Which in some ways was a good thing, because if it stretches, you can't play it. If it snaps, you can put together the 30 pieces with a magnifying glass. [laughs]
How did that job come to your hands?
I had lived next door to Bing Crosby's daughter up at Indigo Ranch. The ranch was originally John Barrymore, Sr.'s place, Drew Barrymore's grandfather, and it was 60 acres overlooking the ocean with orchards and streams and waterfalls in Malibu. And my second-closest neighbor, who was about a quarter of a mile away (we had a good buffer), was Mary Crosby, Bing's daughter. We had been close friends over the years, and when she and her husband went up to Kathryn Crosby's (Bing's widow's house) by San Francisco, he was rummaging through the basement and he opened up this closet and it was like floor-to-ceiling with tapes.
Nobody had known?
Nobody had looked, and nobody had even known that these tapes existed. What they were is original masters of a radio show that was done from 1954 to 1956, some 53 years ago. They were played on the radio once and then stuck in a box and put on the shelf. So, 53 years later, he's rummaging through the basement looking for something, finds this closet of tapes, and is like, "Oh my god, these might be something special! Who knows?" They had no idea what was even on them. So, the son-in-law calls me up and says, "Richard, I know and respect your work. I know you've gone into retirement." I'd just sold the ranch and moved here, gotten rid of all my gear to Sonic Circus. He said, "What we're going to do is I'd like to hire you for a couple of days to come down to Capitol Records' studios, and we're going to go through a sampling of the tapes, and I'm going to have a bunch of world-famous guys there to decide who's going to do this project. Could you just sort of oversee this thing and make sure I don't get screwed?" So I went down to Capitol, and I'm not going to mention any names, but there were a couple of very prominent producers and engineers there that were handpicked to possibly do the restoration. The first guy takes one of the tapes, puts it up on the Studer, miss threads it, and snaps the tape. A master tape of an unreleased album.
These things make me nervous.
Yeah. Not only snaps it, but this was a 1-inch 8-track, and it was poly tape, so it didn't just snap — it stretched, and then broke into a number of pieces. And it was in the intro to the key song on the album.
Well, I just said, "Maybe we can fix it." He said, "That's impossible, that's the only copy of it." The next thing that happened is another one of these guys takes one of the 1/4-inch tapes, which is one of the radio show tapes, puts it up on an ATR, and hits rewind. The old splices in this acetate tape just come flying across the room, and the tape goes into 22 pieces. I stepped in at that point and said, "I'm gonna operate the tape." I started operating the tape, and then we had some things to mix down, and to EQ, and to change, and compress, and stuff like that, and nobody seemed to know what to do! So I just jumped in. I went over to the Neve console and started doing all the mixes and the playbacks and the copying. They wanted to go 96 kHz, 24-bit, so I set up everything, and we started making some copies. He went home that night, listened, and we came back the next day for the second day of this trial run, and a couple more stupid disasters happened with these guys. He called me up that night and said, "You know, you're the only guy in the world, I think, who can do this. Would you?"
I think there's a real difference between working in an archive capacity and being an engineer or producer.
I'd been handling old tapes, new tapes, digital tapes, everything for 35 years. It was just second nature to me. And I knew how to make splices. I know that you don't take an old tape, hit rewind, and walk away from the machine. You go through real slowly. In fact, as it ended up in the restoration, I hand-wound a half a mile of tape on close to six hundred reels. Now, let me tell you, hand winding, and checking every splice, and going through there with a camel hair brush and cleaning off the mold is a half a day operation per tape.
After you've hand-wound the thing back, you get one good play. So you either get it or you don't, and I'm one of those guys who had to do that all through my career. My first gold album was with Neil Young, and I learned quick-on that you're either ready, or he walks away and doesn't come back.
He does not put up with, "Let's do another take, I need to set the EQ a little different." It's like you get it, or he's gone. That's how I learned to do things. You don't show up when the session's about to start and expect to do stuff while they're waiting.
I didn't lose a single song. And the one that had been shredded at the beginning — as we were doing the initial playback of it, I was recording everything off onto a CD player, so it was 44.1 kHz, 16-bit, and I had the intro that got shredded.
Oh my god.
I went back and a couple days later put it back together and played it for him, and he was like, "This was impossible! Where did this come from?"
If you're dealing with real fragile tape like that, you have to always be recording, just in case.
Always. I mean what do you hurt, hard drive space?
Not these days.
That's right. And I had a very good digital assistant for the first part of the project. He was sharp, and I learned a lot about how to do the stuff. The guy was Stephen Couch. I used him for probably the first hundred tapes and ended up doing the rest of the project myself, inch by inch, tape by tape.
You moved the operations here to your house, too?
We did two days at Capitol, and then he closed it down. He was totally discouraged, and he called me and was like, "Can you do it?" I said, "I'll try." So I quickly called David Lyons, and said, "I need a tape machine!" I had just given him like 20 tape machines.
I was gonna ask when we were first emailing about the project. I was thinking you must have kept one of the tape decks.
I thought that I was out of the business and that if I ever did anything it would be at another studio, but then when I started checking around to get studio time for this, the studio time would have killed us.
Right, I was going to say, that's prohibitive. And in most studios you wouldn't even be using the console in most cases.
Exactly! My tape path here was very simple. For part of the project, I went through the Studer playback electronics, which are good, straight into my homemade A-to-D converter, straight into the computer — nothing in the way.
Yeah. Later on, I used a set of germanium 3M electronics that when David was taking all my stuff, he was like, "Oh, I don't want these." I had a pair of old 3M M23 electronics with big transformers and all germanium transistors, and they just had a sound to them.
Yeah, I would imagine it has a different sound than the Studer.
I used that on part of it. Then I did all the pre-mastering, so when we turned it over to Mosaic to do it, the guy calls up and he says, "This is the best stuff I've ever heard. I can't believe these 50-year-old tapes!" He knew that they were moldy, cruddy, and almost one-pass and you're done.
They're thinking they might get something that sounds like a megaphone.
Some crappy, crackly radio-show kind of tapes. I'll play you some. It came out wonderful, and it's been getting rave reviews. The main thing they're saying is that the sound quality is unbelievable, that we've never heard anything like this from the '50s. Besides the engineers and Bing, nobody heard it in the first place...
Because over the radio it wouldn't have sounded that good.
That's right, and I'll tell you, these guys doing the radio show stuff were sharp. There was a guy named Buddy Cole who was a band leader and keyboard player, and he did all the live stuff with Bing back then, including some albums that were released, but this stuff was made strictly for the radio show. It was never released on an album. I found over 160 songs that had never been heard by anybody who didn't listen to the radio show that night.
Wow, that's a lot!
So that was released as a box set, limited edition. I think each one is serial numbered (I'm not sure), and the Bing fans have been going nuts over it.
What were some of your favorite sessions at Indigo Ranch?
I know I have a history, but to me, of all the groups that I've worked with, what was the one I felt most honored to do? The Ventures.
Oh, right. Was that the NASA record [NASA 25th Anniversary Commemorative Album]?
I did the NASA record, and I did I think six albums with them. The NASA one was the big one — I did the re-do of "Telstar." That was the group [that inspired me] when I was first getting interested in music. I bought one of those little GE phonographs, that first Ventures record, and a guitar, and I sat there and listened to it for weeks, trying to learn those songs from listening to the record and stopping and starting and stopping and starting. The Ventures are what got me into music, and then to have them come in and do a number of albums with them... I even ended up doing live sound for them.
I never would do live sound for anybody. I hate live sound. It's the most thankless job in the world. If you do a perfect job, nobody says anything. Anything less than that, and you're on the carpet. You never get an accolade, but it's always your fault. But I ended up doing a mini-tour with The Ventures, just because I loved them so much.
Did you work with people you admired and found influential?
Working with George Martin. To have him come into Indigo... that was a guy.
What was he working on?
He was working on a group called American Flyer — a compilation group of stars — one guy from Linda Ronstadt, one of the guys from The Velvet Underground.
Yeah, okay, you know the band then. He did that at Indigo. It was funny. George was a character. Although he was the producer, he had engineering savvy that was unbelievable. We had to do some fly-ins from 2-track to 24-track, where you had to start the machines at just the right time to have it end up in the right place. This was before DDLs or samplers, where you could just say, "Okay, now," and have it be there. This was starting a 2-track at the same time, and the engineer was having tremendous trouble getting it to happen. George walks over, rocks the tape back and forth, moves it back — he wasn't even looking at the heads, he was looking at the reel — goes over to the 24-track, and goes "Bloomp," puts the 24-track in record, the 2-track in play, and the first time he does it, it's perfect. And he did that for like half-a-dozen or so fly-ins. It was like nothing to him, just, "Oh, I'll do it."
Actually the best story about George Martin — about halfway through the album (they were there for like a month), George was talking to the band (I wasn't there), and he was saying, "See if Richard will give a discount on the studio time if we call the album Indigo." So, the main guy comes over to me with a couple of the guys from the band, and we're walking out in that orchard that was in that picture, and he said, "You know, George had an idea. We were wondering, if we call the album Indigo, will you give a discount on the studio rate?" And I said, "That's an interesting concept. Why don't you ask George if he'll give you a discount on the production if you call the album George?" Later that day, George comes up to me, puts his arm on my shoulder, and says, "Well, it's all decided. The album's now called Indigo George." And we laughed.
That's pretty funny... that's a good way to get around it.
Neither one of us had to give a break. He understood what had happened. Another interesting story about George Martin — he always had a locked briefcase. Everyone was always wondering, "What's in the briefcase? Is it a bottle? Is it secret papers? What is it?" And one day, he had left his briefcase open and walked out of the room, so everybody goes over to it to look and see what's in there. There was a Cadbury chocolate bar and a Beatles songbook. That was it. That's what he had in his locked briefcase. [laughter]
It's like... okay!
And that was the big secret.