Hymie’s Records sponsored a customer tour of Orfield Labs in May 2012. Why did we invite our customers to tour a research facility in our neighborhood? Because the building was once home to the Sound 80 recording studio, which had a long history on the cutting edge of the industry.
Today, Orfield Labs is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records because its anechoic chamber is the “Quietest Place on Earth” at -13 decibels (you can read more about it here). We’ve stood in that room with others, and its a surreal experience. The building is also noted because Sound 80 was the earliest digital recording studio in the world. In fact, it is believed that the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s magnificent recording of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the album by jazz group Flim and the BBs were the first digital recordings to be released commercially. The SPCO album earned a well-deserved Grammy. We featured that album in a post you can find here. These recordings were just a few of the many made in the Sound 80 studio.
The SPCO made a second recording at Sound 80 which is not as famous, but nearly as enjoyable. Our copy is, unfortunately, pretty played. Still, in the selection below you can get a sense of both the studio’s potential and the SPCO’s talent. Like the Appalachian Spring album, their recording of Franz Schubert’s fifth symphony was made direct-to-disc, meaning the analogue lacquer was being cut as they performed. Records like this were popular with audiophiles in the late seventies and early eighties because it was believed that bypassing tape produced a cleaner reproduction of the performance. Relatively few classical records were made in this form, and we think the SPCO’s is one of the best.
Sound 80 still exists today, but the company is located in the 41-floor Campbell Mithum Tower downtown (its the one which comes to a triangular peak). According to their website, most of their work today is in the advertising industry, for which co-founder Herb Pilhofer did all kinds of work during his career.
Today and tomorrow we thought we’d listen to some tracks from the enormous variety of records we’ve seen over thee years with Sound 80 credits on the jacket.
The back of this first album by James Strilich tells us the singer “introduced this recording selection during an engagement at the Belle Aire Yacht Club on Lake Minnetonka,” and the collection of covers sounds like the sort of songs you’d hear in a yacht club lounge. We’ve always had a soft spot for albums of popular standards by amateur lounge acts, and this one has its highlights. Strilich’s delivers Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read my Mind” with a rich tenor over a vaguely ominous keyboard and cordovox backing. Other tracks touch on bossa nova and other seventies lounge standards like “For the Good Times.”
Herb Pilhofer produced the 1973 album Carry It On by Tom Johnson and Guy Drake, which features a large group. The album includes a seven-piece horn section and a ten-piece string section. Pilhofer himself performs electric piano on the album.
Pilhoffer’s own records reflect the same high level of production quality, as well as memorable arrangements. This promotional soundsheet included a “thanks” to Johnson & Drake, so its may have come from the same recording session. The record was actually a promotion for Eva-Tone, who made the flexi-discs down in Deerfield, Illinois, featuring tunes written and arranged by Pilhoffer. The other side explains how you can promote your music or business with similar soundsheets.
Also appearing on Carry It On are bassist Billy Peterson and drummer Bill Berg, who were the house rhythm section at Sound 80. The two were also founding members of Natural Life.
We first featured the awesome fusion band here in a post of privately-pressed jazz albums from Minnesota. Their three albums (an an early solo record by tenor Robert Rockwell called Androids) are very difficult to track down, even here in the Twin Cities, and even more difficult to find in nice shape. People liked them so much they wore out their copies!
This is probably as good a time as any to point out that we don’t have all these records in stock at your friendly neighborhood record shop at this time. As they turn up, we have recorded them and taken a picture to share here on the blog. Some are not in particularly high demand (nothing personal, Mr. Strilich) and others — like this album by McDonald & Sherby — sell for big bucks to serious collectors.
If you want to hear more from Catharsis, we posted more about their album in one of our “Smackdown” posts, which puts bands with similar names up against each other (McDonald & Sherby faced off against McDonald & Giles).
Another album collectors have asked us about since we first posted it is the first of two featuring Gyp Fox. The bluesy, Dead-ish First Rays appeared in 1978, and on the back notes the band was from Winona. It was recorded at Bob Behr’s “studio” (which suggests maybe it was his house) but mastered at Sound 80. A second album by Fox, Ghost Dance, is more polished and professional sounding, still with a Winona address for the band’s management. This track called “Gettin’ Keyed” from First Rays was one of the highlights.
The SPCO’s famous recording of Appalachian Spring is often said to have been the first commercially sold digitally recorded album, but it was in fact made at the same time as this jazz record by Flim and the BBs. An interesting aspect of the legacy of these early digital albums is that because the experimental machine used to record them was disassembled in the late 70s, there is no way to produce a proper reissue of them.
Jimmy Johnson, nicknamed Flim, was backed by pianist Bill Barber and Sound 80 veteran Bill Berg (the BBs of the group’s name). While a popular local group composed of successful session musicians, the band is best known for the unique nature of their first two releases. Their self-titled album was intended to be another direct-to-disc production, but the acetate disc produced from the session turned out poorly, and they released the back-up recording, made on the same 50.4 kHz digital processor used for the SPCO recording, in its place. This made their album noteworthy as only the second ever commercial digital recording. Flim and the BBs later recorded their second album in the studio as well. Tricycle became the first non-classical compact disc to be released. Both these sessions were produced by Sound 80s chief engineer, Tom Jung.
This seems like a good place to leave our survey of Sound 80 records for today. In tomorrow’s post we’ll hear Prince’s first appearance on an LP, and some great tunes by the Suicide Commandos and Willie and the Bees. And of course we’ll also hear many of these musicians back up some folk singer from Hibbing, who has been meaning to get around to crediting them on his album Blood on the Tracks for forty years or so.