I’m here in Aalborg, Denmark for the 11th Art of Record Production conference. ARP is one of my favourite conferences, for the following reasons:
- It’s a good mix of academics and studio practitioners
- It has an open-access peer-reviewed online journal
- It consists entirely of techy people, so the PowerPoints and sound systems always work
- The entire conference programme pack can be carried in your pocket – see photo
Our first keynote speaker St John’s University’s Susan Schmidt Horning (New York). Susan’s research deals with the way musical style is shaped by developments in recording technologies. Her book ‘Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP’ is known to many ARP delegates.
Susan’s starting point is the technological, social and cultural upheaval from the 1960s, drawing a line from postwar technologies. Ampex tapes became the industry standard, based on the work of a company that began in Radar research. The major labels – RCA, Decca and Columbia – all began around the mid-20th century. They had a dramatic effect on recorded sound because they were monetising recordings, due in part to the empowerment of a new generation of young people with disposable income who could purchase the new pop product – the single, and later, the album.
We next see a brief history of early studios, from the 1910s to the 1930s, noting that electrical recording for the first time empowered recording studios to control the level of recorded signal. Recording engineers of this generation came out of a mechanical engineering tradition. Susan observes that this legacy of the Victorian era may be part of the reason that recording engineering started as (and to some extent remains) such a male-dominated profession.
We now move to the 1940s and an outline of the history of early multi-tracking, starting with disc-to-disc dubbing, with Sidney Buchet’s one man band as an example. She notes that unions initially opposed multi-track on the basis that it would put musicians out of work. The new technologies of the time included attempts to sell potable reel to reel tape recorders to families to document their own social events. Ampex led the field here, and the portable units became very popular for recording high school bands; the Moondog recordings are cited as an early commercial project based on mobile street recording. Engineer Sam Phillips started recording funerals and private events on disc. When tape came in he opened Memphis Recording Studios. We next hear a version of Miserlou from the album Enoch Light’s Persuasive Percussion (1959), an early example of hard pan to demonstrate the emerging stereo technology of the time. Susan observes that many in the recording industry did not believe that stereo would catch on. Even in the early 1960s mono studios were being built, and some rapidly had to be adapted to meet market demand for stereo recording.
Percy Faith’s ‘Theme from a Summer Place’ was the best-selling record of 1960. Its musical and production conservatism is contrasted with the Joe Meek-produced Telstar, to demonstrate how fast production innovation was moving at the time.
We also hear about some lesser-known innovators. Susan’s research included Cleveland’s Tom Boddie, who built his own studio in the early 1960s (although his business was compromised by the racially-related social upheaval of 1967, whereafter fewer clients were willing to come to Cleveland). Ken Hamann’s work at Cleveland Recording Company is cited as an example of another small studio business that could innovate quickly and adapt to cultural and market changes (albeit supported economically by a lot of advertising recording work).
[A brief fashion diversion; Susan notes that many engineers wore a suit and tie throughout the 1960s; this changed in the next decade]
Advertising was a big part of studio economics in the 1960s in the US; bands would record pop versions of jingles, and the idea of bespoke jingles declined. The example given is the Turtles singing ‘Pepsi Pours It On’ (1968).
And so to Brian Wilson. In the mid 1960s the Beach Boys were responsible for more than 50% of all of Capitol Records’ income. We hear excerpts from Wilson’s studio audio notes and Smile sessions, including Heroes and Villians Pt 3 (animals), The Elements – Fire (Mrs O-Leary’s Cow) and Psychodelic sounds – Underwater Chant. The point is made – Wilson’s work was pioneering (and from the examples chosen, must have seem unhinged to the recording industry’s old guard of the time), and this level of experimentation would have been unthinkable 10 years earlier. Why were musicians doing this? Because they were making so much money for their record companies that they were given the freedom, time and money to experiment with the emerging recording technologies. Even so, towards the end of the 1960s bands started to move away from major label-owned studios to the more informal environment of private and custom-designed studios. Producers and musicians began to reject the unionised, highly constrained creative environment where only label engineers were allowed to touch the mixing board. More musicians began to take part in the engineering of their own records.
The recording community was simultaneously supportive and competitive; Tom Down learned about Les Paul’s 1957 custom-built Ampex 8-track, and asked Ahmet Ertegun to buy one for Atlantic in 1957. We see a photo of Dowd engineering Cream’s Strange Brew in 1966. Multi-track drop-ins became more and more common, to the point of being erratic and frustrating some engineers. Jimi Hendrix wanted creative control and would get hands-on with the mixer, although the story goes that when Hendrix went to pick up his guitar the RCA engineers would set the controls themselves because of his limited technical knowledge of the settings.
The control board at Columbia in 1966 still did not have linear faders; we see a photo of Studio ‘B’ in 52nd street in 1966, and Susan notes that Columbia did not leap immediately to the latest technology at that time, because it would have meant updating all their studios simultaneously at massive cost.
By the late 1960s multitrack was ubiquitous, and Susan (quoting Phil Ramone) argues that its introduction was the single biggest change that affected how records were made. The Rolling Stones, the Stooges and The Band are cited as on-site band-led recordings of the era.
Note for researchers; Susan undertook 135 hours of interviews for her research, and has donated all of the content to a freely available archive based out of University of Kentucky libraries. The recordings are gradually being made available.