With classic '60s Northwest recordings under his belt — including The Sonics, The Wailers, The Ventures, The Kingsmen, The Standells and The Rocking Kings (featuring a young Jimi Hendrix) - Kearney was recording full-time since 1958 until his recent health issues and admittance to a nursing home. Not only is he an eclectic collector of countless stories and wisdom from all his many sessions, he has also not changed out a single piece of recording equipment since the mid-'60s! Stepping into Kearney's studio was like walking into a museum, except in this museum the artifacts are not behind a glass pane but strewn across the floor in piles of original master reels of classic recordings, tangles of old leather headphones and stockpiles of vintage Neumanns, gutted tape machines, stands and more from wall to wall. Kearney initially had various studio locations from the late '60s to the early '70s, but since the '70s he has been at his studio — an addition to his Seattle home where he's also recorded more "modern" records by the likes of the Young Fresh Fellows, The Smugglers, The Minus 5, Teengenerate and The A-Bones. He even lent his full name to a record, Kearney Barton, recorded with Wheedle's Groove, a band based around a of local funk and soul from 1965 to 1975. A previous collection of his old recordings. Kearney's ramshackle studio is no more, but the University of Washington has begun to archive and catalog his tremendous collection of tapes.
You haven't upgraded virtually anything since 1965. How come you have never changed with the times?
I like the sound and everybody else liked the tube electronics and the analog gear. I could never see any real reason to go with all the new stuff. I didn't buy every new toy. When I was at Fifth and Bell in downtown Seattle, there was a studio within a block of me that was buying every new tool that came out. He ended going belly up — losing his business, losing his house and everything else. For what? He had to have every new little thing and I don't see that. I found that the equipment I have been using does the job I want to do, and I get people coming from all over the world to record here because of that. They want to get that same sound I got in the '60s with The Sonics, The Wailers, The Frantics and others. The jazz musicians love the warmth of the tube equipment too. I find that the digital equipment is very sterile and artificial sounding, so why change?
Haven't you ever felt pressure from clients to upgrade?
I've been asked, "Do you have Pro Tools?" or whatever the new popular gear-of-the- day is, and I say, "No." They say, "Oh, okay" and that's as far as it goes. They can go to a studio that does have it. I am not going to upgrade over that. I do have a CD burner and CD duplicator because that is one of the necessary things now, but that's about it. When I'm doing a session I will record on reel-to-reel analog and at the end of the session I'll make a CD for the client to take home and decide what takes they want to use. We will work from the reel-to-reel tape before we master a record. I feel I get a fuller, warmer, punchier sound with the reel for the final mix than with the CD, but that is a client's choice.
What was your first fascination with music and recording?
Nothing really. It's strange — I went to the University of Washington as a drama major because I was interested in acting. I went two quarters and was trying to support my mother and myself. I had the thought, "How am I going to support myself through drama?" Lots of luck! I went to work full-time and took a job at a radio station, KTW 1250 AM, as a disc jockey. That took care of the ego thing on the acting. I did some recording with the station for performance groups — choirs and orchestras for broadcast. I wasn't interested in recording per se — I wasn't a guy who went out and recorded things just for the fun of it. It was just a job.
What kind of recording equipment and techniques did you use when you first started at the station in the '50s?
I used one or two microphones and a portable tape recorder — a little Ampex 601 suitcase that is like carrying a piece of luggage. The chief engineer had built a small mixing board in case we needed more than one input — otherwise we went directly into the Ampex. For mics, we used the RCA 44BX ribbon and a Shure 55. We had three of those. I also used an Altec [633A] "salt shaker" mic but we mostly used the Shure and RCA. When I was recording a choir and orchestra I used two mics and it came off great. That led me along the way of simplicity rather than to use 77 million microphones for a very simple thing. I like to always keep it as simple as possible and get the sound the way it is, and not run risk of phase problems and too much excess noise from other mics. I worked at the radio station for about two and a half years, and at the same time I was working full-time at a spice factory — grinding cayenne pepper. That was a full work week and on top of that I would work all day Sunday at the...