Study Hall

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Mike Stahl Recalls: Mixing Chicago Live In The 1970s

The engineering approach with a seminal fusion group, along with anecdotes and experiences from a unique time...

Getting Underway

So here I was with a great batch of extremely talented musicians who excelled at their craft. My job was to make them blend together for the audience the same way they sounded on the record. If it sounds great on the stage but lousy in the main PA, that difference is noticed quickly and that sound engineer doesn’t last long at his or her console.

When I started with the band, Peter Cetera (bass) and Robert Lamm (keyboards) were doing the majority of the singing. Peter had a great soaring voice, and after the first four albums, he was singing lead on almost every song they were doing live. Robert’s voice was perfect for the more jazzy songs they played. Meanwhile, Terry Kath had a growl and gravel voice that complimented the other two perfectly when he sang harmonies.

The horn section—James Pankow, Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane (the “hole in the ass gang,” as they were called)—played exceptionally well when they were on. As I said, the brass section was an integral part of the “Chicago Sound” and when one of them wasn’t hitting the notes they were supposed to, the entire section sounded off. But when they were in sync, and that was most of the time, they were an incredibly tight unit playing their staccatos and stabs perfectly; no other brass section of any other group could come close to them when they were on.

Laudir de Oliveira, the great Brazilian percussionist, was added in 1973, rounding out the differences between the rock and the jazz environments that Chicago constantly danced between. Laudir was known for his tremendous blend of percussive fills that added to the intricate mystique of the Chicago sound. I loved having his innovative fills to work with in the songs because, as Terry would explain to me many times, that was “our sound,” a complex mixture of rock, jazz, contemporary and fusion.

I grew very close on a personal level to Danny Seraphine, the drummer. Danny was a perfectionist who knew exactly how he wanted his drum kit to sound, and more importantly, he knew how to tune his drums to get that sound. In the ‘70s, tuning a drum kit was as important as tuning the main sound system. Engineers didn’t have samples (artificial drum sounds) or Pro Tools rigs like they have today to get that perfect “crack” for every drum. Every tonality came from the drums, which made the tuning of the individual drums extremely critical.

When I started mixing name groups in large venues, the first thing I learned was to sit on the stage and listen to them perform without the sound system turned on. That way, I could hear each individual instrument exactly the way the performer was hearing it onstage, and could hear and see how the entire group interacted. This was necessary because the acoustics of large venues are usually bad to terrible, with huge decay times—you have to know what the true sounds of the instruments are before you can begin to amplify or equalize them. If you don’t, you can quickly get yourself in big trouble both sonically and acoustically.

My first few shows with Chicago were not earth shattering, sound wise. Every engineer has their special mics and wants the drum kit to sound a special way, and I was no different. I was fortunate to be able to completely re-mike the stage, and especially change the mic setup around Danny’s drum kit and Laudir’s percussion rig.

But I was having a difficult time getting the right tones from Terry Kath’s guitar rig.

I attributed this to the fact that he was a fantastic jazz player and his chord structure knowledge was uncanny. This was very rare for a rock band’s lead guitarist. He would play basic rock chords that could drive the band as if they were a loud Led Zeppelin-type group, but he could also tone it down and play intricate chords that enhanced not only the brass portions of a song but also the overall Chicago big band sound. He was an amazing talent, and for me, the core of this tight group.

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