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Joe Sidore: A Key Staff Engineer at United/Western in the 1960s — Part One

Joe Sidore writing
Joe Sidore

My good buddy Will Shanks, UA Product Manager, recently introduced me to Joe Sidore. With fifty-plus years as a recording engineer, Joe is a fountain of great stories. There was so much to talk about I decided to split the interview into three parts.

You worked at the early United/Western studios. When was that?

I worked there for seven and a half years, from 1964 to 1971, as a union staff engineer. Starting sometime in 1971, Bill let his engineering staff go. This was the beginning of the independent engineer. The clients that they had been working with at Western and United became the engineers' clients. So whenever the client wanted to work at Western and United, they would call their engineers, and the engineers would book the sessions. That's the way it worked from that point forward.

Tell me how you became an engineer.

Well, you know, I grew up in the '50s. I don't know how, exactly, but it happened in bits and pieces through my younger years. In 1952, at twelve years of age, I had neighbors that lived in my grandmother's building who either had a wire recorder, or a hi-fi set, and a great record collection. I was always able to either try out recording on this wire recorder or expand my musical background by listening to what good music was available then. I had a relative who had an actual disk recorder. Not everybody had a disk recorder. It was a consumer variety, but if you had one of those, you were really somebody special.

I purchased my first microphone, which was a Brush BA-106, and a Pentron 4-channel mixer, along with a Thornes turntable. I would broadcast these would-be radio shows from my bedroom to the Magnavox console in our living room for the pleasure--or not--of my family. Later I replaced the Magnavox with a Webcor tape machine.

A microphone, serial number tag, and 4-knob controller

Now I had the makings of a little broadcast/recording studio. I had no idea that it would ever be a part of my future. I began writing stories, and recording them “radio-show style,” adding music and sound effects from whatever music that I had, or could borrow. I would submit them to my school as a school project and get graded for them, and at the same time have fun doing it. At this point I still had no idea where I was going with any of this.

At age 16, I got a job tearing apart surplus electronic equipment left over from the war. It was all being torn apart and sold in pieces, at surplus electronic stores up on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. This is where I discovered in myself a love for electronic equipment, causing me to seek out more exotic audio equipment not available to the average consumer. I remember going to one of the first AES conventions at the Ambassador Hotel. It was so small. It consisted of maybe three or four small rooms, that was it! There just wasn't a lot of professional equipment available then. I remember seeing some Langevin rotary and pan pots, line and mic preamplifiers, Cinamagraphic equalizers, an Ampex tape machine … that sort of stuff.

"As soon as I stepped in, and saw the mixing console, the tape machines, and the microphone hanging, I said, 'This is it. This is what I want to do.'"

I was always into hi-fi, and then stereo hi-fi in 1958. At age 18, I replaced my Webcore with a Berlant Concertone 20/20 professional stereo tape machine and bought a couple of American D-22 microphones. There were some friends of mine that had a small band that I would record just for the fun of it. I still didn’t have a clue.

Around 1960, I was going to L.A. Community College, and was in my first six months of a broadcast course. The broadcast course was the closest thing to what I liked to do. What I really liked about it the most was using the equipment. And of course, the only way I could use the equipment was to be a DJ. One day, a singer friend of mine who had a recording contract invited me to what he called a “vocal overdub” at a professional recording studio in Hollywood. This would be Audio Arts, on Melrose and Gower (now a paint store). We walked in through the back door, which happened to be through the control room. As soon as I stepped in, and saw the mixing console, the tape machines, and the microphone hanging, I said, "This is it. This is what I want to do." So from that point forward, I quit the broadcast course and went to just about every recording studio in town, applying for an engineering job.

I went from studio to studio trying to BS my way in, as you could only do in that day, because there were no schools for recording. You had to start somehow. I finally found someone who would hire me.

Standing outside Harmony Recorders

That was Harmony Recorders, a place on Sunset and Vine, about eight doors from the famed Wallach's Music City and across the street from NBC and RCA recording studios. The studio, owned by Bob Ross, had a music-copying service on the second floor. The first floor was a little demo studio, which, if you were enterprising enough, could actually cut some good tracks. Back on the second floor, along with Bob’s music-copying service, was a little dubbing room. When I say "dubbing room," that was a room where you could cut lacquer masters or acetate reference disks. There was a Westrex "Spec D" lathe with a Grampian cutter head, some simple EQ and an Ampex tape machine. People would walk in off the street, with their demo tape or master, and request a 45 rpm or an LP. I’d cut it for them right on the spot, ring it up, and they'd go on their merry way. So that's how I started, cutting dubs. After a while I became affectionately known by the Bob Ross crew as "Toilet Paper Joe." [Laughs]

Little by little, I worked my way down to the demo studio, and began my recording career cutting my teeth on country-western music. On this same street, there were all kinds of music-publishing houses, and they would come in and record demos of the new songs on their roster. Right next door was the music-publishing house, Central Songs, owned by Cliffy Stone. He would come in and play bass on these country-western demos for his company. Country music was what I first started recording. There was a lot of variation from one type of music to another and I found it was a good place to experiment with different microphones and effects like echo and reverb. Some of this stuff you didn't really need to do anything to. It was easy to mix. The music dictated what was needed, and it was just a matter of capturing it. At that point everything was being recorded to mono or stereo, and it was done live. Eventually I learned how to record everything live, where today people have to mix down from multitrack to get it right. This came in real handy by the time I got to Western and United because everything was being recorded live, including the three- and four-track dates. Harmony Recorders turned out to be a great workshop for me.

I was exposed to songwriters like Jimmy Webb before anyone knew who he was. Eden Abhez, the original Nature Boy and writer of the famous song “Nature Boy,” sung by Nat King Cole, used to hang out at Bob’s. So did Herbie Alpert before the A & M days. Glen Campbell, doing guitar/vocal demos.

Interestingly enough, there were a lot of songs that came through, some that I thought were really weird and had no chance at all. As hindsight soon showed me, these songwriters were ahead of their time. They wrote songs that people were just not ready for. Amazingly, these songs would later turn out to become hits recorded by a popular recording artist on some major record label. I would always remember that that hit record was the demo that nobody liked.

Joe sitting in military fatigues with gun
How did you come to work at United/Western?

So here I am, I'm at Harmony Recorders, and it's been three years by now. In 1963 I got drafted, and wound up getting out of the draft by joining the Army Reserve, which probably saved my life.

It was during the Vietnamese war. When I got out of my six months active duty, my job was waiting for me. I was working again at Harmony Recorders. I had put in an application at Western Recorders with Bob Dougherty, the studio manager at the time. A few months later he called me, saying that they had a position open if I was interested.

So I started in 1964. And of course, at that point it was both Western and United. They were a block apart. Western was at 6000 Sunset, and 6050 was United. I didn’t start as a first engineer. I actually started as a second engineer or assistant engineer. I said, "Hey, fine," even though I felt I was ready to jump right into the driver's seat. Because it was a union shop, you'd eventually wind up being promoted to first engineer, and then you could get your own record dates. So I was patient. I found myself being a second engineer to all the heavyweight staff engineers who were there at the time. Bones Howe, Eddy Brackett, Lee Herschberg, Chuck Britz, Ben Jordan to mention a few. While seconding for them, and with my eyes wide open, I discovered a lot of their techniques, which I modified to my own taste, and later used to develop my own sound. As a second engineer, my duties were to align the machines before the session, assist with the studio setup, keep a legend of all the song titles during the session, call out take numbers, keep track of song times, and occasionally go out to move or replace a microphone for the engineer. Sometimes when they were doing overdubbing, I'd have to do the "punch in" and "punch out." That proved to be good exercise, as punching in and out became a common practice in the recording process.

When I wasn’t seconding, I was doing production work like cutting dubs or mastering at United, Studio D or F, and sometimes Studio G if it was stereo. I would do editing, sequencing, and sometimes an announcer overdub for commercials, in Studio 4 at Western.

Joe in the studio

Then, finally, after about six months, I got promoted to first engineer, and then they started dishing out sessions to me.

Tell me about Bill, your relationship with him, what you learned from him.

[Laughs.] I learned basically to not be late. I would sometimes have these conflicts of not getting to work on time, so Bill, on many occasions, had me up in his office. He was always scolding me, [laughs] for not being at a session on time. My excuse to him was, “Well, we finished on time. We got off to a late start, but the date still finished on time. They didn't go into overtime, it didn't cost them any more. It might have been a little more stressful at the beginning, but you got to admit, I finished the date on time.” I was never sure how much trouble I was in when I saw Bill shaking and scratching his head. I did, however, manage to survive Bill’s admonishments--thank God we had a union--and in our future dealings seemed to win his confidence with my ability, sincerity and love for my work. As far as actually being his second engineer, I never had the privilege of working with him on recording sessions. By the time I started at Western and United, he was doing very, very few sessions. I think he was still doing Stan Kenton at the time, just for the fun of it. For sure he devoted most of his time to the promotion of his studios and to the success of UREI.

Technically and professionally, he was on top of his mark. Personally, he was truly a good-hearted, soft-spoken, and generous man. He had a wonderful family, his wife Miriam and his young son at the time, who stood about all of three feet tall, Billy Putnam, Jr., the successor and custodian of the UA empire. I’ve also had the pleasure of knowing Bill’s son Scott Putnam, who is today a successful acoustical design engineer.

Did you work on a 610 console?

Yeah, the 610 was one of the earliest, with the rotary knobs. The Western Studio 2 and 3 consoles were the modular consoles.

610 Console

There were consoles with different modules in Studio A and B at United. They were more like the consoles that Bill Putnam had designed for Universal Recording in Chicago.

Universal Recording painting

Like the Universal consoles, the consoles at United A and B had rotary faders built into the board surface, and were wired to rack trays that held an array of mic preamps and line amplifiers.

Console desk and chair

The EQ was located on the side strips to the left and right of the meter panel. EQs 1 through 6 on the left and 7 through 12 on the right. All other outboard equipment had to be patched in.

The 610 was a complete "channel strip-o-the-day" tube-type module that housed the rotary fader, the EQ, the mic preamp and the line amplifier.

610 Console knobs
Did you have a favorite, golden unit? Was there any one you preferred over others?

I have to admit the 610 vacuum-tube console was sweet. It had a slightly different sound than the later, solid-state module. But, they both had that Universal Audio signature, or the UREI signature, one and the same. The difference was the bottom end, and I think the tube version had the bigger bottom end. They were both complimentary though. That, along with the studios themselves, with any assortment musical instruments, you just couldn't go wrong. Getting a good sound was like falling off a log, you didn’t even have to try. Using a selection of good microphones along with any one of the UREI consoles, in addition to the great acoustical properties of the room you were recording in, was a winning combination for a hit record--or at least an excellent-sounding end product.

Since then, I've had a lot of experiences with just Universal Audio equipment, and/or UREI equipment, in different environments, and I realize how much a part of the sound was actually due to the Universal Audio equipment. It's important to have a good environment, but I’ve been able to get a good sound almost anywhere, and that’s because UA equipment almost always brings out the best of what’s in front of the mic. I can count on it.

But did I have a favorite? As far as I’m concerned, anything that has the letters UA or UREI affixed to the front panel is where I’ll put my trust and confidence. I don’t need to re-invent the wheel. No doubt, I am terrifically biased, in the most favorable way.

Have you heard any of the reissued equipment that we've done?

Yes, I have heard the reissues and I have used them. On occasion, I've rented a 6176 from Audio Rents. I own a few original black 1176s. When compared to my 1176, I’d be hard pressed to hear the difference … no pun intended. What comes out is that audible signature that is truly 1176 in every respect. The sound of the 610 is exactly as I remember, with no reservations. There’s the convenience of phase reversal, Hi-Z in for instrument insertion and variable gain in and out, which it never used to have. As before, it provides the ability to add just the right amount of EQ if necessary. And then there’s the brilliant addition of a mic gain section. An improvement we always wished the original had. What I enjoy most about the 6176 is the fact that all the additions don’t interfere with the original integrity of the unit, they just enhance it!

Aside from the reissue equipment, I happen to be the proud owner of a couple of 2192 A-D/D-A converters. What I love about them is, somehow or another, that same audio quality is there! It's just a perfect, very transparent and natural-sounding way of capturing whatever it is you're transferring. Now, I'll mention that for the past three and a half years, I've been one of five vendors that have been archiving the Warner Bros. library from the exact period when I was working at Western/United. At that time, Warner Bros. was based at Western and United. That’s where a lot of their famous recordings were made, and I received a lot of those recordings. The recordings that were done at Western and United were of course, all recorded on Universal Audio or UREI equipment, and it translated excellently through the new UA 2192. Naturally, master recordings made elsewhere transferred equally as well, I think really revealing the true identity of the recording. Three-and-a-half years worth, over a couple of thousand titles passed through that converter, to be archived for future generations.

What did you think of the East-West remodel?

I think that Doug did a great job with the remodel. The only room that really, really hasn't been changed is Studio 1. They still had the same sound boards up on the wall, it's still white, and it’s still the same tile on the floor. Everything about it is the same.

Frank Sinatra recording session

Studio 3 has got a little bit of a different wall treatment on one side, and also Studio 2 has a slightly different wall treatment, but for all intents and purposes they’re still the same great rooms. Of course, in that same building, there were some physical echo chambers, built by Hal Halverson, who was Bill's main carpenter. He more than likely built the studios. The rooms were designed by John Edwards, who was a well-known acoustical architect of the time. He designed the rooms at both Western and United. But Hal did all the building, including all the physical echo chambers. The one at United, above Studio A and Studio B, and the chamber that's above Studio 2 at Western. And then in the back of Studio 1, by the loading dock, there were a couple of other chambers. It was the Studio D chamber and Studio C chamber. These chambers, including some EMTs, were on tie lines, so you could access these chambers from both Western and United. All you had to do was just make sure that no one else was using them, and they were yours. The next time you booked a session, if you needed the same chamber, you'd have to book that chamber as well, so that no one else would use it. Those chambers are still there and still sounding marvelous.

I'm sad to see the era change, in that the kind of recording that was done there during the heyday, during the '60s, has come to an end. But then, the record industry has changed [laughs] incredibly since that time. But just to walk back there--walk in and see all of that, and remember what it used to be, in that respect it's very nostalgic. I know the studios aren't being used the way they used to be, filled to capacity on a daily basis. The way that they were designed to be used, and the way they still can be used. They could certainly do it. But it will never again be like it was. Ahh, the good old days …

But the bottom line is, Doug Rogers was responsible for saving it and preserving it for whatever its fate may be, in the future. Because of him those rooms still exist, and with that I wish him many enjoyable moments recording in that hallowed place.

— Marsha Vdovin

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