Don’t overlook the obvious


In the mid 1980’s, a group of successful session players built a beautiful studio in Hollywood. Unfortunately, their technical prowess didn’t quite match their musical chops. One night I got an emergency call – they were starting an important overdub session, but the mic they wanted to use was completely dead, and things were at a standstill. I jumped in my car and headed down to the studio, wondering what the problem might be.

I climbed the stairway up to the studio and saw a lot of people milling around in frustration. In the studio a condenser mic was set up for a sax player, and in the control room a beautiful Neve console was set up for overdubs, along with a few pieces of rental gear.

When troubleshooting problems, it’s often good to go “backwards”. You start at the “end” of a chain of circuitry or equipment and go back. For a problem like this one, where primary functions are working but a specific problem exists, that technique works well.

I found that the stereo busses were fine, and the multitrack busses were fine too. Apparently, the problem was specific to that one mic input. Perhaps it was just a bad mic cable, though the engineer told me he’d checked that already. As I walked from the control room to the studio, I continued to follow the signal path “backwards” from the console. The output of a compressor led to a line input on the console. The input of the compressor was connected to the output of a de-esser, and the input of the de-esser was connected to the output of an equalizer. A mic cable that was connected to the equalizer input ran under the door of the control room and out to the studio. In the studio, the mic cable was plugged into a U87 condenser mic.

Hopefully, you now realize what the problem was, as I did at that point. There was no mic preamp!

Finding the problem had been easy, the hard part would be explaining it to the engineer without destroying his ego or his relationship with the client. We had a short private conversation. Walking away from me, he mumbled something about “so many &*%$# bad cables in this place” to the onlookers, and performed some sleight of hand with an outboard mic preamp. We scratched the mic, the sax player put on his headphones, the session began, and everyone felt good. I had been there for about 10 minutes.

Conclusion: Sometimes people skills are more important than technical skills.