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Pro-Co Sound

Pro-Co Sound – Uncle “Dirty”, Ronnie, Karen

Pro-Co Sound – Kalamazoo – Bryce Roberson (Uncle Dirty)

BRYCE ROBERSON – (Uncle Dirty) ENGINEER AT THE RECORDING STUDIO IN KALAMAZOO. ‘PRO-CO SOUND’. HE’S THE ONE WHO MADE ‘PUT THIS IN YOUR EAR’ SOUND LIKE IT DID…
We miss him, his great ear and his guitar playing…Ronnie Fray

 

 

SysTech (Systems & Technology in Music, Inc.) from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a collaboration between Greg Hochman (Keith Emerson’s Moog tech, later the North American sales director for Soundcraft) and Charlie Wicks (later the founder and CEO of Pro-Co).Together with Bryce Roberson (a.k.a. Uncle Dirty, ex-lead engineer at Chess Records), they formed the Sound Factory in Kalamazoo in the early 70’s. The company (consisting of Charlie’s Sound Factory, Greg’s SysTech and Bryce’s Uncle Dirtys recording studio) occupied an old factory site on Kalamazoo Avenue.

Because of the brilliance of the principals, Kalamazoo became a Mecca for musicians from Detroit, Chicago, and beyond.

Around 1969, Bryce also worked as a sound engineer at Great Lakes Studio (Dave Kalmbach) in Sparta, Michigan. He was also a fabulous guitarist who could play most any style of music.

 

From “The Steel Guitar Forum” February 8, 2002 by Larry Bell:

A Rat is a distortion device manufactured by a Kalamazoo MI company called ProCo.

They have made a number of devices through the years, but their claim to fame, other than the Rat, is their high quality cables and PA snakes.

At one time, in addition to the Rat, they made several rack mount effects devices. Ralph Mooney used a ProCo rack mount flanger to get the leslie sound on “The Wurlitzer Prize” for Waylon.

The Rat, TurboRat, Vintage Rat, and BRat are described on their home page (link above). I’ve seen Paul Franklin use one, in addition to many other steel players I’ve talked to or seen.

Hope this explains it. At one time (back when Gibson was in Kalamazoo), ProCo was located in a music complex including a music store, guitar repair facility, recording studio, and ProCo here in Kalamazoo. I used to hang out there when I first started playing steel, in the 70s. My first steel guitar session was at “Uncle Dirty’s Sound Machine Studios” — run by Bryce Roberson who cut his teeth at Chess Records. Now, ProCo is all that’s left. The company does pretty well, but it’s really difficult for a small company to survive in these economic times.

Bryce at Uncle Dirty’s

MCI JH16 Board 1978

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rodger Bliss via Michigan Radio

What a rich history that building has! Not only Gibson Guitars, but ProCo, Systems and Technology (Moog Synths), Uncle Dirty’s Recording Studio, and another I can’t remember. So cool to watch all those guitars moving from one area of production to the next in various stages of completion.

The best Gibson guitars were made by the ‘Kalamazoo Gals’

1944 Gibson WorkforceShare

18:04
An interview with Dr. John Thomas and Kalamazoo Gal Irene Stearns.

The “Banner” Gibson guitar is considered one of the finest acoustic guitars ever made.

Over 9,000 of these Banners were carefully built during World War II.

But Gibson company records show the company had shifted to producing goods for the war effort and not instruments, and most of the men who made those Gibsons at the headquarters in Kalamazoo were off fighting the war.

So who made these guitars that are still prized 70 years later?

That question and his love of guitars drove Connecticut law professor Dr. John Thomas to discover the remarkable answer, which he turned into a book called “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s Banner Guitars of World War Two.”

Thomas’s quest started with a photograph he found of a group of women standing in front of the Kalamazoo Gibson guitar factory in the 1940s.

“To say that picture haunted me probably is not much of an overstatement,” said Thomas. “I pinned it to the bulletin board in my office and just kept finding my attention going back to it, wondering what were all these women doing in front of that factory during World War II.”

Gibson records stated that no guitars were built during the war. Thomas eventually made it to the Gibson corporate headquarters in Nashville, where he went through thousands of pages of shipping ledgers to discover that 24,000 instruments were in fact shipped during the war.

While wondering why Gibson would deny making these guitars, Thomas found himself thinking back to that photograph. So, he took out advertising in local Kalamazoo papers asking to meet anyone who worked at Gibson during World War II.

Twelve women responded. One of them was Irene Stearns.

“I put my name in every place I could think of, because jobs were hard to find when I got out of school,” said Stearns. “One day they called and a neighbor came running over because we didn’t have a phone and said, ‘Well, you better go down to Gibson, they have a job for you.’”

For her job, Stearns made single strings. She knew nothing about making guitars when they hired her.

Thomas found that none of the women he interviewed who worked on guitars had any training, but they did all have experience in sewing, crocheting, or needlepoint, which Thomas believes was helpful.

In order to test the quality, Thomas started a project x-raying different Gibson guitars from before, after, and during the war.

“The women’s guitars . . . were more refined. Every little plate, every little brace, every little piece of material in the guitar is sanded just a tiny bit thinner, just a tiny bit smoother, and that’s the difference. And I contend that people can hear this. That’s why they sound so great.”

Stearns said that this is the first time that anyone ever cared about the work she did at Gibson.

“It was just a crummy job at the time. Any job, you know, so I could make my 20 or 25 cents an hour, and you’d go any place to do that. And I didn’t think it would ever be thought about again. Who would ever think that?”

So why did Gibson pretend that this never happened?

Thomas feels that part of it was that Gibson did not want people to know that they were diverting workers to nonessential production during the war. The other part was uncertainty over whether consumers would buy guitars made by women. So, these guitars were sold as “new old stock,” guitars that were made before the war and stockpiled until after the war.

Since Thomas’s research, Gibson has acknowledged and embraced this history.

For more information on Thomas’s book, go to kalamazoogals.com.

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full interview above.

 

Arthur Chrysler I recorded drum tracks at Uncle Dirty’s with Danny Watson – 1976.

Ronnie Fray  August 24 at 8:07pm We used to drive down to Kalamazoo on any given day (from G.R.) to buy stuff from Charlie and have our axes re-strung and set up by the pros. Bryce was always recording upstairs. Z.Z. Top was there one day installing new pickups and we went across the street (kitty-corner) to the theater to watch Roy Buchanan wow us! Oh yea, and we played in just about every bar in town!! AH, memories!

Mark Van Allen  As far as Bryce Roberson, I met him through Nancy Rogers as she had done some session work at Uncle Dirty’s and booked us a session for a band demo to help with booking. Bryce did a good job. One of the songs we did was a steel instrumental cover of ‘Wichita Lineman” and Bryce asked me if I could play the same thing again… I said “I guess so” and do my best to play the same melody line. My first experience with doubling, and that and other things piqued my interest enough for me to go back and hang around asking questions and trying to soak up some knowledge. If I would be sitting there long enough Bryce would say “why don’t you do something instead of just hanging around!” So I’d sweep up or make coffee or roll cables, and gradually he’d have me moving mics around and so on, on a good day I could get him to explain how a limiter worked, or why he picked the frequencies he did to EQ. I’ve been involved in recording in some way ever since.

Great to stumble over this site! I have very fond memories of Pro Co, Sunrise Guitars and Uncle Dirty’s- Tish helped me get equipped for my first gigs with my first band “Last Call” with Nancy Rogers on drums, back around 1976-77. We cut a band demo with Bryce and I just started hanging around the studio bugging him with questions and helping when he’d let me… indeed a cantankerous cat but also very helpful and full of great stories. That’s where I got my start in recording. The Sunrise guitars and Sunrise pickup were helmed by Pat Murphy and Tim Shaw who later went on to join the custom guitar sections at Gibson and Fender. Their solid bodies were very evocative of the much later Paul Reed Smith designs, and fantastic guitars. The Sunrise pickup was a favorite of touring pros like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and are still being made by another company. Those were indeed great times, I count myself very fortunate to have started in music in such a fertile climate. Thanks so much for the help, Tish, wherever you are!

 

 

 

 

 

17 Responses to Pro-Co Sound

  1. Dean madonia says:

    My first recording session was a six song demo with my friend Mark Kuiper. Bryce was good and that recording studio was nice. Bryce was a little bit on the crusty side, I had a friend come into play some horns and when he reached to adjust the mic, Bryce came out and yelled at him and asked “hey buddy, do you want to buy that mic?”
    Later that same day, he was really nice. He showed me Chet Atkins new Gibson prototype guitar and I got to play it even before Chet did!

    I remember some years later meeting some friends at the whistle stop to watch him play. He was a very talented man.

  2. Great to stumble over this site! I have very fond memories of Pro Co, Sunrise Guitars and Uncle Dirty’s- Tish helped me get equipped for my first gigs with my first band “Last Call” with Nancy Rogers on drums, back around 1976-77. We cut a band demo with Bryce and I just started hanging around the studio bugging him with questions and helping when he’d let me… indeed a cantankerous cat but also very helpful and full of great stories. That’s where I got my start in recording. The Sunrise guitars and Sunrise pickup were helmed by Pat Murphy and Tim Shaw who later went on to join the custom guitar sections at Gibson and Fender. Their solid bodies were very evocative of the much later Paul Reed Smith designs, and fantastic guitars. The Sunrise pickup was a favorite of touring pros like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and are still being made by another company. Those were indeed great times, I count myself very fortunate to have started in music in such a fertile climate. Thanks so much for the help, Tish, wherever you are!

  3. Dan Conway says:

    Mr. Flood’s Party, Mid-Michigan early 1970’s club circuit horn band recorded several dates at this studio with Bryce at the helm. Wish I could hear those tracks again written by Morris Hyatt including Mark Kersten, drums, (Me) Dan Conway, bass, Steve Trembly, guitar, Mitch, trumpet, Pete (Wiener) Clark and some others I can’t remember. There also was another studio we use to record at in Grand Rapids, whos name escapes me now, that as I remember had a pretty huge Live Room. Sound Machine studios had a lot of Gobos for isolation of the various instruments and a lot of padded surfaces. It seems red was a color used pretty much everywhere as I recall. One time, I remember Sonny Stitt was either booked before us and we had to wait till he was finished or we had to clear out fast because we ran over our time and he was coming in for his session. I remember Bryce as a great professional with great chops. I still have some photos of my ‘Uncle Dirty’s Sound Machine tee shirt I got when at the studio. Cheers!

  4. Chas Peake says:

    Best thing I remember about the Sound Factory was at the cash register Charlie had a sign that read: Fat Charlie’s Easy Payment Plan…Half Down The Rest Now. Remember doing a gig in late 70’s at the fair grounds with I believe his name was Steve King? running the sound with a SF PA system. Rocked. It was a great place just to hang there on AZO Aveune. Miss it much.

  5. Bill Hulet says:

    I have fond memories of Bryce at Uncle Dirty’s Studio, where as a music student at Western MI University during 1977-78, I used to get called to record jingles for local businessowners. Bryce was always easy going with a great sense of humor, but paid close attention to detail and was always willing to spend additional time to get something right. I thankful to have known him.

  6. Mark Orr says:

    I was a little suprised not to see a mention of Tish Weber along with the people who ran The Sound Factory. I think if she ran a ceryain section it would have been the in-house booking agency.
    Charlie Wicks played keyboard in the house band called Jasamine Tea. Another of the band names high up on Tish’s roster was Black Candle Mass Eve. I think I helped Tish book J. Tea at the old Shadowland Ballroom at Silver Beach in St. Joe and she laster helped my (from around St. Joe) group
    get a gig at a nice club in Kazoo called The Back Door.

    We recorded our first three song demo with Uncle Dirty in the booth. He seemed to come alive and be a very nice guy once the music started, but before that (during setup) he had us thinking we may have wasted a lot of money. He was, (as someone already mentioned on this page) cantankerous. For example, I as the keyboard player had my Hammond all set up and was wandering around the studio a bit. I raised the lid covering the keys on a house piano, and poked a few notes just to hear it.
    “‘You gonna play that on the session?” Said Uncle Dirty as he came out of the booth do do something in the room.
    “No” Says I. “I was just checking it out.”
    Wham! He slammed the lid back over the keys and hardly missed a step on the way to wherever he was headed.
    At that point we in the band all decided quietly to bolten up and accept that our engineer was not exactly behind our project. We adjusted our defenses because we had to go on, having paid the money already. But as I said, a few minutes later when we started recording he became very supportive and much more friendly. In fact, along with Tish he became my favorite resident of The Sound Factory.
    During the early evening of out gig at The Back Door (post set-up) we wandered the streets for a while and stepped into some little Jazz room called The Whistle Stop… or something. There was ol’ Uncle Dirty with a big red L5 playing the sweetest jazz guitar you ever heard.

    Play on Bryce.

    I was playing a concert at the Kazoo Civic center or some other big joint in the early 90s, and took a rental car over to ProCo. Tish was still there but hardly remembered me (until I mentioned my big brother). She gave me a ProCo tour and I saw a very changed Charlie Wicks all dressed up in a suit and all. He had trimmed down muchly, colored his hair with a little gray, and looked every bit a businessman, where the last time I saw him was sitting in t-shirt and jeans behind a Hammond B3 with a stack of other keyboards attached.
    One more memory is my first gig ever in Kazoo, (YMCA I think) booked by Tish. I had taken the lead vocal responsibilites by then. The sound system was thanks to the Sound Factory. ‘First line I ever sang, I blew a Phase Linear amp and we had to start over after a fix it break. I was so very proud.

    Those was the days my fiend.

    • admin says:

      Mark Orr,

      We don’t have much information on Uncle Dirty’s Sound Factory as not much has been wrote about the place. We are getting stories here and there, but for the most part, we are relying on guys like you to come forward with the crazy stories that went on there. I hear good and bad to horrible stories about Uncle Dirty and his cantankerous ways. He either liked you, or NOT.

      I’m wondering, there has to be a story or two, or three out there, contact us at WMMusicHystericalSociety@yahoo.com if you have one and we will see it gets to print.

      Doug Taylor, Admin, WMMHS

      • Mark Orr says:

        I know very little more about ProCo. I know they make some fine cables. The Sound Factory where ProCo was born also included a guitar making facility called Sunshine Guitars, and they made one noteable guitar I know about for a certain Billy Gibbons. The guitar body was in the shape of that little state called Texas. I think the Sunshine Guitar company had a real good reputation, but I’ve not ever been a guitar player and should not probably be quoted on the subject.

        Also there was a very popular device for guitar players called The Rat, which I think was produced by ProCo or some other division of the Sound Factory. It was designed to be placed on the floor between guitar and amplifier. Mash da button – you sound much more better.

        All their stuff was good, including Uncle Dirty. If he didn’t like you by the end of the day, it only meant that you probably sucked. After all, anyone can book studio time, you don’t have to be especially qualified. He probably saw the lions share of pretenders.

        Side note: Gibson Guitars used to be made in Kazoo, but they’re now made in Nashville. They got busted by the Feds recently for importing rare wood, protected by some nit law with provisions like “It’s okay to use it, but you gotta have it processed by it home country people…” or something like that.

        Most people around here (Nashvegas) think the Feds should have better things to do than invade guitar companies looking for rosewood.

        MO
        bornt in Charlotte, MI

  7. Keith Seccombe says:

    Me and Dem Guys recorded their last recording(probably their best )at Pro-Co, Mr Elevator and Separation!

  8. OK – did a little research and it looks like a MCI JH16. Any thoughts on the board? If anyone knew the complete complement of gear – please post. Thanks

  9. Chuck forwarded me a picture of Bryce in the control room from our 1978 session. Can anyone identify the board and the multi-track? thanks

  10. Hi, thanks for posting. My band, Magik Dayze, recorded an album at Uncle Dirty’s in 1978. We were fortunate to keep a copy of the master reel and I’ve recently digitized it and been building a site with the songs for download. After all these years the sound quality is still very good and needed only minimal tweaking. We knocked out 11 tunes in 2 days including overdubs, mixing and mastering. Bryce really had his system down. He was a little cantankerous but a true professional. We were fortunate to develop a relationship with Charlie and I would visit him at NAMM almost every year. He helped our band a lot with gear and advice and was a true pioneer in the pro audio field. I still have bass cabs made by the cabinet guy in the basement at the Sound Factory and to this day are some of the best sound single 15s in existence. Hope you don’t mind I grabbed the photo of Bryce for my site. Thanks again. Mike

  11. Ronnie Fray says:

    WHEN WE RECORDED OUR ALBUM WITH BRYCE – IT WAS ALWAYS HARD TO BE SERIUOUS. HE WAS A WONDERFUL GUY AND A HELL OF A PLAYER. GOING DOWNSTAIRS TO THE STORE WAS ALWAYS A TREAT…I MISS THOSE DAYS. =R=

  12. David Breese says:

    Just a note to let you know that ProCo Sound is now under the corporate umbrella of RapcoHorizon holdings and is doing quite well. I have been employed at RHC for going on 20 years & currently head up their CAD/Laser dept. Mis-spent most of my formative years hanging around the mid-70’s to early 80’s music scene in Grand Rapids ( Bob,Dick,Doug & Dennis Vogel, Ronnie Burke,Bob Reilly,Danny Parsons..ect ) and would not have missed it for the world. Some of the ” Un-noticed ” that i can recall…The Johnson Bros, Lotta Miles,Tuchyn(Jim Clanchie & his “Chicken Dance”), Stryder,…so many more that I cannot recall the names of. Anyhow, Love the site Kim, keep up the great memories and feel free to ask if you have any questions,I’ll do my best to recall….Breeze

  13. Bob Reilly says:

    Common People used to wait until we came back to Mich. so we could go to the Sound Factory and get our gear whipped into shape. Charlie was the biggest E.V. dealer in the country at the time and he talked thm into replacing all of our E.V. speakers at the time. ( About 30 of them ) S.R.O.s Iknow I used to blow about 16-20 a year . I had a West Filmore head and 4 cabnits wirh 1 / 15″ speaker in each , 2 Gouse ( spell? ) 2 SRO’s.We did alot of recording with Bryce, although we never released anything , had alot of his mullegan stew and chicken gizzards and Jack Daniels in that studio.Too many stories to tell , alot of good memories of that place.

  14. admin says:

    Mark Lamm also commented on West Mich Music Hysterical Society’s photo.
    Mark wrote: “Bryce was a good friend and a good engineer. Produced the first Martin & Lamm album for us in 1976.”

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