Brian Kehew is well known as the co-author (with Kevin Ryan) of the massive book Recording The Beatles [Tape Op #53]. But he's also been a fill-in keyboardist (and live tech) for The Who, as well as a member of the charming group The Moog Cookbook (with Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.). Oh, and he's played on, engineered and produced a number of albums, plus he's been the Archives Historian for the Bob Moog Foundation. But, as far as I can tell, he also has the coolest job around: combing the vaults of the big record labels looking for unreleased tracks and outtakes, and getting to mix them as well. I met up with Brian at his modest studio in North Hollywood, California.
Is it a trip to go back to something from the '50s, like The Coasters?
Do you get multitracks on projects like that?
Of course, though The Coasters was an 8-track. Tom Dowd built the first 8-track machine out of Ampex stuff; it's not high fidelity, but it's got a cool vibe to it. Old Ampex machines have character beyond belief. They're not perfect fidelity, but I prefer character over fidelity. The Coasters tracks were literally live. When they recorded "Charlie Brown" or "Yakety Yak" there were two or three different mics for the vocalists and the rhythm section. Bass and drums might have been on a channel, guitars on one with keyboard. Everyone always together. We had session after session of them cutting songs. You can hear their voices going a bit and them starting to worry about it. "I'm losing it, but I'm going to step up for this take. Let's try to get it on this one." It was a lot of pressure for them to record in a converted office building, but so exciting to listen to. I hope someday it can all come out because you hear them screw up and they say, "Okay, let's do it again." You can feel the sweat, you can hear the energy in their voices, and that translates to the feel on the next take. There is something capturable there and their performances are so good — as are people like David Bowie, who sing a complete vocal take rather than punching in each line. It's very rare that people sing full takes now. Doing so adds a bit of feeling to things, I think. Whether it's imperfect, it will add a bit of vibe to it to try a full take. Your sweat and your fear will go on tape and make it a little bit more interesting for the listener. A little bit out-of-control is better than fully in control. A train up on two wheels is more exciting than one fully on the track!
It's kind of amazing to me that on some of the tapes you would hear multiple versions of a song and that they were all kept on the multitracks. On sessions I've done over the last couple of decades I'll usually say, "Let's roll back to the zero point and cut a new take over what we just did."
Well you and I live in a world of budgets — tape is expensive and I've done that like you so many times. "We only have this tape. I can fit three take on it." You know how that is. The old saying was, "Tape is cheap and takes are expensive." Not anymore! People do progress significantly take to take a lot of times, and you can hear it. In the Elvis Costello reissues, we went through virtually every album he did. We listened to the takes and he was phenomenal. He sings live with every band performance, and often keeps that vocal for the record. Sometimes he'll drastically change [course] and say, "Let's do it a little mambo-style." And then he'll do a song that we all know, but mambo style. Then he'll say, "Nah, I just want it a little more straight two-step." And they do it two-step and he goes, "No, let's go back to the reggae" and they'll do a reggae-ish version. And they're all great...
Of course his band is amazing. But he's singing live, they're all adapting and it makes an amazing vibe in the room. They can change a song so quickly, into a whole new thing. Sometimes the third take he says, "Let's do it a lot softer," which changes the feel completely; and many times that's the one we know and love.
It's very different from people who over-rehearse things now. As you said, it takes players who can adapt. As we all know, if you hire a good session musician they can play a first take as well as somebody who had rehearsed it a bunch of times. Maybe even more inventive, as they have that unique skill that session players bring to something. In regards to people that are in a rehearsed band; I love putting people in a room together that know where the breaks are and know how to make it feel right. There's nothing like pushing 'record' and getting to sit back and listening to that go down. It's one of my favorite feelings in the world.
Are there times that you don't find much on the tapes you can use?
We went through sixty Miles Davis recordings to find out that there was no Miles Davis on them. They were backing tracks that he would have people do. We had three or four days booked at Capitol Studios to go through these tapes! It turns out that he just commissioned different people to go do backing tracks — this was the late period Miles when he'd just play over something, collect his check and walk away. So the stuff from the Tutu era, and so forth, those are often backing tracks he chose to work over. We had several days booked. We show up the first day and we're done in two hours saying, "There's no Miles on here." Ouch. Sometimes you'll have a project in front of you that's useless. For example, with the Eagles' Don Henley singing on the drums, he's not going to do a real drum take and sing at the same time. You won't have a vocal on something like that. That's a rare case where the drummer's the singer. No action there, usually. In other bands the singer wants to save their voice and they yell, "Verse one, verse two" on the scratch vocal mic.
"Mumble, mumble, chorus coming." [laughs]
Yeah, exactly. No usable takes we can mix and release. Then again, there are the wonderful ones where Elvis Costello, or somebody, is cutting it live; it's fantastic, it has that energy. If the drums aren't too loud on the vocal mic, you're happening. We might get multiple versions of each song; lots to use.
You mentioned before, when we were here with Ken Scott, about kind of having to sneak some of the mixing by the artists.
Interesting point. It makes me uncomfortable and a little bit sad that the artist's aren't involved, but who to choose to involve? And who to pay [for the released tracks]? All the original producers? All the original engineers of an album project? The A&R person, for her choices? Just the singer and not the guitarist? In most cases the label says, "We've had nothing but problems with this." Many artists want to re-do their vocals, or guitar parts, or replace the old drums with new samples. Or the singer now has grown into loud vocals, whereas in 1974 they didn't want that. If they came to the studio now they'd want to change it. Most of these people are not happy with leaving their past as it was, so they are not invited to the sessions. However, most are very happy when we present them with mixed finished tracks. When we ask, "What do you think of this?" they usually say, "I love it. Let's put it out."
Yeah, and if that one member of a band is there then the other band members might veto the mixes or the...
We ran into that with Woodstock [Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm]. On of the musicians said, "I'm not happy with my part and I want to replace it. I will not give you permission to put it out unless I can replace my part." Well, that's a really bad moral issue because we almost always refuse to let somebody do that, but in this case we can't use the track unless he's replaced it. He came in and replaced his part; we got a new mix of it and then we found out that he wasn't the guy who had permission control over the track! Someone else did and they weren't happy and wanted to do their own version.
Oh my god.
It gets to be nasty. You spend a lot of time spinning your wheels. The best thing to do is to send us in on an expedition saying, "Let's just check over the tapes and see what's there." The artists, managers and old producers aren't usually involved at this stage. I'd say we're more objective, if anything. Sometimes the artist does get involved, and some of them are very involved; but it's so dangerous because usually they're into revisionist history. Whereas we have a clear work ethic of, "Let's just make it sound like it did." There's no agenda. The artist does hear it; they do [usually] put it out. Usually, with their permission. They do sometimes get input into the packaging. On a project like Rod Stewart's box set [The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998] his manager said, "Great idea; go for it. Hit the vaults; send us what you've got. We're going to be very easy with you guys. We're not going to be picky. We like rough stuff. We like loose things." They let us put out a bunch of really funny outtake tracks. They were getting sauced in the studio, having fun, making fun of people or whatever. We played what we'd found and they said, "That's great!" We agreed. That's the kind of project where we all get a more real sense of what the person was like, not just their music. We get a sense of the man and what it's like behind the scenes. It's so much more interesting, as fans. We try to leave all the chatter before and after the takes, whenever possible, because you get a sense of what it was like on the session. I like being able to hear people in the room getting ready, what their mood was like, and how they instructed each other. There's some great chat from people, sometimes even better than the music. Joe Walsh and Lee Hazlewood are both amazing to hear between songs!
Have you had any crazy technical issues?
We were going through Yes' Tormato tapes. Producer/engineer Eddie Offord had started the album -he had done most of the Yes records and I know from working on his tracks that he used Dolby A a lot. These tapes don't say Dolby A, but Tormato is a famously bad-sounding record. They parted ways with him mid-course and somebody else finished the record. So I'm looking at the tapes and it doesn't say Dolby A anywhere on them — it's typical that they note that when encoded — but I said, "Hold on a second, let me put Dolby on this." And everything — except for some of the later overdubs — sounded amazing. I went, "Aha!" I think we realized what happened. They went to somebody else and the other person didn't see Dolby on the tapes.
Because that record did sound kind of murky...
Thin, flat and terrible. I accidentally discovered the bad secret of it: that it could have sounded a whole lot better.
You have several tape decks at your studio.
I have tape machines all over the place, and backups for most of them. There are three in here right now. The 1-inch 8-track gets used the most. It's the number one tape machine in here, oddly enough. It's an old Scully 280. I prefer the Ampex sound, but the Scully was correct for the Woodstock set. It was also often the Beach Boys' machine. So many people used them that I do think it's a very good, valid '60s machine; and I like it.
Can you play 16-track tapes?
My 3M M79 has 16- and 24-track heads. I used to have an Ampex MM 1200, which I think is a fantastic-sounding tape machine but they're hard on tape; they break too much. The 3M also sounds truly beautiful. The Ampex, to me, has this midrange character that's three-dimensional and glorious-sounding. I love that machine. If I had to record raw tracks for myself, it would be my favorite. But the 3M is actually a little more hi-fi and I think it's one of the very best tape machines. I think those two machines, 3M and Ampex, are the best-sounding 24-tracks in the world. Nothing Studer made ever approached them — I'm not a big fan, but they do run tape very nicely. I think the Ampex and the 3M are in a class by themselves, with the small exception of Stephens decks [John Stephens, Tape Op #54]. I think they are so pure that it doesn't excite me as much. I'm not interested in purity. If you look at my gear in my studio, I'm not really into hi-fi, or lo-fi; I like everything to have 'a sound.' If something is flat it doesn't interest me. I don't want distortion necessarily, but I want character and tone. I don't want a board that's completely flat and pure, although a lot of people would think of that as a goal. I absolutely want to impart a better sound to what I do.
You mentioned some of the George Massenburg tracks. What are some of the differences you hear on the individual tracks that you just don't hear on other people's work?
If they're using compression or EQ on a bass or vocal; it's done. It works for the mix; you don't have to re-compress it. No need to run it through more stages of stuff when you mix. The more gear you run through, the less it sounds good. An SSL console with 14 op-amps in it sounds worse than a UA console. Why? Because it's doing too many things to the signal. People like George seem to know what they're getting, they commit to something and they get it right. They either have an instinct or the experience, or both. But when a Linda Ronstadt vocal gets recorded, it doesn't need to be re-compressed; it sits perfectly in the mix. If I play you the vocal from the Eagles' "Hotel California" — it's done. It's perfect, EQ and all. There's no riding the fader, there's no "duck down the breath." It's already right. These people had talent on both sides of the glass, and they worked hard at it. Maybe I don't want to spend the amount of time they spent making records; that's a different world.
Have you come across tapes that you had to bake?
I have an oven, in the other room. I do bake tapes but I love the fact that baking is non-destructive. It lasts for about a month or so, and then you bake again if you need to. It's a really nice situation and it's not a damaging thing at all. I did run across one tape, that will remain nameless, that was in the vault and it shredded into a million pieces. That wasn't a baking issue, just a weird tape; the oxide came right off the backing. Luckily, it was an outtake from a band that no one has ever heard, and no one needs to hear. As we put on the tape and started rewinding, it turned to rust-colored snow on the floor. We said, "Well, put it back in the box and that's it. That one's done forever." It's the only tape I've found like that, among thousands — I don't know whether it was the formula or the way it was stored, but I've never found another tape that's irretrievable. You don't need to bake a tape from before '74 or '75. It's often not needed. It was the tape formulas changing, the back coating was changed to reduce print-through — probably not the whale oil issue they claimed. Luckily we can deal with it easily. Still, I've had days when I'm just endlessly cleaning the guides and heads on the machine.
Do you get nervous that you might damage a master tape?
Absolutely. I'm aware of the issue, but careful enough to know what to do. And tape is very, very strong media. If you've ever pulled out a cassette tape — try to rip a little cassette tape with your hands. It's really strong. A 2-inch tape is even stronger and pretty sturdy, so there's not really much danger in normal operations. It's the same as when you recorded it originally; there's always a chance, but almost never would there be a problem to hurt a tape in a normal session. Since I'm never recording on these tapes, we're always in 'Safe' mode. We de-mag metal parts, of course, and keep the machines clean. There are some songs that have come in here that have sold ten million copies... and this is the master tape of it. But the job is to go into it, not be afraid of it and put it up and see what's there. We don't do needless things. If it doesn't need to be played twice we don't listen to it twice. When Yes' "Roundabout" tape was in here I was like, "Holy smokes, it's amazing!" And yet there was nothing on there we needed to work on that was unreleased, so we let it play off at normal speed. When it's done you put the tape away.