Ohio University

Sound Advice: John Butler in Analog and Digital

Sound Advice: John Butler in Analog and Digital
John Butler holds an antique RCA 44-BX ribbon microphone from his personal collection modified to work with modern recording equipment so he can use it in the classroom and the sound studio with his students. Photo by Daniel King.

Learning and teaching the art of audio production for over thirty years.

In February 1977, American Cinematographer Magazine published an article written by John Butler (Vol. 58, No. 2), retelling the challenges of sound recording on the open ocean culled from his experiences on the production crew of HAWAI'I PRESENTS: Voyage of the Hōkūle'a, a documentary directed by Dale Bell, and co-produced by the National Geographic Society and WQED Pittsburgh, 1976.

"I spent roughly three years working on a documentary, doing the sound recording of this boat, it's crew, and the trip from Hawaii to Tahiti, with National Geographic. I did interviews, and recorded songs from the people involved in the voyage. Later I also helped transfer old audio tape recordings for a book project about the voyage." 

Recounting tales in film and sound production, Butler inventories the many custom-built sound recording tools, water-tight cases, and antique and out-of-stock microphone collections built over the subsequent 40+ years since his adventures in sound began. 

This is Butler's final year teaching full time, to first year graduate filmmakers in the Film Division, guiding sound recording techniques in their bootcamp experience. Students receive a litany of information from the history of recording devices, to a variety of skills and techniques in sound recording all in a short five-week period.

The long-time member of the OHIO Film Division, mentor to both faculty and student film makers alike, Butler joined the film program at Ohio University in 1987, and almost immediately began building what would become the Peterson Sound Studio,  named after Tom Peterson, whose Cleveland-based Motion Picture Sound, Inc., was for many years, a major hub for filmmaking, sound recording, and editing in the Ohio region.

Butler and Peterson had worked together years earlier sound mixing for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and various projects with National Geographic, out of New York City. Butler worked on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood from 1968-1977, and was even a guest on a few episodes. According to Butler, everyone who worked on the show had a favorite character, and his was the X the Owl, commonly known as a life-long student, always eager to learn new crafts and creative practices. 

At OHIO, Butler quickly established a teaching environment and a culture of hands-on learning for graduate students, which continues today. During a conversation in Butler's office, in the span of twenty minutes, three seperate students popped in with questions, a routine occurance and the reason he keeps his door mostly open during the day.

In 2002, in a documentary sound class, one of Butler's students, Conrad Dillon, created a piece called "Mr. Butler's Neighborhood." Currently a Dayton-area attorney at law, Dillon described his project, including arranging an interview with Mr. Rogers and his crew. 

"The idea for the audio story was to create a tribute to John Butler. There's a mythical association between Butler and Fred Rogers. This was back in the primitive internet days, just about all I could find online was a phone number and an address for the production crew. I called the number—to my surprise found myself talking to Speedy McFeely himself, David Newell! The whole crew was so welcoming and friendly."

"I spent weeks recording thoughts from film faculty and students. My final move, was to wire myself with a mic and go into class and get some recordings of the man himself in his natural environment. He didn't know he was being recorded by a lavalier mic hidden in my shoe!"

"When I think about John Butler, I think about the idea of trying things differently. I think about how he always pushed us to try things differently—out of the box type solutions—and if it doesn't work, who cares. And if it does work, you're a genius!" said Dillon.

Reel-to-Reel Analog Audio Recorder
Butler steadies his Nagra Kugelski 4.2 reel-to-reel analog audio recorder. Photo by Daniel J. King.


An active member of The Cinema Audio Society and The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Butler creates sound designs for art installations, lectures at numerous universities and seminars, and is one of the leaders in audio restoration techniques. He continues to stay on the cutting edge of audio technologies, regularly answering calls for advice and consultation from industry leaders in film sound production.

Born in, and calling both North Carolina and Milwaukee his home, Butler pursued a degree in electrical engineering, and after moving to LA with his new degree, he landed a position with Mod Art Pictures (1961-1968) which brought him to Pittsburgh. Sound and audio production, just a hobby at first, quickly led him to work in the movie production and then the television industry with KQED and PBS Television.

You'd be hard pressed to visit New York City without experiencing some aspect of Butler's work, including sound installation systems for all the major airports, and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels under the Hudson River leading into New York City. 

On the set of Knightriders Butler can be seen holding the microphone boom
Butler holds the microphone boom on the set of the 1981 film Knightriders by Director George Romero.


Butler worked with filmmaker George Romero more than once, including on Knightriders (1981), which was shot in the Pittsburgh area. 

"Romero borrowed some equipment of mine when he was working on Night of the Living Dead. I wasn't available to join him on that project" said Butler. "Some of the sound on that film was recorded on my own equipment."

On any given day, Butler's phone may ring with questions about microphone frequencies, audio recording tips, or equipment recommendations. He jokes about purchasing a chess tournament timer, to set when answering those calls, as a means of charging for his advice.

"People sometimes ask me what is the best speak system in the world? You don't have to spend thousands of dollars. If you find a speaker that sounds good to you, that's the best one because, as I'm always reminding my students, we all hear things differently," said Butler.

"Many students come to my class expecting to learn how to record sound from the guy who taught Thomas Edison. My fellow faculty think they're being funny, because I've been around for so long. But I do teach students about how Edison recorded sound, showing them my collection of antique microphones and recording gear. I think it's really important to walk them through the history of it all, from analog to digital." 

Looking through this collection of microphones is like taking a walk through the history of sound recording, the weight of each microphone seems to get heavier and heavier the farther you go back in time. Butler's retrofitted many of the older microphones to work with today's equipment, so students have the chance to hear what they sound like. 

"In class we hook these older mics up, and students listen to them. I've got a student right now who wants to record live music, so he's borrowed a ribbon microphone from me. He came back after his first session and said 'Man! That sounds good!' With digital recording you often miss the low frequencies, but this older equipment still reproduces it."

A few years ago, the Peterson Sound Studio received some much-needed upgrades, including a facilities expansion and new equipment purchases. Facilitated through an 1804 research grant awarded to Butler in 2014, the Studio propped up its ProTools software system, and added additional portable sound equipment, all of which extend student learning and research, and support the kind the professional training necessary to prepare students for the field.

In the studio, Butler bridges the history of sound, connecting old microphones to contemporary recording technology. He connects today's tools with the basic concepts so students grasp the foundations of audio production, to create and reproduce sound to fit their creative needs.

He's recently been thinking about what he'll do in the future, although he plans to continue calling the sound studio his home base for awhile longer. One of his many ideas is to advocate for important historic markers that are falling into disrepair in urban areas like Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.  

"It could give me an excuse for traveling, I could just get into the car and chase historical markers, much like people chase storms. It could be an adventure"

In June of 2017, the seacraft Hōkūle'a, subject of Butler's early production story, returned home to the island of Oʻahu after nearly three years at sea, finally accomplishing what many thought impossible. The primitive hand-built seacraft circumnavigated the globe without technical instruments to guide it, using only the stars for navigation in the manner of Polynesian ancestors. 

As for the next leg of Butler's journey, he has yet to decide his course, but it will surely steer him toward sound, story-worthy waters.


Read more stories from the Summer 2018 Dance, Film, and Theater Alumni Newsletter.