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Les Paul Departs, And Sennheiser Goes To Skywalker Ranch

August 17, 2009

Having spent time out of reach of wi-fi and t-mobile, in the depths of Marin and Sonoma counties (California), I only learned today about the passing of the legendary Les Paul. What a man, what a life! Until very recently he popped up everywhere, meeting with crowds at all manner of industry events. I am one of the many lucky thousands who encountered him in person, having had the good fortune of sitting across from him at a press dinner during a NAMM convention in Nashville a few years ago. Hearing him deliver in person the many stories that have been circulating for years was precious. The trip to Washington DC, via Chicago, where he enlisted the services of a dubious jeweller summoned via the Yellow Pages to the hotel room, with drill in hand, (“And just what exactly do you want me to come and drill again?“) to assist in the modification of the tape recorder Les and Mary Ford would be using at the White House to play their own backing tracks while performing live—a first in the history of audio. And how Richard Nixon insisted on an encore, requesting—as luck would have it—the one and only song they still happened to have on their tape... A splendid raconteur, Les Paul made those stories sound as fresh as if he were telling them for the first time. I treasure that memory.

Just came back from sunny California where I attended yet another Sennheiser miking clinic (, this one again held at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. You’ve seen the announcements in Recording - we assisted in the authoring of the presentations and are in partnership with Sennheiser on these events, and I get to welcome the crowds before handing over the proceedings to Mike Pappas for the all-day clinics. 

Mike Pappas does a fabulous job, drawing on his vast experience in many facets of the industry as he lectures in the morning and demonstrates miking with live musicians after lunch. He makes provocative statements (like “Use only 3 mics for the best drum sound”, and “Eq is evil”) and then backs them up with empirical evidence, for all to hear. His “Move the mic by an inch and hear a world of difference” always makes me come away from these clinics humming “What a difference an inch makes, twenty-four millimeters...” (Apologies to Dinah Washington, Esther Phillips, et al.)

My image shows Mike Pappas with his audio buddy “Fritz”, the KU 100 dummy head, a binaural stereo microphone system that resembles the human head, with two mic capsules built into the “ears”. I hope you can one day get to hear Mike’s demo of “Fritz” while you listen through headphones, with your eyes closed. Spooky!

This time around there was an evening clinic put on for members of the Producers’ and Engineers’ Wing of NARAS, followed the next day by the regular all-day presentation for all comers. NARAS drew a nice crowd, and I counted close to 50 attendees the next day. Many hands went up when I asked to see who reads Recording. During the day I got to talk to quite a few readers—to have that face-to-face contact is simply great, and often I get ideas put to me that I can take back to the office and implement at some stage.

Skywalker is a unique place—the huge building with the famous scoring stage (where Leslie Ann Jones is in charge) is just one of many operations on the estate that takes up an entire valley. Definitely worth the drive.

Had some odd musical experiences in San Francisco on the way up to Skywalker. I knew that SF is a musical town—I’ve heard the fabulous San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas’ baton, and knew about Bill Graham’s Fillmore (named Fillmore West in one of its incarnations) where many seminal recordings were made. But the city seems to go out of its way to please, musically. 

On the BART, around Daly City, while I was listening through my earbuds to LJH doing Boogie Chillen, the train kept making these loud and long tones, precisely pitched at G. Exquisite—the song is in A, so G makes for a bluesy match!

Around Powell and Market, a car alarm went off, beeping on the tonic (whatever pitch it was), and in time for a while, with BB King’s Stormy Monday Blues.

Under the gloriously fogged-in Golden Gate Bridge (see my pic below) sounded the fog horn, alternating the pitches of low A and E. By then my iPod had randomized itself to playing the opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor—the foghorn ostinato was definitely eerie in the mist.

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