Slow And Steady Engineer Kearney Barton Stays the Course 50 Years On With Wheedles Groove

Why is it the older people get, the more they start hording objects? Their surrounding space becomes storeroom-like, which to the casual observer looks like a pile of disorganized junk. Only they know where anything is. Case in point, Kearney Barton’s Seattle-based studio, Audio Recording.

Why is it the older people get, the more they start hording objects? Their surrounding space becomes storeroom-like, which to the casual observer looks like a pile of disorganized junk. Only they know where anything is. Case in point, Kearney Barton’s Seattle-based studio, Audio Recording.

The 80-year-old Barton has been working in this space for over 50 years. During Seattle’s soul and funk heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, Barton was at the engineering helm of numerous projects, including The Sonics and Ann Wilson of Heart’s former group, The Daybreaks. Since that time, Barton hasn’t upgraded at all.

His operation revolves around a 1965 Langevin console, custom-built for him. He is stanchly attached to his Neumann U 47 and U 67 microphones. And MicMix Master- Room reverb units are the newest pieces, coming from the ’70s and ’80s. Everything is fed through an Ampex 351-2 cabinet and Scully 280 8-track recorder. This is what he used five years ago when putting together a compilation entitled Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-75. Referring to the worst mascot the Seattle Sonics have ever had, the name has stuck.

Spurred on by the incomparable feelings generated by that experience, a mind-boggling collection of classic soul and jazz musicians—whose average age is 60—recently recorded an album with Barton. Included under the Wheedle’s Groove marquee are the Muscle Shoals Horns, members of the Black on White Affair, Overton Berry, and Curtis Hammond Jr. Collectively, Wheedle’s Groove decided to name the album after Barton.

Kearney Barton [Light in the Attic] is a blend of original material and cover versions, including Stone Roses’ “Fool’s Gold,” Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose,” and Placebo’s “Humpty Dumpty.” The grit and dustiness tangible on Kearney Barton could only be created with Barton’s artifacts.

“Nothing of the new stuff comes up to the sound the old stuff had,” Barton says simply. In fact, Barton didn’t have anything to do with the choices of songs—he’s not even sure he has heard the originals (“I’m getting to be an old man”), the selection of musicians, the provision of the instruments (apart from his live-in piano), or the naming of the album. But none of that has an effect on his approach, which is the same as it has ever been.

Three microphones are used on the drums: Altec M11 condenser on the snare and the toms, and an Electro- Voice 666 dynamic on the kick drum. One of Barton’s signature touches is tuning the kick drum with the bass by tightening the wing nuts to the right for a higher pitch, and to the left for a lower one. That prevents the muddying of the lower range. Meanwhile, Barton uses Neumann U 67 tube condenser microphones on the guitar amps and Neumann U 47 tube condenser microphones for vocals. And the bass goes direct through one of the Langevin’s built-in mic preamps.

“The Langevin has a very clean, very warm and full sound,” Barton says. “Some consoles tend to sound thinner and don’t really have the oomph to them. They could be noisier because they run through about five things between the volume control and the output on each mic input. With the Langevin, there is nothing there, except I’m running the overall through two Langevin graphic equalizers and three program equalizers. There is very little coloration being done to it, just enough to enhance it and make it full.”

Barton credits using cardioid patterns on the microphones for presence and separation for the loud sound he gets from his recordings. His focus is on getting presence of each instrument— rather than a room sound—by finding the natural balance with the microphones (“not some electronic gizmo”). For vocals in particular, he places the microphone at an angle so the breath doesn’t hit it straight on, about six to eight inches away. But that depends on the vocal style. An opera singer would have the microphone placed two feet away.

“With the cardioid pattern, we’re getting a lot of presence, but no preponderance of bass emphasis from proximity effect,” says Barton regarding how he uses his beloved Neumanns. “It gives an impact to the vocal that you don’t get from the lesser mics. I have a solid state KM 84, which I use on location when I’m doing opera. I use it on the apron on the stage so it’s inconspicuous and still has good pickup.”

As it is Barton’s mission to capture the final sound in the recording phase, the post-production process could go one of two ways. If Barton has used an 8-track, he plays it back, doing minor tweaking gain-wise. That way everything is set to go so there’s not a lot of heavy post. If he has used a 2-track, he runs it through light compression, more peak limiting, and a little bit of EQ to make the mix jump out a little more.

“The earlier things we did straight to track, maybe overdubbed the vocals—everything [else] was done live,” Barton says. “On the 8-track, everybody was playing at the same time, but we were putting it on separate tracks so we could mix it differently and rebalance as necessary. Then, [Kearney Barton] was transferred from the 8-track to an 8- channel digital unit the mixing engineer had so he could do the mixing separately—in a way, it’s not going to sound the same.” Oh well. Them’s the breaks of living in a digital world.


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