Incredible Bongo Band

Spending inordinate amounts of time in record stores, searching through bins in a quest for that one special piece of vinyl that will contain the sample your heart has been aching for — also known as “crate-digging”— has been a primary obsession for DJs since the first cut was ever performed. But while there are plenty of albums that have been sampled to death (one needs only look to any Parliament record or Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream & Other Delights), and readily available, one particular collection that has been scratched over and looped by some of the hip-hop era’s biggest players has finally been given a proper re-mastering and re-release to the hungry hordes, to widespread celebration.

The Incredible Bongo Band’s Bongo Rock: The Story Of The Incredible Bongo Band (a collection of tracks from Bongo Rock and The Return Of The Incredible Bongo Band) is the testament to former MGM staff producer Michael Viner’s 1970’s brainchildren: two relatively obscure releases that were adopted by genre forerunners such as Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc and transformed into staples of hip-hop producers’ vinyl collections.

Formed by Viner and Academy Award-winning arranger Perry Botkin Jr., and featuring some of the greatest percussionists of the time (specifically Jim Gordon and King Errison), The Incredible Bongo Band’s small discography was recorded in various studios — from MGM to Vancouver’s Goldstar — for the original purpose of creating soundtrack accompaniment. Sessions were exhausting, sometimes spanning multiple days for single tracks (the virtual entirety of the album was tracked live, with multiple performers being conducted to play together for hours on end for sometimes just seconds worth of music for the mix). “Oddly enough, as people got more tired, the takes got better,” remembers Viner.

From those sessions, 17 tracks, plus two modern day remixes, have found their way to the newly released CD version of Bongo Rock. Re-mastered by Ben Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix, Beverly Knight, Chaka Khan) at Can Can Studios in Brighton, Bongo Rock has not lost the smallest bit of the power of the original recordings, despite its change in format.

Unable to obtain the original tapes, Mitchell was left to transfer from the vinyl masters onto compact disc. “There was a slight lack of detail in the originals,” Mitchell points out. “But the vinyl format added a fantastic warm quality that most CDs lack. So I was very careful in my choice of analog EQs and compressors to help preserve that feel. A GML 8200 Dual-Channel 5-Band Parametric EQ and a Manley Stereo Variable MU Limiter/Compressor was all I used. I haven’t found anything I can’t do with these two. I think the album has a fantastic sonic quality to it; it’s very consistent.”

And it shows. Unlike many digital re-masters that tend to be too sharp in the top end, Mitchell’s work on the album sounds remarkably true to the original. As Mitchell explains: “Great mastering engineers have a motto: ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’ It’s very easy to pile on the top end, A & B your version with the original and think, ‘This sounds better.’ But if you do the same 30 minutes later, suddenly the original sounds fatter. Or add tons of bass, A & B the tracks, and your version sounds tougher. But then you go back to the original and find it has much more detail in the bottom end.”

He continues, “On the analog side I used compression to give the album that vinyl compressed feel. I wanted this to be very transparent. I made a small tweak to the bottom end, and on the digital side, where I use Lexicon MPX1 with WaveBurner as my mastering software on a simple dual-processor Mac, a bit of balancing of all the tracks; a tweak on the highs to give it a bit of presence that may have been lost from old tapes, and a limiter over the mix to knock down the odd peak here and there was all that was needed. I wanted the album to sound as full as a contemporary album, while keeping that lovely old school texture.”

Viner echoes the sentiment that absolutely nothing was lost during Mitchell’s re-mastering, and for that he’s incredibly thankful. “The reason people keep sampling these albums is because no one’s getting that same sound; they keep getting further and further away from it.”