A&M chapter thirteen

Let’s talk a little more about Barncard.  Barney.  SQB.  Stephen Quinn Barncard.  Resident Genius.

Barney designed and implemented so much crazy cool shit at A&M studios, it’s safe to say he was taken for granted by almost all of us.  What it must have been like for a man so bright, to serve at the discretion of men so much dimmer, is completely outside my ability to fathom.  When I think about it, I’m a little embarrassed.

Understand, it’s not a scenario that was exclusive to him, there were many great minds in that place.  Ultimately, as well as I knew him, he stands out, a little more of an enigma than the rest.

Friendly, gregarious even, and never patronizing.  Undeniably odd though.  A little crazy even.

He seemed happy and was so goddamn smart, pretty much above reproach.  Nobody ever really fucked with Barney.  Not as far as I know.  Sometimes he’d say something he clearly thought was funny, he had a laugh not unlike a little kid’s, kinda gleeful and unselfconscious; a little shrill for a man in possession of such a rich baritone.  About a third of the the time I’d smile and chuckle, not having any idea what he’d said or meant.

It sounded to me like, “A little like folding soup on hot summer day inside an igloo, eh?”

The Star Trek door leading to the control room in Studio A.  Push of a button and the the heavy airlock door whisked aside.  Kind of a pain in the ass sometimes but cool as shit nonetheless.

Tape copy.  A hundred plus Tascam 122MKIII cassette decks controlled and completely synchronized by a primitive late eighties Mac.  A listening system that allowed for the operator to hear a few seconds from each individual deck and thus be able to pull a bad copy in the process.  Oscilloscopes to see phase in case you couldn’t hear it.  I loved the dance of the cathode ray tube.  An integral step in teaching potential engineers how to listen and develop an attention span.

“They had good three motor transports and three heads, and were easier to align that other prosumer decks. But the deal making feature for me was that the decks could be operated by a direct connection rather than by infrared. That allowed the use of simple transistor circuits to drive the remote control inputs of the decks. At the end there were over 135 decks in the room; it was built for 156. There were 13 decks in each rack because that’s all that would fit. It would have been nicer digitally to have 16 decks in a rack.” -SQB
The FM radio station complete with Orban Optimod brick wall limiters.  You could listen to your mix on your own car radio in the parking lot, or a fully restored candy apple red ’57 Chevy sitting out back.  What the FCC didn’t know, didn’t hurt them.

Then there was Echo Central.  The Inner Sanctum.  Barney’s office.  A windowless room in the upper regions of A&M studios behind the second floor Studio A and B lounges that housed backup hard drives for the four computerized automated consoles in studios B, D, Mix and eventually A, once the legendary Neve was retrofitted with Massenburg flying faders.  The epicenter of research and development for A&M studios.

It was among the quietest and most peaceful places to sleep in the wee hours.  There was a back room, sort of a sepulcher, most didn’t know about.  I thought of it as a secret sarcophagus.  I enjoyed many a nap back there.  I might be imagining this but I seem to remember a way through the ceiling to the ancient catwalks above.  A few ceiling tiles pushed aside and you were in the era of Perry Mason.  It was filmed there, in that space, decades before.  You could see into the B lounge from up there.  A window that from the lounge looked on nothing, or so people thought.

Barney had devised a technology where all of the studio’s five live chambers and some 13 or 15 EMT plates could be assigned to any individual studio patch bay via ELCO connectors and then show up on a television channel so that each of the five control rooms could see which echo units were assigned to each room and which ones were available.

Red room, white room etc.

A live chamber is essentially a small, highly reflective room with two transducers.  A speaker and a microphone.  Pump signal through the speaker and it’s reflections are available via microphone.  I believe the White Room was a coincident or XY stereo pair, whereas the Red Room was mono.  There were three smaller chambers above C as well.

Roland The Headless Thompson and I experimented recording various acoustic guitars, nylon and steel string, in those live chambers with mixed, but always interesting results.

EMT plates are archaic technology as well.  Again, two transducers.  A small speaker at one end of a huge metal plate and a “pickup” at the other end of said plate, all housed in a wooden box about the size of a grand piano.  We had something like fifteen of them, all hanging in a two story brick building behind the studio.

In both cases, simple methodology and crude technology to create very unique echo on recordings before digital was even a word in pro audio.  Think Beatles, Stones and Elvis.  By the time I became a sorcerer’s apprentice, live chambers and EMT plates were a luxury very few studios in the world could afford real estate for, much less the logistics.  We were spoiled.

To switch or reassign any of them meant  trekking up to the Inner Sanctum, walking through a blue haze of quality pot smoke and physically moving the the ELCO connector  from one patch bay to another.  Barncard may or may not have acknowledged the interloper, depending on what he was working on.  It would then instantaneously appear on the television screen showing the patch point it could be accessed from in any given control room.

The only thing the Inner Sanctum lacked was test tubes and Bunsen burners.

Genius.

I confess, as a runner/janitor at A&M studios, I had keys to just about everything, including Barney’s Inner Sanctum.  Later on, I had legitimate reason to enter, but before that, under the auspices of emptying the trash……. you see where I’m going with this.

Barney could usually be counted on to at least leave a roach or two in an ashtray and we came to learn he kept his stash in empty quarter or half inch reel boxes back in the sepulcher.

Air conditioning is a very big deal in recording studios because the equipment generates an amazing amount of heat.  The temperature in a control room would go from 65 degrees to 95 or a 100 in fifteen or twenty minutes when the air went down.  This, in turn, effects the audio gear as well as musical instruments in a hurry.  Guitars go out of tune, drum heads go flaccid etc.

Just so happens, the Inner Sanctum shared ducting with the control rooms of both A and B.  Whenever we did bong rips in Echo Central, the Inner Sanctum, the inhabitants of both control rooms could smell it.  It was obvious, like green pungent gas.  Barney didn’t seem to care, he didn’t have to.  We did.  So upon locating his cache, we’d often take it to a safer place, like the Secret Pizza Lounge also known as Berg’s Green Retreat, far higher up in the building and the only other way to access the the weird upper regions of this recording complex built inside the the antiquated shell of the original Chaplin sound stage.  Far above and behind the tech shop, the speaker loft and removed from the elaborate air conditioning system.  Hot as fuck in the summer but the monotony was broken by getting high.

A happy sweat at three A.M.

We’d climb down the catwalks and ladders, consciousness altered enough to afford patience for clean up after rock bands, washing their dishes and schlepping their trash.

At the pleasure of judge and jury, a quick anecdote:

One Saturday afternoon, not too long into my time at A&M recording studios, I was working the front office phones when a battery of fire trucks arrived in front of the main gate on La Brea, sirens blazing.  The front guard shack called to say there was a fire alarm going off full tilt inside the studio somewhere.  Let them in I said.  What could I do?

Seconds later, eight or ten anxious firemen stood before me in heavy uniform while their captain explained that a smoke alarm was going off in the building and they couldn’t leave until they verified the location of the alarm wasn’t actually on fire.

What could I do?

Somehow, they were able to pinpoint the specific location of the alarm.  Echo Central.  The Inner Sanctum.  Fuck me.  I called up and there was no answer.  Anybody sitting up there blazing away on a Saturday wasn’t gonna answer the phone.  I knew that, but I had to try.  I stalled by paging another runner to cover the phones before I escorted them up.

I guy we called Foo Paux answered the page and I explained the situation to him and told him to keep ringing Echo Central.  Meantime, I led the phalanx of firefighters behind me up the back way explaining how we couldn’t interrupt the recording sessions in in either A or B…….trying to buy time.

We started down the back hallway to Echo Central and we could all smell it.  What the hell I figured, it’s not like they’re cops.  They began to giggle and chuckle behind me.  Still, I was nervous because I couldn’t know what we’d find upon my unlocking that door.

At any given time, this place could erupt into a carnival/circus with naked chicks, drugs and mayhem from hell to breakfast.  It was an insane place to work.  On weekends, the runners were expected to mitigate the inevitable craziness or at least keep it from spilling on to the streets of Hollywood.

Any reputable recording studio of that era served simultaneously as a creative environment for artists and a sanctuary for rockstars to indulge themselves without concern for the outside world and mere pedestrian consequences.  Our job was to encourage and foment the idea that within our walls, they were not subject to society’s rules, judgements or persecutions.

An unspoken but concrete ethic.

Early on you become sensitive to sound, if you’re serious at all about making a living at manipulating it.  The heavy feet of so many battle outfitted men behind me coming to such an abrupt stop startled me.  Two or three at least carried axes.

Silence.  The provenance of any real recording studio.

The sound of the keys in my hand was like a chandelier crashing on concrete.  I unlocked and opened the door.

Slow motion in real time.

There sat Randy Wine, a fat hog leg of a joint in his hand.  The atmosphere blue green from smoke, his feet up on a workbench, slit eyes like road maps and a shit eating grin on his face.

The troops behind me began to laugh out loud.  “Ain’t no fire here man”, he said while exhaling another thick blue cloud.  Behind me they began to  lose it.  I stood for a second, not sure what to do.  Randy gave me a what the fuck gesture with both hands and I shut the door and turned around.  They were laughing so hard they couldn’t look at me.

I asked if they could find the way out.  They assured me they could.

On top of it all, Barney was a shit hot engineer.  His acoustic guitar sounds were crazy good.  His legacy stretches from Crosby, Stills and Nash, to Nilsson, New Riders of The Purple Sage and The Grateful Dead.
Barney would eventually hire me to engineer in his stead.  No greater compliment.  I was paid handsomely, put up in a nice suite in Ann Arbor Michigan and did well enough to be asked back a few times.  The artist afforded me room service and an open tab at the hotel bar as well as room service.  Nothing ever came of it.  The material wasn’t bad but it wasn’t timely.  I had a swell time and did a good job.  My acoustic guitar sounds weren’t as good as Barney’s but I held my own.  They were bright and shiny.

Drinks for my friends.

8 Responses to “A&M chapter thirteen”

  • David Lee 3:

    Barney, I miss your eclectic mad professor-isms.

    IMHO, he gets the “Goosebumps Chills” award for best acoustic guitar sounds ever. I still remember being completely awestruck at what I heard one day. In short, it freaked me out.

    AND He actually made The Grateful Dead sound like they had a viable rhythm section on record – more than once! Compared to when I saw them live, (which was so bad you might have been able to get a more consistent groove out of throwing a pair of tennis shoes in a laundromat dryer on slow speed) ..whatever he did to get them to sound that good on record, in my estimation – is sheer wizardry.

    Yup, consistently the best ashtray to raid on clean up duty.

    I’m thinking reunion party at some later date, but we all know that would most likely never happen. Too many talented folks already deeply involved in the next step of their careers.

    I’ll have a beer in lieu, Cheers!

  • Dave Collins:

    Fond memories. I later implemented the “Bongalert™” early-waring system for echo central.

    I think the acoustic guitar sounds that Steve got on Workingman’s Dead are the reference by which all others should be measured.

    DC

  • admin:

    Ah yes, the “Bongalert”. How do you get that little trademark symbol?

    I was a quick study and I watched him do it a handful of times and could never duplicate it. Ultimately resorted to my own methodology, which sounded quite good, but still……..

    Ridiculous lushness.

  • Enjoy your A & M stories. I was staff at The Village Recorders in the 80’s. I think we were the 2 top studios at the time. Keep the stories coming !

  • admin:

    Thanks man and thanks for reading.

  • sqb:

    Thanks for the kind words, gentlemen!

    sqb

  • admin:

    Thanks Steve. Now catch up!

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