The Joke was on Them

Before starting Studio Electronics in 1981, I was a staff technician at United/Western Studios in Hollywood (now Ocean Way). It was (and still is) one of the biggest studios in town. During the 70’s and 80’s , “Western”was a very busy place, with five 24-track rooms. A staggering number of bands, recording artists, and celebrities passed through the front doors.

I had long been a fan of the Firesign Theater, the group of four improv comedians that released a string of brilliantly complex, satirical comedy records during the 70’s. So when Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman of Firesign booked Studio 3 for their “Give Us A Break” album, I begged to be assigned to the project, and was.story3

Like their previous albums, “Give Us A Break” was full of layered voices and sound effects. On the first day, they wheeled an enormous stack of sound effects records in on a dolly and throughout the project we engineers were called on to run tapes backwards and at weird speeds, and set up strange reverbs and delays.

One Sunday afternoon as the mixes were being finished, I decided I’d have a little fun. During a break, I patched a few of their tie lines in to another studio. One pair of tie lines went into an unused echo return — I’d use those to inject some “extra” sounds into their mix. Another pair sent their stereo mix into my “other” studio, so I could record the mayhem. Finally, I hid a mic in the control room so I could overhear and record everyone’s reactions.

The guys returned and began mixing a track in which Abraham Lincoln woke up hung over, and realized what he’d done the night before. Hiding in the other studio, I found a recording of crickets and slowly faded it up. A few seconds later I heard Phil ask “Hey, where did the crickets come from — we don’t have crickets in this bit, do we?” Of course, as soon as I heard that, I faded the crickets down, creating more confusion! Over the next half hour I teased them with more crickets, always muting them the moment they were noticed. After waiting a while longer, I cued up an effect of a 747 taking off and sent THAT into their mix, with the fader full up! At that point the guys immediately realized what was going on, and who was doing it. Someone said: “That’s gotta be David; he’s in the building somewhere!” and I heard footsteps as the guys came down the hallway, checking inside each room. Finally they opened the door to Studio 2 and took in the scene — 2-track rolling in record mode, turntable spinning with sound FX disc on it, and me laughing hysterically.

I think they were a little upset. After all I’d wasted at least a half hour of mix time. I almost gave them a cassette of the whole thing as a souvenir, but thought better of it.

I ran into Phil Proctor at a stage performance a while back and talked for a while. I was surprised that he remembered me after twenty years, and glad there were no hard feelings. I still have a tape of the whole thing. Maybe I should send a copy to him, after all.