The Art Of Making Records – A Very Brief History

Making records, 50+ years ago, when I first made the transition from Rock’n’Roll musician to Producer/Engineer and sat behind a recording console, was entirely different from the way they are made today. The main, and most significant, difference was that in those days the recording engineer was documentinga performance -  Today, he is creating aperformance. This article will chart, briefly, some of the history of recording and offer some insight into the changing roles of the recording studio, recording engineer, musician and mixing the music as they all continue to evolve into the 21st. century.

We’ve come a quite a long way since musicians were carefully arranged around (sometimes) a single microphone, being required to stay put, and play until they “got it right”! The volume and blend between the instruments was worked out by trial and error until the most effective arrangement of the musicians around the microphone was found. On some early jazz and blues recordings, you can hear the whole balance change as the microphone was moved from one location to another to feature a soloing piano or other instrument. Up through the late fifties and into the sixties, music was still a live performance in the studio. Most recordings were monaural, two-track at most (Hi-fi). Machine to machine transfer of the recording, or “ping-ponging” as it was sometimes called, provided a way to add additional vocals or instruments to the performance as the transfer between the tape machines was being made. The classic recordings by Les Paul and Mary Ford represent the some of the finest examples of this recording technique. Incidentally, we have the guitarist, Les Paul to thank for helping with the invention and development of Sel-Sync®, or Selective Synchronization, which made multi-track tape recording possible.

The art of the recording engineer in those days was in bringing into the control room, and enhancing if possible, the music being performed live in the studio. The experienced engineer didn’t take for granted what he heard through the speakers in the control room, he walked around the studio, listened to the music, absorbing its energy and the interaction of the musicians in the room. Proof of this are the unique qualities that allow many of the “oldies” to stand alongside the technically superior recordings of today. Those qualities are the magic and excitement that existed in the studio, as the music was played, captured on the records Indeed, you can actually hear the room on many of the recordings of that era. Many of the early Motown and Atlantic records are like that  -  they still sound as good today as they did back then !

Recording continued relatively unchanged, even after the introduction of the four track tape machine with Sel-Sync®, in that the ability to overdub, in sync, didn’t really affect the way the basic performance was recorded. The basic, or rhythm, track was performed live, but now the vocals or additional instruments could be recorded on the adjacent tracks, either simultaneously, or later. Also, ping-ponging between two four track machines provided the option of recording the individual instruments of the rhythm section “live” onto separate tracks of one four track machine, then sub-mixing them down to one, or more, tracks of a second four track machine, leaving the remaining tracks open for vocals and additional instruments such as solos or string and/or horn arrangements. This sub-mixing procedure could go on almost indefinitely, being limited only by the buildup of tape-noise, and perhaps more importantly, by the ability to hold together a cohesive mix while continuously bouncing tracks backwards and forwards between tape machines.

Around the mid-sixties, the revolution in recording really started to gather momentum. There were many contributing factors: transistor and then more sophisticated solid-state devices began to replace the tube circuitry that had dominated every aspect of electronics; the eight track tape recorder  -  Interestingly, I believe that Atlantic Records had an eight track machine as early as 1958; primitive recording consoles were being replaced by consoles with multiple inputs, each having its own rudimental equalization, echo send and the ability to assign selectively, via output busses, to the individual tracks of the multi-track machine and finally the emergence of what we now call “out-board gear”, that is ‘stand-alone devices for echo/reverb, equalization, limiting/compression, or it is now known, signal processing.

Perhaps a more significant metamorphosis was in the role of the musician. No longer content to stay on “the other side of the glass”, many musicians were venturing into the control room, experimenting and impacting the electronic, as well as the musical outcome of their music. The recording console had become, in effect, a musical instrument. The Beatles and George Martin’s creativity, using  four track-to-four track (ping-pong) techniques, and utilizing the newly developed Dolby Noise Reduction®, set the benchmark for the sixties with their release, in England on June 1st. 1967, of “Sergeant Peppers Heart Club Band”. It remains one of the most influential popular music albums of all time.

The arrival of the 16 track, closely followed by the 24 track, in the early seventies, brought about another notable change. Up until this time, the studio itself had escaped critical attention. It was traditionally an environment in which music was performed “live” for purpose of recording. But now, with the capability of putting every instrument on an individual track, the existing studio acoustics presented quiet a dilemma  -  what could be done about the “bleed” between microphones? All of a sudden, the ambiance, the “liveness”, of the studio (the natural acoustic space between the instruments and the room) was now considered detrimental to this new recording procedure. Simply stated, the wonderful acoustical qualities of the studios that held together and enhanced the performance of musicians playing together -  were in danger of being abandoned in an effort to further isolate the instruments on the tracks of the multi-track tape machine!

Maybe it was rationalized that the instruments could always have dimension and depth added later, in the mix. In any event, studios were now being built and re-modeled to reflect this new trend in recording. It signaled a whole new era for the recording studio, both in decor and acoustics. Gone were the burlap, white acoustic tiles and institutional color schemes. These were replaced by walls of bright fabric panels, rock, mirror and oak or cedar paneling, exotic wood flooring and designer lighting. But, more consequential, were the acoustical innovations. The better designed studios incorporated different recording areas, some live, some dead and some totally isolated - the drum, piano and vocal booths. But many studios during this period, unfortunately, opted for “totally dead”. Over-trapped and non-diffusive, the acoustics in these rooms had the effect of removing every last trace of natural ambiance (kinetic energy) and with it, all the excitement of the music. The resultant sounds tended to be very shallow in the low end and thin and harsh in the middle and highs. Fortunately, this trend has slowly been reversing itself, with many studios returning to more traditional acoustical values.

Also, during this period (the early seventies on) the recording console was continuing to evolve. Features such as: VCA’s (Voltage Controlled Amplifiers) and computer automation, multi-band parametric EQ, in-line monitoring, multiple echo and effects sends, user-friendly operation, space-age ergonomics and improved control room monitoring capabilities were becoming common-place. Add to this the almost endless list of ‘out-board’ equipment plus the synchronization of multi-tracks via SMPTE time code, and it’s easy to see what a powerful creative tool the recording studio was becoming.

As can be expected, the role of the recording engineer was also undergoing some radical changes. His scope of endeavor and importance had expanded along with the technology, exponentially, to where he was now firmly sandwiched between an increasingly complex electronic environment and an increasingly aware class of musician. There was, however, a caveat in all this. Perhaps it was the complexity of this new electronic environment, and all the options it presented, that was increasing the amount of time being spent in the studio? Whatever it was, it seemed that for a while, the music was in danger of becoming a slave to the technology of recording it. An obvious hazard, of all this new technology was the time now required to set the basic recording conditions. It was not uncommon for an engineer to take 2 or 3 hours (and sometimes considerably longer!) to get a basic drum sound. Another indication of this phenomena could be seen in the vast amounts of money that were being spent by the record companies on recording budgets. Although, no doubt a contributing factor to the large studio bills was the unusual collection of “sideshows” that many studios were now providing  -  perhaps as a necessary distraction from all this overwhelming technology  -  for their clients, including kitchens, Jacuzzis, saunas, video and game rooms, all to be enjoyed, of course, while the clock was running. Ultimately, when the productivity ceased to balance with the investment, the “bean-counters” at the record companies got wise, and things got lean and mean in the studio business - but that’s a story for another day!

Trend changes in popular music and technical innovation continue to have a significant impact on the way music is being recorded and mixed. For instance, the utilization of equalization has changed conceptually over the past few decades. Just as no two pieces of music are ever likely to be exactly the same, the application of equalization can never be expected to be the same, and therefore it should never be used arbitrarily. I say this because of a bad habit that I’ve noticed among a lot of contemporary recording engineers - one that bothers me! This is the practice of, at the beginning of a mix, bringing up each track individually, and spending inordinate amounts of time equalizing and processing it, without even trying to evaluate all the tracks and the performance as a whole! At the very least, this practice leads to the over-equalization and processing of the tracks. A better approach might be to start the mix by reassembling the basic rhythm tracks, unaltered, and trying to re-create the magic for which that particular performance was chosen as the master. It is true that, with the addition and subtraction of various instruments to and from the mix, the tonal quality of some instruments may eventually need to be modified and processed, in order to better define and place them in the mix. But, I believe that an effort should always be made to first put everything into musical perspective without using any equalization or processing. You will be surprised at the difference in perspective that this simple exercise will give you. This comes from a trick learned, out of necessity, by recording engineers years ago, when equalization was a valuable and limited commodity, and used accordingly. The equalizer, in those days, was a corrective device, used to brighten up or add low-end to the overall mix, or to emphasize a section, or instrument, within the performance.

In most frames of reference, a good mix can be stated as a subtle composition of blend and definition. But remember, too much blend can produce a lack of definition. Conversely, too much definition can produce a lack of blend. This subtlety is particularly true of orchestral and big band music where instruments are sometimes blended together by the musical arrangement to create larger musical brushstrokes. But because, in general, the many different styles of music have their own idiosyncrasies, both musical and tonal, the end-mix, and the methods used to achieve it, will never be the same, and are therefore beyond the scope of this discussion. The fact is, some of today’s music does not seem to conform to any known standards, relying instead on seemingly discordant music and obviously disproportionate balances of the instruments and voices to convey its message. It’s as if the musicians are thumbing their noses at convention. But, I suppose that’s what makes this business so interesting?

One of the more consequential influences on the outcome of the mix in today’s music has to be the automation of the mixing process. It can present some serious creative pit-falls, with the potential for turning out mixes that are too perfect  -   too tight and lacking in air. In the wrong hands, the ability to continuously update (the computer/mix) allows for endless review all the parameters of the mix, fixing this and adjusting that, ad nauseam, in a desperate search for contrived perfection. It’s worth remembering that, sometimes there is more music between the notes, than in the notes themselves.

So far, in this discourse, we have not addressed a very important skill that every new recording engineer has to learn  - developing a system, a modus operandi. This will be his/her own way of working a session, and can only come with hands-on experience. Recording engineers, by their training, have hopefully been taught the correct sequence of events required to make a recording session go smoothly and productively. If only it was as easy as it was taught! Working a session will be, for many engineers, if not the most difficult, the most important lesson they will learn. This is because it brings into play a game-condition they haven’t yet encountered  -  working with other people! Sometimes, the inter-relationship of musician, producer and recording engineer can be as convoluted and volatile as any psychological thriller. Although not an everyday occurrence, being caught between the egos and hair-trigger emotions of musicians and producer, in the highly charged atmosphere of the recording studio, can be a very humbling experience - especially for the engineer! The ability to handle, and survive unscathed, these situations is an art-form in itself.

Unfortunately, even being a highly trained engineer will sometimes not be enough - at such moments, a Ph.D. in psychology might be more appropriate. Knowing when to speak, and more importantly, when to keep one’s mouth closed is a important part of this lesson. This is because in the studio, as in real life, trust is not carte-blanche - it is earned. The recording engineer must earn his clients trust and respect. Like a good producer, an engineer should be an honest mirror for the musician and his music - not a fun-house mirror that twists and distorts. An honest reflection of what he sees and hears. For instance, everybody in the room knows instinctively when things are not going right, musically or otherwise.

Knowing what is wrong in a recording session, and how to fix it, are two different things. The experienced recording engineer has learned how, and when, to confront and solve problems of almost every kind. He has learned how to interface with the producer and musicians and how to present his own ideas, all in such a way as to inspire their confidence and trust. Musicians, because of their unique musical abilities, are usually forgiven their shortcomings, temper-tantrums and ego-trips. But, the recording engineer is expected to be above all these human frailties, a professional, performing as if  for the first time - every time. Ironically, this is a description that is often used to describe the professional musician.

Just knowing how to position microphones and how to use the complex equipment that now fills every control room will never make a great engineer. In fact, I don’t think anything one can learn in college or from books can make anyone a great recording engineer! Just as a good word-processor will not make a great author -  it will only help him get his ideas down more efficiently without hindering his creative process. So, the recording studio, with all its wonderful technology, is only truly useful in the hands of the resourceful engineer who doesn’t rely on it to be more than a tool with which to paint pictures with sound. With, sometimes, 80% of the work now being done in the control room, the new generation of recording engineer has the potential to become more a more important member of the production team.

In the late seventies and early eighties, we were introduced to the future, as digital recording took its first tentative steps. Digital recording began replacing analog recording. Micro-processor based samplers began replacing earlier synthesizers and musical instruments. C.D.’s began replacing vinyl records. And, musicians began staying home to make their own recordings. Now, in the early years of the new millennium, recording equipment that once would have required a large truck to deliver it, can now be taken home in the trunk of the average Japanese automobile, and set up on the kitchen table. Today, the majority of recording in done completely within the architecture of the computer with hard disc systems such as DigiDesigns ProTools®. Computer and midi-controlled banks of digital samplers, with seemingly infinite sound libraries, are replacing many of the acoustic functions of the conventional recording studio.

Because of all this, the musician is, perhaps, the biggest winner. He now has at his fingertips the equipment and technology to create his own performance, at his own speed, in the comfort of his own living room. Even so, I can’t help but believe that the traditional recording studio will always have a legitimate place in the real world, as there will always be a need for its unique environment and services.

There is a magic in musicians playing together  -  whether a trio or orchestra  -  where the total can so easily be greater than the sum of its parts. So far, no computer or sampler can come close to emulating that magic, and I sincerely hope they never will. Also, there will always be, at least a handful of musicians who will want to get together and make music  -  just like the good old days! Perhaps, the most sage advice that I could offer would have to be that, the ability to do anything should never dictate the need to do everything.

Christopher Huston

©Copyright 2005