Last Updated on July 4, 2023
Can you believe it’s April? I feel like I blinked, and suddenly everyone was on spring break vacation. Did you go anywhere? Since I took the kids to Naples, FL, back in January, we had a quiet week, but I did take the kids on an adventure in Chicago, and it had nothing to do with home decor. Rather, it was all about guitar amps, music, and rock and roll.
Zoe had an American Girl Doll gift certificate burning a hole in her pocket (which she misplaced before heading downtown), and she had been begging to visit the store on Michigan Ave. Visiting The American Girl Doll store sounded like walking around my own personal hell, but I couldn’t deny this cutie a trip to her dream destination.
Because The Boy and I keep everything fair and equal between the kids, I needed to find something epic for Cooper. Do you understand how difficult it is to surprise a 13-year-old cantankerous boy who only loves punk and metal music? I resorted to calling in a favor, and boy, oh boy, did these kids have an exciting day.
You probably remember my friend Marianne (you might know her as The Savoy Flea). Well, her husband, Balthazar de Ley, builds fancy, high-end guitar amps inspired by vintage designs, and the kids got to tour his studio — oh, and Balti is kinda famous—he was the studio technician for Smashing Pumpkins.
Cooper learned how a Balthazar amplifier is kitted out and built. He also got to nerd out over bass guitars and vintage amps and hang in the recording area. But that’s only the half of it. Ya, it gets better.
To really spoiled Cooper, Balti called in a favor with the digital audio mastering studio across the hall. Before heading downtown, Balti asked if we were interested in seeing how vinyl records were made because his friends across the hall cut vinyl records on a cutting lathe (BTDubs, the reissue of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was cut here). So, of course, the answer was yes! This was a glimpse into the music industry you don’t see every day.
Little did I know Balti’s “friend” across that hall was Bob Weston. Yes, THE BOB WESTON—musician, producer, recording engineer, and record mastering engineer whose name and fingerprints, according to Wikipedia, “are all over the American underground rock and post-punk scene.” Bob plays bass in Shellac with Steve Albini (YES, THE STEVE ALBINI, who Kurt Cobain personally asked to produce the In Utero album) and Todd Trainer. Holy hell!
When Balti introduced us, my insides were screaming OMG, OMG, OMG, but on the outside, I was trying my best to pretend this was an everyday occurrence to be chatting with a musical god.
Bob showed us his high-resolution listening room first. This studio space is where Bob listens and perfects a recorded track. Any noise that shouldn’t be there is edited out, and he then magically makes the track sound brighter…almost like it has more volume. I naively asked, “How do you know when a track has been perfected?” His answer was, “I just know.”
He played a recording before editing and after to show us what he meant. Same song. Same recording. A massive difference. It’s hard to explain, but the word brighter sums it up. Bob also explained how he listens for any weird ticks, pings of a computer or keyboard, or noise generated by a puff of air when a singer makes the P, B, T, or S sound.
First, he can erase the unwanted sound, which I related to my process of retouching a photo. He zoomed in on the digital sound wave, found the ping, and erased it. If left in the track, these noises – especially the puffs of air could affect the track’s sound on vinyl. Now this is where things got super cool, and I watched Cooper, Balti, and Bob nerd out over music.
Getting into the minutia of cutting a record was like talking about science — sound science. This is where Bob, the master recording engineer, shines!
I’m going to butcher his explanation, but in short, the cutting lathe uses a diamond to cut or etch the sound into the lacquer master disc. The shape of the cut is a “V.” Now, visualize a sound wave. It goes up and down, right? The diamond cuts the sound wave into the master disc going back and forth…like you laid the soundwave horizontal. The needle of a record player has a rounded tip, so it doesn’t fit perfectly in the “V” but instead glides across the waves. The wider the wave, the louder the sound. Cool, huh?
Say you have a hard P word in a song, and the singer was too close to the mic. If that harsh puff of air isn’t fixed before the recording is cut on vinyl, the needle on the record player could skip because the wide cut will cause the needle to bounce.
If you have a brighter and louder recording, the cut will automatically be wider and take up more room on a record. This was my a-ha moment back in my club days when the DJs spun Chicago House music. Digital recordings did not exist, so not only did the DJs mix the beats, but they would also adjust the mix for volume.
Volume is the reason 45 records were popular in the clubs. It wasn’t because they were singles. Those records were louder because they had more space for deeper, wider cuts. Did you know that? Bob was literally blowing my mind at this point. Hopefully, I’m blowing yours, and you’re still with me.
Before we left, we asked Bob if he could name a favorite, cool, new song from one of his latest engineering jobs. He said there’s a lot, but a recent track by Squirrel Flower stood out—a new to me Chicago musician. Squirrel Flower’s latest release, Your Love, has a chill vibe.
After this epic behind-the-scenes day, we headed to Chicago Music Exchange—a destination music store for musicians. Zoe and I took a selfie with a Balthazar amplifier while Cooper played almost every bass guitar and pedal in the store.
We finally called it a day and returned home, where I dropped from exhaustion. It wasn’t a fancy, tropical spring break vacation, but we had one heck of a day in the city, and I got lots of hugs for being the coolest mom ever.
Special shoutout to two amazing guys. Balthazar and Bob, you took the time out of your busy schedules to share your craft with my kiddos, and for that, I will be forever grateful. Thank you.
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