John Gorka Live at McCabes

There is a very special venue on the west side of Los Angeles, actually in Santa Monica, that is celebrating its 56th year of presenting intimate folk, singer/songwriter and guitar centric performances. The place is called McCabes. It’s become an institution AND regular stop for the likes of Laurence Juber, Dan Navarro, David Lindley, Albert Lee, Jennifer Warnes and my favorite singer/songwriter John Gorka. John played two sold out shows last night.

McCabes is really a guitar shop. You can by an acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin or banjo and then take lessons in one the rooms upstairs. The big room in the back has instruments all over the walls where want to be guitarists check out the Martins or the Gibsons. On Fridays and Saturdays they move chairs into the open space, turn down the lights and have concerts. I don’t think the place holds more than a couple of hundred…maybe less. Everyone is close to the stage, which is incredible small but well lit and visible to everyone.

They have a great sound system and a team of very capable audio engineers that dial in the system to accommodate the musicians playing that evening. The piano is the only thing that is marginal AND maybe two hours on the plastic seats but the place is focused on music not comfort. There’s no distractions, no beverages or clinking plates or exterior noise to contend with. McCabes is the real deal. I’ve been going to shows there since I first arrived in Los Angeles about 40 years ago.

Alan Kanter, one of those talented engineers, alerted me to last night’s John Gorka show some weeks ago but I delayed purchasing tickets until it was too late. It’s really nice to have connections…both Alan and John were able to secure a couple of seats for my wife and I. It was a struggle to leave the new Waldrep puppy at home but it was a special treat to see and hear John and his current touring partner Antje Duvekot. Both were in great form. I look forward to having them play in our room at the AXPONA show in Chicago next month.

I’m commenting today because I experienced three different John Gorka performances over the past few days. There was the live event last evening at an intimate guitar ship turned performance space, the new John Gorka album “The Bright Side of Down”, which I played in my ELS automobile system this morning and the 5.1 surround Blu-ray disc that I produced with John and his band about 7 years ago. You might ask, “Which one was best?” The answer is all three!

Listening to live music at a club, regardless of size, is always amplified. John and Antje sang into microphones, their guitars were amplified and the sound came out a couple of large JBL speakers positioned on either side of the stage. They were hung from the ceiling and maybe 6 feet away from the performers. That means that pretty much everything you hear in the audience is non-acoustic sound…even if the guitars and the singing are acoustic!

I didn’t notice the exact types of microphones used last night but they’re usually Shure SM-57s or something similar…definitely not studio microphones. The signal path includes a soundboard, some processing (a mild compressor perhaps) and some artificial reverberation (everybody loves reverb). The sound was good except for the one tune that John played at the piano…and that’s because the piano was out of tune and of marginal quality. The sound comes out some distance from John and is essentially monophonic but that’s what we’re used to in a live performance. It was the same last summer when I heard Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffet in Detroit. You’re not there for the sound.

John’s new album, his first in four years, sounded rich and warm in my car system. I bought my 2005 Acura TL specifically because it has a great sound system AND because it can play 5.1 surround DVD-Audio discs. What could be better? John’s CD is a standard definition stereo release recorded over many months in a studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s polished and very easy to listen to. I found it a little lacking in the high end but nothing really to complain about. It was interesting to hear John sing a few of the tunes with just an acoustic guitar to accompany him and then compare the “produced” versions in my car system. Both are compelling but I think I prefer the raw John because it’s him singing with his heart and not propped with a band and background singers. But what if I could get the real John with pristine sound?

Finally, there’s the Blu-ray and DVD double disc set that we did years ago. There were a number of copies on the merchandise table last evening. Listening to the tracks on that project is the perfect marriage of “live” performances and heart but without the PA system. The sound is incredibly rich and accurate…not to the sound of an a few SM-57s amplified through a set of JBLs but expensive ribbon and condenser microphones digitized at 96 kHz/24-bits using the best hardware on the planet.

The fact that John and his band played the tunes without any multitracking (laying separate parts down one at a time) gives the Blu-ray the same intimacy and freshness as a live performance but without any of the compromises. Yes, it true that there is no audience to play to but I regard that as a reasonable tradeoff to get the other positives.

One of John’s tunes is among the free HD-Audio samples. If you haven’t listened to it, you might want to check it out.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

7 thoughts on “John Gorka Live at McCabes

  • headstack

    It always seems to create an extra level of magic recording a group in the same room.

    I think there is an interactive energy that even the finest players get that extra bump from compared to overdubs, or iso booth arrangements.

    A really well engineered recording in a great sounding room can gain truth and reality from the leakage in the mics, which you just don’t get any other way as realistically.

    It seems the L.A. area has several neat venues that cater to great musicians and music lovers being able to share the magic.

    What do you think of The Baked Potato as a place to play and record?

    It is great to see some one choose a car for it’s audio reproduction capabilities, rather than horsepower or handling!

    Thank you for another fun and informative post.

    John Chase

    • Thanks John! I’ve enjoyed a lot of great music in my Acura. I was quite surprised to ride in a new loaner that also included the DVD-Audio head unit.

      I haven’t been to the Baked Potato in a very long time. I used to live in the Valley…it was easy. I’m not sure a small club works for me with regards to reverberation and vibe…I use a large hall that has a great vibe, piano and terrific acoustics.

  • While it was not the only factor, DVD-Audio was one of the deciding factors in my latest car purchase. The car dealer salesman must have thought that I was crazy when I insisted on listening to some AIX recordings in the car before deciding on the purchase.

    • I’ve had lots of readers and customers write to tell me that they sometimes site in their cars to enjoy an AIX Records DVD-Audio…in the driveway! Love your comment!

  • alan kanter

    Dr AIX…
    Just a note about our sound system.

    We strive to produce the best live sound possible and the musicians that play here agree that both in the house and
    on stage that is typically the case.
    Although we do use the industry standard SM58 and Beta 58 mics on vocals we also make use of many others, too.
    We have a decent mic locker (for live sound) of other good quality mics to choose from.
    For the John and Antje show we used AKG C535 condensers on John, his favorite vocal mic for stage, per his request.
    On Antje, we used her Neumann 105 (we have those too). On John’s guitar I chose to mic it in stereo with a pair of Studio Project
    condensers, along with his pickups, taken direct through his electronics. We have an assortment of the best DI boxes, including one of
    the best I’ve heard. Its fully servo’d with no capacitors in the signal path. Clean and articulate.

    As to the house running in mono, we can run the house in full stereo to full mono or a blend. It depends on the show and the needs of the
    performer. Stereo always sounds great in the center of the house in just that right spot, but of course, not everyone can sit there.
    Normally, we run the house with about 6 db of separation. This means that an instrument panned hard left will be 6 db down on the right.
    We normally don’t pan that far to one side, so the separation is less. With a center array in a L-C-R system one can afford to pan farther to
    the sides and still have a decent central image.
    Our effects can be run in stereo and usually are panned hard left and right on the returns, providing just a bit of “air” around the instruments.

    We have 8 high quality compressor/limiters to patch in where needed. For the most recent show you saw, I used them on the two
    stomper-thumpers that the performers used for percussion. On other shows, they are used more as an effect to bring out an instrument
    in a dense mix not to keep levels down.

    The piano surely could have been in better tune! It would normally be checked and tuned before a show for which it was a major instrument,
    not for one or two numbers per show. It actually is a really nice sounding piano for a “console” type. Years ago we decided that a short piano
    that a performer and the audience can see over is more important than a great sounding one. If the performer playing it can’t see the rest of the
    musicians it just won’t work. We have rented baby grands for certain performers. The piano is internally mic’d with a pair of the pro version
    Crown PZMs. We are still fine tuning their position inside the piano. For solo performers, like Susan Werner, we can mic it externally.
    I used to do so with my pair of AKG 414s. BUT, this is live sound and we need to isolate the piano from the other instruments which may be picked up
    as loud or louder than the piano. With a lot of stage monitor level, the external piano mics pick up that more than the piano. Of course, we can make use of the
    inverse square law and place mics very close, but that does not sound as good as the internal ones!

    Having done sound at McCabes from 1971 to present, I can tell you the biggest headache is a back room filled with 150 tuned instruments!
    In the 70’s and 80’s we would thread a soft thick paper “postcard” in-between the strings and in front of the sound hole. This dropped
    the “answer back” from the room by about 20 dB. I wish we continued to do this but the powers that be won’t do it.
    The room will sing in response to any note from about 90 Hz to about 360 Hz. But it helps to flavor the sound. C’est La Vie.


  • Mark,

    I was also at the Gorka show at McCabe’s on Friday night. Sorry I missed you. I was sitting in the front row, extreme stage left right under the audience monitors so I was getting indirect sound from them mixed with direct unamplified sound from the stage. Still sounded good except for that piano which doesn’t compare to the Steinway used on your recording. I bought the latest recording and thought it was a tad too hot but very warm sounding and nice to listen to. I also bought your BluRay at the show even though I downloaded the music some years ago from your site. Superb job on the video; really compliments the music. A shame there isn’t more music video like this.

    • I love seeing John and look forward to our event in Chicago.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *