11 Dec 1986: Breakdown
Ronny pressed rewind, setting the reel-to-reel whirring, and watched the counter till it hit zero. He pressed play again. The racks of electronic gear surrounding him were now at their hottest – the reason the studio didn’t need any other kind of heating, even on a cold December’s day. The visual monitors sat flat before the hum of the recorded air clicked in, raising them a single bar for a flash of a second. LEDs shone all around, making a marked impact on the dimly lit sound studio. He sliced a piece of Parmesan in half with a butter knife and popped it daintily into his mouth. The salt cut through his palette and triggered his eyelids closed. He picked up a bottle of Coke from the floor and gulped a quarter of it down.
“It says no drinks are allowed in the studio,” said Storm. He looked about fifteen. The yin yang tattoo on his right forearm didn’t make him look any cooler than a twelve year old trying to smoke.
“That only applies to anyone who isn’t me.” Ronny didn’t like many people. In fact, he outright hated most of them. And if people were annoying, musicians were invariably worse, especially young ones who hadn’t earned their place.
As a general rule, no one was allowed in here. It was Ronny’s house after all. The studio, as far as he was concerned, was the Holiest of Holies.
“Bill said you’d be like this.” Storm sat back in his leather chair making a horrible squeak. “A miserable, grumpy old man. You leave me waiting outside for twenty minutes…”
Ronny picked up the butter knife and pointed it at him. Get the message, kiddy; Schtum; Keep quiet; Shut the fuck up.
Storm held up his hands as the track began to play. “You’d think in a studio you’d have a chair that didn’t squeak.”
Ronny stopped the tape again and rewound it. “The chair you’re sitting on is from my study. There is only one chair that belongs in this studio. There is only one person who belongs in this studio. I’m letting you sit in as a favour to Bill, who said he wanted you to understand the mastering process. Now, while I can’t help but applaud that, I can’t actually do my job or teach you anything if you won’t put a sock in it.”
“Alright then,” said Storm, “but ain’t mastering just getting the album ready? Making the fade out happen smoothly and stuff? The producer and studio engineer did the mixdown already and it sounds cool. Now I’m in some bloke’s house taking abuse.”
“If there is a black art in the field of music production, it’s mastering.” As Ronny played with settings on the limiters, he didn’t look at the boy. “Like you, most people don’t have any idea what that means. They think it’s preparing the recording to industry standards, ready to be pressed onto the acetate or master. This is true but it’s only a small part of the process.
“Mastering is where the magic happens. Mixdown is all about finding the right levels for each of the instruments, adding that killer pop effect to the lead vocals – so easy a kid could do it. Mastering is the process that breathes life into a song and gives it a sound, and it’s all done with equalisers and compressors and a thousand pound an hour set of ears. That’s where I come in. I work fast and efficiently when I’m left to it and have more number ones under my belt than any pop star you could name. Don’t get confused, my studio is in my house because I like working from home.” He pressed play again.
The track wasn’t bad: a punk cover of For Whom the Bell Tolls, though why anyone would want to cover a song by one of the most humourless bands in existence, Ronny had no idea. Storm was noted on the tape case as vocalist and guitarist. Average lead guitarist but a great rhythm player – had the groove of the song down cold.
“So you think this sounds good?” Ronny made some small adjustments to an equaliser and a compressor then switched them on. As soon as he did, the guitars on the track enveloped the vocals like a blanket but without overpowering them in the slightest. The bass suddenly became sharp and focused without reducing its earthy rumble and the drums seemed to swim round him as though he was at the stool himself, when the drummer played a fill, the toms rang out around them.
“Woah, that’s fucking amazing.”
Ronny smiled as he began to fine tune an equaliser. By the penultimate section – a breakdown to bass and drums as the guitars pulled out for the final build up – it sounded perfect, but at seven minutes and six seconds there was an audio artefact.
Ronny rewound the tape to listen to it again, and again, each time adjusting another device to pinpoint the noise. The fourth time there was a squeal that spread clearly across the audible frequency ranges.
“Did you hear that?” Storm sat up straight in his chair.
Did I hear it? Jumped up little brat. “That’s it. It’s time for you to get lost so I can fix your recording.”
“But I thought…”
“Fuck off, kid. It’s past ten and Bill will be waiting for you outside.” He was sure Storm was giving him some kind of negative look.
“Fucking grumpy bastard.”
Ronny kept concentrating on the meters as Storm shuffled out and the door shut behind him.
Three hours later he decided to give up for the day. He had no idea what was causing the squeal. On the original recording it was inaudible. With the slightest bit of adjustment it popped up again.
He left the studio and locked up, then walked through his garden, lighting his way with a torch, unlocked the kitchen door, then locked it behind him.
A sandwich was all he could be bothered to make and eat. A shower would wait till the morning, He got into bed and turned out the lights, pulling the string that hung over his bed.
He lay on his back, letting his mind drift. It took only a few minutes before the squeal popped into his mind, over and over again along with the thought that maybe he shouldn’t have left this particular problem unresolved.
Ronny forced himself to think of something else, Mozart’s Sonata in C. As soon as it fell into the minor structure, there it was again – the squeal. He tried again with the Concerto for Two Pianos, but as soon as he hit the series of escalating note repetitions he heard it again. He turned over onto his front to try and get to sleep, but there it was, changing now to the tone of a marimba. Then once again, only this time it wasn’t the squeal at all. It sounded like the door bell.
He got out of bed, put on his robe and went to the front door. If it was his bell, as unlikely as that was at this damn hour, he wondered who it could be. He turned the porch light on and looked through the frosted window of the front door.
There was nobody outside.
For a moment he considered unlocking the front door and sticking his head outside, just to see if someone was there, then thought about the possibility of a clever burglar, waiting to smash his head in with an iron bar before robbing his house, and thought better of it. After all, he probably only imagined it. He went back upstairs, got into bed and rolled onto his front.
There it was again. Was it real or not? He got up and opened his bedroom door without turning the light on and stood there motionless at the top of the stairs, waiting for it to ring again. His skin grew colder in the breeze blowing up through the hallway as ten minutes passed in total silence. He shook his head, slapped his cheek and went back to bed.
Right, that was it, he definitely heard it this time. He tightened the gown around himself and ran downstairs, staring through the window – to see nobody there whatsoever.
Who the hell could it be? His mind calculated the possibilities. Greg had phoned him yesterday, deeply depressed about another girl he’d fallen for – fifteen years too young and totally out of his league.
Ronny had given his usual line, three in the morning or whatever, if you need to chat…
Surely Greg would have called first? Maybe not if he wasn’t acting rationally. Ronny turned to the answerphone by the door and there was a new message.
“It’s Bill here. I should thank you for letting Storm in on the mastering session but you’ve totally managed to piss him off. I’m not blaming you – it’s probably my fault for thinking it might be a good idea. He said he doesn’t want to use you again, even after I tried to talk him down. Anyhow, speak to you soon I imagine.”
So, that was it. He should have realised it from the start: no burglar looking to knock him out and steal his stuff, no friend in distress needing to talk at four in the morning, just a egotistical musician wanting to give him a hard time in retaliation for a few harsh words.
He was probably out there now, parked in a car round the corner with the rest of his band, smoking pot and laughing his arse off about their funny little prank. Maybe they were eating a bucket of chicken and flinging the bones out of the window, daring one another to take turns ringing the bell.
Maybe he should have been nicer to the kid. It drove him mad to have anyone else in the studio and Bill knew that. No, fuck it. This prank was a serious step too far. In the morning he’d make some calls, sully the kid’s name around his friends – little bastard.
However, before he went back upstairs, he stopped by the kitchen to get his biggest and sharpest cooking knife and took it back upstairs with him, If someone was going to try and break in, it was best to be prepared. Besides, it had been almost twenty minutes since the bell had gone and the game was probably over.
Ronny got back into bed again.
Ding Dong. Ding Dong. Ding…
“For fuck’s sake.”
Ronny got up, ran into the front bedroom and looked down at the street below. No one there, he must be hiding round the side of the house.
Even after ten minutes of looking and waiting there was no sign of Storm. Now the doorbell was ringing in his mind every few seconds.
He went back into his bedroom and picked up the knife, then tiptoed down the stairs and unlocked the door as quietly as he could so he’d be able to get outside fast and catch the idiot. Then he made his way to the top of the stairs, turned and crouched – waiting.
The wall clock ticked from the lounge. Out through the front door he could see the movement of shadows or someone, it was hard to tell.
He sprung forwards and felt himself being pulled round as his right foot caught the hem of his gown. It threw him off balance and left him tumbling down the stairs, crashing onto the carpet.
The cleaning lady tried hard to keep her composure as she sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of hot sweet tea. The officers were still photographing the hallway as a detective took her statement. She couldn’t get the image out of her head. The terrible sight she’d encountered after she unlocked the door that morning – Ronny, lying on his back at the foot of the stairs with a knife plunged deep into his chest.
And the sound – there was something so final about it – the continuous ringing of a broken doorbell.