Recording the Virgineers
Main Audio Suite
Optimus is one of the premier post production facilities in Chicago where national television and radio commercials are produced. Although it's primarily known for it's video editing talent, audio is also recorded and mixed there. The main audio suite at Optimus became the Virgineers' recording laboratory. As Optimus' primary Audio Engineer, Bruce had the run of the place and the skills to pull it all together musically and technically. We were also able to use the studio during off-hours for free which was a lovely thing. And the recording gear in that room was top notch for it's day. Although the control room itself wasn't a big space, it was acoustically well-tuned and had a good vibe so it was not only great for mixing but also good for tracking instruments and vocals. The voice-over booth provided isolation for vocals, guitar amps, etc. as needed depending on the sound we were trying to achieve. We also experimented with recording in the corridors and stairwells outside of the main room.
A typical session would begin with a rhythm guitar track and go from there as we proceeded to add layers of vocals and other instruments. Many of the songs started life as home demos. Depending on the instrumentation and structure of the song, we would work out string arrangements or keyboard parts at home and bring in MIDI files that we would then use as a starting point to build the rest of the tracks around. As our home recording gear became more sophisticated, we were eventually able to record high quality guitar, vocal, and drum tracks at home and then bring them to Optimus where we would add additional parts to complete a mix. This approach saved us a lot of time.
A recording day at Optimus would last anywhere from 8 to 16 hours depending on the complexity of the song. We would arrive in the morning and work nonstop through the day only breaking for dinner and then it was back to the studio to listen to what we had accomplished so far. We would then work into the night adding parts and effects and mixing our creations until they were done. It wasn't uncommon for us to leave Optimus at 3 or 4 in the morning with a shiny new song to listen to in the car on the way home.
The AMS AudioFile
The AMS AudioFile disk-based recording system was used to record and edit the Virgineers' debut album. This type of non-linear recording technology was the ancestor to ProTools. It was a self-contained beast of a workstation with built-in monitor and keyboard controls. The first system had 8 tracks and it presented a real challenge as our songs became more complex. It meant that we had to do a fair amount of submixing before we could add more parts. It was also easy to run out of memory which would crash the system at the worst times. Eventually it was upgraded to 16 tracks which made a huge difference. The best part about the AudioFile was it's ability to edit audio in any possible way. We could digitally cut and paste audio to re-arrange verses and move parts, etc. These days musicians and engineers take this level of editing for granted with the wide availability of computer-based recording systems such as ProTools. However, back then this was leading edge technology. And as limited as the system may appear to be by today's standards, the sound quality of those early digital converters still seems better than some of the systems available today.
The Neotek Console
A 24 channel Neotek Elite console was used to capture tracks and mix the album. The Neotek offered great sounding preamps and an excellent EQ. The Neotek and AudioFile proved to be a good combination. Although the AudioFile hard disk recorder was a great editing tool, it didn't offer the in-the-box mixing capabilities and effects plug-ins that are common in today's computer-based systems. Therefore the recorded tracks were output to the Neotek console for mixing and adding outboard effects. We would automate as much as we could in the AudioFile however there were still times when we would need to manually ride the faders and pan pots of the console during a mix to get the right results. The final mix was then recorded to 2-track DAT or 2-track analogue tape as the final master.
The Urei 1178 Compressor was extensively used
while tracking and mixing to maximize our sound and glue everything together. The 1178 is the 1970's stereo version of the well-known 1176. This thing brought us great joy
in it's ability to squish drum tracks, vocals and everything else. Other effects processors that were misused included Lexicon and Yamaha reverb and delays, an Eventide
Harmonizer, and our psychedelic secret weapon, the Boss SE-70 Super Effects Processor.
The SE-70 was a multi-effects unit that was primarily intended for guitar. We used it for that and for many other things including vocals. It offered us a number of
interesting effects that could be mixed in various combinations - everything from jet flanging to one of our favorite effects, the Leslie rotating speaker. It also provided
the distortion used on the electric guitars at the end of the song "Diesel Train".
The SE-70 was a multi-effects unit that was primarily intended for guitar. We used it for that and for many other things including vocals. It offered us a number of interesting effects that could be mixed in various combinations - everything from jet flanging to one of our favorite effects, the Leslie rotating speaker. It also provided the distortion used on the electric guitars at the end of the song "Diesel Train".
The Fourth Floor
The fourth floor of the building that Optimus inhabited was at one time the home of the old Streeterville Studios. Although Optimus used the space for storage, many blues artists such as Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, James Cotton, and Koko Taylor recorded there in the 70's and 80's. If only the diagonal wood paneled walls could talk! At some point a few of the musicians working at Optimus decided to clean up the fourth floor room and turn it into an employee lounge/practice space. The recording area consisted of a good sized live space with high ceilings. A large windowed control room bowed out into the live room.
Some of the Optimus people brought in gear to make the place usable once again for recording: a 24 channel Amek console, ProTools, Adam monitors, and a collection of preamps, compressors, and mics. Also available for your enjoyment were a few Marshall amps and a beat up drum kit. It was here that the Virgineers recorded the song "Fish In The Sea" , an homage to Cream.
The Plum Pit
The Plum Pit is Ken's home studio where much of the Virgineers' second album,"Love Soldiers" was written and recorded as well as countless demos. Over the years the recording medium has evolved from an original 4-Track Tascam Portastudio (because Pete Townsend had one) to an 8-Track ADAT digital tape recorder and 24 channel Mackie board to the current Mac-based ProTools system.