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...

Adding A New Role

Also as part of their fresh beginning after Terry’s death, the band hired legendary record producer Phil Ramone to produce their new album (Hot Streets) and to record it at Criteria Studios in Miami.

Phil had produced everyone on the planet and had a long list of impressive credentials in the studio. They selected Criteria Studios because the Bee Gees had recorded and released Saturday Night Fever there the year before, and that record had become a monster seller.

This new Chicago record was going to involve many other firsts, besides changing the studio and the producer. The band decided to shake up the album cover and do something they’d never done before in the past eight years—use photos of themselves on the front and back cover. This was a radical departure since in the past, they had only used their name (in logo form) and Roman numerals to signify sequentially which album number it was.

Another first was that they asked me to fly to Miami and be one of the recording engineers on the record, a huge honor.

I’d been a live audio engineer and now, after working with Chicago for three years, I was going to be an assistant to one of the most legendary record producers in the business. I was going to be able to learn from a master producer how to make a record. Exciting times!

The band blocked out six weeks to get the album done. The production team rented three Miami mansions to make sure everyone got a great room and that no one was crowding anyone else. The houses were fantastic and they came equipped with a cook and maid service. (What more could you ask for!)  I was in charge of the brass section, which simply meant nothing more than getting them to and from the studio on time, and back and forth to the airport.

The first day at the studio was spent setting up the drums and backline for the keyboards and guitars. I quickly realized that I was actually the assistant to the assistant for Phil’s head engineer. My only duty was going to be to change the tape on the echo recorder that was used for the headphone playback. Bummer.

But I wasn’t going to let that depress me because this was still my first major recording session and I was determined to be a sponge and absorb all I could. Phil’s engineer told me which mics he wanted to use on the drum kit, and I started placing them around the drums. I finished everything except the last two floor toms when the rhythm guys, Bobby, Donnie, Peter and Danny, came into the studio.

They started jamming, which was no big deal since I’d set up mics before while drummers were playing. I heard the guys suggest trying the new song, “Alive Again,” and Danny started to count it off. I didn’t think anything about it since this was their first run-through at the studio.

Then I saw Phil in the control room waving at me and mouthing the words, “don’t move.”

It turned out, unbeknown to me, that Phil recorded everything; it didn’t matter whether the band was jamming or not. He wanted everything that was being played to be caught on tape. For the rest of that song, I stood next to the two floor toms with mics and cables in my hands. When the band ended that run through, I finished miking the floor toms and went back into the control room. Phil and Jim (his main engineer) were slapping hands together and saying how great the “feel” was for that song.

I reminded them that the last two floor toms had not yet had mics, and said that every time Danny went around the horn on the drums, there was a noticeable drop in their volume. Phil looked at me and said, “Kid, you have a lot to learn. All good recordings in a studio are about feelings and the groove of the song, and that first pass has ‘it’.”

As I found out, even though they recorded the rhythm track of that song another 10 times, the final rhythm take of “Alive Again,” the one that’s on the record, is that first pass with me standing in the studio holding the last two floor tom mics and cables in my hand. Go figure.

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