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...

Experimental Pursuits

During the initial rehearsals, Terry and I started talking to each other and gradually became good friends. Since I’m also a guitarist, I recognized that Terry was one of the best in the world.

His fingering techniques and love of music were unparalleled. I’d never worked with anyone so devoted to his craft and so intent on getting the exact sound he wanted out of his equipment. The only other player I’d work with who came close was Brian May of Queen, who I’d meet much later.

Terry and his guitar tech, Hank Steiger, used to experiment with different models of amplifiers all the time. When I came onto the scene, Terry was using a Fender Dual Showman amp head that had been totally modified, and a new (and radical) homemade speaker cabinet.

I never found out who made the cabinet, but Terry loved the sound it produced. It was a large quadrilateral speaker box about four feet tall and three feet wide with four Celestion 12-inch speakers in it, each one mounted at the top section of the cabinet.

Under high volume, this cabinet would vibrate tremendously at the loud level Terry played at and it could deliver the dirty, growling, distorted sound that he wanted on stage. But because of the cabinet design, it wasn’t as sturdy or solid as other conventional speaker cabinets.

It turned out that the cabinet vibrations were contributing to the distortion Terry could hear when he was on stage, but I wasn’t able to capture that “second distortion” properly in the main sound system. On the bluesy and jazzy songs that Chicago did so well, Terry could tone down the distortion on stage and the sound would be exactly what he wanted. But for the loud rock songs and solos that defined the “Terry Kath Sound,” it wasn’t cutting it in mix.

I came up with an idea and ran it past Terry.

I already had a direct line and a mic for his guitar, but I wanted to add two additional guitar mics to two of the other speakers in order to get as much of the cabinet distortion as possible. There weren’t enough inputs on the console to do this so these two extra mics had to be coupled or “Y-d” together. This way, I could move one of the guitar mics off the speaker axis to pick up the cabinet vibrations that Terry was hearing on stage.

At first, he was skeptical about this setup, especially about the direct line, because some of his previous engineers had tried it and couldn’t get a good balance between the mics and the direct box. But he liked the idea of the additional guitar mics, and I convinced him to let me try it and prove to him that I could achieve “his” sound.

I started taping the concerts every night on cassettes and giving him the tapes so he could listen to the sound I was getting on his guitar and to the overall mix of the show. It became a ritual on any multi-night booking that Terry and I would be in his room listening to the shows, with him giving critiques of the recordings, often picking up his guitar and showing me what lick (solo and fills) he was playing, especially when I’d missed amplifying essential ones.

Terry had started by having a regular amplifier in his room, but it was always too loud and disturbed other guests in the hotel, so he would have to turn it off or run it so low that he couldn’t hear it. Then his roadie Hank found a small battery amp called Pignose and got it for him. In those days, battery amps were unheard of, especially since they were so small and weighed less than four pounds.

Terry loved the Pignose so much that in 1972 he and an associate went out and purchased the company.

To be able to be in a room with him as he was playing and creating songs with unbelievable guitar licks was truly inspirational; he was just one of those players who made you want to listen to him play and never leave the room.

One of the more interesting facts that I learned about Terry was that early in Chicago’s career, when they were on tour opening for Jimi Hendrix, Jimi used to sneak out in the back of the auditorium before he went on stage when Chicago was playing just to hear Terry play. Terry never thought anything about it; he was that down to earth.

Over the five years I worked with Chicago, he and I became very close and I reveled in the time I could spend with him. This was a perk of the job that I really loved: not only to be able to mix this amazing band, but also to be able to spend private time with these talented people. Very rewarding!

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