Stacks of wax

Adventures at the bottom of the music trade

Robert Lifton was one of a handful of pioneer recording engineers, behind the scenes of rock-and-roll records in the '50s and '60s. He was a man of tape, of studios, who rarely saw the light of day and had an alabaster studio suntan. A workaholic devoid of personality, he was nevertheless a decent man and a fair boss. He always wore rumpled jeans and boots, and he smoked four packs of Marlboros a day.

More important is the fact that Lifton kept personal musical opinions to himself during his round-the-clock sessions. He could handle some bubble-gum idol in the morning, then be the consummate engineer for a jazz record by night. He only once revealed a personal music taste. Lifton once sent me out to Colony Records for a new Rev. James Cleveland gospel album, which he cracked out of the cellophane like a teenybopper.

"He wasn't one of those engineers who had the kind of sound that producers chased after, like Phil Ramone or Rudy Van Gelder," says Dorn. "But he was such a basic engineer. He could get a very black-and-white, very mono sound, but a cinemascopic black-and-white sound. He understood what I said. A lot of other engineers didn't wanna hear my bullshit, would look at me like I was nuts. But Lifton would listen, and pull it off."

Which one of these people has a penchant for Tony Orlando & Dawn and diarrhea? It's not Rahsaan Roland Kirk, third from left.
Atlantic Records
Which one of these people has a penchant for Tony Orlando & Dawn and diarrhea? It's not Rahsaan Roland Kirk, third from left.

Lifton was the first ever to achieve a 32-track setup, synchronizing two 16-track Ampex MM-1000 machines. Other engineers could never do it. Lifton was a science club member in high school, one of those guys who could make a tape recorder out of a Dixie cup and a string and two pieces of iron, a wizard of sound. He sank all his profits into installing newfangled video equipment in 1974, foreseeing video as the boom of the future. Regent was the first recording studio in New York to do such. Lifton did live sound for Aretha at Radio City. He sent me and Jesus the custodian over to Rockefeller Center with loads of equipment one afternoon. It was for the first season of some new show called Saturday Night Live. He became SNL's, and TV's, best live-music sound engineer.

Lifton was revered for his technical prowess by other engineers. He was trained as a physicist, as were the other engineers he hired. Because he was an awkward guy in social situations when he wasn't behind the controls, it was odd to see his smiling face turn up in trade magazine ads for Ampex tape, which he vigorously endorsed, leading the industry away from the mighty 3M Scotch company.

Scientists of sound, the three Regent engineers under Lifton could reconfigure the electronics of Ampex MM-1000 16-track machines. They could draft by hand perfect electronic diagrams. They could operate the Nuemann lathe cutting machine in Studio D for acetate masters used to press the albums they engineered. They could troubleshoot any mechanical or electronic repair at 3 a.m. during a high-dollar, all-night session.

Engineers were the true wizards of production. Their trade was unsung and more complicated than that of highly paid record producers -- whom they felt honor-bound to serve as psychologist and technician. They often worked 80-hour weeks and carried their burdens silently, so as never to worry the celebrated musicians, stars, and producers. Engineers Vince McGarry and Joe Ferla could read music charts. They had uncanny timing on tricky overdub punches. They often did the producer's job, but never saw the glory.

Before the days of computer editing, engineers performed daredevil tape splices, more delicate than circumcisions, where one hair off on a razor-blade tape splice could ruin the results of a $10,000 session. Before the days of automated consoles, they performed master mixes with their own hands, memorizing dozens of knob tweaks and fader levels for a final mix of a song. As assistant engineer, I might be required to push one or two faders up and down at the far end of the console, while the engineer did dozens. We might rehearse the moves an hour before going for a final mix. They were akin to seasoned fighter pilots who could break down and rebuild their own planes from top to bottom. (I've never seen this level of professionalism at any recording studio today.) Though they took me under their wing as a raw engineering prospect, I gradually learned I didn't have the Right Stuff.

And so one of my closest co-workers became Regent's custodial mascot, Jesus Rojas. The jolly, rotund custodian was cherished by rich music producers, who borrowed him on weekends to work in their homes. He'd come in with a team of fellow Colombian floor waxers.

Jesus was the first to introduce me to 42nd Street's live peeps. He had no time for men's magazines, which didn't yet deliver the full-out goods. On lunch break he led me to a second-floor peep with curtained booths, where you could "see dee-licious poo-sey" on a revolving platform.

Another beloved Regent mainstay was "the most polite man in the world," Sam Vandivert. He was a portly, white-haired fellow in his 50s. Sam ran tape dupes and made cassettes, for which he typed out pressure-sensitive labels. He could do a miracle save on a damaged cassette. Sam was so organized in the "dupe room," we joked that his tombstone would have an arrow pointing downward. He remained jolly no matter how viciously he was berated by Bess the bookkeeper. Sam never raised his voice to defend himself, but would meekly walk off, bemused. "She's a rough ol' bird," he said, and choked when I suggested his presence threatened her virginity.

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