Rob Freeman (2022)
Updating earlier interviews with Rob Freeman, the context of this new interview is Eric Carr-focused, as the first person to record KISS with their then-new drummer during Jan.-Feb. 1981 sessions at Ace in the Hole & Penny Lane Studios.

Mass KISSteria with Rob Freeman

By Julian Gill

Award-winning engineer provides additional insights as the first person to professionally record Eric Carr as a member of KISS during Jan.-Feb. 1981 sessions at Ace in the Hole & Penny Lane Studios, and his observations of working with Eric (and KISS) again in 1983.

Were you aware of the pressure they were under to get moving with what was described as the KISS #17 album? KISS was being badgered for new product by international affiliates from the moment they returned from Australia in December 1980.

Rob Freeman: When KISS asked me to record with them in early 1981, I really wasn't aware of whatever was going on within or around the band – not their business dealings, not any deadlines, not even the personnel changes they had just undergone at the time. I was solely focused on making music with them. During my initial discussions with the band and their management team about the project, there was no talk of pressure to release a new KISS album. On the contrary, it all seemed pretty laid back. The project, as far as I saw it, was originally conceived as a sort of test session to see how it went recording with their brand-new drummer, Eric Carr, in a brand-new recording facility, Ace's Ace in the Hole Studio.

If all went well, then, hopefully, our recordings would become the seeds for a new album. Only as the sessions progressed and we spent untold hours sitting around talking, did I begin to hear them talk of pressure to release a new album. I also heard about the discord that had recently led to Peter Criss's departure from the band and I got a very real sense, from both sides, that there was still plenty of discord happening with Ace at the time. But whatever was going on between them was never apparent when they were making music together.

A memo dated February 3, 1981, detailed the recording schedule at Ace's as follows: Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, 12 noon-OPEN. Tuesdays 10am-5 pm. Fridays and Saturdays OFF. Does that gel with your recollection of the overall schedule worked, and would you happen to know the start date for the Ace in the Hole sessions?

The recording schedule for most days stipulated session hours as "noon to open." Good thing, too, because those sessions were truly "open-ended," often running from one day well into the next. We worked four or five days a week beginning sometime in mid-January 1981 – I couldn't tell you exact dates of the sessions. Noon seemed like a reasonable start time for the sessions, considering most of us were commuting up to Connecticut from New York. But after a while, it felt more like a hopeful suggestion rather than an actual start time as noon usually saw only my arrival (I always strove to be punctual or even early, traffic permitting). There may not have been a full band quorum until well after 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Ace had the least excuse for tardiness as he lived right upstairs from the studio, but even he arrived quite late most days. Many of the sessions exceeded twelve hours, wrapping up at 2 or 3 in the morning, or even later. On some of those late nights, I slept on the couch in Ace's playroom rather than brave the commute home in an exhausted state.

You mentioned how you were approached by Aucoin in December 1980. Was it differentiated as doing pre-production, or were you operating under consideration for doing album quality recordings?

I don't recall any specific talk as to whether we'd be making demos or master quality recordings. I was told that Ace's studio had recently been completed and that this project would be a good chance to shake it down to see how it functioned and hear what it sounded like. Working in such a nice, professional recording environment, it didn't even occur to me that we might only be making demos. I suppose demos could have resulted depending how developed the songs that they brought in to record actually were. In this case, not all the songs were totally finished, but they were far enough along that we could record solid basic tracks and then develop them further as we went along. Whether or not the new recordings constituted the beginnings of an album was up in the air at the time, but by all means, I approached them as if we were making releasable album quality masters, spending the time and energy it took to get them there.

Tied to the above, were the band conducting any musical rehearsals prior to the start of your engagement that you were aware of? (As an aside, Eric was recording with his girlfriend in late-January. With the timeline of the band's return from Australia, holidays, New Years, and having a break, it doesn't seem like there was much time to prepare).

I remember meeting with the some of the band members at SIR rehearsal studios in midtown. I can't recall if that was just before they left for their Australian tour or just before we went into Ace in the Hole Studio - most likely it was the former. I wasn't aware of Eric having any scheduling conflicts or other reasons why he couldn't attend any of the sessions. To my recollection, whenever a session was scheduled, Eric was always present, enthusiastic, warmed up and ready to go way before the other three got into gear. I suppose the fact that we were working at Ace's home studio offered the band plenty of time to congeal and work out songs and arrangements pretty much at their leisure.

A Telex dated March 2, 1981, confirms Bob Ezrin taking over the sessions and the band rescheduling pre-production for April. You've mentioned that Bob essentially arrived on site and packed everything up. Were you told before he arrived at a session that recordings were being curtailed?

I heard some things in passing about Bob Ezrin during the sessions–discussions about whether the band wanted to work with him again or whether or not they wanted to go to Canada to record. I didn't think much of it until Bob showed up one day and, together with an assistant, orchestrated the transporting of the 2" multi-track tapes we were working on to his studio in Canada. That took me completely by surprise. End of Ace in the Hole sessions.

In your interview with Tim McPhate, you described Eric's drumming as "extraordinary." What do you recall of your first interaction with Eric? Was he tentative in the studio (his first real time) when it came to setting up? I'm curious as to your appraisal of his approach to the technical side of preparing for his first studio effort with the band.

Eric was very fortunate to be chosen to join KISS at that time. To my thinking, the band was also very fortunate to have him. He definitely took their sound and energy to a new level. Also, Eric was pleasant to be around and easy to talk to and he was keenly focused on his new role as KISS's drummer. I remember the first day meeting Eric at Ace's studio. He was sitting quietly by himself as I went over to introduce myself. We chatted for a bit, and I was struck by how astonished and grateful he was to become a member of a band he had idolized for so long. He said, "you know, just last week I was playing in a Long Island bar band, and now this…this is incredible!" He was also humbled that they set him up in a NYC condo and gave him a sports car, too. But when it was time to play, Eric was no longer quiet. He was an amazing drummer, technically and creatively, and double kick drum competent to boot. He committed to every performance, whether rehearsal or recorded take, with all he had, never holding anything back. I really enjoyed working with Eric and I relish the drum tracks I recorded with him.

Also in Tim's interview, you got into a lot of detail about the configuration of Ace in the Hole, the placement of the drums, the methodology involved, etc. How involved was Eric in all this and was it collaborative? Was the sound of the drums and tuning discussed (this is what offended him about the later sessions with Bob Ezrin and the resultant drum sound on that album). He never commented on your sessions as far as I'm aware.

When it came to setting up Eric's drums in the recording room, I took him out into the studio and demonstrated (by clapping my hands and yelling a bit) what the different areas of the room sounded like. Placing the drum kit on the wooden floor close to the construction glass wall would add a bright ambience to the drum, while setting up on the opposite, more baffled side of the room may have sounded more "dead," or lifeless. Together we settled on a good spot to situate the drums–somewhere in between the two main acoustic areas of Ace's studio–a space that was acoustically lively but not too bright sounding. Once the spot was determined, I left Eric to set up and tune his drum kit. After that was done, I went about placing an array of microphones in, around, and over the kit, mostly fairly close to the drum skins.

A matched pair of overhead microphones captured the cymbals and the overall sound of the kit from above, and a couple of room mics set at a distance picked up the room ambiance (which included some leakage from the guitar and bass amps). It all added up to a very crisp, clean drum sound which was controllable in the mix due to the various isolated mics, and was punchy and hard-hitting, as a KISS sound should be. Once they all started playing together, I made a few tweaks to the drum mics and to the settings on the console, but for the most part, the solid way Eric played his drums coupled with the wonderful ambience in Ace in the Hole's recording room were ultimately responsible for the great drum sound we got.

What about Gene, Paul, and Ace, as the client? Did they specify a sound they were looking for, particularly coming off softer, more polished albums such as "Dynasty" and "Unmasked?"

No one in the band or their management team came to me before or during the project with special directives or preferences with regards to creating a sound for them. I was pretty much left to my own devices. Each band member set up his own instruments and amps in acoustic areas I had prepared for them, and all I really needed to do was to mic them–or, in the case of Gene's bass, hook up a direct line in addition to miking his amp–and bring them up on the console faders adding maybe a touch of EQ (equalization) and/or dynamic compression. The recording philosophy was simply to make the most of how this tremendously tight and powerful band sounded naturally. They trusted me to do just that.

Of the three songs that made it to semi-completion - "Deadly Weapons," "Feel Like Heaven," and "Nowhere to Run" - was that all the material recorded, or just that which made it to a sufficiently advanced stage?

We recorded a number of tracks in the first few days of the sessions–mostly unfinished songs and song bits–before settling in to work on "Love's a Deadly Weapon" (as it was called at the time), "Feel Like Heaven," and "Nowhere to Run." There may have been as many as four or five other tracks recorded in addition to those three, but they were abandoned (or so I thought at the time) and never elevated to the same state of semi-completion as the main three.

"Deadly Weapons" was the only song to get guitar overdubs. Were those done at Penny Lane Studios, or vocals only there?

I believe all the guitar work, including the solo on "Love's a Deadly Weapon," was done at Ace's studio before we relocated to Penny Lane Studios in New York City. We worked on the bulk of the vocals and background vocals at Penny Lane as well as some overdubs by the late great Jimmy Maelen, who was brought in to add some percussion on "Feel Like Heaven." The very first thing Jimmy wanted to record was a backwards cymbal effect. Backwards effects were always a real challenge back in the day because the 2" multi-track tape needed to be physically flipped over on the machine and the track numbers had to be counted backwards, from 24 to 1. Punching into record on the wrong track could be disastrous. Just finding where you were in the song while listening to it backwards was no easy task. So, I proceeded cautiously with Jimmy and we got it done. When Gene, the writer of the song, heard the effect, he loved it!

Is it definite that the lead on "Deadly Weapon" was Ace? I ask simply because due to a couple of Dick Wagner/Bob Kulick-ish guitar solo techniques Ace is less known for incorporating at the time.

I can say with 100% certainty that it was Ace who performed the solo on "Love's a Deadly Weapon." I remember setting him up in the control room and running a long cord out to his amp in the studio room. He recorded a number of solo performances from inside the control room then disappeared upstairs for some time while I made a "comp" (composite) solo out of what I deemed to be the best bits from all the tracks he had recorded. Upon returning, I played it for Ace and he just smiled and made one of his famous Ace sounds, like "eh!" (which was a good thing). I knew who Bruce Kulick was, but I hadn't met him at the time.

Could you give me your thoughts on some audio samples. Five are from Bob Ezrin's first Toronto sessions in May. I'm wondering if the audio jogs your memory for anything definitively recorded during the sessions you produced/engineered (and I apologize about their offensive sonic quality).

I'm not certain if any of those tracks were recorded during my sessions with KISS at Ace in the Hole. "Sentimental Fool" and "Escape" ring sort of familiar, but they just might be similar to something else that we recorded. I'm really not sure.

In a March 3, 1981 memo, Howard Marks details coming to an arrangement for your services for 160 hours in the studio (though he felt you'd probably worked in excess of 200). Was there any distasteful back and forth in closing out the work or was it business-like and reasonable from your perspective?

There was never anything distasteful about dealing with Howard Marks or anyone in his office. On the contrary, I always felt I was dealt with fairly and generously. Howard was a straight shooter, a man of his word, and I liked him a lot. And I know he respected me and my experience in the studio. Howard particularly enjoyed coming into the studio (Plaza Sound Studios) to do television and radio promos with me. We did tons of them together, and not just for KISS, but for a whole host of other great artists such as Paul McCartney, The Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Eric Clapton, Donna Summer, and more.

You worked with KISS again in 1983 during the basic tracking for Lick It Up. How had the recording dynamic changed from your experience in 1981?

Some things had definitely changed as we went into the Record Plant, NYC, to record the Lick it Up album in ‘83. To begin with, the addition of Michael James Jackson as producer was something different, but I found him good-natured and professional to work with. I guess the biggest jolt was that Vinny Vincent was now there instead of my man, Ace. That felt a bit sour to me, as I had a special closeness with Ace, ever since recording his first solo album. Vinny didn't exude the same kind of warmth and likeableness. But, thankfully, some other things remained delightfully the same, like when Paul would pull out his acoustic guitar and sit in the stairwell (yes, the very one made famous on "Bridge Over Troubled Waters") singing Beatle songs. That was sheer joy!

How about Eric Carr and your recollections of him at that time? You told Tim McPhate that Eric was more at ease with his position, but still amiable. Like Creatures, those were big and bombastic drums, but Eric had hoped to dial back a bit of the overload of the Creatures recording and get a better balance in mixing between the miked tracks and ambient room mics. How had he changed technically from your point of view?

When I encountered Eric at the Record Plant in '83, a couple of years had passed since the Ace in the Hole sessions. He was still very much the Eric I knew, upbeat and positive. The only difference, if any, was that now he seemed more confident and comfortable in his role within the KISS organization–it had become second nature. He knew he had been accepted and respected as a fellow musician in the band. When I recorded him, his playing was precise and strong as ever. We placed his kit out in an auditorium-sized room down the hall from the control room. His drums sounded really awesome in there. The main drum tracks had plenty of close mic proximity but there were also some open room mics recorded to separate tracks. I couldn't tell you how those drum tracks were finally handled, as I didn't end up mixing the "Lick it Up" album.

But there was one outrageous instance (well, there were more than one, but I'll just tell you about this one) during those sessions that nearly broke Eric down: he was out in the big room all by himself, working hard to lay down a solid drum track for "Not for the Innocent." All he heard in his headphones was a click track for tempo and someone playing the guitar part from the control room. So, from time to time, Gene or Paul would turn on the control room talkback mic to cue him where he was in the song. This system was working quite well, at least for a while. It started devolving when instead of Gene playing the intro guitar riff (before the drums were to come in), he started singing "di-dil-dee-di-dil-dee-di..." We then left the mic open for the whole take. As the recording went on, Paul, Michael James and I joined in, singing accompanying parts to what Gene was singing. But when my assistant engineer, Danny Caccavo added a slow and hearty doo-wop style "YEEAAH!" at the end of each phrase in the cycle, that's when we all totally lost it. All this mayhem was going straight out into Eric's headphones as he tried his best to hold his performance together. The whole thing just got wilder but funnier as Eric tried desperately to keep going as long as he could until…he couldn't anymore. He exploded, partially pissed off and partially laughing with the rest of us. He was a good sport. That was certainly among the lighter moments I can recall working with KISS.

From a professional perspective, do you have any thoughts on Eric's drum sound either on that album or "Creatures of the Night?"

Listening to "Lick it Up" now, I think it has a clean yet beefy overall sound. The snare hits are really fat (recorded in an auditorium!) and there's just enough room ambience to open up the sound of the kit, but not too much to wash it out. As always, Eric played with tremendous intensity and laser precision and that comes across throughout all the tracks–it drives the entire album. By contrast, "Creatures of the Night" features a more bombastic drum sound, loaded with room ambience, and heavily compressed (which likely happened in mastering as the whole mix sounds highly compressed, guitars and vocals as well). The overall sound of that album is strong, but somewhat darker and softer sounding, with a touch less edge than "Lick it Up," in my opinion. I not sure how much any of that really matters to KISS fans–they love every morsel the band gives them.

(KissFAQ thanks Rob Freeman for his time and contribution to further illuminating the history of both KISS and Eric Carr for the Eric Carr tribute and Mass KISSteria.)

About Rob Freeman:
Engineer on Ace Frehley's solo album recording sessions at Plaza Sound Studios. Rob also mixed the album with Eddie Kramer. From 1974 until 1979, Rob was head engineer and part owner of Plaza Sound Studios, a classic recording facility situated atop Radio City Music Hall. His years at Plaza Sound coincided with the advent of New York's punk rock and New Wave scenes and Rob was uniquely positioned in the middle of it all as recording engineer on such seminal albums as the Ramones' debut album Ramones, Blondie's Blondie and Plastic Letters, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids' Blank Generation. Throughout his Plaza Sound years, Rob made records with an array of artists including KISS, Ace Frehley, Rupert Holmes, Twisted Sister, Salsoul Orchestra, Robert Gordon, Link Wray, Martha Velez, Sunny Fortune, Genya Ravan, John Miles, The Laughing Dogs, and many more. In 1979 Rob began the free-lance chapter of his career that continues to this day. Early free-lance projects had him recording albums with KISS, Julie Brown, and The Elektrics and mixing a Top 40 single for Agnetha Faltskog of Abba. In time, Rob made the jump from engineer to producer, and, over the decade that ensued, produced singles, EPs, and/or albums for Twisted Sister, Lawrence Gowan (currently of STYX), Tim Moore, Jailbait, Single Bullet Theory, Regina Richards, The Go, Surgin', and Queen City Kids, among others.

Notably, Rob co-produced, engineered and mixed Beauty and the Beat, the debut album by the Go-Go's that went multi-platinum, topped the US Billboard album charts at #1 for six weeks, spawned two hit singles, was the first #1 album by an all-girl group who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, and, incredibly, was crowned the CMJ (College Music Journal) Top Album of the Decade 1980-1990. Rob's efforts over those busy years garnered him a variety of acclamations and awards such as Billboard's Top 15 Producer of the Year (1982), Pro Sound News' Engineer of the Year (1983), Pro Sound News' 2nd Runner-up Producer of the Year (1983), one RIAA Gold Single, two RIAA Gold Albums, two RIAA Platinum Albums, two BPI Gold Albums, one CRIA Gold Album, one CRIA Platinum Album, and eight Ampex Golden Reels. Today Rob resides in Florida with his wife Teresa, Broker/Owner of Florida Realty Elite. Though still taking on occasional music projects, Rob has refocused his sound recording skills to include production sound for feature films, documentaries, commercials, and broadcast television shows.

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