RECORDINGS: Steve Douglas “the music of cheops”

Steve Douglas was a studio session saxophone player who performed on countless hits of the 60s and 70s. has a write-up and credit list for Douglas if yr curious.   In the mid-seventies, Douglas apparently went to Egypt and got permission to record some improvised music in the Kings Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.  Here’s an example:

09 Track 09

According to the liner notes, the whole thing was taped live by his buddy to 2-track Nagra tape deck (a Nagra is a high-end Swiss-made tape recorder which was generally used on film and television shoots in the era before DAT tape decks).  I am not sure how to explain the polyphony (IE multiple notes occurring at the same time), but it’s possible that Douglas was playing two saxes at once, a trick i have seen myself many times.

From what i can gather, this was originally a private press LP that was soon picked up by Takoma, the avant-garde/folk label.

This recording really illustrates how much information there is in simply hearing the sound of a room.  How much can be added to a recording by putting the performer in the right space.  The room sound of the chamber is the real content of this album.  Douglas brings this point home by including some brief ‘street noise/Cairo’ bits on the record; it lets us know that we are in for a largely sonic (as opposed to largely musical) experience.  I was in Cairo recently and it is a very visceral place.  noisy, crowded, smoky, strong smells everywhere- it’s overwhelming.  Even the pyramid park is stressful.  Cops with machine guns circle and extort money from tourists (yes for real).  In contrast to all of this is the inner quiet of the pyramid chambers.  Silence, darkness, no motion.  Check out this clip where we hear a percussive piece that seems to be wholly constructed from the valve and pad noises of the saxophone.


Douglas was not a really a jazz musician (although there are certainly ‘jazzy’ passages and scales on the record), and i think that’s part of why i like this album so much.   Jazz musicians tend to focus their energy on certain kinds of expression:  usually personal ’emotional’ expression, or some expression of their thoughts on jazz idioms and jazz form.  CHEOPS, though, is an audio expression of the physicality of an incredible place.  It is really just about the sound, and it’s beautiful.  I transferred this album from LP.  It’s available on Amazon (with a really terrible new cover), and if you like Eno, Budd, etc., i think you will dig this.

Does anyone know anything else about this record?  What sound effect units he is using?

Any similar records out there to hear?

ICON: “gimme one of those real old mics…” :::UPDATED:::

When you are creating a set for a musical performance, nothing says ‘old school’ and ‘authentic’ like one of those mics…  those real big old mics with the springs…  what the F are they called?  Turns out that they are called Carbon Microphones, or more specifically, Double Button Carbon Microphones.

And while many a rapper, RnB singer, or songwriter type may favor them for their music video, i can promise you two things:  *)no one would be able to actually hook the mic up and use it, and *)if they did, they probably would not dig the sound.

Carbon mics are the oldest microphone technology still in (albeit limited) use today.  They actually pre-date vacuum tubes.  Wikipedia has a great article on their history and use, so no need for me to retread those waters.  Carbon mics are used in landline telephones, so we all have a basic idea of what they sound like.  midrangey, a little crunchy (distorted), compressed…  hey wait a minute!  that sounds pretty good to me!  Aren’t there like a million expensive DAW plug-ins in order to give you ‘that sound?’ Anyhow, we all know in general what they sound like… but how do those big old music-video props sound?

In order to find out, it turns out that it’s necessary to actually build a power supply.  Carbon mics need a few volts of a DC current moving through them in order to operate.  I found this handy schematic online and put it together.

I added a DC voltmeter so that i could monitor the effect of varying the voltage on the sound (the mic i have seems to like 6 volts).

I used a double-button mic input transformer salvaged from an ancient tube PA head that i had.  To the output of this transformer i added a second transformer to bring the impedance back down to Low-Z mic impedance so that i could use this whole rig with whatever mic preamp i wanted to.  The particular mic i have is a Lifetime Model Six.

I bought it years ago on eBay along with a little tube amp and some shitty speakers (and about a mile of useless rotten old speaker wire) for $150.  Anyhow, i won’t bless you with any vocal performances, but here is an acoustic guitar recording from my living room.  The left channel is the Carbon mic.  The right channel was recorded simultaneously with good equipment (414/omni into an API 512) so you can get a pretty good idea of what i was hearing in the room.  I put a little EQ on the Carbon mic to make it more audible (low pass at 3k, 5 db peak at 1.7K). No other processing was used.  Check it out.


Does anyone out there use double-button Carbon mics for audio production work these days?  Music recording? Sound design work?

I heard recently (maybe Tape Op mag?) that someone was making new-production ‘professional’ carbon mics.  Has anyone used these?  thoughts?

UPDATE: I recently had the chance to use this Lifetime Model Six Carbon Mic in a modern-recording context.  We tracked the following cut at Gold Coast Recorders, using the Lifetime for the vocals.  It sounds pretty outstanding…  I feel like you could get 90% of the way to this vocal sound with an SM57 and a fuzz pedal, but that extra 10%…  it’s a game of inches, ain’t it.   This is ATLANTIC CITY, my studio project with T.W.   Take a listen:  Ten Past Midnight


This is a website about audio.  More specifically, the history of audio, and our relationship to audio.  Audio, broadly defined, is the electrical representation of sound.  Sound has existed for at least as long as anyone has been around to hear it, but audio is a relatively new technology.  The ability to ‘capture’ sound and then ‘play it back’ divorced from its origin in time and/or space is the most basic function of audio technology.   In addition to this role, audio technology can also be an instrument; a tool to create unique sounds that do not originate as acoustic sound.  I do not mean to imply that these are separate functions; capturing and playing back sound will always change the sound, regardless of the intent of the audio operator.   There is always a grey area between documentation and manipulation; every audio operation creates the potential for a new sound.  We have developed a great many audio tools and technologies to maintain the ‘fidelity’ of audio: that is to say, maintain a ‘true-to-the-original-sound’ quality in our audio signals.  We have also developed a great number of tools and technologies to enhance, distort, combine, separate, and generally manipulate audio.  It is these tools and technologies that I am interested in exploring.  I am interested in their effects, their methods, and their development.  Most of all, I am interested in their potential to create meaning for the people who experience these new sounds.  Sounds that have been brought across great distances, through spans of time, bearing the artifacts of the particular tools that have crafted them.

I will not be presenting a chronological narrative.  I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive or thorough treatment of audio history.  Instead I will focus each post on a particular subject: a technology, a technique, an individual, a recording, a piece of hardware.  I will provide historical context, and offer my thoughts about what significance the subject may have.  Some posts will be very broad in nature, and some will be fairly technical.  Much of what I write about will stem from my own experiments with audio hardware and techniques.  I hope you find the information useful.

information and ideas about audio history