Youthful and energetic at 76, Bob Langford is active in local politics and community affairs in his small town an hour north of St. Petersburg, Florida. But in the late-1960s he was part of the bustling Atlanta recording scene, and a participant in the birth of southern rock. Bob is easy to get to know, but his modest demeanor scarcely hints at his many careers: recording studio engineer/ owner, entrepreneur, singer, inventor, electronics wizard, and even restaurateur. Today, between meetings at the local historical society in his various advisory roles, Bob also records local bands in a small studio next to his home.
How did your career begin?
I guess my career in music started in the '50s. We had a doo wop group in high school in Louisville, Kentucky, although I was more into classical music at the time. We played sock hops all around the area, made some recordings, and the radio station played them. They were local "hits." I had a chance to go to Juilliard [School], but I didn't want to be a music teacher so I passed it up. I moved to Florida with my parents in 1960, to a small Gulf Coast town north of Clearwater. In the early-1960s, after high school, I was the singer in a band traveling around Florida. We used to play in a little place in Cocoa Beach. We'd be on the stage, and suddenly all the windows would light up and everyone would run outside. It was a rocket going off, just up the coast at Cape Canaveral! Bertie Higgins was the drummer in the band. He always wanted to sing but we wouldn't let him. I guess he got the last laugh [with his hit in 1982, "Key Largo"]. About this time I got hooked up with a promoter and manager named Bill Lowery, who managed Jerry Reed, Ray Stevens, Joe South, and a bunch of other performers. I also met a guy from Dothan, Alabama, named [Perry] Buddy Buie, who managed Bobby [Robert Charles] Goldsboro and others. Buddy and his writing partner, J.R. Cobb, wrote all the Classics IV and Atlanta Rhythm Section hits. I moved to Atlanta to work for them in 1966, doing promotion, management, band booking. We were just down the hall from Bill Lowery's recording studio, Master Sound. In that room they cut hits by Billy Joe Royal, The Tams, the Classics IV, and the first Atlanta Rhythm Section. Besides doing promotion, I was a background singer and I sang on a lot of these records, plus a lot of jingles like Coca-Cola and Orkin Pest Control. I went from singing to doing percussion, like cowbell, tambourine, and congas. A lot of times we would play percussion at the same time we did background vocals.
What was studio recording like at this time?
Things were done very quickly. In those days, a union session was three hours and you were expected to cut at least two, maybe three sides in that time. At Master Sound they recorded on two Ampex 350 1/2-inch machines, with tube electronics and the great big meters. Everything was rack mounted. It was more like a glorified radio station. I think the board was a modified Gates radio board. It had these big 4-inch knobs, and your channel assignment was this lever switch with three positions – left, center, and right. For EQ we had a couple Pultec equalizers. Everything was patched – they had this huge patchbay in the rack, all balanced at 600 ohms. They had an EMT plate, but they also used a live echo chamber that was an old septic tank beneath the building. Next to the studio there were railroad tracks, and any time a train would come by they'd have to stop recording. They would always begin by cutting the bass, drums, piano, and guitar –the rhythm section – on one track and the vocal on one track.
So they would record on one 3-track machine and then mix that to another 3-track while adding more tracks?
Exactly. You could only go three generations [of tape submixing]. You'd have to always be thinking ahead of what you planned on putting on there. You'd have to equalize [tracks] going down, with tape hiss and all. You would have to push some frequencies, knowing that you were gonna lose those in the generations. You'd also have to push everything up at the beginning of the record, and then bring it back down as the song went on.
You wanted to keep above the noise floor, if the beginning of the song was quiet?
Right. We'd have to plan it out. Not many things ran direct in those days. They did a fuzz guitar sound using this little bitty amp that had a nail through the speaker cone. They had two pianos – a regular grand and an upright with tacks on the hammers. You have to remember, there were no synthesizers. When you had strings – these were real strings; Atlanta Symphony players. The sessions were quite serious when I first got there. I mean, there were not many drugs. There was a bottle shop just down Peachtree Road where we would go down and get bottles of Ripple [fortified wine] for a dollar. We did have a doctor's office in the building, and we made friends with the doctor. I'll just say he helped keep us awake. [laughs]
So you started doing some engineering around that time?
Not at Master Sound. At that time there wasn't any Full Sail [University], or anything [school] like that. Engineering was especially hard to get into. The engineers didn't want anyone to know what they were doing. A lot of those guys came from the broadcast industry. I wasn't from that industry, but I understood electronics pretty well. I've been a ham radio operator since I was a kid; taking transmitters and receivers apart and putting them [back] together. In Atlanta, back then, when equipment went belly-up, they had to send it to Nashville or get somebody to come down and fix it. I began thinking, "If I could get them to trust me to fix some of these things, it might be a way to break into the business." They started by letting me change tubes, and pretty soon I was aligning tape recorders, repairing them, fixing their amps and power supplies. I ended up charging $100 an hour and still saving them a lot of money by not having to fly a guy down from Nashville and put him up overnight. In the '60s that was just killer! I was maintaining all the major studios in Atlanta – of course there were only five of them. Now I was torn. Did I want to do the electronics thing or make records? Just then Joe South (who'd had a hit with "Games People Play") came along and asked me if I wanted to engineer for him in his new studio. I told him I'd never done that, but I'd do my best for him. He had purchased an 8-track system, which was a converted 1-inch Ampex video deck custom-built in Texas by a man named Ron Newdoll. It had eight sets of [Ampex] 351 electronics. There wasn't much crosstalk and we didn't use any noise reduction. I remember the day they delivered all the gear to our new place, which was an office suite next to an insurance company in Doraville [a northern Atlanta suburb]. It was offices in front, and in the back was this warehouse. We decided to put the board in one room, the drums in another, and the amps in another. We hooked everything up, and Joe decided we needed to record something to test it all out. He took my guitar; he went out and sat on the curb in front of the building and played for a while. He came in and said, "I think I got something we can at least try." That's how we cut "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" that night! You remember the big A7 Altec [Lansing "Voice of the Theater"] speakers? We put one of those out in the warehouse and that was our echo send. A [Neumann] U 87 was our return. We had that A7 out there just cranked up; and I mean cranked up. We figured we would start work in the late afternoon and record 'til the office people showed up the next morning. Sometimes we were still working after they got there. The insurance company got us kicked out of there. I don't think we lasted a month! Then we moved into another office building in downtown Atlanta, right around the corner from Ted Turner's television station. We soundproofed the windows and we made one of the rooms into an echo chamber. We had an 8-track, a 4-track, and two 2-tracks. We had an EMT plate, some [Urei] 1176s, and some Pultec EQs. The board was a custom board by Ron Newdoll.
Can you talk about the process at that studio? Like, how were you mic'ing the drums?
We did a bass drum mic, a snare mic, and one overhead mic. We were using [Neumann] U 47s and U 67s. We had good mics.
How did you build your tracks?
We did bass, drums, keyboard, maybe guitar, and a scratch vocal. We would have the kick drum and the bass on the same track. We had to make sure they were in the pocket together, because you couldn't change it after that. For the drums, the whole trap set would be on two tracks, or else the snare would be by itself.
How difficult was it to punch in on those big Ampex machines?
We had to be careful. We had to be sure our relays and everything were clean. Otherwise there'd be a pop. We had to have kind of a feel for that machine, because there was a short delay time for that relay to kick in. It'd have to be a relay that was in good shape, or that we'd burnished the contacts on, to make sure there wasn't any dirt or corrosion in there to where it would make that "pop." We would always put the kick drum or the bass on tracks 1 or 8. You would have those things on the edge.
We did that in the 16-track days, too.
I'm still doing it now! With digital. [laughter] Those Ampex electronics always had problems with tube "microphonics" with the 12AX7 [tubes]. If you cranked up the music in the room, you'd get that ringing coming from the tubes in the tape machine. It was real hard to find, because when you turned off the music the problem went away. We always kept a lot of those tubes around. When we went to solid-state [electronics], those [circuit board] cards in the machines would go belly up. The contacts on the cards would oxidize. We would have to pop them in and out. Everybody that worked during that period will tell you it was not unusual to swap out the electronics, or the cables, in those machines during a session. If I'm on my last track, for example, and I have only 7 working tracks, I'd ask you what you don't need to hear. Then I'd unplug that card and plug it into another track. We had to do that, or we'd have to stop. Almost anything is better than stopping, especially if everybody is in the groove. At Studio One we had big JBLs [speakers] in the control room. I kept a big box of tweeters because we were blowing tweeters left and right, especially with [Lynyrd] Skynyrd.
Did you use much compression?
Oh, yeah. We used compression, especially on the bass to make the apparent volume of the bass louder without taking up any more power – any more "needle room." Everyone back then was using [Urei] 1176s.
Did you record tracks with them?
Sure did. Almost all the bass we did we put through a compressor. After a year and a half, Joe left Atlanta and moved to Hawaii. I was asked to work at Rodney Mills' Studio One, a new studio just a few doors away from where South's place had been in Doraville, but this room was soundproofed. Unlike Master Sound, where the owners preferred to cut jingles and commercials, Studio One was about music. I never liked the jingle business. There were no freedom in making a jingle; everything was cut and dried. Rodney Mills and I got along fine. He was conservative and I was a liberal – both in politics and our approach to recording. About that time I met this guy who was a cellist in the symphony, and he had one of the first synthesizers. It took up a whole room in his house! He was really into experimental recording and psychoacoustics, and I got into it too. I started doing all kinds of things with time and tape – trying to get new sounds. You remember the first hit record that used tape flanging?
Yeah. "The Big Hurt" by Toni Fisher in 1959. I was in junior high school.
Right. But being able to really control that flanging sound was something very few engineers were able to do. I was one of the people that figured out how to do it whenever I wanted to. There were only a few of us that understood it at that time. We would do it when people were gone. They'd come back the next day and say "Whoa. How did you do that?" At that time, there was a lot of mystique in engineering; a lot of engineers kept things to themselves. I was into experimenting with different sounds, and I was given the opportunity to experiment. A lot of studios were pretty stuffy about that. It was like, "Don't mess around with this gear if you don't know what you're doing." But I said, "If I mess it up, I'll fix it."
Like what? Distortion?
Distortion and backwards sounds. Like on Lynyrd Skynyrd, you'll hear some of my backwards sounds on there.
When did you first record Skynyrd?
I did several things with Al Kooper [Tape Op #73], like Lowell George and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Al was one of the most talented people I ever worked with, but he was pushy. He was real pushy. Columbia [Records] sent him down here [from New York] to basically get him out of their hair. We recorded a lot of local bands, and in 1972 we needed one more group to record under a contract. Al and I went downtown one night to this place called Funochio's, and we saw this group named Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were one kick-ass band. So we got them out to the studio the next night to do some demos for us. Pretty soon we were cutting their first album [(Pronounced 'L?h-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd)]. They were the first band I'd ever met that, during a gig, if somebody came up and started taunting the band, they'd say, "Meet you out back." They were always ready to fight anybody. We would go out back and that Ronnie Van Zant would just kick the shit out of somebody way bigger than him, and then come back in and play like nothing ever happened! One night at the studio, they started giving me shit over something I'd done. I said, "See that big switch on the wall over there? When I flip that switch, you wouldn't believe how dark it gets in here. Pitch black. I know where everything is, and I can be out of here before you all know what's happening." I thought there'd be a fight the night they came in after Al and I had mixed "Free Bird." In those days we were using 16-track decks. We'd do the basic band on maybe eight tracks, then overdub background vocals and mix them all down to two tracks, or even one track – what we called "ping-ponging." We'd use the reverb returns to get stereo. Anyway, when we were cutting the song, we noticed that every time they played the guitar parts, they played them exactly the same way. So, we started telling them, "Let's do the guitars again." They were saying, "How many times do we have to do this?" We didn't tell them we were stacking all those tracks. Al and I came in early the next day and I said, "What do you think if we mix all these tracks down to a couple of tracks and then go for it?" So, we took all those guitar parts and just mixed and interwove them in twos, and threes, and fours. Then we erased all the original tracks. That night, when they came in and heard all those guitars on there, they went ballistic. They said, "How can you think that sounds good?" And then they asked, "How the hell are we going to play that live?" Al said, "You're just going to have to work that out." They said, "Work that out? We can't work that out!" Finally we said, "Look, we're here trying to make you a hit record, not do what you think is a hit. It's our job to make this record. It's your job to do whatever you need to do after that." They were pissed – at least until the album went gold. By the time it was platinum, they were over it. [laughter] We did "Sweet Home Alabama" at the same time we did that first album.
Shortly after that, you went out on your own?
Yeah. I was always a rebel in the Atlanta music scene. I don't think I wore shoes the whole time I worked at Studio One. The days with Al were pretty memorable. We had lots of friends that we spent time with. Folks like Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison would come by our house and play cards. I would go to bed, and when I would get up the next day they'd be still there playing and somebody would have all the money and all the jewelry! Anyway, by 1973 I had recorded a lot of hits; Skynyrd, some of the Classics IV, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and a bunch of others. One day I asked for a raise. Bill Lowery, the owner, said, "No." So, I quit and started Langford Engineering, doing service on professional audio equipment, and I also started freelancing. I engineered in California, The Record Plant, Criteria [Studios, Miami], New York City, Muscle Shoals, and Memphis. I was working as much as I ever did. Engineering Lynyrd Skynyrd opened so many doors for me. I worked with Tommy Roe and Ronnie Milsap, who, at that time, was a fantastic blues singer. I was surprised when he got into country. I also worked with Billy Joe Royal at Muscle Shoals and in Atlanta. In the early '80s, I built a large studio in Atlanta, Crystal Palace, which I ran for about a year and a half. I recorded a lot of local groups there, as well as a Doug Kershaw album. I finished a Paul Davis album [Paul Davis] for Bang Records there. One time lightning burned up our console and insurance paid for a new MCI console, which was the hottest thing going back then. We were using Scully tape machines. About this time I also began working with Lexicon in Waltham, Massachusetts, on delay lines for effects, like phasing and doubling. Doubling vocals was a big thing then. They hired me to work on the clock circuitry card for their early digital delay lines, using what was they called "shift register" technology. They were these huge, expensive, rack-mounted things that must have weighed 40 pounds. I always thought it would be a lot simpler to use analog delays, known as "bucket brigade" devices. The chips I used were 1024-stage delay lines made by Reticon [Corporation] for delaying video signals in the broadcast industry. I started clocking them slower for audio – a little over 40 kHz. I ended up receiving a patent for an "Audio Signal Processing System," which was one of the first analog delay units designed for recording. Patent #4184047. It was a multi-effects box, and I still license this patent.
So that's been a good thing for you over the years?
It allowed me not to have to work very hard for a long time. [laughs] Meanwhile, I got into helping folks maintain their 8-track tape duplicators [8-track playback cartridges]. A lot of the places in Atlanta were running what we called "P product" at the time. That was another name for "bootleg." For a while, this was big business. They were sending out truckloads of these things. The FBI in Atlanta knew I was working with the duplicators. They caught me coming out of places and asked, "What are they doing in there? What kind of music?" I said, "Look, I take my equipment; I go in there and run tones and look at an oscilloscope. I don't hear any music. It's none of my business." There were also companies that hired bands and musicians to make sound-a-like records. Sometimes they would slip in some of the actual original recordings. Some of the honest duplicators would hire me to tell if these were the originals or sound-a-likes, so they wouldn't get in trouble. [To view the waveforms] I used the sonograph machine at Georgia Tech. Sometimes while I was there, I'd meet the FBI guys doing the same thing – looking at waveforms. Later on I worked for the police doing voice print analysis. Looking back on my recording days, I think the key to success was that you had to be in the right place, at the right time. You had to show that you had a real desire to do it, and that you were going to be there when they needed you. You had to give up a lot of things back then to get into the business. I guess I was fascinated by the process of making a record. It's funny how sometimes I'll see a record, and I'll say, "This looks familiar!" Then I'll start reading the liner notes and [realize] I did it!