See the man on the cover of Modern Recording? His name is Lou Rawls and he is primarily responsible for me wanting to make a lifetime career of designing recording studios. How, you ask? Well in 1978 while attending Penn State University I became obsessed with electronics design and sound recording (I designed and built an analog delay in college). In ‘78 I was window shopping in a local audio shop and while my mind was focused on a nice little Tascam mixer, my eyes were fixed on the March ‘78 Modern Recording Magazine. The image of Mr. Rawls in Studio 4 posing in front of a Neumann U 47, did me in. I had to find that recording studio and I had to see that microphone in person.
In 1979 I graduated from Penn State and was immediately hired as a field engineer for RCA Broadcast in Camden New Jersey. I worked in building 17, the one with the iconic RCA Victor Stained Glass tower depicting RCA’s mascot dog Nipper “His Master’s Voice.” I fast became a broadcast camera expert. Three years later (after RCA broadcast closed), I landed my dream job as a Technical Engineer at Sigma Sound Studios. Sigma Sound at 212 North 12th St. in Philadelphia opened in 1968 and within a few years became a major hit-making studio.
WE BUILT THINGS
Working at Sigma was just like being back in college; if you didn’t learn fast, well you didn’t pass! Joe Tarsia opened Sigma in August of 1968 and was very particular about how his recording studios operated—it was first class, anything less was unacceptable. If we needed an audio device we bought it, modified it, or built our own. We constantly cleaned the tape machines, replaced motors, measured and calibrated all gear, and aligned the Dolby noise reduction a secret way. After a few years of hands-on session and equipment triage, I learned almost everything there was to know about innovative R&B and Pop recording studios. Sigma led in innovation and worked with Allison Research and MCI to design an automated mixing system and console. Finally we added the first ever 32-track digital 1” recorder from Mitsubishi.
There was no stopping our team’s pursuit for excellence. No effort was spared to make the best sounding records of the day (to the frustration of our colleagues in LA). It also helped that we had QC control from recording all the way to final mastering. In all, Tarsia the epic architect of the Philly Sound told us, there were 200 Gold and Platinum albums produced there at our staff reunion. Joe credited his engineers and technicians and rarely wanted to take credit for the success of the operation. In October 2015, we had a large Sigma staff reunion when the state dedicated a historic marker to Sigma Sound. Unfortunately Mr. Rawls passed years before, but his spirit was there too that day. And luckily I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Rawls during the recording of his Family Reunion album. Funny how things can work out, you dream and then you are there.
MAKING YOUR RECORDING STUDIO WORK
Working under constant pressure made me create quick, adaptable solutions to problems. Because anything can go wrong at the worst time, we always made backups and maintained a good contingency plan. Fast forward to the film and sound studio of today, and the same applies: design a robust power system, IT infrastructure, room for storage, manage noise and acoustics, and always plan for growth and flexibility.
It has been a lot of fun reminiscing and sharing my journey with you. Thank you Mr. Rawls and Modern Recording for starting me on an amazing lifetime journey.