Thursday, 17 July 2014

Elliot Scheiner: Van Morrison and Dominos

The following is an interview with Elliot Scheiner who worked with Van as an engineer in the early 70s.  The article was originally published in Sound On Sound Magazine in February 1996 and has been edited for the sake of brevity.  It contains some technical information which readers might find a little daunting but it does give insight into those early days of recording. 

Elliot Scheiner started out in the music business in 1967 as an assistant to legendary producer Phil Ramone at the latter's studio, A&R Recording, located on 48th Street in New York City. There he remained until 1973, during which time he learned how to cut discs, and even how to work with film on his way to becoming a fully-fledged engineer.

"They believed in well-rounded engineers in those days," he recalls. "A&R was a full-service facility, and back then people didn't make tape copies, they had reference discs cut -- so you had to know how to cut a disc. On top of that there was a lot of film work being done, so you also had to know how to deal with things such as magnetic stripe, not to mention learning how to mike practically everything that came into the studio."

Morrison was nominally the producer of Moondance when it was recorded in 1969, but when the time came for mixing, he wanted to return home to Woodstock in upstate New York for Christmas. Thus he asked Elliot Scheiner and drummer Gary Malabar to take care of the mix, and then send him copies of their work.

This they duly did, prompting Scheiner to ponder his role in the process. Back in 1970 he was to have co-produced the Street Choir album with Morrison, but during the sessions the two men fell out, and so the task fell to Morrison and his new drummer, Daud Shaw. Scheiner ended up with only a 'Production Co-ordinator' credit. Yet it was Domino, one of only two cuts on the album mixed by Scheiner, which became the major hit of the album.

In 1970, A&R Recording was equipped with a relatively new 32-input, 16-output Neumann console. "By that time we had on board EQ, but there was nothing beyond that," recalls Elliot Scheiner. "There were no in-line compressors, and no gates or anything like that. There had already been a console with all of that in-line, but this one just didn't have it."

While the control room measured about 18 x 15 feet, the recording area was wrapped around it in an L-shape and measured about 40 x 20 feet, with an additional 20 x 20 feet at the tail of the 'L'. Fabric covered all of the walls, there was carpeting on the risers and in the vocal booths. A composite was utilised for the floor in the basic part of the studio, and the ceilings were decorated with acoustic tiles.

"Back in those days they built rooms as much for appearance -- and maybe sometimes more for appearance -- as for sound," Scheiner explains. "In the case of this particular room, however, I think they lucked out, because the sound was good."

In the fall of 1969 much of Moondance had been recorded in this room with a Scully 8-track machine, whereas the Band And Street Choir sessions upgraded to 16-track. The monitors were Altec 604Es, with Mastering Lab crossovers, and in terms of the effects... well, there weren't any.

"In that room we had three EMT 140s," Scheiner recalls, "We used an analogue tape machine to delay the send to the echo chambers, and that's about all we had. I mean, there might have been a Cooper Time Cube and there might have been an old Eventide digital delay, but that was it. Whatever processing you did, if you were going to flange something you used machines for it. That's what I ended up doing on His Band and Street Choir, and I remember using a couple of different machines to do it. But the primary outboard gear consisted of echo chambers and delays, and that was all we used."

Morrison and his band had already rehearsed much of the album's material in Woodstock, prior to arriving in New York City for the recording sessions. Then he and Scheiner worked on the songs' arrangements in the studio.

"The drums were placed on a riser against the back wall of the recording area, front-centre of the control room," he recalls. "For the foot drum I used an EV 666, and then there was a 57 on the snare, 251s for the overheads, Sony C37s for the toms, a KM84 for the floor tom and a salt shaker on the hi-hat. The bass player was positioned to the left of the drums as we were looking at them, and he was playing a Fender -- probably a Precision -- which was DI'd. The guitarist was standing on the other side of the drums, and his guitars would have probably been going through Fender amps, and all miked with 57s. Then, further to the right, there was a 12 x 6 feet vocal booth, in which Van was playing an acoustic guitar and singing live, and for the acoustic I used an 87 mic.

"For many of the tracks on that album we retained his original live vocals," Scheiner points out. "I mean, this guy was a great singer, a really phenomenal singer. He'd just get out there and sing, and he was always in tune. He was just wonderful to work with. In terms of him singing and playing acoustic at the same time in the booth, we always had that problem where we'd get vocal in the guitar mic. It never seemed to be a problem with the acoustic going into the vocal, but it was always a problem the other way around. Yet I still don't ever remember replacing the guitar part because of that."

For Moondance, a week had been put aside at the end of the project in order to take care of the mix. In line with this modus operandi, an afternoon was all that was required when Scheiner mixed Domino. Having been absent from most of the mixing sessions, Van Morrison returned for this track, and was inspired to make some late changes.

"I remember him wanting to add a little bit of a rap at the end," says Elliot Scheiner. "'On the radio, on the radio...'. It was a very last-minute thing. On the other hand, I don't remember too much editing going on with any of that stuff. There may have been one or two cuts where we tagged on endings, but primarily the songs consisted of entire takes.

"You have to remember that back then, even the cuts didn't make the sound great. You know, we went for a vibe, and we cut only when something was really bad. So, if we liked the body of a take, and there was one section which we weren't at all happy with, we'd try to cut it in. We'd look for a take that had the right part, and just try to edit it. You definitely could punch in back then -- you couldn't punch in in the middle of a piano part, but we were pretty good at vocals. We wouldn't even attempt punching in single syllables, but we'd punch in a word or two... and pray. Those machines were slow getting out. You could get in with no problem, but getting out was a problem."

And listening to those recordings today, does Scheiner think, 'Ouch!' every time he hears one of those edits?

"No, because I don't listen to them anymore! I can't go back that far. It depresses me. It's just too long ago. I have to say, however, that I had a great time making records back then. Generally, it was more fun than now, because everybody was live. There were so few overdubs; we made records very quickly. The primary thing was the music and not the sound of it. We went for as good a sound as we could get, but nobody worried about that. Everybody was just concerned with the music: 'Did we get the take? Did we get the performance?' and that was an approach that I could really relate to."

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