Planet of the Tapes

The Incredible Life and Sounds of Studio Wiz Kearney Barton

Planet of the Tapes

david belisle

A MOTHER LODE OF RECORDINGS AND VINTAGE EQUIPMENT Plus a plate of rice with a fork on it that looked like it had been there 14 years.

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"This is obviously one man's thing here, and it's very unusual," says Seattle musician/producer Steve Fisk during a recent visit to legendary audio engineer Kearney Barton's University District house and studio. This could qualify as understatement of the year.

Approximately 7,000 audiotapes sit in precariously stacked boxes in Barton's house—and that's after several excavating and purging sessions. For the past year or so, while the 79-year-old Barton has resided in Columbia Lutheran nursing home, his niece Patti Maltsberger and staffers from University of Washington Libraries and Light in the Attic Records (LITA) have been sifting through and removing literally tons of recordings and audio equipment from the man's home and studio—as well as 6,000 pounds of garbage. A pool table nobody knew existed was found buried under mounds of tapes and detritus. Relatives were surprised to find in one room a door that had been obscured for decades. Those who witnessed the epic removal efforts liken the scene to something out of Hoarders—except the inhabitant happens to be one of the most revered studio wizards on the West Coast.

A key architect of the Pacific Northwest sound over the last 50-plus years, the legendary Seattle recording engineer fell into poor health in 2007. After undergoing knee surgery that year, Barton contracted pneumonia and a blood infection, from which he's never really recovered. At Columbia Lutheran, Barton, lying on his side, his hands shaking, and admittedly feeling "crappy," answered some questions, often recalling events from over 40 years ago in staggering detail. "I've been credited with originating the Northwest sound, whatever that is," he states. "I really drove the tape recorders, so I got a lot of punch and presence. It had an intensity that you didn't have on a lot of records. I was one of the first [engineers] to emphasize drum tuning. Tuning the heads of the drums made a big difference. It eliminated the splatter that muddied up the sound."

"Mentally, he's as sharp as a whistle, but his body's just given up," Maltsberger laments, as we stand in the cluttered space adjacent to Barton's studio. "He's got congestive heart failure. He's gone to the hospital six times since December for critical-care-type things. He has tremors. He's shaking so bad now he can't walk independently."

A recent visit to Barton's homestead with veteran musicians/producers Fisk (keyboardist for Pigeonhed) and Pat Thomas (drummer for Mushroom, A&R consultant for LITA) found them roaming the premises—now relatively organized after existing in chaotic squalor for decades—with uncontainable glee, even though they've probably spent more collective hours over hot consoles than you've been alive. Both enthused over Barton's panoply of analog gear—the custom- made Langevin mixing board (sold for $13,000), Ampex reel-to-reel tape machines, an Electro-Voice 666 mic, Voice of the Theater and Altex monitors, a piano from the 19th century, and a vinyl-cutting lathe—as if they were ogling relics in a museum... which, in a sense, they were. (Barton's vaunted collection of 16 Neumann microphones had already been removed from the studio and are selling for $15,000 each, according to Maltsberger. Money earned from these sales goes toward Barton's health care.)

All of this equipment—including a forlorn-looking mic stand draped and entangled with moldering, busted headphones—will need to leave by March 31, which is when the house will be sold. Maltsberger and LITA are hoping that a philanthropist or two will offer to store the remaining tapes from Barton's vast archives. LITA has taken a few thousand tapes to its warehouse, and UW Libraries, spearheaded by John Vallier, has accepted 1,300 more from the 1950s through the '70s. Vallier and company are cleaning and digitizing them for educational purposes—and, potentially, commercial releases through LITA. (Paul Allen's American Music Partnership of Seattle donated $10,000 to UW Libraries to aid in this project.)

Vallier lists some of the unearthed treasures: the "serious psychedelic soul" of the Ron Buford Band, recorded for Quincy Jones's Gula Matari Records in 1968; several tapes of jangly, late-'60s pop from Heart's Ann Wilson and the Daybreaks; Sitar International's "Hindustani music goes pop"; plus material from the Sonics, Black on White Affair, Cal Tjader, the Kingsmen, and many more. LITA co-owner Matt Sullivan adds that he's excited by "a sitar session from '68 by Prabha Devi [and] some Quincy Jones–related tracks, and the thing we're most drooling over are a handful of tapes by local singer Woody Carr."

That interesting litany hints at Barton's versatility and open-mindedness. LITA's Sullivan came to know Barton in 2003 when the label was gathering songs for its celebrated Wheedle's Groove compilation; it ended up licensing songs by Black on White Affair and Soul Swingers, which Barton had issued on his Topaz label. "I soon visited the studio, and things were never the same," Sullivan remembers. "It was like meeting your sweet old grandfather submerged in an episode of Hoarders."

Sullivan—who swears that Barton can still reel off the details for every tape he produced—describes the qualities that made him such an in-demand studio engineer and crucial figure in Northwest music history. "The man has impeccable ears, and he's tenacious to find the right sound. He's also incredibly patient, humble, and makes you feel instantly at home, which is essential in what he does. Also, I don't believe he ever turned anyone down who wanted to record, if he had the time and availability.

"[Barton] recorded every genre—high school jazz bands, psych rock, country, soul, operas, classical, radio jingles, jazz, funk, singer-songwriters," Sullivan continues. "Amazing to think he was doing this [since] 1958. One of Kearney's first studios was on Fifth Avenue. He watched the Space Needle being built for the 1962 World's Fair right outside his studio window."

Barton's outstanding sonic accomplishments occurred in what could charitably be called less-than-salubrious conditions. His workaholic tendencies and personality quirks apparently left little time or inclination for niceties like cleaning or garbage disposal.

Thomas relates, "Every room [in the house's upstairs] was floor-to-ceiling tapes. Kearney was the kind of guy who, when he was done with a toilet paper roll, would just toss it in the room. So there were, like, 400 toilet paper rolls scattered about. [People cleaning up the house] had to wear face masks and rubber gloves; there was a one-inch layer of rat shit on everything."

"This is total Stephen King shit," Fisk says. "Matt said there'd be a plate of rice with a fork on it that looked like it had been there 14 years."

While the rest of his living quarters entered advanced stages of rot, Barton's studio remained an analog-appointed paradise that hosted a vast array of talented musicians. Most of the revered tools of Barton's trade now are the responsibility of friend Dave Cooley. The LA-based producer and mastering engineer is charged with the task of selling Barton's valuable gear, most of which has sold to high-level music-biz figures (sadly, Cooley wouldn't reveal their names).

"Kearney had the mother lode of vintage recording equipment... the best condenser mics, tape machines, and outboard of that era," Cooley says. (Hold tight: This next bit gets really geeky.) "Microphones like Neumann U47s—the kind used by the Beatles, Nat King Cole, and Sinatra—Neumann M49s, and U67s were plentiful. It's taking forever to go through them all and fix them up for sale. He also had some very rare tape machines like the Ampex MR-70, and some great-sounding workhorse machines like an eight-track Scully—also one of the cleanest Ampex 351 tape machines I've ever seen. It looked like it had been plated in brand-new chrome and brushed aluminum—[it] probably looked the same as the brand-new one Sam Phillips ordered [for Sun Studio] back in the '50s."

Cooley's initial visit to Barton Estates shocked him. "When we first saw the gear in his studio, it was beyond chaotic... just creative madness, a total mess. But Kearney knew his equipment and never felt the need to 'upgrade' to digital ADATs, Pro Tools, Apple computers, or fancy new speakers... which of course never sounded half as good as the vintage gems he had. He was a Luddite in the best possible way." recommended


Comments (14) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
This guy was hoarding with a reason.
His family should donate some of that gear to young record producers without any money....
Posted by Pormishijos on March 30, 2011 at 10:37 PM · Report this
Holdin on to the analog age, I love it.
Don't suppose his family will donate some of that gear to poor young musicians...
Posted by Pormishijos on March 30, 2011 at 10:39 PM · Report this
Yeah, selfish bastard trying to pay his medical bills.
Posted by yeah_damn_right on March 31, 2011 at 12:58 PM · Report this
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Kearney Barton should be revered in this town like no other. You can't even begin to get your brain around what a masterful recording engineer he was, and how critical he was to Seattle's early rock scene.
Posted by Brrrrrzap on April 1, 2011 at 7:43 PM · Report this
Cue Wm. S. Burroughs: "Nothing left now but the recordings...".

I have a hard time believing that the AMPEXi are in good shape. Rat shit is very hard on gear (and recordists who manage to get old). Restorable, sure, with cubic money and help from aging Ampexians who have plenty of project decks already backed up in storage.

Send the good German mikes to Klaus Heine in Oregon, treasure the 666 'cause their ain't parts to fix her. Betcha there are/were more nice less-celebrated (useful, not big $$$) EV mikes in there that will record again in Seattle.

Use what is available and make the best of it!

Thanks KB.

Posted by rufus13 on April 4, 2011 at 10:28 AM · Report this
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Kearney produced the first Bad Things album back in 2004 and we'll always remember him fondly for his great stories and seemingly endless stream of jokes. The man was an engineering genius and we were really hoping to work with him again someday...a true Northwest music legend. We love you Kearney -The Bad Things
Posted by The Pickpocket on April 5, 2011 at 4:18 PM · Report this
As someone who has known Kearney for over 30 years, has played pool on the "hidden" pool table, and eaten at his house, and experienced the genius his work, I cannot fathom why the writer of this article spends so much time focusing on a house in transition.

Yes, Kearney's organization practices are different from many people, but as someone in the article pointed out, he could find a tape in a heartbeat if he needed.

Kearney had a most wonderful collection of gear but the thing that continues to make him great, as jokes about "getting old is not for the faint of heart" is the quiet grace he carries with him to this day.

Over the years I've watched him take everything that walked through the door and do the very best he could for every single person. It didn't matter whether it was an internationally famous composer, a figure skater on her way up or a street musician who had saved their money to make a record; Kearney gave them the benefit of his skills and created the best recording he could. He never asked for much in return, just a fair payment for his time.

Matthew Sutton

Posted by Matthew Sutton on April 7, 2011 at 8:12 AM · Report this
I know Uncle Kearney personally and sadly all his equipment is being sold to help pay for his medical expenses. There would be no way to donate the equipment. Did you know it can cost as much as $10,000 and more a month for a nursing home, and he has been in for almost 4 years straight :(

Uncle Kearney could make the BEST apple pie ever!
Posted by Cassidmalts on April 14, 2011 at 1:35 AM · Report this
Kearney's recordings are amazing, from the Kingsmen to the Bad Things, his work echoed the sound of the Northwest. I have always respected his music and all I've read about him; I especially like the photos I've seen of his house and music organization. Hehe, how does one "discover" a pool table in their house anyway?

Posted by Hooked on Wax on April 15, 2011 at 3:39 AM · Report this
He also made the BEST cookies and always seemed to have a platter-full ready to pass out.

Definitely most important is how generous, intelligent, and focused he has been in both his professional and personal life- I agree with Matthew Sutton.

I was involved with the making of 2 records in his studio and he has worked the sound board on countless concerts.
He was always warm,engaged, and just the best!
Jill Ann Johnson
Posted by Jillann on April 23, 2011 at 12:47 AM · Report this
Kearney could make cuts in music like nobody else. He could make anything sound like it was the original recording.

As a neighbor and customer I hightly respected him. We enjoyed sharing each others baked goods as well as puns and jokes. We also share a great love for cats and wonder what has happened to his during this time.

Best wishes to you always, Kearney.
Yvonne Hunt
Posted by YHUNT on April 23, 2011 at 4:24 PM · Report this
I was fortunate enough to take a course from him in the '80s at NSCC. On a 'field trip' he took two of us to a live recording he was doing of the local college (h.s.??) jazz ensemble. Just the sight of the AMPEX machines had me salivating - as I'd been engaged in audio since the '60s.
He was as warm and wonderful as his sound. A true gentle man. RIP
Posted by eddisc on January 26, 2012 at 6:29 PM · Report this

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