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John Haeny on the Making of Kramer Master Tape

May 26, 2011

Over the course of a career spanning almost half a century, John Haeny has recorded, mixed and produced hundreds of albums. His work across a stunningly wide array of musical idioms has included work with artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bobby Darin, Bill Medley (The Righteous Brothers), Jim Morrison (and The Doors), Tom Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Little Feat, Judy Collins, Love, Warren Zevon, and Linda Ronstadt to Weather Report, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Les Brown and Duke Ellington, to name but a few. In this interview, John talks about his life in music, and his role as a co-developer of the Kramer Master Tape plugin.

How did you get into engineering?

I suppose like many, my romance with sound started when I was a youngster. Not only was I interested in music, playing accordion and keyboards, I was always active with high school musical ensembles. I also had an early mono hi-fi and a little tape recorder. Every time I found a speaker lying around, I’d stick it in a shoebox and hot-wire it into my hi-fi. My theory then was ‘more is better.’ I’m pretty sure it sounded horrid, as there were speakers strung out all over my bedroom. It was really quite amazing what you could do with a few cardboard boxes and some lamp cord. I could also be frequently found in my closet with the microphone taped to a music stand, trying to think of something interesting to say so I could discover how to record my voice.

Near the end of my studies at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, there was a Motion Picture Unit. I quickly gravitated to the sound booth and spent endless hours messing around and trying, not only to figure out how to make things work, but also sorting, cleaning and trying to create a more efficient department.

When I returned to Minneapolis, I found a job at KTCA TV. Once again, I found myself in the sound department ‘messing about’ with the gear. After leaving KTCA, I got a job with Empire Photosound in Minneapolis as a photographer. Empire Photosound did industrial motion pictures and also produced corporate presentations. They also had a sound department, and I ended up doing all of their sound design, long before that term had been invented. As it happened, another recording company left their gear in the Empire Photosound Studio. I couldn’t leave my hands off it and before anyone knew what was happening, I was running cables down the hall and up the stairs so I could record various jazz musicians and folk ensembles on their large shooting stage. Obviously a pattern was starting to emerge!

Ultimately, I left Empire Photosound to work as the recording engineer for what was, as I remember, called Gaiety Recording. They had a great Ampex 351-2 in a road case, plus a collection of vintage valve microphones that people would kill for today. Most of the work they did was recording high school choirs and bands for fundraising LPs. I cut my baby teeth on location recordings. I was young and strong and had an insatiable appetite for learning the craft.

When my time in Minneapolis had run its course, I threw everything I owned in my car and headed back to California with the dream of observing a real Hollywood recording session. As it turned out, I had an acquaintance that worked for United and Western Studios in Hollywood. I put my job application in. At that time, they used a written test created by Bill Putnam. Apparently I had, mostly on my own, learned enough to outrank many of the staff engineers working for the company at the time. They hired me and had me doing tape copies for a few weeks in Hollywood, and then they shipped me off to San Francisco to their Coast Recorders studio facility, which was in an old movie theatre, upstairs from the first topless bar in the country. Oh, the stories I could tell of paddy wagons and arrests of buxom waitresses clutching tablecloths to their ample bosoms! Apparently, they had started a ‘Business Man’s Luncheon’ featuring topless waitresses, so there were more than a few surprise interruptions to our sessions.

This was also when the San Francisco music scene was starting to explode, so I had the opportunity to work with the likes of Bobby Freeman, The Beau Brummels, Sly Stone, The Great Society (The Jefferson Airplane), and The Tiki’s (Harpers Bizarre), as well of heaps and heaps of demos and singles, many of which I still have stashed on my library as lacquer acetate references.

For the most part, I’m self-taught. I gobbled up any articles I could find about recording, examining any photographs of sessions I get my hands on in the greatest of detail, which developed a skill I have to this day. A couple of minutes in a studio and I can draw up the studio set-up including the microphones used and their placement to about 90% accuracy. I had the great opportunity of learning by doing, but in those days it was so much easier than it is today. You had to work with one track while live mixing a final result directly to tape with, perhaps, a 12 input mixer at the most. I had to learn to mix, to control my levels and to know what a VU meter meant.

In those early days at Coast Recorders, after the mix I headed directly in to the mastering room to cut a lacquer reference. If anything was wrong with the mix, I discovered it pretty fast and frequently—and quite painfully. I didn’t have individual channel EQs and compressors were very limited. Virtually everything had to be patched in as outboard gear. It was, in retrospect, an amazing way to learn: Start simple and grow along with the opportunities and the technology.

I really didn’t have any mentors, as such, but I had good ears and I listened closely to the work of great talents such as the legendary RCA classical engineer Lewis W. Layton and the ever-amazing Al Schmitt. I tried to figure out what they were doing and experimented until I discovered my own take on what I had heard them do. If you do that for long enough, work hard enough and have enough passion, in time, as you hone your skills, you will develop your own voice as a recording engineer.

It wasn’t long before I found myself caught up in a sea change of engineers. Up until that point, music engineers were mostly from the broadcast industry. They were generally older, male, wore loud Hawaiian shirts, had pencil protectors in their bulging pockets and smoked cigars. All of a sudden there appeared a new breed of engineers who were the same age as the artists, travelled in the same social circles, shared their politics and social consciousness. We were brothers and sisters of the same tribe, a new order of the arts, as it were. I’m proud to say that I was amongst the first of that group. I was the ‘house hippy’ and youngest staff mixer ever for RCA in Hollywood, before I went back to United and Western Studios. I had long hair, a beard, wore blue jeans, worked in moccasins and, of course, smoked the evil weed.

It was the start of a new music, of a new social order, of a new type of artist, and I had the great good fortune of having a front and center ticket to the revolution. I also had the great privilege of playing a small, but important supporting role in the new musical drama. Those were amazing, heady and unforgettable days. It was a huge party, everyone was making money and we were all having a ball making music with our closest friends.

When did you first use the Ampex 351 Machine?

Somehow Ampex tape recorders have been part of my life from the very beginning of my professional sound career. Various forms of the 351 mono machines were in use when I started in industrial film sound production in Minneapolis in the 1960s. Later, as I moved into music, I was working with an organization that owned an Ampex 351-2 in portable cases that I dragged everywhere, as we primarily did location recording. When it wasn’t on the road, it lived on my living room floor hooked up to my home stereo. There was also a rather remarkable, perhaps entirely forgotten, little Ampex that was actually quite lightweight and portable called the 600 series. I used a 601-2 extensively, even recording the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Skitch Henderson with a pair of Sony C-37 Valve Microphones. It was a truly amazing sounding little machine.

As I continued through the early days of my career with Coast Recorders in San Francisco, and eventually United and Western Recorders in Hollywood during the great Bill Putnam days, all we used were Ampex machines. Of course, there was always the great Ampex 300 1/2” three-track machine that launched multi-track recording.

I still remember my first encounter with multi-track recording. I was working at Coast Recorders in San Francisco when Tommy ‘Snuff’ Garrett (a very successful LA record producer) booked a session for Gary Lewis and the Playboys. He arrived with some backing tracks on three-track 1/2” tape that he had recorded in LA and we were doing a vocal session. Two channels had the tracks from LA and one track was blank. Now, I had seen the SelSync controls on the machine and knew what they were supposed to do, but I had never actually used them. Once we were set up, Snuff asked me to punch in on the open track to record Gary’s vocal. I was terrified that I’d erase his pre-recorded tracks and flat-out refused to do the first punch. What a nit-wit he must have thought I was! I made him do it and watched in amazement as it worked. It was one of those seminal moments when your entire life changes in a heartbeat.

At United and Western Recorders, we extensively used the 351-2 1/4” stereo and 351-4 1/2” four-track machines, which I used when I did the live recording of Bobby Darin’s Dr. Doolittle album and Wildflowers by Judy Collins in Western Recorders’ amazing Studio One. I also had a personal 351-2 in portable cases at my home, connected to my Koss Acoustech Model XI Electrostatic loudspeakers (which are still alive and still sound amazing), which I used for editing and quality control when I was senior mixer and chief engineer for Elektra Records.

What makes it sound so special to you?

Valves and magnetic tape! Most of all, they are musical. I think that one word best sums up the sound of the 351 tape machine. The Ampex 351 was also the last of the great valve (tube) analog tape recorders. After the Ampex 351, along came solid-state machines from Ampex like the AG-440 and as others jumped on the bandwagon, in America, we saw solid-state machines from Studer, 3M, Stephens, MCI, Scully, and others.

The newer solid-state machines eventually replaced the valve Ampex machines because they were more reliable, easier to work on and align, and more stable. Circuit boards were also appearing on the newer solid-state machines, which made them more cost effective to operate. But those machines never sounded quite as musical as the great Ampex 351s.

Back then, was tape calibration considered part of the engineer’s sound signature?

Not really. There are so many different things that go into an engineers/mixers sound signature that I always viewed whatever I recorded or mixed to simply as ‘media.’ Media’s job was to be as transparent and truthful as possible so it would accurately represent the artist’s and my vision for the sound we wanted to achieve. Of course, even today, it’s almost impossible to achieve that idealized goal of ‘invisibility of media,’ so whatever the decade of technology I was working in, I just picked the best tape available at the time, and if it wasn’t completely transparent (and of course nothing was), then I selected the stock that sounded appropriate for the artist and that was the most musical. Considering the large variety of tape I have used over the years, I still find that my work still sounds like my work no matter what the tape stock; I think others who are familiar with my work would agree.

What was your setup on the 351?

At the start of my career, I felt that I was a better engineer/mixer than technician, so I always left the alignments to the technical engineering staff. I was petrified of messing up a good mix with a screwed up tape machine alignment. Once I learned how to do my own alignments, I trusted a very few to do my alignments, doing the vast majority of my tape machine alignments myself.

Of course, over time, bias, flux and the choice of tape varied greatly as technology progressed. I started with 3M Scotch 131 at Ampex “0” (recommended reference recording level) and Nominal (or ‘normal’) bias. As time progressed we evolved better ways of adjusting the bias and a wide range of newer tapes arrived that supported higher flux levels. (The Kramer Master Tape has an option that is modeled on what many engineers preferred, which was an overbias at 15 kHz of -3 dB.)

Over many decades I used a vast array of tape stocks. The list is much to long to publish here, but let’s just say, if anyone made it, I tried it and if I liked it and there was good supply, I used it. But with regard to bias and flux, I always chose the most conservative alignments, those which resulting in the lowest saturation, that sound now treasured by so many was once considered a necessary evil associated with the media of the day. As I did most of my work at 30 ips and used Dolby noise reduction when the project required it, I could, for most of my career, stay with Ampex “0” (185 nWm/b) for maximum transparency and minimum print through and let the Dolby noise reduction handle the noise. That said, a very large percentage of my body of work is with acoustic music. Since it’s always the music that drives the process, including the technology, one needs to always stay open to change and new directions.

Why do you think it’s important to have the 351 as a plugin?

Many have tried to bridge the gap between analog and digital, sometimes producing plugins that only seem to be able to make noise. Of course, that ‘noise’ that many seem to embrace so fondly these days, was despised by those of us who used that technology on a daily basis.

What’s been missing was a plugin that could contribute that somewhat magical musical quality attributed to analog that was, ultimately, not only the sound of analog magnetic tape, but also the sound of the valve electronics. The perfect piece of equipment to accomplish that was the Ampex 351 tape recorder.

Modeling all of the complex elements of the analog magnetic valve recorded sound was complex. To be able to accurately and musically duplicate that sound, while at the same time providing all the control gained in the digital domain and still leaving some of the less desirable side effects, such as tape hiss and valve thermal noise and wow, to be used or not at the discretion of the artist, is an amazing accomplishment.

Can you tell us a bit about the Kramer Master Tape modeling process?

When Waves started their hardware modeling project with Eddie Kramer, it was always their mutual intention to recreate the original recording chain from Olympic Studios in London that Eddie used on his great recordings of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Typically, the Ampex 350 was the final link in his recording chain, used to record the output of the Helios console (modeled in the HLS Channel plugin), with dynamics processing by the Pye compressor (modeled in the PIE Compressor plugin.)

With the help of Bob Olhsson, one of these rare beasts, owned by Eric Schilling, was found in Florida. Eric kindly agreed to let Waves do some preliminary testing to ensure that this machine was producing the desired sound.

You have to keep in mind that the recording pre-emphasis curve, tape speed, tape emulsion, tape thickness, flux or level recorded on the tape, and the bias settings all greatly impacted the final outcome. This resulted in endless discussions between Waves, Bob, and me, with tests to determine the tape types and alignment techniques that were going to be considered for the modeling. Over time, and with much experimentation, sample recordings were made that we all agreed established a solid baseline from which to proceed. It would be these initial samples of the test recordings that would later be used for detailed comparison to ensure that each model was performing accurately.

Once again, Eric Schilling came to the rescue and agreed to do the massive testing and modeling runs required to model the two primary tape speeds, a number of tape emulsions, plus variations in flux and bias settings, including various approaches to alignment techniques.

With the modeling files in hand, Waves began the excessively complex task of creating models, not only of the variety of analog tape recordings, but the variety of bias levels, flux levels (tape saturation) and speed settings. When Waves began evolving early stage Alpha plugs, they were submitted to subjective analysis by comparison to the original samples recorded on the original tape machine. Then, through feedback to the Waves development and engineering team, the models were honed. Because Waves felt they could best do their development using only one platform at a time, they chose to do their final development on the Macintosh, at which time Bob, who primarily uses a PC, offered to take a back seat. I volunteered to take up the slack and became a more or less full-time co-developer of the Kramer Master Tape.

What uses do you see for the Kramer Master Tape plugin?

Do you want to impart warmth, sweetness and clarity without any muddiness to your entire mix or just an element or two in your mix? Would you like to offset the harshness and clinical quality of digital? Would you like a good and easy way to ‘glue’ your mix together? I think the Kramer Master Tape answers those questions.

I guess that’s claiming a lot, and perhaps I’m biased by being a co-developer of the Kramer Master Tape, but I also take great pride in having been a part of the development team for this particular product. It’s a plugin I’ve been dreaming of for decades, and I think Waves has finally accomplished what so many have tried to do and failed. And not only has Waves done it, they’ve done it in spades!

What uses do you see for the Kramer Master Tape plugin?

Do you want to impart warmth, sweetness and clarity without any muddiness to your entire mix or just an element or two in your mix? Would you like to offset the harshness and clinical quality of digital? Would you like a good and easy way to ‘glue’ your mix together? I think the Kramer Master Tape answers those questions.

I guess that’s claiming a lot, and perhaps I’m biased by being a co-developer of the Kramer Master Tape, but I also take great pride in having been a part of the development team for this particular product. It’s a plugin I’ve been dreaming of for decades, and I think Waves has finally accomplished what so many have tried to do and failed. And not only has Waves done it, they’ve done it in spades!

How will the Kramer Master Tape change the way you work?

Since I always have that analog sound print firmly in my aural memory, I’m constantly doing everything I can to impart that musical quality to whatever I work on. In that regard, Kramer Master Tape is going to make my life much easier. I frequently ‘hit the wall’ when I have to deal with synthesizers or sampled instruments. Now I’ll have Kramer Master Tape at my disposal to take the digital edge off these sounds. Also, using Kramer Master Tape across various sub-mixes of say, drums, percussion, vocals, keyboards, etc., will be of great value and, as an additional benefit, provide significant processing efficiencies. Because each instance of the Kramer Master Tape can easily be tailored to provide a unique sonic stamp, appropriate for where and why I’m using it, it will quickly become invaluable.

I am also confident that many will find uses for Kramer Master Tape in mastering or across the final bus of their mixes. Many of our Waves beta testing team have stated that, for them, the sound of Kramer Master Tape is game-changing.

What makes the Kramer Master Tape different from other modeled tape plugins?

Firstly, it’s an Ampex and then its valves, and from there on it’s the brilliance and technological leadership of Waves modeling techniques. I know there are other Ampex models in the pipeline from other companies, but I challenge them to equal what Waves has accomplished with the Kramer Master Tape. Modeling all of what goes into the sound of this recording process is massively complicated and it seems, from the plugs that I currently own and those that I’ve heard so far, something has always been left out. This has been a classic case of ‘the devil is in the detail’; that’s the part I think Waves has handled so masterfully with the Kramer Master Tape.

Without wanting to sound immodest, I also think a company needs someone with a vivid ‘aural memory’ who is not only intimate with the original machine, but also able to communicate with the engineering team as the design process evolves.

In the course of my time working with Waves on the Kramer Master Tape, I’ve discovered that really outstanding modeling is actually a hybrid of science, art, and perhaps a bit of luck; I’m now beginning to think there may even be some metaphysics in the mix as well.

What is the key element in getting good sound from the Kramer Master Tape?

Upon instantiation, Kramer Master Tape is designed to provide the original Ampex sound I remember. For me, that is, in and of itself, exactly what I need. All the defaults are my preferred settings with regard to bias, flux, speed, wow & flutter, and noise. This also extends to the tape modeled (3M Scotch 207, 1 millimeter stock for a more intimate head wrap and thus better high frequency performance) and the recording pre-emphasis curve used (NAB, the American standard for a classic American machine). Of course, modeling allows you to have all the great sonics of an analog tape machine and you can still turn all that valve thermal noise and tape hiss off, which is what I have always dream about being able to do and now can, or, if you prefer, wind the noise up. Also, turning the noise up or down has no effect whatsoever on the core sound of the machine, which is about inter-modulation distortion, harmonic distortion, and that mysterious magnetic recording by-product called saturation, which develops as you increase the drive level to the tape and provides another, rather unique form of compression. (Rock and rollers love this quality on drums.)

Also, a word about meters: For those of you who are not familiar with American style VU meters, I’d like to share a few tips. I grew up in the analog days, so I had to become expert at using a VU meter. It was everything to me; it was my lifeline. Firstly, 0 VU is there for a reason. The meters on Kramer Master Tape behave identically to the real machine. Right out of the Ampex manual, 0 VU was defined as 1% total RMS distortion. In the digital world, that’s actually quite a lot of distortion, but that was the analog tape standard. So 0 VU was generally accepted as the maximum level you wanted to see on the meters. Between 0 VU and +3 VU the meter scale is red, and that’s for a good reason: it’s dangerous territory and an area where you need to tread lightly.

Once you hit the ‘pin’ or ‘peg’ the meter, although it says +3, even if only for a moment, for all you know you could have gone to +1,000,000dB—because you have now gone off the scale of the meter. If you are going to go into the red, it’s more acceptable, and less audible, with low frequency signals (kicks, bass, etc.), less desirable but occasionally workable for mid-frequencies (vocals, guitars, etc.) and really risky for high-frequencies (cymbals, percussion, etc). Quick short excursions into the red or against the pin may be OK, but sustained activity in the red or on the pin is trouble.

For me, and depending on the musical genre, I liked to see the meters ‘dance’ between, say, -7 to -5 and 0. For some pop music, to sit between -3 and 0 is pretty normal. But don’t make the mistake of trying to ‘fill the meters up,’ because that will have the same result with the Kramer Master Tape as it would have had with the real hardware; it will add excessive amounts of distortion. Now, distortion might be just what some will want and that’s OK, but a better way to get there would be to raise the Flux control or use the Link control and raise the Record Level. (Link will keep you at unity gain when you adjust the Record Level.)

Most importantly, use your ears! If you like what you hear, that’s great, and in the end those choices are your job. But if you want a super clean sound, you can drop the Record Level to -18—Link will automatically raise the Playback Level to +18—with no deterioration of the performance of the Kramer Master Tape, and you will gain an additional 18dB of dynamic range, or headroom. And don’t forget, you also have a massive range of tape drive in the Flux control, so the combination of the Flux control and the Record Level control (in Link mode) will give you a huge sonic range to play with, while all the time keeping the meters looking good.

Finally, why did you become involved with the development of the Kramer Master Tape?

A very large part of helping create Kramer Master Tape was a labor of love. I’m now getting to the age where ‘legacy’ is an important issue for me personally. My generation of engineers won’t be around that much longer and there is vital information to pass on to the younger artists following in my footsteps. I’ve tried academics and, as valuable and challenging as that is, I have now discovered there may be another way, and that may be, to paraphrase what they say about photographs: ‘A plug-in is worth 10,000 words.’