Forget everything you think you know about 1970s teen sensation Donny Osmond. While he was busy co-hosting the hottest variety show on the air, behind the scenes, he was reading manuals, building Heathkits and wielding his solder gun on his family’s console and Ampex tape machines.
When it comes to production chops, Osmond is the real deal. He is equally as comfortable aligning a tape machine as he is coming up with work-arounds for the data limitations of FireWire. For the past couple of years he has immersed himself in a huge project: bringing the Donny & Marie show to DVD, with musical numbers and skits in 5.1 surround, due out in November.
On a summer’s day in Provo, Utah, Mix was invited into his converted pool house, and there he was. Donny Osmond. Sitting behind the console. An entire array of hard drives adorned his desk, holding every one of his 54 albums, songs, demos, photos and Donny & Marie episodes. He was looking quite relaxed with his trusty BlackBerry by his side. For the next three-and-a-half hours he made us feel right at home. In his home.
You’ve been into production for a long time. How did you get started?
It goes way back, before “One Bad Apple” days. It was 1968, I think. We were living out in the San Fernando Valley [near L.A.]. My dad bought this old used console. It was homemade, with round pots. The EQ was basically switches. And an old Ampex 4-track.
It had these modules that were meters.
Exactly. And I used to live underneath that console. I used to look at where the wiring ran. I’d get my soldering gun out. I’d find some cold solder joints and I’d fix them. I must have been between 10 and 12 years old when I started doing this. I would go to a studio and start asking engineers questions and learn from the best. Ed Greene was the main guy that I learned from.
When we started, we did a lot of recording at MGM, which I think is now Cherokee out on Fairfax [Avenue]. In hindsight, I don’t know why Ed did this — he gave me carte blanche, except for one place. They had these EMT chambers and right next to them were actually real rooms that were shellacked and they had a speaker and a mic in it. It’s how we did reverb. He said, “Go wherever you want, but don’t go in those rooms.”
I understand that armed with that knowledge, you built a home studio.
I used to be intrigued by James Bond, so I built this room and had to condense it. I had my work bench where I used to build my Heathkits and tear things apart. Then I thought, “Where am I going to put my bed?” So I put it over the top of it. It was motorized, so it could go into the ceiling. I could work on my bench, and when I was done, I could hit a button and it came down. I tell you all this because Harrison, who sends the manuals when someone purchases a console, sent this long thin poster. On it was at least one representation of each module — the output module, the channel module — everything was there, and it was on my ceiling for a month or two. I had the manuals right next to me on my bed. Every night I would be studying because I love reading manuals. I’m a geek when it comes to that.
So Westlake [Audio] calls me and says the engineer’s stuck in New York. The console was delivered and it’s just sitting there. I said, “Screw that! I’m gonna install this thing.” So I undid the crate and had a bunch of guys help me bring it through the window and set it in place. For a week I worked on this console. The engineer showed up the following week, changed a couple of grounding points and said it was done.
And that was the greatest compliment.
Yeah. I was 14.
And man, I thought I had just died and went to heaven!
Regarding the Donny & Marie show, I understand that you insisted that the show audio be recorded in multitrack and the producers balked.
Well, audio always seems to get the short end when it comes to television. Mind you, audio has always been a huge part of my life even though I’ve always been in front of the camera. Same thing with my brothers. We had engineers, but we oversaw them. All of us were in the studio ever since we were little kids, and so it was a huge, important part.
So years later, where did you find all those elements for the upcoming Donny & Marie DVD release?
Here’s the scary part: Osmond Studios made a huge mistake and hired people that didn’t know what they were doing. They drove the studio into the ground, and in bankruptcy, doors are locked, things are sold at fire sales. I was able to find most of the tapes, but in the most obscure places. They were in storage units, and they weren’t temperature-controlled. Brigham Young University ended up with a lot of the stuff, and it was all over Utah. I’ve spent [time] since the early ’80s finding as many tapes as I could find. I’m probably missing 10 percent in all.
That’s not bad.
Not bad at all. But then I started thinking, “Well, wait a minute, tape will degrade.” So I started to do all this research about baking and started calling people. George LaForgia was the first one I called and the first who gave me a formula. He said 130 degrees. Then I talked to Paula Salvatore at Capitol. She put me in touch with some other people and they gave me their formula of 115 degrees. Then I started checking out the costs for doing all that stuff and realized this is going to be cost-prohibitive. Plus, I just like to do things myself, as you can see. So I called the local appliance store [laughs], “Ya got something that’ll cook a tape?” My oven doesn’t go down that far.
So I did some research and found a beef jerky drying oven. [Laughs louder] I’m a little embarrassed to tell you all this. So I bought this oven. I did some research on it and made sure it was convection. It needed 220 so I installed 220 downstairs in the main breaker and started baking my tapes and testing them. I said, “Ya know, this is working!” So then I started on the 2-inch. That was scary to deal with those masters.
What happens then?
I have these three Yamaha 2400s. The reason I have three is that there is a throughput problem with FireWire. If I transfer 24 tracks all at the same time, I’m going to miss some data. So I decided to get three machines and do eight tracks each at a time. Those that had 16 tracks I’d just play the 16 on the 24 head and separate it out and put it through two of the 2400s. The Yamahas have these really good preamps so I didn’t get any external preamps. I was thinking I would just take the drives out, but found it was just as easy to USB it, put it into my little laptop, then take it out in the studio and transfer it. There was a little bit of a sync problem getting all three machines to start at the same time through MIDI. So I put a reference tone on the tape that would go into one channel of each of the Yamahas. This way, I could line up that tone later in Nuendo and all three sets of eight tracks would be aligned again.
So everything is digitized and you have to start thinking about 5.1.
I found some interesting things in mixing the show that goes against Elliot Scheiner’s theory. I talked with him for a long time and was getting his advice before I jumped into this project. He said to get drastic; get as drastic as you want. So I did. It didn’t work. It works if it’s just audio, but not for the TV show because everybody is so used to having it in the center channel.
I mixed the entire show with this guy in Salt Lake, Mike Ross Kelly. I found that mixing 5.1 in a studio can really trick you. It sounds great, but when you put it on a home system, it’s a whole different thing. You know who taught me that? George Massenburg. I did this whole project with him and we would mix in his studio, then take it upstairs on this little dinky system and then make the decisions. I didn’t treat it right, because you’d have this phantom center [in stereo mixes]. It’s got to stay consistent. Mike and I spent a lot of time talking about where we are placing stuff.
What would be your 5.1 philosophy?
I don’t just put vocals in the center because you don’t know where people are going to put their satellites. If they’re close, you’re safe. I specifically put them way out because that is the most drastic thing. Then it’s real evident where you place things in the surround field. With vocals, I lock it in the center and then I very slowly spread it out. So it gets softened into the left and right. So it doesn’t matter where you put the front right and left in the home. Now I know that might be compromising 5.1, but for this kind of project, I think it’s paramount to make sure there’s consistency. I put brass in the back, I put percussion in the back and I put a degree of the audience in the back.
I was working with Fred Maher. I told Fred I was going to give him the tracks to master in 5.1. I told him I was just going to give him the LFE and that I was going to be as consistent as I possibly could. I like a lot of bass, which sometimes can hurt you in the mixing process. I never use the bass management in the console.
You have a concept going in of what the project is going to be like. Then you get into the thick of it and then reality sets in. How different were the two?
I knew it was going to be big, but I didn’t know it was going to be this big. Here’s the other problem I had. I couldn’t just drop from 5.1 to “1.” So I did a lot of research on this TC Electronic System 6000, on the Unwrap. I called [TC Electronic’s] Ed Simeone and he told me the Unwrap doesn’t work in mono. It works in stereo and uses the phase differences that are not there in mono, and if you try to create a stereo mono and then delay it, it does some really weird things.
So how did you create 5.1 out of mono?
I used the 6000 for audience, dialog, skits and things like that to create the delays and ‘verb in the back. I used the Z-Systems for stuff I didn’t have the tapes of. Each one needed to be manipulated a bit.
The musical performances: Were any of those live?
Everything was prerecorded. I remember getting a letter from Shure because we used their microphones. We added fake antennas. So we get this note that says, “What did you do to our microphones?” We were lip synching so well, they said, “We want this technology; we are willing to buy it.”
Are you excited that this will finally be coming out in November?
Yeah. There’s a whole generation, and there will be for quite some time, of younger kids who watched Donny & Marie. It appealed to the 5 to 12-year-olds and the parents. Teenagers were into Hendrix. They didn’t want to hear about Donny Osmond. That generation, now they’re in their 20s and 30s. There’s Lucille Ball as the Tin Man, Ray Bolger, the original scarecrow, and Paul Williams as the Lion. These people aren’t with us any more.
And neither, it seems, is the Donny Osmond of 1977.
Everybody puts me in the category, this pigeonhole of what I used to be at 14, 15, 16 — the “Puppy Love” guy or Donny & Marie television show guy. I’m doing all this other stuff now, and because of perception and what you’re trying to do, people will put a specific label on Donny Osmond and put him with the Disney soundtracks.
I come from a teenybopper background. My image is completely different from the individual. Well, not completely. I was the one who did all that stuff. But while everybody kept me in that pigeonhole, I was doing all these other projects technically and otherwise. To be recognized and able to do this on my own is what’s fulfilling to me.
Avi Hersh lives in Southern California.