A few years ago, it seemed I couldn't walk down the street without hearing the words "Krautrock" or "lo-fi". Long before these terms became fashionable, Milwaukee resident Richard Franecki was recording himself at home, and he's been listening to German electronic music since his youth. While Franecki's tastes have grown more fashionable in recent years, he's remained obscure. His current band, Vocokesh, has released two records on Drag City, but they've remained two of the label's smallest sellers. I caught up with Franecki at Rockhaus, a fine Milwaukee guitar and drum store owned by Franecki's former bandmate Greg Kurzcewski.
"I'm from a musical family. My father was an amateur musician, so I kind of picked up an inter- est in music from him." He played concertina. "When I was in high school in the '70's, I was always interested in being in a rock band. I was in my first band in mid to late '70's, I was in a band called the Drag, with Greg Kurczewski here. The Drag never really did anything, we broke up after a couple of years. Then I was in a punk band called the Shemps that made a little bit of a splash here in Milwaukee. We started recording then, just very crudely, with a cassette deck, and released some recordings. But I never really got my first 4 track deck until some time after that. Going full-circle, I've always been interested in experimental music. The punk thing was fun, but to me it ran its course real fast-it got old. I found myself in the early '80's getting back into the same things I was into in the early '70's-a lot of German experimental music and electronic music." Growing up in Milwaukee, Franecki learned about these records when they were relatively new. "I discovered in the late '60's, the early FM, what was then called progressive rock radio. In town here there was a radio station called WZMF, and before that there was a station called WTOS-probably very few people even remember that one. Those were the early days of late '60's freeform radio. We had a couple of disc jockeys in town that were really into that experimental stuff, and when I was like 13 years old, I discovered it just by listening to radio. It was the coolest stuff I had ever heard." As his interest in this style of music was renewed, Franecki started the band F/i to pursue it.
The start of F/i coincided with his developing interest in recording his own music. "Initially we worked just with cassette decks and did a lot of track bouncing with them. That was a little crude. We had an old Peavey 8 track and just a regular mixing board for a PA system, which was OK, but for recording it wasn't really quiet enough. We got a lot of hiss on our recordings. It was made for something totally different. We used that for all the Shemps stuff and all the early F/i cassette releases. All of that stuff was recorded pretty much live, right on cassette, with the mixing board." As he grew serious about recording, Franecki upgraded to a Yamaha cassette 4 track.
Toward the end of Franecki's involvement with F/i, he upgraded to the cassette 4 track which he still owns, a 1985 Akai MT-44D. It "runs at twice the speed, and it has an 8 channel mixer with 2 effects sends. That's what we pretty much used to record the last 3 F/i albums and all the Vocokesh material. I've always had really good equipment. I never used some of the Fostex stuff. Some of the 4 track cassette machines that came out, especially some of the first ones, were only designed to be scratchpad recorders for songwriters. I never owned one of those really low end machines, I always had some of the higher end 4 track cassette machines. Although, if you read some of the literature on those, they are still meant to be like scratchpad recorders. Under the right conditions, and it's all on conditions if you're recording, you can get some pretty professional results on some of these machines. In fact if you listen to the latest Vocokesh CD, I think that it sounds pretty darn good. I think we've achieved, after years of trial and error, the best drum sounds I ever got, on that [machine]."
Vocokesh's music is "95% improvised. Once in awhile we'll get a basic song structure worked out in advance. Usually the way it works out is that your basic song structure will just be a springboard for an extended jam. I've always loved that kind of music so that's pretty much how I work." Franecki records these extended jams on his 4 track. "We record all the drums and the backing tracks in my drummer, Jan Schoeber's, basement. We just do very skeletal backing tracks with the guitar, bass, and drums. And then what I do is I bring the tapes back to my studio. My deck is portable; unlike an actual studio, I can take my tape deck with me. I bring the tapes back to my house, and then I spend a couple of months in the basement, just adding, subtracting, overdubbing, and just messing with the tapes to get the final results." After recording the core guitar, bass, and drums on 3 tracks, there's typically only one remaining track for overdubs, which are often his synthesizers.
He cautions against depending on bouncing with a 4 track cassette. "You can bounce tracks if you're really careful. But I've tended to do that sparingly because once you start bouncing tracks, especially on cassette, there's a marked quality loss, especially with drums. If you read some of the literature on any of these machines, it tells you how to do up to 13 tracks by bouncing, and I've tried that just for the fun of it a few times, to see just how far I could carry it. Don't do it, because no matter how careful you are, if you lay down a bass and a drum sound and you try to do 10 over- dubs on top of that, inevitably, you're going to lose your rhythm. You just will. Some of the Fostex stuff that came out in the '80's, was probably OK for what it was, but on some of their old ads, they had a picture of one of these little Fostex machines sit- ting on top of a copy of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which was record- ed on a 4 track. What they didn't tell you though, is that they used inch wide 4 track. This was a 4 track machine that was as big as a dishwasher. Some real classic '60's recordings were done with 4 track, because rock bands were kind of given 2nd shift in a lot of the studios. So if you listen to Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets, I think, the definitive classic Pink Floyd albums, those were done on 4 track, but there again, inch wide, 15 ips tape, you can bounce and it's not going to make as big a difference. The cassette medium with the narrow tape, the real narrow track width, and the slower speeds will make a difference. So you can push the technology and get pretty good results, but you have to be aware that there are limitations."
Franecki is far less enthusiastic about the technical details of his microphones than his 4 track. He has "never really had any really strictly recording mics. It hasn't seemed to matter, though." Aside from being EV and Shure mics, he says, "to be honest with you, I don't even know what I have. It's nothing exotic. I will say though that we never use matching mics. If we had 4 mics or 6 mics set up, they were always all different, which is probably not an ideal thing. We just used what we could afford and what we had."
"Guitar is fairly easy to record. You can just take almost any kind of a mic, put it up to your amp, and it's mostly the amp sound. I'm not a scientist when it comes to acoustics and audio, but I do know that the frequency range of electric guitar isn't real great, as far as to get your basic sound. I've found that just about any mic I've ever tried, EV or Shure, works pretty well. Bass is just like guitar. We've found mic'ing an amp with just any kind of mic we've gotten pretty good results. Electronics are simple to record. We don't use mics at all, that's all direct. When you're going direct, even a cheap tape deck will produce pretty decent recordings, so that's never been a problem."
"The big challenge is recording drums. We've gotten everything from what I would consider a pretty decent drum sound on the latest Vocokesh recording, to stuff that sounds like someone tap- ping on a coffee can with pencils. Basically, what it all amounts to is how you set things up. You've got to think of your microphone, someone explained this to me, think of the microphone as an ear. Listen with your ear. Your ear picks up a
wide range of sounds, and think of your mic as the same way, so you can set your mic up in a room and it can pick up quite a bit."
Franecki now prefers a technique called the 3 mic method for recording drums. "One mic on the bass drum, one mic sort of on the snare side of the set, and another mic sort of on the tom tom and floor tom side of the set, elevated a little bit, and a little bit away from the cymbals." He typically mics drums from behind the drum kit, "because Jan Schoeber, our drummer, tends to be real cymbal heavy. We've found that if we put the mics in front of the drum set, we tended to get more of a shhh shhh shhh, which kind of drowned out a lot of the other drums. Going behind him kind of let the cymbal sound go out forward a little bit and the other drum sounds seem to be a little bit more evenly balanced in the mix." He explains that the technique was popular in the '60's and '70's, and recommends a book called the Home Recording Handbook for further explanation.
In contrast, his worst drum sound was achieved when trying a more ambitious method of mic'ing drums. "That was when we used our 8 channel Peavey mixing board. We tried to mic everything through the board, and using the pan controls, we tried doing a stereo mix onto a cas- sette deck. That was partially lack of experience, and lack of an isolation booth, and just basically trying to do it ourselves in one room. That method is so hit and miss that you don't know what you're coming out with until it's all finished. Unless you can do a test recording, pop the tape out, go somewhere else, listen to it-and we did- n't do that.
"My deck has little overload indicators, much like a mixing board does, that'll light up — they'll either blink or light steadily to indicate overload. I used to be really timid about that. I used to set my levels, especially when recording drums, so that the overload indicators never went on. Some of that is how we got some of our coffee can drum sounds on early recordings. I discovered, just through read- ing and through my own trial and error, that when recording drums, when you're setting your levels, let the overload indicators blink in time to the music. Let the light flash on momentarily. You tend to get a punchier sounding recording. If you listen to Paradise Revisited by Vocokesh that's how we did it, and that's probably how we got such a good drum sound on that recording. I think the thing you have to worry about is don't let your indicator lights blink any more than just a fraction of a second. If you're recording your drums and those lights are staying on for like half a second or a second, there you're red-lining and you're going to get a distorted sound. When you're setting the levels on a guitar, your indicator lights can blink, but if
they're on steadily, unless that's the effect you want, you're going to get a totally distorted sound. Under normal conditions, unless you're doing some really weird music, you don't want that. You can get your distortion other ways, rather than through the tape deck." He summarizes, "there's a very fine line between tape compression and distortion."
"The way we recorded the latest Vocokesh CD, Paradise Revisited, we set up the guitar, bass, and drums in our drummer's basement. We spent an entire afternoon. We used old stuffed furniture and old mattresses to build like a little isolation area around the drum kit, and we put the guitar amps in front of that to sort of minimize bleed-through, so the drum mics wouldn't pick up the guitars and vice-versa, and that worked really well. We worked real carefully on mic placement on the drums. Once you can kind of get your drum sound down pretty well, the guitars are real easy just to put in there." As long as there is some isolation, Franecki doesn't worry about bleed. "I read an article about Electric Lady Studios, in New York, where Jimi Hendrix did a lot of his recordings. Eddie Kramer, who engineered a lot of the Hendrix recordings, talked about the con- trolled bleed-through."
Franecki mixes using the board built into his 4 track, and uses monitoring equipment which he describes as "stone age technology. I've got a 12 watt amplifier that I tore apart. You'll think this is hilarious-I tore apart an old '70s JC Penney 8 track player, combination 8 track player and AM/FM radio. I took it apart and I found the amp part of it. I threw out the radio and the 8 track player, and I took the amp and the inputs and all the controls that were relevant, and I mounted that on a standard rack-mount face panel. I just drilled holes and put the knobs and screwed the cir- cuit board to the front panel, and that's what I use for my monitor. And then for monitor speakers, I have some Jensen speakers that are off of an old Aiwa boombox. The type of boomboxes that have detachable speakers, I found these on a junkpile, and I just took 'em home. They've been my monitor speakers since the late '80s probably. They're still in the boombox enclosures, and that's what I use. Thinking about it, though, a good quality boombox has a good frequency range, especially now with CD, and a lot of people listen to all of their music on CD playing boomboxes. So listening and monitoring through these boombox speakers kind of gives you an idea of what these things will sound like to someone actually listening to it. However, and this is a good rule of thumb for any home recording, regardless of the equipment you use, when you're mixing down, unless you have a totally professional monitoring system, which if you're a home recordist, you probably don't, you're probably just using your home stereo. Just do a rough mix on a cassette, and take it to a couple of different people's houses. You have friends with stereo systems — listen to it on several different stereo systems because everybody's speakers will be a little different. Then you can get a good idea of how the tape actually sounds. For example, if you happen to have monitor speakers that tend to emphasize the bass or the treble, you will adjust your tone controls in your mixing to compensate for that. The downside of that is if you take it to someone's house who has speakers that emphasize the opposite, your recording will be either too trebly, you'll lose the bass, or it'll be too bassed-out, you'll lose your high end. So by listening to it on different systems, you can figure that out." He describes his own stereo as "fairly decent", with a Pioneer amp and Infinity bookshelf speakers from the mid-'80s. "I know the quirks of my crude monitoring system versus my good stereo, so I can pretty much use my monitoring system and I'll pretty much know how it's going to sound. That's come with many years of trial and error."
He offers some further advice about mixing.
"One mistake people make, and this is done in professional studios as well as amateur, home studios, is that [they] monitor too loud. Basically, monitor real quiet. If you get a good sounding mix when it's quiet, it's going to sound really good when it's loud. Never really try to mix down after you record. Because if you're playing loud when you're record- ing, you'll be a little bit shell-shocked, your hear- ing will be a little bit — that's one of the occupational hazards of just being a musician, and you'll overcompensate because your hearing is a little bit off. That's why so many musicians go deaf. So let the recording just sit around for awhile. What I usually do is we'll do our backing tracks and I'll let the tape sit for about a week, or two weeks, and then come back to it with a fresh ear a couple weeks later. Then you can kind of gauge what you did."
"I used to mix down to reel to reel. I have a Pioneer RT707 reel to reel deck, which was one of the last home stereo reel to reel decks made. A very good deck. The RT707 actually did live up to its specs on the spec sheet. Those reel to reel's are still found at a lot of radio stations and recording studios. A lot of recording studios have them just to make quickie mixes so the engineer can listen to em at home and stuff. However, the last 2 CDs that Vocokesh did, Smile and Point at the Mountain? and Paradise Revisited, I've been using a Sony minidisc recorder. So I've been going directly from the cassette to the digital format, and for CD, that's worked out pretty well. Greg Kurczewski here, in fact, I've borrowed his. That's why it always says thanks to Greg at the Rockhaus for use of equipment in the credits, because it's his digital equipment that I mix down on."
With panning, "I try not to do anything really weird. We've done some panning here and there, but it's kind of wearing on recordings. You can tend to get too gimmicky, and then it sounds like you're just playing around with your equipment. If you listen to some old stuff from the '60s by Cream, those are some odd recordings. The drums and bass are all in one side and you've got the guitar all on the other side. That's kind of strange. I tend to go with the more conventional approach, where you keep the drums and bass kind of in the middle, and then the guitar or guitars or electronics on each side. And when I have done special effects type panning, that's tended to have been done with the synthesizers. When you start getting into panning drums and stuff, you can overdo it real easy. Basically you keep your drums kind of in the middle, which is pretty standard, I think."
While he tries to be conservative about panning, Franecki likes to use effects quite liberal- ly. "My Akai deck I'm using now has 2 effects channels." To one channel he usually connects his ART digital reverb, "with 100 different presets, from a tenth of a second all the way up to 25 seconds. I tend to use the reverb in the mix- down process for getting a little bit of a presence on the rhythm section, the bass and drums. With a hundred different presets, it's got plates, springs-it's a really nice unit. It's even got a few additional things on it, like a flanger, but it's not a really good sounding flanger so I haven't made wide use of that."
"I use usually between a tenth of a second and two seconds, depending on the effect desired, but I tend to use the plate settings on drums. I tend to like a little bit of a treblier sound, and get that on some of the plate sounds. The warm room plate is what some of these settings are called. They tend to give you a crisper sound. Rather than have a real bassy bass, I tend to go for a more trebly bass sound as well. It seems like, and it may be just my equipment, but it almost seems like you get a little bit of a cleaner mix. Inherent in the 4 track cassette process, it's very easy to muddy up your recordings. If you try to get just a little more treble and crispness on some of the sounds, it's a little bit easier to get a cleaner mix."
"As far as other outboard effects, I also use, which actually belongs to my drummer, a Roland digital delay. I tend to use digital delay for guitar a lot, and synthesizer. The synthesizer especially.
I'm really into a lot of the '60s psychedelia. Maybe I go a little heavy handed on it, but I tend to drown everything in delay and reverb. I think it just makes everything sound so much better. That's just a quirk of mine, but I'm very effects crazy when it comes to reverb and echo."
"The deck I'm using now has 3 band para- metric EQ. I tend to record everything flat, when you're doing your initial recording. Then you can kind of tweak the EQ, emphasize or de-emphasize different things. It's easier to do that after the fact. I've found that you have much better results-one of the reasons for that is when you're recording, it tends to be kind of chaotic. When you've got other musicians in the room and you're trying to set equipment up, you can very easily make stupid mistakes. So record flat, and EQ later."
"I used to own a compressor, and I made a really horrible deal and I lost it. I had a really nice stereo Yamaha. But I find that in my experience, you really don't have to use a compressor to record instruments. A compressor/limiter is probably a necessity to do vocals. However, we do instrumental music, so the loss of my compressor wasn't such a big blow, because without vocals, we've been able to pull it off pretty well. The human voice is a really dynamic instrument, and everybody has certain qualities in their voices. Without using a com- pressor, recording vocals is a nightmare, because you can think you have your levels all set, and then someone else'll step up to the mic, and they may have a certain frequency range that'll just red-line all your stuff. That's the problem-certain frequencies on different people's voices, and every- body's different, will just totally bury your needles and distort your vocals, and a limiter can really control that."
Franecki plays vintage synthesizers in Vocokesh and on his solo records. He built his collection in the mid-'80s, before such instruments had returned to fashion. "Back in the mid-'80s, before the stuff was cool again, nobody wanted it. Grant Richter, who still plays with F/i, began a quest where he called basically the music department of every university in the country. He would just call up a university and ask to speak to the chairman of the music department and said, 'Have you got any analog synthesizers or electronic equipment that you have sitting in a closet that you'd like to get rid of?' And lo and behold, he found not only Buchla equipment, but a lot of other stuff, like EML and a VCS3-just all the cool stuff from the early '70s. He amassed a pretty large collection. Then, just a few years later, people realized the stuff was getting cool again and it's worth money so we did it at just the right time."
"I've got a Buchla 200 series modular. I've got an actual black and white keyboard on the Buchla, very rare. I tend not to use it because it's not a really accurate keyboard; it's very hard to tune. It's still designed to use like the metal touchplate keyboard; it just looks more familiar. That Buchla stuff is my pride and joy. The oscillators are divided into duals, so it's like two oscillators in one box. And each of the two oscillators in the one box, it's like 4 different wave forms. The two sides are a little different from each other. That's some of the more versatile stuff ever made."
"I've got an ARP 2600 and an ARP Odyssey and a couple of ARP sequencers. The 2600 is the one Edgar Winter used back in the '70s. Odyssey is basically the counterpart to the MiniMoog. Sounds a little different but it's a basic small keyboard synthesizer. If you listen to old Deep Purple recordings you can hear an ARP Odyssey. In fact R.E.M. use an ARP Odyssey, I think, not their latest album, but the one that came out before. I'm not a big R.E.M. fan, my wife's a huge R.E.M. fan."
"Sometimes I listen back to something I recorded a few years ago and I honestly don't remember how I did it. I've heard sounds in some of my recordings that's like 'Wow, how did I do that, you know?' That's kind of the fun of working with an analog synthesizer-it puts more burden on the user, rather than just using presets. Sometimes you can work out a patch and then later on you'll wonder exactly how you got to use that."
"I've owned the same guitar that I still use since 1972. It's a 1969 Gibson Melodymaker. It's shaped like an SG and has one pickup. It's a light guitar; it's almost like holding a tennis rack- et. It's like the best guitar I've ever owned. Greg Kurczewski has worked on it a number of times; he's put pickups on it. I've got a Dimarzio superdistortion pickup on it right now. It's a real hot pick-
up, which I tend to like. The latest Vocokesh album, all the gui- tar parts are played on a Polytone amp, which are made in Chicago, or were; I'm not sure if they're still around. Polytone were a funny company. They began to be manufactured in the '60s. They were designed to be accordion and concertina amps. Then they kind of jumped the bandwagon to try to get into the rock band market, but they didn't quite know what they were doing. They were still
making accordion amps, but they couldn't quite relate to guitars, so they're kind of funny amps. But they were very loud amps, and the one I have now, it's a 2 channel Polytone, with a weird little control that you pull in and out to get your over- drive. It sounds like a Marshall stack on a record- ing. I used to have a Laney 50 watt combo with one 12" speaker, which was a super amp for play- ing live, but it was a terrible amp for recording because it sounded too trebly. There was no low end. I found it was way too tinny sounding. The recordings just didn't work using that amp. On Smile and Point at the Mountain? what I ended up doing was erasing my guitar parts and re-dubbing my guitar parts with the Polytone amp, because the Laney just didn't sound good."
"I pretty much retired from playing live a few years ago. All I really got out of it was a bad back-I had back surgery back in 1991. I think a slipped disc as a direct result of lifting amps in and out of car trunks. Even going back to my punk days with the Shemps, I never really enjoyed playing live much. Some of it was just the logistics-I'm just lazy. Just spending a whole day moving equipment was a chore. With the early days of F/i, we were doing this industrial type music, and we would start playing and the whole room would clear out. Say you're playing to two people in a room. It just seemed to be like an exercise in futility. I was always more at home in the recording studio. Plus I suffer from a little bit of stage fright, too. I once had severe anxiety attacks before a show."
"I've only been in a real recording studio twice. There's an album that came out a few years ago, put out by Atomic Records here in Milwaukee. It was basically a collection of Wisconsin and Milwaukee bands. What Atomic Records did was they gave everybody like a hundred fifty bucks to go into a studio because they wanted good recordings. They didn't want people recording boombox stuff because they wanted it to be a nice record. So we went into a studio here in town called Breezeway. What I remember, it cost us 144 dollars to record a 3 minute track. I thought man, that's a lot of money. I could go home and buy a 3 pack of cassettes and do 3 hours of music, but the sound quality was of course phenomenal. They can use 2" wide 24 track machine, but it's costly." While he was happy with the sound quality of the recordings, he found the process frustrating. "In my home studio, I've been doing it for so many years, and you can spend an entire afternoon recording. You can say 'Hey, let's try this, let's try that.' You can experiment. And when you've got a meter ticking away with an indifferent engineer sitting behind the controls, it's really hard, for me anyway, to be creative. Some of your great stuff from the past, like Pink Floyd and all that, you read their bio; Pink Floyd had money behind them. They were able to rent a studio for a month and do what we do in the basement now so it's just a matter of economics."
"The only other time we went into an 8 track studio was to record F/i's Paradise Out Here album, which was released in Europe. It was like a semi-pro studio. The person that owned the studio was a musician, and he had professional quality equipment in his home studio. That was probably more a basement recording than it was a professional recording, but the results were really good. That was done on an Otari 8 track reel to reel, 1" tape, 15 inches per second."
"None of us are doing this for a living. We're very serious about our music, but we're under no obligation to try to make a living from doing it. So we're able indulge ourselves and do stuff we really like. Self-indulgence isn't necessarily a bad term. We love doing the kind of music we do, hopefully other people'll like it too. It's a sincere effort on our part, and that's why we do it. If it stops being fun, we'll quit."