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Not So Asleep at the Wheel
Ray Benson is a big guy. He's tall, which he augments with cowboy hat and boots, his voice is resonates in the sub- octaves, and when we shook hands mine was engulfed and nearly disappeared. His office can overwhelm the unprepared. Pictures and memorabilia of all kinds compete for wall space and your attention. There is a shelf of Grammies and guitars are everywhere. More guitars than I could count - some resting in cases, others hanging in rows at ceiling height, more on stands, laying on the floor and propped in corners. His band is big, too. Asleep at the Wheel has sung the gospel of swing for nearly 30 years, garnered all kinds of critical and popular success, and, always, played great music. Note that I didn't qualify it as 'country swing' or 'western swing' - these categorizations are much too small for this band. Thankfully his generosity is equally large. Not only did he answer every question I threw at him he also gave us a Bismeaux Studios. detailed tour of his
How did you get into being on the other side of the glass?
Necessity. You know, you start out and you try to do all this stuff and you realize you are the mercy of all these people who know a lot more about what you're doing than you do, in terms of recording. And you say, "Well I want to do this." Then you try to figure out how - that's how it started.
When was that?
It started when I started the band - the first thing you gotta do is make a tape of your band. Now in 1969 that was difficult. That was like major hobbyist kind of stuff. So I had to learn how to run a sound-on- sound tape machine. Then I learned a little bit about acoustics, because we'd build these rehearsal rooms and would try to make 'em sound right. Then I started to get frustrated with producers and engineers that I couldn't communicate what I really wanted to do, so I learned about that. Then I wanted to produce records. So I produced our first live album, started to learn about gear, and I learned about recording.
I've heard that you've done some significant research with some gear designers. How far have you taken that?
Oh, we build mic preamps, we build direct boxes, we have worked in chip design - I don't know anything about chip engineering and I couldn't tell you a dang thing you're talking about - but we have ideas and they just use my ears sometimes.
Well that makes sense.
Yeah, exactly. Find out what the end user wants. So I've done a little bit of that, informally. But mostly we build our own stuff. We have only sold maybe three things to acquaintances because so much of what we have is based on vintage components. Can't find those and they're not building them. So we make a mic pre with vintage components and new components but we don't want to be a manufacturer.
Is that just the studio techs?
Yeah, Chris Burns (Bismeaux engineer and tech). It was a journey that began many years ago with a bunch of friends of mine from California, old radio guys. I'd get all this old tube gear. I would go to these radio stations - little ones - I'd say, "Book me in the smallest radio station for an interview." I'd go there and ask if they had any old gear and they had all this stuff. I got a Teletronix LA2, and an original 1176, for free. And I would get these boards. I got one from Memphis, TX, one from Santa Cruz, CA, which are these RCA boards. We took the mic pres [out] and they are just unreal. Learned a little bit about the circuitry and basically used the components, transformers from those old boards and then redesigned a couple of features. Variable impedance, which was one of the ideas we had. We also played with the concept of the power supply. We noted that when we used the power supply from the board, I'm talking about the old radio board that had a 6" x 8" transformer and a big rectifier tube, we found that they sounded better. So we built one with a vari-ac on the output so you can vary the voltage and change the tonality of the mic pre. Then we built in a second circuit to add gain with another 12AX7 but we made sure you can take it out because there is a magic that happens with that original mic pre. But that's what we did, we figured it out, added the features and we've got twenty-some-odd channels of it lying around. We've got a whole collection of RCA mic pres, but the one, the magic one, is one of the ones we don't understand why... well, I know why, it's got these two little cans that make the sound. We also make a DI box out of new components and it's the best.
Is that a tube?
Tube DI. I use Avalons on the road, and to me the Avalon is the best DI box made, and this is better. The only reason we don't take 'em on the road is I can't replace them if they're lost.
Is that something you make to sell?
We've sold one to Bob Dylan's bass player - my old bass player, Tony. He's my pal and tried it live once and the engineer had to have it. It replaced some $2,000 DI he'd had custom-made in New York or somewhere. It's an amazing thing. We have ...
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