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Monday, May 7, 2012

Pacific High Recording, Alembic, His Master's Wheels, 60 Brady Street, San Francisco, CA

Peter Weston, who started his career working in audio in the Midwest, moved to the Bay Area and became involved in the folk scene. In the late 1960s, Weston combined his technical knowledge
and passion for acoustic music to launch Pacific High Recording.
The first incarnation of the studio appeared in Sausalito in the early to mid 1960s: Look for the sign with the big red sun. There's a recording of The Grateful Dead from November 6, 1968.

Pacific High Recorders staff, Photo by Herb Greene
In 1969, he moved PHR to a former plastics factory at 60 Brady San Francisco, a short alley littered with random industrial buildings just off of Market Street and only a few blocks away from the Fillmore West: Look for the purple door. Ring the buzzer, and if they let you in, pass through pillows of pungent-smelling smoke to explore a quintessential San Francisco studio—proudly independent, experimental, and laid back.
Many from the San Francisco rock scene dug Pacific High.
Certainly one of the more hippified studios in the city, PHR hovered on the avant-garde in terms of technology and ethos. It was independently owned—hippie-owned, actually—which, for the
anti-establishment crowd, made it more appealing than corporate- owned facilities. Richard Olsen, bass player for The Charlatans, managed the studio and used both his musician contacts and street
cred to get bands in the door. Bandmate Dan Hicks usually played the studio Christmas parties. And if the guys from Quicksilver Messenger Service weren’t in session, they’d come over to noodle
around with whomever else might be hanging out in the studio that day. “It really was an experimental place in that sense,” says Phill Sawyer, who came up from L.A. to take an engineering job at PHR aft er a stint as an evening traffic manager for Putnam’s United Western studios. “The atmosphere was really conducive to that world…a natural organic exhibition of the behavior of the times.”

Just as many PHR inhabitants liked to experiment with mind- altering substances, Weston liked to mess around with equipment. In the process, he came up with a few hits, misses, and left -fi eld
modifi cations. When PHR opened, it contained a Scully 12-track machine, reportedly the fi rst in the city, which would later get passed on to a couple of other studios. According to Bob Shumaker,
who joined PHR in the spring of 1969 to work in the shop before moving on to second and first engineer, “[The Scully] was this odd- ball weird machine that was comprised of a 1-inch tape deck, the electronics from an 8-track that went with the 1-inch, the electronics from a ½  -inch 4-track, and [it] had a 12-track head-stack and all of that [was put] together. That didn’t work so well.” They later purchased a Stephens 16-track, another unusual (but good) machine and easier to deal with than the Scully. To complement the 12-track, Weston custom-built the studio’s console with Electrodyne parts. “He had an innovation which, at the time, was unusual,” says Shumaker. “He had a completely separate input section for mic pres and feeding the tracks, and then a separate set of mixdown modules that served as the monitor for what you were recording. In those days you would primarily monitor off of some funny little mixing bus, while the main console was being used to feed the tape recorder. But with Peter’s [board], you were always monitoring through what was actually going to be the mixdown console. It didn’t have any EQ on the Record side of the board, but you could plug in outside EQ: we had Pultecs and little bit of outboard gear. But conceptually it was a pretty good board.”

“Weston’s concept included the use of a new innovation offered by Ray Dolby,” adds Sawyer, “His device reduced audible noise generated by devices such as transmission lines, amplifiers, and,
most usefully for us, audio tape. By having a Dolby device on each channel of a multi-track tape recorder, Peter realized the concept of recording unprocessed signals on multiple tracks of a tape, and
only subsequently adding any processing or other manipulation of the signal. He made tape noise reduction the key to retaining the natural dynamics of the music performance.”
The custom recording equipment, combined with a large 50×60–foot main room, fell in line with Weston’s vision to build a studio suited for acoustic music—a place where he could get accurate sound on those instruments without a lot of hiss and not a lot of processing. Colored burlap sheets served as decoration, acoustical treatment, and camouflage for the Fiberglas that covered
three of the tall, wide walls. Certainly not the ideal space and by no means acoustically correct, the recording area was considered too big and too live by some; however, some engineers found a work-
able solution by creating “sub-areas and screening off  the rest of the room with portable acoustic panels,” says Sawyer.
“But unless you close-miked, you would always run into problems that took some experimenting to resolve.” In other words, “No matter what speakers you used, theirs or your own, the room was just terrible,” says engineer Bob Matthews, who worked on a few Grateful Dead albums at PHR with studio partner Betty Cantor. “Nobody could ever get a good sound out of it. When we went in there, we isolated, used baffles, and made it work. We had to go in thinking ‘What do we need,’ not ‘What do we have.’”
Weston had the foresight to build a stage at the far end of the room, which became the site for Ralph Gleason’s Go Ride The Music documentary, centered on Jefferson Airplane, that aired on the
National Educational Television Network (now known as PBS) in 1970. A couple of years later, in 1972, DJ Tom Donahue used and abused that rectangular piece of wood during his popular KSAN
live radio broadcasts, recorded in quadraphonic sound direct from Pacific High. Everyone from the Doobie Brothers,  Elvin Bishop, Clift on Chenier, Dr. Hook, Loose Gravel (featuring former
Charlatan Mike Wilhelm), and Jerry Garcia played on those shows, while Phil Sawyer got it all on tape and a crowd of some 200 to 300 people gathered inside. Fire marshal? What fire marshal?

Dan Healy came to Pacific High on occasion, working in both it's Sausalito and San Francisco locations. He brought Quicksilver Messenger Service to the Brady Street studio to record a few tracks
and mix their album Shady Grove. It was the first studio album Quicksilver recorded locally, having done their self-titled debut at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and its follow-up, Happy Trails,
live at The Fillmore East and West, with one song recorded live at Golden State Recorders. According to legend, Quicksilver Messenger Service spent 400 hours at Pacific High … to record just one album.

Here is a 1971 photo of the Pacific High Recording (PHR) recording/mixing board. This is where Side Two of "Blows Against the Empire" was mixed just a few months earlier and where I had recorded and mixed the Airplane's "Mexico". This is also where the Grateful Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" was
mixed and where the milestone "Working Man's Dead" was recorded and mixed; Quicksilver's "Shady Grove" was done here -recorded by ace engineer Bob Shumaker, and this is where I mixed the classic Commander Cody "Lost in the Ozone" album, the first "Joy of Cooking" album, the Congress of Wonders "Revolting" album, and "Titanic" for the "Sunfighter" album (I mixed almost all the rest of the "Sunfighter" album at Heider's).
Phill Sawyer
Struggling to keep up with increased competition and changing technology, Pacific High’s legacy ended in 1971. “When you’re going for the people with the biggest budgets, you have to have the
latest equipment and keep upgrading,” says Shumaker. “We just couldn’t make enough money to keep things going, unfortunately.”

As a silver lining in their story, Alembic took over the studio in 1971 and put it through extensive renovations, including redesigning the studio space. They laid down a new floor and tore down the
burlap—good riddance!—and added movable panels to change the size and acoustics of the room.
They even rolled in a Pong video game next to the pinball machines. Stephen Stills, New Riders
of the Purple Sage, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Winters, Santana, The Doobie Brothers, and the Youngbloods all passed through Alembic’s doors, as did the Grateful Dead. Coincidentally, the cus-
tom PHR console went to Mickey Hart, who purchased it for one of his early home studios.

Alembic had the largest physical studio in San Francisco, large enough to hold a symphony orchestra with room to spare. The walls were movable panels to change the size and acoustics of the room. We did a lot of recordings in that studio. Stephen Stills, The Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Winters, Santana, The Doobie Brothers and the Youngbloods to name just a few.
They wanted the guests to be comfortable and entertained so we had a R & R area with the first ever video game brought in to compliment the pinball machines. Does anyone remember "Pong"? It was addicting to play video games even as simple as that one back then.
The Alembic R & D department was busy, introducing the first parametric equalizer which Ron designed for Bobby Weir. We embarked on a new project for the Dead, one that later would have world-wide fame and acclaim. It would be dubbed, "The Wall of Sound", and it was.(2)

Eventually, Alembic got out of the Grateful Dead servicing business in order to concentrate on manufacturing guitars and basses, a business it is still in today. First they sold off the early sound system, the one that later evolved into the famous Wall of Sound. The buyer was the Grateful Dead.

By the end of 1973, Alembic also sold the studio at 60 Brady Street. The new owner was Elliot Mazer, a New York rock producer who renamed it His Masters Wheels.

In early 1974, Elliot Mazer stopped by Alembic, the sound and  musical instrument company kept busy by the Dead, among others, to look at a bass guitar. He checked out a few instruments,
found one he liked, and the salesperson asked if he wanted to hear it in a big room. They took him back to their studio, the former Pacific High space, so he could plug in and play. He not only bought
the bass but also negotiated for the studio. “I had gotten used to owning my own studio in Nashville,” says Mazer, who co-owned Quadrafonic Studios with musicians David Briggs and Norbert
Putnam. “Later on I built a remote truck with Sy Rosen, my business manager. After being on the road for a while, I decided it would be nice to plant it at a studio.” The 60 Brady Street space met
his criteria. “I could not believe how good the room sounded, how tight and how open it was,” says Mazer of the trapezoidal-shaped room, still as large as in the PHR days—about 40×50 feet.
Sale complete, Mazer named the studio His Master’s Wheels and moved in his equipment: a Neve 8016 with Neve Melbourne sidecar, two Ampex MM1000 tape machines, and a variety of
outboard gear and mics. He made no modifications to Alembic Studios, and the company kept its workshop on a second floor. “I made no changes in the acoustics of the studio at all. Zero,” he says.
“We rolled our stuff in there, set up our mics, and we were off . It was a beautifully laid out studio, with skylights in the ceiling, so you could see daylight.” We installed a 4-channel earphone system
that was an upgrade of the 3-channel system we had at Quadrafonic in Nashville.

"When I started Furman Sound Service a few days later, my immediate goal was simply to set up a one-person repair shop to generate some income. My location was a tiny unfinished loft upstairs at 60 Brady Street – the same building that housed His Masters Wheels! Now that I was no longer an employee, Elliot and I had become friends, and he had no objection to subletting me this small, unused space. It was an ideal location – the rent was cheap, there was a guitar shop, Stars Guitars, immediately adjacent which could refer business to me, and there was a steady stream of musicians in and out of the building at all hours. I did not foresee where this humble origin might someday lead. Though I had the idea to design a parametric equalizer/preamp, I knew that would take a while and I would have to make a living in the meantime. So I did what I could. I repaired and customized guitar amps. I maintained Elliot’s studio equipment. I taught a class in recording studio techniques. I wrote a few magazine articles for Guitar Player and some of the studio trade mags. I engineered occasional freelance sessions at HMW and other studios around town. And I worked on the parametric design. At first I shied away from making it rackmount. Racks for musicians was still a very novel concept. I thought the parametric might sell better as a floor stomp box, so I worked toward that. Once I had a working prototype, a company called Norlin got wind of my design and expressed an interest in licensing it under their Maestro brand. I was intrigued. They packaged my circuit board in a box with the Maestro logo and test-marketed it at NAMM, the big music trade show. But it didn’t attract much interest there, and Norlin backed away. There were just too many knobs for a product that would be sitting on the floor. I decided it had to be rackmount. It would be a groundbreaking product. Even if the average musician didn’t understand, cutting-edge musicians would. And those were exactly the kind of musicians who hung around 60 Brady Street.
It took just over a year to design and build the production prototype of the “Furman PQ-3 Parametric Equalizer/Preamp”. The day it was finished, I took it home and stared at it for hours, bursting with pride. I had just enough money to buy parts for 20 units, which I built and sold myself, all to Brady Street regulars whom I knew personally. The very first unit, serial number A00001, went to Jerry Garcia. Then I ran out of customers."(4)

His Master's Wheels, Inc. was a corporation registered in the state of California.
It was a foreign corporation, meaning it was formed outside of California. In this case, it was formed in New York. It registered in California on May 17, 1974.
All of His Master's Wheels, Inc.'s powers, rights and privileges in the State of California have been forfeited. This could have happened because they failed to file a return and/or pay taxes to the California Franchise Tax Board, or because they failed to make certain informational filings with the California Secretary of State.(2)

“His Master’s Wheels had a great ambience about it that always peaked on the full moon,” he said in a 1979 interview with BAM magazine. “Some of the really great recordings that were done
there were done either on the full moon or right before it. It got to the point where over the years we used to try to schedule stuff  that required that extra bit of energy…”

Besides attracting acts such as Barclay James Harvest, The Dingoes, Jerry Garcia, the Dead, and Frankie Miller to His Master’s Wheels, Mazer headed a highly successful remote recording operation. In fact, he was the chief engineer on The Band’s star-studded Winterland farewell concert on Thanksgiving night in 1976, The Last Waltz, which was recorded and filmed for the Marin Scorsese concert movie of the same name.

Mazer mixed parts of Neil Young’s Homegrown album at His Master’s Wheels, one of many Young albums that Mazer produced and/or engineered; The Tubes did a lot of recording at the studio
as well. “I later recorded them at the famous Cowboy’s-49ers game [NFC championship, 1981] at Candlestick Park, which became the foundation of their single ‘Sports Fans, says Mazer.  “And
any album with Nicky Hopkins on it was special. There were a lot of wonderful times with Nicky Hopkins in our studio. There was a magic that Nicky brought into that studio that always blew me
away. We did some overdubs and mixes on a yet-to be-released CSNY record. Crosby and Nash recorded parts of their ‘whale song’ [‘To the Last Whale’] until very low frequency noise from the
BART train threw them.”

In 1977, Journey came in with producer Roy Thomas Baker to record Infinity. This was their first album with vocalist Steve Perry, and consequently, their first huge hit. During the record-
ing process, a drunken Baker apparently wanted to blow off steam and proceeded to spray everyone in the control room with a fire extinguisher. As the haze cleared from the chemicals, the soaked
observers watched as Mazer’s precious Neve bubbled over in a heated mess. Mazer was called in, choice words exchanged, and Baker and band finished the album elsewhere, and Baker never
entered His Master’s Wheels again. Mazer maintained the studio until 1978, when he “got tired of
the business of owning a recording studio.” He worked as an independent producer for a while; doing projects at The Automatt, then moved his offices into the Fantasy Studios complex in the early ’80s.

When Mazer left , the 60 Brady Street building ceased to exist as a studio. It recently housed the Brady Street Dance Center and is now the address of an architecture and lighting firm.(1)

Sign of hope: There’s a music rehearsal space next door.

"I have discovered that John Kahn played bass on a few tracks on an obscure 1974 album by Andy Fairweather Low called Spider Jiving. Fairweather Low is a talented Welsh guitarist/singer, but neither here nor there for this blog (he played with Clapton in the 90s, I believe).
The important part here is that Spider Jiving was recorded at His Master's Wheel's in San Francisco, and Chrissy Stewart and Denny Siewell were among the many players on the album ( This seems very much like the Stewart-Siewell/K&D connection. Maybe Kahn took the tapes to His Master's Wheels, or maybe Stewart and Siewell daytripped up to Stinson Beach, but it's not likely to have been a coincidence."(5) This refers to the Keith and Donna album.

Jerry recorded here on
11/6/68 Grateful Dead
April 1969 Grateful Dead (Aoxoamoxa)
Winter/1970 (nine days) Grateful Dead Workingman's Dead (Pacific High Recording)
2/6/72 Merl Saunders (venue was known as Pacific High Recording)
3/75    mixed the Keith and Donna album
10/2/75 Garcia and Friends "Reflections"
10/3/75 Garcia and Friends "Reflections"

1.)^Johnson, Heather, If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios, pg 195-197, pg 62, 68
3.)^Wickersham, Susan, Alembic History,
4.)^Bowman, Janet Furman, A History of Furman Sound And Its Grateful Dead Roots,
5.)^Arnold, Corry, Lost Live Dead, Comments, 2011-09-10


  1. I was a guest via Country Joe McDonald's office at the 1972 KSAN simulcast of Big Daddy's birthday bash. Music & dancing was provided by New Riders of the Purple Sage & Stoneground. Memorable evening. I'm not anonymous, I'm Craig Healy.

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