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Thorne at the Stereo Society
Thorne at the Stereo Society
The Recording Studio
Rise and Fall of an Institution
Beginnings And Early Evolution
The Electrical Revolution
Musicians Become Alienated By The Search For The Better Sound
The Studio As Instrument
The Studio As An Alien Environment
Punk Rock And The Return Of Excitement:
The Sex Pistols And Anarchy In The UK
Synthesizers And The Evolution Of The Computer Studio
The End Of The Professional Recording Studio?
Beginnings And Early Evolution
The recording studio might be one of the least pleasant of all human environments. A typical contemporary studio has no windows. The control room pretends to be air-conditioned, kept cool if only for the comfort of the equipment in it, and if it really works the powerful fans always seem to blow freezing cold air down the back of your neck. Our human environment is compromised in the same way as professional kitchens, which are often not air-conditioned, lest the food cool too quickly. There is a carefully controlled, claustrophobia-inducing acoustic in both recording and monitoring areas. The control-room floor shape accommodates a row or two of chairs facing the monitor speakers, with perhaps a large sofa on the back wall the only concession to bodily comfort. Rarely is it possible to sit in a social group; orientation is always toward the speakers and the industrial wasteland of the mixing console surface. At least one large black leather executive chair will pander to the presumed self-importance of the record producer, the person who hired the place on behalf of the record company that pays the bills. Surely this cannot be anyone’s idea of a comfortable and productive work environment? How did this torture chamber evolve?
The phonograph was originally principally promoted by Thomas Edison (1877) as an innovation that would revolutionize dictation of letters to secretaries by their bosses, along with other exciting bureaucratic relaxations (entertainment was not encouraged), although Emile Berliner (1888) focused on music with his gramophone. When it started growing significantly, several decades later, the development of music recording technique was improvised in the field, often by engineers serving the needs of broadcasting. Popular music subsequently depended on what have become known as ‘classical’ techniques; there was no option but to capture the pure sound available at a carefully selected point in the performance room. Recordings from this time often have one huge voice with a vague orchestral presence somewhere behind it, the producers playing safe with the projection of the main ingredient.
Music recording only began to be taken seriously after the first world war. Although recording predated sound broadcasting by 30 years, its commercial expansion in the twenties meant that its techniques initially drew from those developing for radio, which was arguably capable of clearer home reproduction until the development of electrical shellac disk recording. The loudspeaker or headset was a more efficient reproducer than the recording stylus, and acoustically-coupled gramophones even persisted until the fifties when they were finally swept away by the introduction of the vinyl long-playing record. My grandfather only replaced his hand-cranked machine in 1954. Classical music enthusiasts are a conservative crowd. It was a few years into his hi-fidelity enlightenment before he would stop observing that ‘I don’t hold with this stereo business.’
Acoustic conditions in the typical church hall or small church could be very enhancing for the music, not surprisingly, since most of it was written for similar performing spaces. As the twentieth century progressed, classical recording venues were increasingly constrained by and chosen more for their freedom from aircraft, railway and traffic noise. Some of the most helpful acoustics, such as at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (local traffic), the Kingsway Hall in London (the Underground’s Central Line), or Carnegie Hall in New York (the Seventh Avenue subway) would be invaded by external noises. Monitoring, compared with modern purpose-built standards, was makeshift, and continues to be so. A classical engineer on location in a typically still-improvised control room in the vestry or office can only speculate about the state of the lower audio frequencies. The typically jangly room acoustics make judgment of reverberation more about recalling previous translations of recordings to a more controlled monitoring environment where the results could be judged most accurately.
Recording have always made awkward demands on performers and their instruments. The microphone can impose its own strict discipline. For the earliest recordings, where the ensemble would group opportunistically around the single acoustical recording horn, special string instruments were built with a metal trumpet protruding from the sound box, giving a tinny, horn-like quality. Curiously, a large saxophone ensemble sounds like strings, so that instrument was also co-opted to help the sound discreetly. (My personal experience of the big saxophone ensemble came from recording 120 of them in London in 1976, released as a single ‘by’ Symphony Of Saxes. The sound’s impact in the room was shattering and different, but the recorded sound was curiously like a gigantic string section.) Under those circumstances, the music-making probably wasn’t much fun, and most performances were not inspiring. The horn diaphragm was connected mechanically to the recording apparatus, cylinder and then disk.
Electricity was not the mediator it is now. (It was barely part of the show, since its widespread domestic adoption trailed behind progress in sound recording.) After it had moved the recording horn’s diaphragm, air motion had then to be amplified mechanically using resonance, as does a piano’s sound board or an acoustic guitar’s hollow body, to drive the stylus across and through the wax recording medium. That’s a lot of physical effort. By definition, reliance on resonance means that the recorded sound was limited to a honking-sounding, narrow band of frequencies, far more restricted than the full perceptible audio range we expect from our contemporary stereos.
The Electrical Revolution
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All this primitive scratching around was to change with the invention of the electrical microphone. This was an elegantly simple device. The moving air of a sound displaced a diaphragm physically connected to a coil of fine wire. Not many years before, in his groundbreaking experiments and treatises on electricity, James Clerk Maxwell had laid out some very fundamental practical electricity. If a wire is moved in a magnetic field, the ends of the wire are at a changing voltage corresponding directly with the movement. The realization that this sound ‘analog’, a varying voltage, could then be amplified is the basis of most of the electrical processes we depend on today, from microphones to high-voltage power lines. This was ‘analog’ recording. The electrical voltage was the ‘analog’ of the sound, or the variation in air pressure at the ear. A variation in air pressure corresponded as closely to the voltage produced as the mechanics of the microphone and the electrical circuits would permit; deviations became known as ‘distortion’. In typical pragmatic manner, the early engineers would adjust for imperfections in the ‘analog translations’; this was so much easier to do with an electrical signal.
This shift to an ‘analogous’ electrical signal could provide much more power for the disk cutter head to engrave the wax disk at the now-standard speed of 78rpm; in principle, building a transducer to cover the whole audio range would depend only on engineering refinements of these early examples. Initially, recording was made directly to shellac disks, with strict engineering procedures resembling a religious ceremony, and using enormously cumbersome apparatus, massive weights and balances to keep the lathe turning steadily and to insulate the recording platter from building vibration. However, once sounds were in an electrical analog form, they could be processed, altered and combined, subject purely to aesthetics of ears and electronic circuit design.
Storage mechanisms did not even have to be mechanical. Just prior to the Second World War, the German company IG Farben invented the magnetic tape recorder; solid-state memory is now routine, with a typical new personal computer having enough to store five minutes of CD-quality stereo sound. The modern sound mixing console, the visible heart of the studio, would develop in a smooth evolution from the first solo electrical microphone erected next to the conductor in front of his orchestra to contemporary behemoths capable of mixing and processing over a hundred streams of audio simultaneously.
As the technology of altering and controlling sound evolved, so did the ‘real’ versus ‘recorded’ debate. ‘Is it live or is it Memorex’, one of the wittiest ever advertising slogans, also encapsulated a conundrum. Historically, recording was on a frantic quest to find the Holy Grail of duplicating actual acoustic experiences in the living room. Creative people manipulating the big black knobs had other ideas; their recordings were driven by the desire to increase the impact of the ‘music’. There are still furious arguments about what constitutes sonic fidelity, about how faithfully a recording recreates the ‘original’ sound. ‘Music’ as an abstraction hovers somewhere above. Perhaps such debate can only exist in a classical world where electricity has not polluted the original sound.
For some, the recording ideal will always remain classical: to reproduce the perceived sound of a performance space in a different listening room. For a radio broadcaster in the thirties, control and manipulation were paramount. Switching between microphones and then blending their outputs was obviously very important, and multi-microphone techniques were soon applied to live recordings and broadcasts to raise the singer’s or soloist’s level. It was judged that raising a singer’s level above that heard in the room increased the impact of the music, an early aesthetic value judgment and a clear move away from ‘fidelity’. Curiously, ‘classical’ opera recordings that highlight the voice, often to excessive levels, rarely offend the purists even as I find many verging on unlistenable because of the resulting disconnected and disposessed instrumental counterweight. In the opera house, all is fine, balance and interplay maintained. Singers use an appropriate tone to project to the back stalls/parquet. Unfortunately, when recording such projection sound hits a microphone six feet away (at most) and is reproduced inappropriately.
The next recording development was driven by the natural creative desire to heighten the music’s effect. Compensations and enhancements started to be implemented for tonal variations and dynamics, using equalizers and compressor-limiters. An equalizer is simply a glorified tone control, providing for boost or cut of chosen parts of the audio spectrum. When you are hit with jargon such as ‘plus 3 at 6K’, the audio high priests simply mean raising the sound level by 3 decibels (dB) (doubling its acoustic power) at frequencies centered on six thousand cycles, tailing off at either side ideally with a user-specified amount (known as the Q, a measure of the range of frequencies affected at either side of this nominal ‘6K’, a measure of the focus of the frequency change). A compressor smoothes out the dynamics of a sound, softening the loud and raising the quiet. In broadcasting, these were used simply to increase the range of analog AM radio stations, and their deployment in the competition to make the loudest record would come later. Compressors are relatively complex in their operation, and often depend more on electronic design as judged by effect on the ears rather than some predetermined objective truth. As observed, objectivity is a really a chimera in music reproduction.
Early equalizers and compressors used tube electronics. They were very bulky, and affected the sound in more ways than was theoretically intended, or even considered ‘nice’. Compression is a form of distortion, in the dynamic domain, and its use needs skill, sensitivity and experience. Mishandling it can give very unpleasant results, although these in their turn can be used creatively in novel ways. If it sounds good, use it: a golden rule anywhere, but reliant on a self-confidence which is not always in effect. Sound engineers saw possibilities in these new, sometimes unforeseen sound changes, and design started to follow those confident creative ears. Some of the models from the forties and fifties, typically by American companies such as Altec or Fairchild, are prized and expensive possessions in a modern recording studio. EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London, although embracing the latest digital technologies, still maintains vintage EMI-built electronics, a major selling point for the facility and, of course, big support for the contemporary engineers.
Many music studios were built by the radio stations for the convenience of popular broadcasts. The sound mixer would sit behind several large, important-looking black control knobs. The microphone output would be routed to an appropriate mixer channel, and the show could then begin. In principle, there was no limit to the number of inputs which could be controlled, but getting a radio show out quickly and economically imposed tight operational constraints. Efficiency was paramount. Providing a continuous stream of radio kept the studios lean and mean; there was little surplus for experimentation, except in a few progressive institutions which had the inspiration to set aside a room to develop what would become classical electronic music. The composer John Cage famously observed that a recording is a piece of electronic music, and his crisp observation underlines the continuing developments in sound control and manipulation.
Musicians Become Alienated By The Search For Better Sound
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In the forties, the music recording itself became a money-making commodity, and much more care would be devoted to session set-up. The real-time economics of radio production ceased to apply, and money was spent to improve the ultimate product, the record. What was a single, fleeting radio moment could be repeated many times. Since the consumer was buying an artist’s performance, and it would be played repeatedly, the record had to sound as good as possible. The conflict between the artist’s performing environment and the control of sound, in the interests of a stronger presence in the listener’s living room, began to hurt. Luckily for the audience, it rarely sees the discomfort inflicted on the typical performer in the best studios in the interests of ‘better sound’. At the lower end of the market were recording studios evolved in the producer’s home, the forerunner of the ‘garage’ rock+roll band and the bedroom synthesizer studio.
Creative entrepreneurs in the fifties and early sixties, some of whom became famous world-wide, would cobble together a few pieces of equipment in their homes and record local talent in what came to be seen later as very radical ways. They were responding to the exigencies of a physically and economically cramped situation – and the desire to make records. Berry Gordy ran an informal domestic operation (Hitsville Records, from 1959) which quickly grew to be more than shoe-string sized, recording in his home in and selling the disks out of the trunk of his car; he defined the ‘Detroit sound’ of Motown Records. Compared with the corporate Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles, his original home studio and operations base looks very human and informal. (How informal, I experienced in the early seventies when looking for recording employment in Los Angeles – the Motown Records switchboard gave me his home number as if it were that of another office and I had to apologize profusely for disturbing the great man in his domestic bedlam, his wife yelling at him down the hallway on some serious issue.) Down in Tennessee, Sam Phillips started recording in the late forties out of his storefront, captured rapidly evolving rhythm and blues for his Sun Records from the late fifties, and launched the young Elvis Presley. Phillips was to define yet another sound and style.
In swinging sixties’ London, an alliance of independent studios and producers was emerging to challenge the hegemony of the large studios connected with radio/record/electronics institutions like EMI, Decca and Pye. These new young Turks improvised what are now classic rock+roll studios in church halls (Olympic), commercial basements (De Lane Lea), a tolerant artists’ building (Lansdowne), an old BBC radio studio (IBC) or by taking out walls in cramped adjacent Soho accommodations (Trident). While there were fewer of the US down-home producer/studio builder types, eccentrics did extraordinary work. Joe Meek built his own very effective but very non-traditional electronics into his rented Holloway flat and turned out classic pop records by the Tornados and the Honeycombs. Stomping sounds, reinforcing the rhythm, were recorded in the hallway; Phil Spector used a similar basic technique, and once you realize what you’re hearing the method is obvious. Later, Meek was involved in founding Lansdowne, but soon departed spectacularly, using a shotgun on his landlady first and then himself. His compressor design is back in production, looking very fancy in a box selling at the very non-homemade list price of $1999.
Mickey Most became the most successful independent producer in London in the early sixties, making lean, direct pop records by rough blues-derived elements like the Animals and distant cousins such as Donovan, Lulu and Hot Chocolate. These were made cheaply and cheerfully. Most cut the Animals’ House Of The Rising Sun in 1964 at De Lane Lea Music, in an awkward basement under the Midland Bank at the top of Kingsway in London (although there was a window between the control room and the studio, the layout made it impossible to see the band if you were sitting at the console). The band was mixed straight to mono, and the recording sessions took half an hour to complete. The studio rate was £3 per hour, including tape. The invoice for thirty shillings (less than $4 at the time) was still on file when I worked there in the early seventies. I had meant to pilfer a Xerox copy. Too bad. It must be lost by now.
All this raucousness began to make the institutional studios in England and America look very staid indeed. Despite the Beatles-provoked innovation bursting out of Abbey Road, the recording engineers had only literally left their white-coat technicians’ uniform behind around 1970 (the Americans were largely casual by the fifties). Finally, it looked as if the grubby jeans-and-T-shirt brigade had penetrated the establishment, although in fairness, we should remember that such dress was rare in Royal Festival Hall orchestral concert audiences until the mid-seventies, and announcers on the BBC’s cultural Third Programme were encouraged to wear tuxedos for announcing on the radio. However, the larger institutions still assumed responsibility for standards and development, and were effective at it. The smaller outfits, while nimble, did not have the central, pooled resources to keep down maintenance and service costs to an economically viable level. Abbey Road might have been stodgy, but it was certainly reliable.
The dominance of the large centers in London, New York and Los Angeles would continue, with revolutionary independent studios evolving into large complexes in their turn. Through this mechanism, the apprentice traditions ensured that the practical skills of the recording industry were handed down, to flower in a heady confluence of taught technique and inspired innovation (in parallel with the furious hardware development). The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1966 using, at most, two four-track tape machines linked together. There were up to eight primary audio streams at the final mixdown to mono or stereo, such musical control being achieved at great technical inconvenience. De Lane Lea, where I had worked as an eight track studio assistant until 1971, bought their first 24-track machine later that year. Five years later, it would be routine to link two together to give 46 tracks (one track on each was required for the synchronization signal). The record business continued expanding and consolidating. The pressure was on to produce the biggest and best, and even with the pitiful money available to an artist to make a single 7-inch record, the sheer volume of sales generated fortunes (although not always to the people who made the record). Everyone wanted in, at all levels and functions.
‘The Studio As Instrument’
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In the late sixties and early seventies, the cliché of the studio-as-musical-instrument infected routine journalism. Recording engineers and producers often would see themselves as keepers of the flame, like priests with access to divine insight. By many, artists were increasingly treated as wild and woolly animals, undisciplined heathen incapable of competent use of anything vaguely technical. In the spirit of the times, I remember with embarrassment explaining to an experienced musician how the headphones worked and where they plugged in. I was lucky not to have been smacked. However, I did see one string player completely defeated by the problem of opening a folding music stand.
The artist’s social recording environment, in fairness, was very different from now. In retrospect, it looks like a permanent party. Recording studios were very cheap (in 1970 the most expensive studio in London ran about £20 ($45) per hour) and the speed with which records were made (since eight-track recording was the most available) combined to remove most economic pressures from the studio scene. One 1971 album I worked on in De Lane Lea, Skin Alley’s 38 Hours, took its name from that small amount of studio time used to complete the whole album. The producer may have been more thrilled than the band. £684 of studio time (De Lane Lea was £18 per hour on my watch) could go a long way in the High Street record store. Even if this was extravagant compared with the legendary Beatles’ taking just two days to record their earlier albums, it looks like nothing to us now: quite another creative age. Artists and producers began a search for new and better sounds, starting a technical escalation that would eventually leave our contemporary recording studio sometimes in the same frozen cultural place as an opera house or a cathedral service.
When the number of parallel tracks on a professional tape recorder reached 24, we had the possibility of putting each instrument on its own, separate track, and even recording single instruments in stereo. Earlier splits such as four, eight and sixteen, didn’t quite give the elbow room; space demanded that some instrumental feeds were mixed. With 24-track recording, the performance could be captured for later leisurely consideration and processing. Decisions that might go wrong in the heat of the music’s performance could be postponed to a calmer day. Very quickly, the first strike for control came from the studio designers. In order to minimize leakage from one instrument into another’s microphone (to increase ‘separation’), studios became very dead acoustically, a technique made possible by contemporary advances in techniques of artificial reverberation, which simulated the reverberation of a room. Musicians became isolated behind screens and in booths.
The Studio As An Alien Environment
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Led by Tom Hidley of Westlake Audio, studio design became homogeneous, making worldwide turnkey studio environments for quite specific instrumental lineups that reflected the dominant rock music ensembles of the time. These rooms were beautifully designed, and a pleasure for the producer to work in, and economies of scale in design held the price reasonable (studios have never been cheap to install). It was possible to record rich colors by using close microphone placements, as exemplified by Fleetwood Mac in their early-seventies heyday. However, this obsession with acoustic separation made it impossible for musicians to converse and interact easily when recording. Drummers took it for granted that they had to lean forward and yell into the snare drum microphone to communicate with anyone outside of the booth into which they had been sealed. Only the similarly incarcerated vocalist was necessarily favored with a microphone, which didn’t help typical band politics.
Bad tempers and fights increased, although the engineers were far happier with the results of their efforts, judged in their isolated control room. The talk-back mike in the middle of the studio became a fixture. Ironically, this mike, in the best position for picking up a little of everything was often recorded and used to help the artificial reverberation (which added what you would have heard in a familiar acoustic space) at the final recording mix-down. We should have seen the sign. Someone should have noticed sooner that open recorded air was missing and had much to contribute to a convincing overall sound as experienced by the punters. As an aspiring engineer in the early seventies, I was taught that you can tell good practitioners by the way they use bad separation. There was far less chance to show off in the homogeneous mid-seventies.
As a result of this emphasis on technology rather than environment, a young band with no studio chops could find the recording studio very intimidating and frustrating. They would be marooned on an island completely removed from any of their previous musical experience, and under great economic pressure to create and finish the music to the standards of them and their sponsors. Musical spontaneity dropped in proportion to the reverberation, and stress increased, although ruling experts on both sides of the glass didn’t notice for a long while. Sounds were becoming more impressive in their final resting place, the finished record.
Evolving in that new environment, an imposing breed of studio musicians was emerging, epitomized by the crack Los Angeles players with flawless, virtuoso technique. This animal could play anything, and make it sound marvelous. Serious technical chops had been only in the classical province, but now pop music was enthralled with the new refined breed. Raggy, untamed, dangerous music was eliminated, and technical display became uppermost. We were impressed by this new twist, but there was a big price to pay. What the instrument could do became more important than the message, and the virtuoso machine came to dominate people in a similar way to much computer activity today. Gradually, the records of the early- to mid-seventies became remarkably dull. It happened slowly, over perhaps four years, so that the workers in the factories didn’t notice too easily, like a frog in a kettle not noticing the rise to boiling point and its demise. The spirit of rock and roll, and of popular music in general, was being suffocated, and we were in desperate need of a little iconoclasm. Time for trouble.
Although the dead-acoustic studio revolution was started by an American, in the mid-seventies it seemed to me that the US recording industry overall had much broader understanding of the use of acoustics in music making. The gentle art of microphone placement was not dying, as it sometimes appeared to be in England. If a snare drum sound was not up to expectation, a New Yorker would get up and move the mike, understanding the different timbres detected by different placements. Sadly, a Londoner would more likely to reach for the equalizer. America has the advantage of being large enough to sustain local pockets of specialized recording practice. These are often linked to a particular entrenched style of music, most prominently in Nashville and its country tradition. Musically, London is a small town, and changes fast. Its strength is in tending not to be a repository of style, but being always ready to change to a new, city- or even country-wide approach. It has less inertia and can embrace new ideas efficiently and nimbly, whereas the American studio has relied more on traditional expertise, which in general provides a much steadier technical hand (as noted with the strengths of EMI Abbey Road).
Punk Rock And The Return Of Excitement:
The Sex Pistols And Anarchy In The UK
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It’s not surprising that punk rock, based on an unqualified rejection of the musical experts’ opinions, started in the US but flowered quickly and fully in the UK. That and the more progressive New Wave which developed from it are generally seen as a destructive kind of kick-out-the-jams movement, but the British social and music-making revolutions of the late seventies were more constructive, and depended heavily on each other. These upheavals changed the record business irrevocably (at least the visible part), and gave a fresh chance to a ‘New Wave’ of managers, record makers and producers such as myself who wanted something new, and were not prepared any more to defer to experts: no more emotional bankruptcy delivered with perfect technique. You could use a little knowledge and a good example, but the time was now past when you acknowledged your musical place and obeyed your parents. The brats were getting noisy. The generational clash in the studio could be as startling as that in the clubs.
The punks didn’t want to be preached to by experts. They had something to say, and as little technique as possible or necessary was used in getting it across. There were some entertaining meetings of minds when punks met a particularly condescending engineering staff, creating legends of the Damned’s Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies taking a leisurely stroll on his recording console. While the UK tabloids were dissolving into their shock-horror headlines, they missed the point that these unwashed children were reinventing the simple three-chord pop song and delivering it with an energy and speed not felt since fifties’ rockabilly. Many thought that pop music had been bogged down in class and complex chords, and here were these most unlikely rescuing heroes heavily disguised with spiky hair and safety pins through their cheeks. They wanted different sounds, too. Progress towards complexity and refinement had left the listener behind. This new alliance between artist and audience preferred excitement and novelty, the essence of popular music.
In the studio, the most obvious change was the returning sound of fresh air in recordings. No-one wanted to sacrifice studio excitement for a better sound; it was clear where the priority should always have been, to capture that fleeting, high musical moment where everything seems to go to a higher plane. Excitement mattered more than someone else’s suspect ideal of quality. Quality could be safe and quantifiable, and that was exactly the point. You could get everything ‘right’ and convince yourself you were making a great record; the true judgment is far more difficult and mostly intuitive. Instead of parceling away the drum kit in a pre-sized dead box (with perhaps a little nicely-finished pine wood appliqué to get a that organic natural resonance), we brought it out into the room and gave it space. The guitar amps didn’t need much air around them to sound good, particularly with the high distortion favored by everyone, so they were banned to the booths. Suddenly, everyone could talk to each other again; it was a very pleasant social reunion.
After any revolution, reconstruction is necessary, and that often means reinventing the wheel. There was a lot of studio discussion about people wanting ‘that Motown sound’, and I spent some time puzzling about what intuition was at work, what people were missing, what might be a modern musical equivalent. Those old records have a raucous, splashy sound, but nothing like the power that this new music was demanding. What the punks needed around them was air. You can never annoy your parents, let alone the government, if you sound as if you’re playing in the coat closet, in the acoustic style of the records that were about to be replaced. No matter how loudly (or softly) someone plays the record, it has to give the impression of a big sound in a big place: authority.
Some of the records from this time exhibit some stylistic changeover schizophrenia. The old acoustic ideas hung on for everybody. The Sex Pistols’ records, for example, now sound quite old-time, with little of the ambient excitement that the group engendered live. In my A+R capacity at EMI, I must have seen them play a dozen times, but the one recording for which I was responsible was effectively made in a battle zone; there wasn’t much time for thought, especially after guitarist Steve Jones, who could always be relied on for the characteristic bon mot, went and said ‘fuck’ on teatime TV in response to interviewer Bill Grundy’s inebriated provocation. Please remember, this was 1976 in England.
Anarchy In The UK went through several changes before reaching the public in its plain black sleeve. First, and possibly the most musically exciting of all, was a badly recorded demo made by Dave Goodman, their live sound man; the sonic incompetence didn’t eliminate the fun of the performance, and the set of songs was subsequently released on a CD, even though the sound was a severe handicap. Next attempt was with some weekend studio time rashly booked at Lansdowne in anticipation of a deal signing by Polydor Records. On those sessions, Goodman was hopelessly out of his depth. When we (EMI) signed the group I naïvely thought that we had also assumed responsibility for the studio time, and picked up the recording financial commitments; Chris Parry, my counterpart at Polydor Records, thought otherwise and treated me to one of the noisiest phone calls I’ve ever experienced. Er, sorry. Snigger.
The Lansdowne sessions were canned after I saw the bill for recording tape. Dave was just rolling and rolling the multitrack tape machine without any direction, in either direction between the band and him. When you throw out the old charts, you can also lose your bearings. Dave was commenting occasionally that this was ‘a good way to get EMI to pay for lots of tape we can use later’. At £160 a reel, plus studio time, it was an uneconomical way to buy tape, particularly as the company at that time would have given the group an oil painting of Nipper (His Master’s Voice’s dog) if they’d just asked. Senior management were not at that point aware of the group, thankfully, and had not seen their British Establishment title prospects start to wobble, although the group and the movement it was seen as leading were starting to succeed in their aim of upsetting the lords and ladies.
It was time to bring in a production professional, and the group’s imaginative and highly pro-active manager, Malcolm McLaren, contacted Chris Thomas, whose credits were solid if conservative with Procul Harum and Roxy Music, livelier with John Cale, and sometimes adventurously off-the-wall as with the Third Ear Band. Eventually, Chris delivered a solidly competent single for release. There was almost a final perception problem when Chris decided to ask Steve’s guitar solo to go heavy metal ‘crazy’ in the break after the second chorus, replacing the simple, effectively powerful rhythm guitar break of the demo. Just ‘going crazy’ doesn’t cut it even when you’re busy smashing the ornaments; you have to know what to swipe and what will break the most pleasantly. One of the most withering punk put-downs was to remark that someone ‘sounded a bit heavy metal’, remarks generally provoked by such empty pyrotechnics. The simple solo was reinstated and punk disorder restored.
After this abruptly transitional time, recorded pop sounds really opened up, pointing to the big latter-day rock sound that has dominated since. The sound of the Clash’s London Calling would have been good on Anarchy, but they had a few years’ extra development. Such sound would mature fully in classic Bob Clearmountain-engineered efforts by Bruce Springsteen, such as Born In The USA and Tunnel Of Love in the mid-eighties. After this, the cycle of refinement and roughening would resume with the grunge movement, and the rejection of the polished guitar sound returned us to the punk habit of throwing everything out and starting over yet again. The sound varied with the playing, even the more enlightened nineties studios still not proving mood-conducive enough to relax new artists unaccustomed to its privations. Consequently, with the falling prices of recording equipment adequate to a specific performer’s need, use of the traditional recording studio, a place of enormously expensive and complicated general purpose audio gear, started to disappear in favor of ad hoc studios containing equipment tailored to a band’s own needs and purchased by them for that specific purpose only. The spirit of Berry Gordy and Joe Meek revived. Potentially, it seemed as if everyone had access to the studio in their own garage. Again, audio standards fell, but as had been 15 years previously, all concerned felt that this was an acceptable price to pay for more accessible excitement. There is more opportunity for artist control when the financial commitment is lower.
A popular button worn by the punks said ‘Disco Sucks’. I didn’t agree, and neither did the Clash, like many of us who recognized the coincidence of song and dance, and its kinship with the song-writing punks, Abba were gods. It was unfortunate that the disco drum sounds were so dead as to sound to a punk more like a falling ham sandwich than party time, but disco style arrived at the end of that particular age of expertise. It was to be co-opted in the early eighties by electronic dance, prefigured in the early seventies by the enormous, terrifyingly professional dance productions of Giorgio Moroder, and the return of acoustical air substitutes facilitated by vastly improved artificial reverberation techniques. The ears had returned, missed the acoustics, and rapid advances in digital audio technology refilled the void.
After the revolt into style of the return to acoustics, the desire to hear big open sounds didn’t go away, but it wasn’t necessary to record in large rooms to satisfy it. Compared with the new, flexible digital reverberation units, large rooms, while sounding good, couldn’t be moved too far from their main subjective acoustic contribution; electronics, new digital reverb boxes, could come close to anything with a little coaxing. Some very capable engineer/producers like Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Pretenders) and Steve Lillywhite (U2, XTC, Pogues, Rolling Stones) developed their own characteristic sounds, with inspired, innovative use of electronic and/or processed natural reverb. Here again, we saw technology developing and reducing the need for a conventional studio. Anyone could try it. Once you got the hang of it you might not see the need for a conventional center of expertise where everyone seemed to think they were the only ones who knew anything about recording. You could now create your own space in your own style.
Synthesizers And The Evolution Of The Computer Studio
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The final erosion of the traditional recording studio was caused by an unprecedented increase in the control of sound generation and creation, the explosive development of easily-connected synthesizers and processors in the early and mid-eighties. When machines made it possible to sound a drum rhythm as you wrote it, when you could cycle round a small section adjusting beats and accents on the fly, convenience could not be denied. Vast amounts of canned energy were available at the press of a button. Playing faster didn’t need any more sweat than in turning the tempo knob, and it was became hard to justify the huge dedication of time and resources to create a rhythm track with a drummer in the conventional way. That a drummer would contribute human shading in color and dynamics was not always appreciated at the time when not only did the machine not smoke horrible-smelling roll-ups, it didn’t talk back to you and never took the weekend off.
With a similarly small expenditure of physical effort, a powerful and virtuoso bass could be played by a keyboardist, and electronically nudged to be perfectly in time with the drums, giving to musical novices an unprecedentedly accurate power that was once only accessible to the best, most seasoned studio musicians. Enormous canned energy was available at the push of a button, and large dance productions took advantage of such electronic stamina (such as my productions for Bronski Beat and the Communards, up to 22 continuous minutes of high-energy dance music). A change of mind about the musical arrangement could be implemented at any time in the months, or even minutes, before the final mixing session. This was in stark contrast with the traditional rock+roll rhythm section’s contribution which, once delivered and accepted, was cast in stone with all its warts of sound, unwanted tempo variation and spill into other instrument mikes: imperfection was embedded. (Adding insult to injury, the band’s drummer and bass player were the only ones who really did get the weekend off, because their job was largely done once the music track beds were laid.)
The synthesizer-based studio, to become popularly known as the MIDI studio after a simple, almost universally-adopted electronic protocol used to link typical synthesizers in performance, emerged with its imposing banks of keyboards and rack-mounted sound modules. Many more sound processing modules were used to enhance sounds; performances could be relatively flat compared to the acoustic human ones we had been conditioned to expect. These vast efforts of processing were applied because we were, subconsciously, missing something.
Most perniciously from the studio establishment’s point of view, the price of these new sound modules was dropping fast as they were adopted by people who just liked to make music or who might dream of a hit played on a shoestring. By 1990 Alesis had introduced their classic HR-16 drum machine and sequencer, with a list price of $499. If you were working in the synthesizer domain, it was now feasible to prepare all the music and many of the sounds at home, bringing them to the recording studio only for final transfer to tape and for conventional mixing. Despite the possibilities suggested by computer recording of acoustic sounds, the archaic monster multitrack tape machine remained the world-wide standard for interchange of music recording. However, even this beast has now migrated to the artist’s home studio after the 1992 introduction of cheap eight-track units (again by Alesis) based on a domestic VHS video recorder mechanism. Multiples of which can be linked (at least in principle, the practicalities still beingg not so easy) to provide up to 128 separate audio tracks.
By the late eighties, computers were increasingly being used to store both sounds and performances,. Although there remains a clear split between the digitally literate and not, the musical aesthetics often coincide more than either faction might admit. By whatever means, it has to sound ‘good’. Music became more mobile, as a floppy disk (or, in more extravagant cases, or hard drive) would carry the music through from home writing and preparation to full studio realization and recording.
In 1986, the New England Digital Company introduced the first ‘Direct-to-Disk’ recorder, a grossly overpriced but sonically stunning machine which could record eight, later 16 tracks of audio directly to a bank of up to four computer hard disks. In combination with the Synclavier, another uncompromisingly-designed, military-grade sequencer, synthesizer and sample playback unit, a studio could now have a completely integrated music production system. That this format didn’t quickly become the norm for the music studio reflected the excessive price (perhaps $250 000 for a fully-loaded system), far above the manufacturing costs, and the company’s turn towards the audio post-production (music for jingles and film) where budgets were higher than for music and fewer creative demands were made on the system.
In a deserved monopoly position, the company complacently marketed to just high-end customers, leaving them vulnerable to economic pressures from upwardly-mobile domestic equipment, and it collapsed in 1992. A constructive and creative revolution in wide studio practice was bungled. Looking to safeguard my investment, particularly in the quality which only that machine was able to deliver, with two others I rallied the US owners to invest in The Synclavier Company, to buy out the assets and continue operations. That company finally folded in 1996, although the software and hardware portions continue as viable businesses supporting a small, select clientèle; I still use it, for its exceptional sound and uncompromising design.
The disk-recording revolution was postponed but not stopped. In the last few years to 1999, the large, professional studio multitrack recorder has practically submerged in the flood of reasonably priced hard disk recorders, or ‘digital audio workstations’. At present, several companies, notably DigiDesign, offer computer hard-disk recorders at a fraction of the cost (the equivalent of my large Synclavier system, much more flexible and connected to the outside world) runs less than $30 000; still not aspiring bedroom music production prices, but a clear forward indicator.
The cost of computer music storage has dropped precipitously, and continues to do so. The 20 megabyte hard drive for my 1982 sampling system cost $15 000, equivalent to a storage cost of $6750 per minute of CD-quality stereo audio. In 1999, four gigabyte (4000 megabytes) hard drives cost around $350, about 78 cents per stereo minute stored. A removable one gigabyte cartridge, with data flow speeds not far behind those of a conventional computer hard drive, was about $90, giving stereo storage for less than a dollar a minute. A blank CD-ROM can be filled completely to give a cost of 2 cents a minute ($1.50 per blank). It is now possible to record a rock+roll band straight through the computer and on to large hard drives, logistically and economically impossible until storage costs reached such tiny levels for large containers. Storage on large, convenient hard drives is now far cheaper than the old analog multitrack tape. More extraordinarily, computer memory has now fallen to about $1.25 per megabyte, a (temporary) storage cost of about $10 per stereo CD-quality minute. The possibilities for large-scale sound processing are only just starting to emerge.
The advantages of digital recording were massively hyped in the mid-eighties by studio hardware manufacturers eager to sell replacements for equipment whose function and use had remained largely unchanged for 20 years. Ironically, the technology race would hasten the demise of the top-shelf recording studio that was their marketing target, just as Russia was taken out economically by the arms race. Consumer opinion, and therefore that of the new artist generation, was suitably excited by the success and improved sound of the compact disk. However, large studio multitrack recorders of up to 48 tracks came with a huge price tag, some increase in unreliability, and a reduction in flexibility. Editing tape with a razor blade, the staple of the analog studio, proved impossible or inadvisable, music editing being mostly done by assembling segments on a new tape by copying digitally. This was a painful process, a step back from the quick analog tape splice.
There were some attempts to alleviate the tedium. The radical Mitsubishi digital stereo recorder promised much with its razor blade editing, but six months later it was clear that the edits were unstable and potentially unplayable. I suspect that the original stereo masters we mixed for Til Tuesday’s first album, Voices Carry, or for Roger Daltrey’s Parting Should Be Painless, are now unusable; at the mastering we had to make digital safety copies because the edits would occasionally cause the stereo signal to mute.
However, that was more pleasant than the replay of a Reds mix in 1985 at Soundworks where the Mitsubishi stereo recorder generated a noise burst which I think was the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life. We had completed a successful mix and were just kicking back and enjoying ourselves. The whole control room was stunned. Pioneering is always dangerous.
All this digital development was at great cost for a sonic improvement which the public might feel but not necessarily notice. The impact on us was noticeable – even the nightly reference cassettes we took home from Media Sound in the early eighties were better at home than those copied from analog tape. In the last few years, digital mixing consoles, the most expensive pieces of studio equipment ever made, have appeared in the highest-grade studios, but the necessary studio charges limit access to all but the most successful. Young spotty oiks need not apply; if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it. Here again, mixer functions can be fulfilled on a higher-level personal computer, albeit not with the same quality, integration or ergonomic convenience. A Power Macintosh or a Pentium Pro is perfectly adequate for entry level. To keep your recording studio at the top of the league, you might spend $800 000 on a new digital mixing console.
The End Of The Professional Recording Studio?
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With these latest technical developments, and one last artist revolt to gain freedom from the studio priests, the institutional recording studio tradition of the last seventy years is dying quickly. Technology, which used to be denied to most except those with past success or the substantial financial backing coming with a recording contract, has become unsustainable in the present economic climate (early 21st century). Because the recording and music technology can now be purchased and used domestically, even though prices are still not down to the discretionary income level corresponding to a reasonable upright piano, the old mystery and intimidation have gone. There are far more good-sounding audio gizmos available for $200 than any professional recording engineer would care to master, although with the breakdown between what constitutes an instrument and the recording mechanism itself, it has become essential for all concerned to understand all related activities. Engineers have become more musical, artists more technical. Artists can bury themselves in the technology that they want to use to achieve their own ends, and they may feel they need no outside help.
The recording studio for hire will still exist, but in New York, for example, the number of truly first-class, general purpose recording studios is now less thanfive, down from perhaps 25 in 1980. The bottom completely dropped out of the business in the early nineties, as price competition in a shrinking market (reflecting the record companies’ own shrinking resources) created an economic mug’s game. Making a studio business living after starting from scratch is very chancy, particularly when facilities can drift quickly and unaccountably out of fashion like a restaurant or club. Even though it may be cheaper overall to record an album by a new artist in a functioning, established studio, the hourly tariff compared with a newly-equipped home studio or a neighborhood establishment in a small town is disproportionate. In principle, such domestic migration might have led to a creative outpouring as artists seem to take more control over their destiny. In practice, though, the funds are not generally available to underwrite record making.
Would-be recording artists consistently underestimate the depth of technique needed to get good results from recording, and much time and energy is wasted reinventing the wheel. No longer do the record companies understand the record-making process well enough to provide trusted advice to young ingenues, and the artistic restrictions previously imposed by proficient but often over-dominant overbearing record producers are unacceptable. With the reduced demand for recording studios, a valuable craft repository is slowly shrinking by attrition. The professional lineage that comes unbroken from the 1920s may be breaking. The reservoir of expertise is draining, and it’s not obvious how and where the knowledge needed to make an all-round great record will persist. The immersion apprenticeship eventually made recording instinctive for those of us who had the stamina to survive the often brutal course of induction. We must hope that a future generation does not have to reinvent the wheel, but they may forget where the original design is filed.