You Think a Machine Doesn’t Have a Soul?

To someone who doesn’t feel the euphoria of sound in their heart, I’m just a machine. Oh sure, I look really cool when all my colored lights are blinking w/the hypnotic rainbow of randomness that has captivated artists, engineers and producers for decades. 

But for the creative clan, I’m so much more than hardware, wires & bulbs. I’m a pivotal portal of the canvas on which musical dreams are painted. I’m a D&R Triton recording/mixing console, born in the last century & broken in at the hands of an LA songwriter whose name I’ve conveniently forgotten. Because once I moved to Nashville to become the trusted friend of one of Cowboy Jack Clement’s faithful production posse, I knew I’d found my forever home. Mark Howard, a gentle genius with a broad range of recording purpose, became my keeper & treated me like family. Every day when he slid his chair up and leaned over my blinking brain of levers, lights & knobs, we were a team. We were best of friends. We still are, even though I moved across town, to the control room at Segue 61. Mark helped create it as part of a multi-purpose recording/creative space for a gifted group of students who’ll be the next great creators of musical content that matters.

As an almost-forgotten breed in an ever-growing wave of technical efficiency, analog boards like me are an endangered species. Both parts and the people who know how to keep me healthy have become more scarce as laptop-driven music homogenized much of the sonic wonder that pulsed through our electrical veins with so much soul when rock & roll was first conceived.

You think a machine like me can’t have soul? Ask Dave Grohl.  He and his Nirvana bandmates pulled up in front of Sound City Studio in 1991, not knowing the next 16 days spent bonding with the vintage board there would forever change their lives. And would later ultimately cost them one of their own. The edgy brilliance brought forth from “Nevermind” through the Neve console at Sound City shaped a generation. There was just something different, rich and real, about the sound texture that us analog machines delivered. And when Dave heard they were tearing the old place down in 2011, he rushed in and saved the console that—when originally installed in 1973—cost about twice as much ($76,000) as a house in the San Fernando Valley did at the time.  

Old boards like us have history that software can’t quite claim. That 8078 Neve console at Sound City was a creative conduit for Carlos Santana and Kid Rock, Mavis Staples and Rick Springfield, Elton John and Evel Knievel, Metallica and Manilow. Elvis Costello. Neil Young. The Dead. Six Tom Petty albums, spanning 17 years. And Carl Perkins. And John Cash, with the great producer Rick Rubin controlling the considerable soul being mined in those sessions. So much essential musical history was born inside that board that Grohl decided to learn how to be a filmmaker, and to capture and preserve its sonic stories forever. Then….he took it home, to his own Studio 606. It’s now part of his family forever. That happens a lot with us.  

My history is not nearly as cool, though I know for a fact my best friend Mark Howard is. When I moved East to meet Mark, I lived in his home studio “Eleven-O-Three Studio” for a while before he built me a permanent place at his Signal Path Studios. From 2000 through 2013, Mark introduced me to the best friends he had in Nashville. I’m sure we did 8-10 albums for the great John Hartford and independent artist projects with songwriters like John Prine, Tom Paxton, Iris Dement and Pat McLaughlin. 

I met almost all of Mark’s bluegrass friends on projects that included guests like Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Mac Wiseman, Dolly Parton, Grandpa Jones, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Peter Rowan, Roland White, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Nashville Bluegrass, Riders In The Sky, Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, the Muhammad Ali of the Dobro. 

Instrumental solo records that flowed through my nervous system include projects with Brian Sutton, David Grier, Stuart Duncan, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Compton and many more. 40 or so Cumberland Records instrumental gift-market records, 13 Children’s Book Of The Month CD’s, with guests like Hartford, Leon Redbone, Kathy Mattea, Johnny Cash, and actors like Mary Tyler Moore, Madeline Kahn and Ed Asner. Some of James Taylor’s October Road even flowed through me. Man, the stories I could tell.

When Mark eventually decided to move to the country, I figured the new studio that would be a part of his new address would not include me. Progress, kind of. I still had plenty of good vibrations left in me and he knew it, suggesting to Guthrie Trapp—whose album “Pick Peace” was born in me—that I might be just the right fit for the new Segue 61 project he was working on to help aspiring students learn what’s real about the music business. All the students can make music through their various software. Few know how to use a vintage board like me to compliment cutting-edge technology and create collective notes with heart. And soul.

Since the program started in January, I’ve made a whole new group of friends whose future lies in the hands they now use to fine-tune their aural aspirations through my wires. I have a new purpose in life, which hopefully will continue to be a healthy one because my old friend Mark comes by periodically for the technical health-check he always gave me when he had me at home. I think he knew if I lived at Segue 61, his visitation rights would always be valid. I miss him but I’m busier now than ever, helping good students be great through work they didn’t know would ever sound as real as it does. They’re really talented. Most of them have soul.

I don’t have a notorious backstory like my bigger analog relative—a Trident TSM console from The Record Plant in Sausalito—does just down the road from me at Addiction Studios, for instance. But I DO have thousands of production hours left in me, to help make dreams come true in a different way now. When the lights go out in the Segue 61 workshop, mine stay on in the control room, resting in the silence all night. Waiting to hear the next perfect note. And recharging my soul.   

D&RT #SN:004968 – as told to Bill Armour, Executive Director, Segue 61

 

Flesch-Reading-Ease-Score: 64

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