by Jim Shanahan, Dean of the Media School, Indiana University
and Paul Mahern, Record Producer, Mixing and Mastering Engineer
edited by Mike Casey, Director of Technical Operations, Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, Indiana University
The archival recordings digitally preserved by the MDPI project have many potential uses. In this post, we highlight their ability to inform and inspire new creations.
Audio engineer and producer Paul Mahern is well-known for his work with numerous artists including John Mellencamp, the Fray, Neil Young and others over the past several decades. From 2005-07 he worked at the IU Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) as the audio preservation engineer for the NEH-funded Sound Directions project, one of the forerunners of MDPI. In this lightly edited excerpt from a longer interview with Jim Shanahan, Dean of the IU Media School, he talks about encountering one archival collection in particular that radically changed his ideas about recording music.
Paul: There’s a collection of recordings at the ATM that were done with one microphone in the Congo in 1952 that were completely mind-blowing recordings. I grew up in multi-track recording, so you know when I came along we were already using 16-track, 24-track recording, multiple microphones, and big consoles. Listening to those recordings that were done in the Congo with one microphone, I began to realize that there was a way to do this minimalist mono approach and you would still have the depth of field, you could still feel who was closest to the mic and who was farthest away from the mic and it really changed the way I felt about what was important about a recording.
Excerpts from the Alan and Barbara Merriam Collection, IU Archives of Traditional Music
Almost immediately after I left IU I got a call from John Mellencamp who I had made a few records with at the time. He said “Hey, I am going on tour with Bob Dylan and I want to make a record. I’ve got this group of songs but I want to make it remotely. I want to be able to record wherever. I want you to find the oldest recording medium that’s stable and I want you to come with me and we’re going to record these things with one microphone.” And so I felt like, oh my goodness, the government just paid to train me how to do this job that I just got from John. So I did that, and you know, we got an old Ampex suitcase recorder and refurbished it, rebuilt the machine, tried out a bunch of different microphones and basically made a record.
Jim: So, was that quarter inch tape?
P: Quarter inch mono tape.
J: And that was the most stable early thing you could find.
P: Yeah, I wasn’t gonna go back to a lathe. There’s just too many—lathes are heavy and they’re tricky.
J: A lathe would actually be cutting a record.
P: Cutting a record, that’s right. But you know, so you get five minutes before the record’s up. It’s just outside of our experience.
J: So this was with one microphone? So you kind of situate the band around the microphone?
P: Yeah. So part of the record was recorded at a church, and it was just John and his guitar player. They sat on either side of the microphone. That was the first session and we got about half the record that way, so that was pretty easy. The next session was actually done at Sun Studios.
J: Good choice.
P: Yeah and it was Marc Ribot on guitar, it was four or five musicians, and it was still one microphone so it was placing the microphone in the room, getting close enough to John, asking the drummer to put a towel over his snare drum, turn the guitar amp down, step closer to the mic bass player…
J: Did you have to find the oldest mic? Was that another rule, old mics?
P: Yeah it was like the oldest stuff that would work. We ended up with the RCA77DX which has long been a favorite mic of mine.
J: Well that’s cool. So it’s a consciously minimalist approach, probably harder in some ways than if you had 20 different mics I suppose.
P: It’s different, it’s harder in some ways, but you know it’s all about the take. And it allowed me to have a little more control. I mean, I was just there mixing, basically as they were recording. “So John, when you get to the verse you’re gonna have to step forward. When you get to the chorus you’re gonna have to take a small step back. Cause you’re singing louder. Now, I’m not going to be able to do anything about this later.” So everybody’s like working together, you know.
J: How did people react to it when they heard it?
P: Some people that are friends of mine commented that it was amazing. I remember having this experience—when we were done, I put some of the recordings, not mixes, onto a CD and I was driving out to John’s house and I was listening to them and I was thinking “wow is this working, or not?” It’s like it’s so different to me. When I got there I pushed eject on the CD and the modern radio came on and it just sounded like white noise. The modern production, with the amount of compression and lack of dynamics, sounded like white noise to me and I realized that this was a special thing that we had done.
 Alan and Barbara Merriam collection, 76 open reel tapes recorded in 1951-52 in what is now the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Accession number 66-127-F.