1968: Off and running
Sonobeat creates a new two-color letterhead in 1968
The cover of the Go Central Texas magazine issue that includes a story on Sonobeat
Sonobeat's second custom portable stereo mixer. Perhaps influenced by TV commercials showing a suitcase run over by a truck and surviving, the mixer is built into a Samsonite suitcase with a removable lid and suction cups attached to the bottom. The battery-powered console includes ten microhpone/line input channels, each with an independent stereo panner. The mixer uses homemade printed circuit boards inspired by schematics Rim finds in db and Popular electronics magazines.
Sonobeat designs its own printed circuit boards (this is a mask used to make the PC boards) for its second custom portable mixer
The Western Hills Drive home in northwest Austin where, on the ground level, Sonobeat builds a mini recording studio
It's 1968. KAZZ-FM, where Sonobeat co-founders Bill Josey Sr. and Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) work, shuts down at the beginning of January, potentially leaving them without the Ampex 350 and 354 stereo tape decks that they've been borrowing from the radio station for Sonobeat recording sessions. But Bill Sr. is able to buy KAZZ's Ampex 354 from the station's new owner, KOKE, and rents the New Orleans Club's Ampex 350 on a month-to-month basis while he looks for a used Ampex deck to purchase.
Entering '68, at barely half a year old, Sonobeat has four 45 RPM stereo single releases under its belt. Bill Sr. has been displeased with the quality of Houston Records' stereo lacquer mastering and pressing for Sonobeat's first few releases so he switches both mastering and pressing to high-end Sidney J. Wakefield & Company (generally known in the industry as Wakefield Pressings) in Phoenix, Arizona. Like Houston Records, Wakefield can cut lacquers at half-speed (for better stereo separation, improved frequency range, and less distortion) but, differentiated from Houston Records, Wakefield uses new state-of-the-art Scully cutting lathes for mastering and presses using superior quality Keysor-Century vinyl. Wakefield is known for manufacturing high quality, quiet, flat records. With Sonobeat's second release of '68, The Thingies' Mass Confusion backed with Rainy Sunday Morning, the Josey's notice a marked improvement in the stereo separation and fidelity and reduction in surface noise in the Wakefield pressings. Not surprisingly, Wakefield also is more expensive than Houston Records, but higher quality is more important than cost for Sonobeat's future growth.
1968 will be Sonobeat's busiest year that will be capped at the end with a surprising inflection point. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Bill Sr. and Rim Kelley (Bill Josey Jr.) seem to jump from one recording session to the next. Sessions include Shiva's Headband, Conqueroo, The Thingies, Paul New, Johnny Winter, Bach-Yen, The Ray Campi Establishment, Allen Damron, Jim Chesnut, Ronnie and the Westwinds, Fran Nelson, Lavender Hill Express, the Afro-Caravan, New Atlantis, and a non-commercial demo album for Sonosong composer Herman Nelson. Rim changes the color of Sonobeat's center label and logo to make the background pattern less dominant, and the release of Johnny Winter's single marks the first appearance of Sonobeat's stylized "S" logo on a 45 RPM single sleeve; however, the "S" logo is never used on Sonobeat center labels themselves or on any album jacket. Things are busy enough by mid-'68 for Sonobeat to create a two-color letterhead.
Sonobeat continues the low-cost "viral" marketing campaigns it's begun in 1967 for its first four releases, submitting promo copies of each new release to local and regional newspapers, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana radio stations, and the national music trade journals Billboard and Cash Box. Sonobeat begins to receive attention in print, including an expansive article in the April '68 edition of Go Central Texas magazine and a positive Cash Box review of its second Lavender Hill Express single, Watch Out!. Of course, word of mouth remains a key element in Sonobeat's marketing efforts in and around Austin.
Following KAZZ's shut-down, Rim continues working in Austin radio during the remainder of '68, initially taking the weekend midnight-6 a.m. deejay slot on top 40 station KNOW AM beginning in March while also taking a full course load as a Radio-TV-Film major at the University of Texas. Juggling classes, weekend all-nighters at KNOW, and recording sessions is too difficult, so at the end of July Rim segues from KNOW to a part time weekday afternoon job – freeing his evenings for studying and recording sessions – as a newscaster at KOKE AM-FM, a position he holds until fall '69.
Meanwhile, in May 1968, the Josey family moves into an expansive split level home on Western Hills Drive in northwest Austin. In July, the Joseys convert the large bedroom-bath suite on the lower level, adjacent to the garage at the back of the house, into an isolated and self-contained mini recording studio. With a "home base" for the first time, Sonobeat begins investing in new recording equipment. In August, Sonobeat acquires a Scully 280 half-inch 4-track tape deck, an investment of about $7,500 (more than $50,000 in 2016 dollars), and a refurbished Ampex AG350 solid state quarter-inch 2-track tape deck to replace the rented Ampex 354. The high-end Scully represents a major technological leap for Sonobeat, providing the means to achieve more sophisticated, layered recordings, and the AG350 gives Sonobeat a reliable deck for 2-track stereo mix-downs.
It's at KOKE that Rim discovers a unique trade journal, db: The Sound Engineering Magazine, which becomes a source of inspiration for him to design and, with Bill Sr., build a new portable stereo mixer and a steel plate reverb (the reverb's 5 foot by 9 foot steel frame is built by songwriter/singer Cody Hubach, who also records an unreleased single and album with Sonobeat). Perhaps influenced by TV commercials showing a suitcase run over by a truck and surviving, Bill Sr. and Rim build the new mixer in a Samsonite suitcase with a removable lid. The battery-powered mixer includes ten microphone/line input channels, each with an independent stereo panner, and uses homemade printed circuit boards inspired by schematics Rim finds in db and Popular Electronics magazines. Although we can't find documentation in the Sonobeat archives of the costs to build the mixer and reverb, we estimate materials at $2,000 to $2,500 in 2016 dollars. Cody contributes his labor, as do the Joseys.
The steel plate reverb is housed in the Western Hills Drive home's garage, where Bill Sr. also builds a drum and vocal isolation room facing into the studio suite, separated by a double-pane glass window. Near the end of the year, Sonobeat purchases its second half-inch 4-track recorder, this one from Stemco Electronics. The Stemco deck is a refurbished Ampex transport with Stemco's proprietary solid state electronics modules, setting the still-fledgling company back $6,500. Alongside the Stemco, Sonobeat acquires a Gately Electronics PM-1 6-channel stereo mixer housed in an attaché case for portability (an additional $700 investment), a Fairchild Lumiten 663ST optical compressor (a $150 investment), and a Blonder-Tongue Audio Baton 9-band stereo graphic equalizer (a $200 investment), making 1968 a year of big spends on equipment (about $15,500, which is a little over $108,000 in 2017 dollars). Want to build your own steel plate reverb? Here are plans for a reverb similar to Sonobeat's.
An important door opens in late November for Sonobeat. When Johnny Winter is spotlighted in a Rolling Stone article about hot Texas musicians, Johnny's album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, that Sonobeat recorded at the Vulcan Gas Company and intends to release on its own label, suddenly is a hot commodity. After being courted by several labels, Sonobeat sells the album to Los Angeles-based Liberty Records. The Josey family drives to LA over the holidays to hand deliver the Johnny Winter master tapes to Liberty. While in Los Angeles, the Joseys visit half a dozen recording studios, including Liberty Recorders (where they sit in on a recording session with drummer Sandy Nelson) and United Western Studios, both on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and the up-and-coming Elektra Sound Recorders on La Cienega in West Hollywood. They also visit Liberty's newly-acquired west coast record pressing plant, Research Craft, on North Fuller in Los Angeles. The trip is an eye-opener, since this is the first time the Joseys have an opportunity to see firsthand the workings of real recording studios, and a success, since they return to Austin with a substantial advance against future royalties on sale of the Winter album. They also return with new ideas for the future growth of Sonobeat.
The Winter album sale is the most-significant inflection point in Sonobeat's history, and, all in all, 1968 will mark Sonobeat's best year with its commercial releases at a high water mark: eleven singles, the label's first album release, and an album sale to a national label.
The Conqueroo • I've Got Time b/w 1 to 3 • R-s103
The Thingies • Mass Confusion b/w Rainy Sunday Morning • R-s104
Lee Arlano Trio • Jazz to the Third Power • PJ-s1001
Lavender Hill Express • Watch Out! b/w Country Music's Here to Stay • R-s105
The Afro-Caravan • Comin' Home Baby b/w Afro-Twist • R-s106
Winter • Rollin' and Tumblin' b/w Mean Town Blues • R-s107
Ronnie and the West Winds • Can't Win for Losing b/w Windy Blues • C-s108
Bach-Yen • This Is My Song b/w Magali • PV-s109
Lavender Hill Express • Outside My Window b/w Silly Rhymes • R-s110
Ray Campi Establishment • Civil Disobedience b/w He's a Devil (in His Own Hometown) • PV-s112
Jim Chesnut • About to Be Woman b/w Leaves • PV-s113
Fran Nelson • Yesterday b/w No Regrets • PV-s114