Looking at my Pere Ubu liner notes, I noted the frequent appearance of the last name "Hamann". After some confusion, I realized that there were two different first names which accompanied it. I learned that Ken Hamann was the father of Paul Hamann, and poked around to find that they'd recorded a Styrenes single and a Girls single. A friend added that Ken Hamann had recorded a Grand Funk album. It wasn't until I talked to the Hamanns that I discovered the extent of their history in recording and the rest of the story behind their studio, Suma, in Painesville, Ohio.
Ken Hamann began recording as a staff engineer at Cleveland Recording Company. His earliest recordings were "some polka things back in the 1950s. Frankie Yankovic , Georgie Cook, Eddie Habat, and a few of the other famous Cleveland-style polkas." The first rock recording of his that "broke out was the Outsiders with 'Time Won't Let Me'." It was recorded on a 3-track. "The first run-through was strictly drums, guitar, bass. There were solos with the baritone sax, the organ, and so forth on another track. All of the vocals and other effects were on a third track. It took a lot of anticipation because we had to do a lot of sub-mixing. At the time, I remember I thought the organ was too hot, but that turned out to be one of the features of the record."
The equipment at Cleveland Recording was evolving over this time. "At the very beginning we used RCA broadcast equipment. I found that to be alright but not suitable for some of the things [I was recording]. Having gone to Germany to tour some studios then, in the late 1950s, we decided to move over into German- type of technology, with the use of the flat desk and the faders as we do today. So, I built one. I was able to buy some of those faders out of Germany and I built my own console. The first one was a 3 channel output, and I think it had 10 channels of input. It was modest. That was sufficient to work with 3 track recording, which was then just beginning, on tape, and then mix down to 2 track, of course." Both the 3 track and 2 track decks were Ampex 351's, and he used 3M Scotch tape.
The next widely-remembered Hamann recording from that era was "Nobody But Me" by Youngstown's Human Beinz, from 1967. "We had two studios available. They had people hitting shovels and Coke bottles while doing certain other tracks in the front studio. This is still 3 track." Not too much later, Cleveland Recording upgraded to a 4 track deck. "I found, in New York, a Studer J- 37, the same kind that the Beatles used recording 'Strawberry Fields'. This used 1 inch wide tape for 4 tracks of recording, and we started using that. [It was] fantastic. We still have the machine; we still use it. But I determined that 4 wasn't enough, so I was able to buy some 8 track heads and adapt them to that machine. We made the Studer into an 8 track 1 inch. We did many recordings with that." Other well-known Hamann recordings from this era include later Outsiders albums, the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine", and some of Eric Carmen's earliest recordings.
"We went through a period when we were trying to imitate Motown sounds in the late 60s. They had unique sounds then. I became very good friends with their chief engineer, Mike McLaine, who is more of technical person than a music person. All of the ideas we picked up were not from Mike, but rather from their records. Mostly their snare drum sounds and the bass. We discovered that a lot of the sound was due to how the drums were tuned and mic'd. We did a lot of experimenting. The bass drum was a lot stiffer usually, and there's padding put on the surface of the head."
The next few years brought two bands to Hamann and the studio which influenced the techniques which he used at the time. "Jimmy Fox came in with a group called the James Gang, featuring Joe Walsh. Then Terry Knight came in with a new group called Grand Funk Railroad. I did their first several albums, including 'Closer to Home', which is still one of my favorites." The first Grand Funk album marked the first use of the studio's new Ampex MM-1000 16 track two inch, which still resides at Suma. "We're pack rats around here; we keep everything." He also developed techniques for recording bass with Grand Funk, "using a microphone and distorting the speaker, without distorting the microphone or distorting the amplifier. The actual JBL speakers would distort, and this gave us a very unique bass sound. The amplifiers were West amplifiers, which are hard to come by anymore. They were tube; everything was tube then, thank goodness. The first half of 'Closer to Home' was done in that mode, and then we switched when all of the sound effects come in with the ocean, etc. We switched to a different bass sound. You can actually hear a change, a more modest bass without distorting."
While Wild Cherry ("Play That Funky Music") were the most commercially successful of Ken Hamann's projects at that time, his work with Pere Ubu has led to a successful long-term relationship. "It could be said that they found me. They had recorded '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' and ['Heart of Darkness']. It was a single, a 45, and they had recorded it and wanted a master. We had the facility to cut 45 masters, and still do as a matter of fact. I did not [record it], but I did make their master disc. They were impressed with the studio. 'Final Solution' I think we did."
In 1970, Cleveland Recording owner Greg Wolf had sold his studio to its two staff engineers. "In 1976, we split the studio. I formed Suma Recording Studio and moved out into the country. The reason was that at that time, in the early 70s, it was the rage to create studios out in the country. George Martin did it, the group Chicago did it, some others. I emulated them in a small way." The new studio brought a new tape deck, a 2 inch 24 track Ampex MM-1200. "We still have that, actually; we still use it." Hamann built a board for Cleveland Recording in 1973, and it moved to Suma in 1976. "It's a 48 channel, actually 24 mics and 24 lines. It's a dual board, so that one can mix at the same time as recording. It has the appropriate number of outputs and mix combining buses. It's all solid- state. At the time I was building consoles for other people, as well, other studios. I decided to get out of that business when it became a little cut-throat. About the same time that Rupert Neve was starting in England. I decided to focus more on the actual recording. I did build equipment for my own use in the studio. Originally it was all discrete, but we have updated it continually to keep it up to date with modern standards." Some of the newer parts of the board include ICs.
The Hamanns had relocated to Suma by the time he recorded Pere Ubu's first album, 1977's The Modern Dance. By this point he had developed a "standard setup in the studio. The drums were in the same room, a wood-surfaced room in an old house that was built 70, 80 years ago. We had the drums sitting in one corner, on a small platform, 20 inches high. It had gobos around it. We were able to isolate it somewhat, to focus the sound. The other instruments were generally in the room at the same time. We did have isolation booths nearby, adjacent to the studio, so we could put a vocalist or whatever in there. Most of the recordings were done with the basic tracks first, embellishments second, that is guitar things and so forth, and then the vocals last."
Drums were "mostly close mic'd, with a pair of overheads. Snare usually was either from the top or the bottom; the bottom was good. The bass drum, the front was usually open and the mic was in the drum. And the toms frequently we mic'd from underneath. That's the floor tom. The other toms we might have done micing from the top. Generally speaking, the bottoms of the drums were all removed. It removed unwanted resonances, gave them a tighter sound." He most often used Neumann KM-56s on the toms and snare and as overheads, with a Beyer dynamic microphone on the kick drum. Neumann U-47s were common on bass and guitar amps. Allen Ravenstine's EML synthesizer went direct. "I was quite taken by how he was able to provide exactly the right sound that was needed."
He says that David Thomas's vocals were recorded "carefully, sometimes phrase by phrase, which is still the case." He often used a U-47 with a windscreen. While Thomas typically sang in a live room, his vocals were "close mic'd so the room didn't really figure into it, so we would have to add reverb. We were using an EMT-140 at that time, we had 2 of them-that was the big plate. We first acquired that in the early 60s."
One song from The Modern Dance which stands out to Hamann is "Sentimental Journey", which features the sound of breaking glass. "We have a huge, stone fireplace at one end of the studio-it's about 15 feet wide. They asked if we could do it. We said, 'Sure, why not, as long as you don't hurt yourself.' That was done as an overdub. At that time, we had 24 tracks, so we had the tracks to spare."
While his son Paul has taken over much of the recording at Suma, Ken Hamann is still involved with the studio. He does a lot of work with equipment, and has been especially involved with the installation of digital recording equipment in the studio. "First we bought a Sony M-1, a 2 track. That was very good. We modified it so that we could interface with certain other digital equipment for the purpose of getting it into the computer, and I wrote some programs for equalizing and that kind of processing, in addition to using Digidesign software. We borrowed on occasion the Sony 3/4" format video, the 1610/1620 format, and we used that quite a bit. And, of course, then we started getting into DAT tapes. Today we're using DA-88's and 98's for primary recording and DAT tapes for mix down. I did build quite a few interfaces so that all of these different formats, the AES format, the ProTools format, and so forth, were able to talk to each other through the interfaces I've put together. We can handle most anything that a client brings in. Our process today is generally to record a multi-track 32, 48 tracks, whatever, and transfer that in groups of 8 tracks, to ProTools in a Mac environment. There we can do quite a bit. We're also using a Finalizer for EQing and other processing. Plus some of the software that I developed many years ago." Suma still has its 2 inch 16 and 24 track decks, and many bands still record in analog there.
Paul Hamann got involved with Cleveland Recording in 1973. He was involved in building that facility too. "That's how I basically started was helping to build the console that we use. It just sort of rolled over that way." The first recordings of his that I've encountered are Pere Ubu live recordings from 1978 on the 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo albums. Ken and Paul Hamann recorded the Girls single on Hearpen together, with David Thomas producing. The first Pere Ubu studio album which Paul Hamann recorded was The Art of Walking. He attributes the diversity of material to the simple fact that "the songs were very different from each other."
The David Thomas solo albums of the next several years were among Hamann's most visible work in the 80s. The first of these albums, The Sound of the Sand was recorded in England, but Hamann did all of the mixing. The next David Thomas studio album was Variations on a Theme. Hamann played bass on all of this album, but what stands out to him is Richard Thompson's guitar playing. "It was great working with Richard. It was absolutely wonderful." Much like his father, he has a fairly consistent process for recording. He also tends to have everyone play in one room as much as possible. "Drums were always done in the live room. Always close mic'ing and always far mic'ing." He tended to use Neumann U-47s as room mics, Sennheiser 441s on toms and Sennheiser 421s on a snare. He prefers mic'ing snares from the top. "I'm not into the gritty stuff from the bottom." The mic on the kick drum varies, often based on the song that's being recorded. He sometimes uses a Sennheiser 441 on the kick drum. For the acoustic instruments that were prominent on these albums, he always uses U-47s. "I do have one of the largest collections in the state of tube mics that were all purchased new back in the 50s and 40s. So I do have that luxury, and I really don't know any other way."
Hamann tends to use the solid-state mic preamps that are built in the studio. "A properly working solid-state mic pre and a properly working tube mic pre are very very similar. When you get into the improper use of it is where you start noticing the difference." He tries to use compression infrequently. "If I get into compression, depending on the effect, old Urei 1176s. If I was using it, that was a phase when I was using it as an effect, not as a crutch. Which so often those things are used for, as crutches. They're much more interesting to use as an effect." He previously used 3M 996 tape, but now uses BASF 900. While Suma has always used Hafler amps, they try many different monitors. "I'm never happy with monitors. What I usually use is some JBL product. My main monitors are either 4350s or 4430s. I've got 4430s in there now. The majority of the mixes I do are done, and have been all along, on a pair of Minimus 7s. Little Radio Shacks."
Hamann adds that some of these records employed tape loops. "Some of it was 1/4 inch tape, and some of it was 16 track 2", where we'd have the stuff stretched across the room. The 16 track machine was the only one we could abuse that way. The 24 track wouldn't operate in loop situations-the holdback on it wouldn't permit that kind of thing."
The David Thomas album which stands out to Hamann is 1986's Monster Walks the Winter's Lake, which was recorded live to a Sony F-1 digital 2-track. It "was all basically acoustic instruments. There were no drums. There was just people out there beating on chair mats with drum sticks, and that was basically the drum set." While all of the instruments are clearly recorded, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish which unusual sound comes from what instrument.
"At the same time that was all going on, if I remember, we were pretty heavy in the local metal scene. That was kind of the contrast that's been going on out here. And then interspersed with all of that was the jazz, local jazz guys, too." While he finds isolation challenging with a piano and drum set in the same room, he considers jazz and rock recording similar. "I treat them all pretty much the same, it's up to the players." Most of the bands that he recorded at the time were not known outside of Cleveland. Eddie Kramer, who produced Jimmy Hendrix, Blue Cheer, and Traffic, produced a Michael Stanley Band album which Hamann engineered. He found Kramer great to work with.
The use of two drummers, Scott Krauss and Chris Cutler, stood out to Hamann as the most interesting challenge with Pere Ubu's The Tenement Year album. It was recorded "primarily live, with both players at once. Then we just basically pick and choose parts during the mixes. Sometimes it was both sets;
sometimes it was Scotty's bass drum and Chris's snare, and we'd mix parts back and forth. We'd try to arrange the parts as we went. Usually Scotty was holding the beat down and then Chris was doing the cool stuff on top. Again, that was always done live, the two kits together. Isolation was not an issue, not at all. The only place that there would have been any leakage would have been in the overheads and of course the room mics, but the rest of it, no, it was all close mic'd." To reduce bleed, he used "creative placement, creative EQ," and "a lot of times it just didn't matter."
Pere Ubu's Cloudland was "mixed up with a whole slew of different people." Hamann enjoyed mixing parts of the record at Paisley Park, although he never got to meet Prince. "He'd call at 11 o'clock at night wondering when I was going to be done so he could get in there." Paisley Park had an SSL board and Studer 800 multi-tracks. "The only thing he didn't have was Dolby, which was hilarious, because they had to rent Dolby's all over the place. So I had everything from the little cat cards to old ones all piled up on top of the 800. Everything we do [at Suma] is Dolby A, if I'm using the 2 inch. With the higher operating levels of Dolby A, I can get away with it. I have to be careful with tapes that are going to be mixed elsewhere, because of the availability of it [now], but I like it. It's at least financially kept us from having to get into SR."
The next Pere Ubu album, Worlds in Collision, started at Suma. In the effort to achieve more commercial success than Ubu had in the past, it was finished elsewhere. "A lot of that we had recorded once, and then that's when Stephen Hague came on. He went and re- recorded a lot of it. How much of it, I don't know, from the original stuff that was re-done. Before he got it, it was all pretty much laid out, the form was there, the tunes were there. And then he went back and re-recorded everything."
While none of Ubu's Story of My Life was recorded at Suma, the band returned for 1995's Raygun Suitcase. The first sessions for the album were with a line-up that included founding Pere Ubu drummer Scott Krauss and cellist Garo Yellin. Hamann describes the rest of the album as "done inside out. That one primarily was recorded with the guitar and the bass and whatever synth there was, and then afterwards the drums were added. Everything was done to a click track and then the drums were added after the fact. That's why I say it was sort of done inside out." The album also began a more experimental approach to recording. Distance mic'ing was used more often. "A lot of the stuff would wind up going out through studio monitors out in the studio, and re-record it from that point. There may have been some guitar parts where I put literally a wall of Marshalls outside and recorded that way. Since I'm out in the country, in the woods, I've got a valley behind us. I do have a considerable collection of old Marshall and Hiwatt stuff. I'd put that stuff outside, you can hear it all over the city, but it sounds cool."
For Thomas's vocals, while he'd "start with a U-47", he also experimented with a wider range of microphones. He'd sometimes use a Neumann M-49 or M-50, a Neumann stereo SM2 in MS mode, or 3 U-47s in left/center/right. "I'd have the mics splayed out in front of him so he could move around. Some of the vocals we did send back through the speakers. Some of them were done through a window fan. We used the window fan and a Variac, to slow the thing way down. The window fan thing I think came from one of David's tours, one of the Ubu tours, which turned out to be pretty amazing."
With the popularity of heavy metal declining, more jazz and folk was recorded at Suma. Steven Stills and Lenny Kravitz both did recording with Hamann, and some of the Kravitz tracks were released on the Kiss tribute album. David Thomas and Two Pale Boys' 1996 CD Erewhon was built in the studio around samples, "and bad ones at that. We had to do something to create the illusion that something was going on. A lot of that was peculiar mic'ing. At that point we were screwing around using speakers, horn drivers [as mics]. One of the cuts is strictly done with a telephone handset. Another one was vocal tracks that [Thomas] had sung in his little portable tape recorder, with the DAT machine playing in the background. I had to fly them back in onto the master tape." The album was recorded to DA-88s.
'Erewhon' was recorded with "excessive improper use of phase" which would have made a vinyl release in stereo impossible. Hamann takes pride in the record's ability to make him queasy, but explains that such a situation is atypical of his recordings. "Before and
afterwards I'm usually pretty conscious of [stereo phase issues] because we also do have a [vinyl] lathe. So, I'm quite well aware of what the problems are about working with that. And what makes an easy job for the engineer and what doesn't." Other stereo effects were achieved by using military surplus engines as auto-pans.
Some of the mixes on 'Erewhon' are also unusual. "One of the mixes I blew through a Leslie, and I recorded it through a door from the next room. That comprises a good portion of one of the mixes. It was all done live while the mix was going on. You got the microphone in the next room and the Leslie screaming in another room."
Pere Ubu's most recent album, 'Pennsylvania', was a return to live band recording, but it follows 'Erewhon's' use of unconventional microphones. "Since I had track space, we were using other things again, such as speakers, horn drivers, that kind of thing. Quite literally, I was using various and sundry 15 inch and 12 inch speakers, down to little computer ones. Some of the guitar sounds were primarily computer speakers sat next to the amplifier. Some of the bass drum sounds are JBL 15 inch speakers sitting on the floor next to the drum set. I'd pick and choose there. Some of the ones that I have have melted voice coils, so they scrape. Other ones are in good shape. So we pick and choose whether we want the scraping sound or something cleaner."
Aside from Pere Ubu and David Thomas, Hamann has recently recorded Robert Jr. Lockwood and Buddy Miles. He also received an Emmy award for a video soundtrack.
Ken and Paul Hamann reminded me of the simple need for balance in approaching recording. Each has developed a set of techniques that work reliably without letting it constrict them or prevent experimentation. They trust well-known equipment which works, like their Urei compressors and Neumann microphones, but also build their own boards and use West bass amps. They're comfortable working with old and proven technologies but also willing to incorporate newer equipment. And while they understand the value of musicians performing live in a room together, they also construct tracks in small pieces when it's appropriate. This basic mindset which has led to so many memorable recordings continues in a still active but often overlooked studio.