News From The Woods - August 24, 2010


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published August 24, 2010

"Musical Irony"

As in life, the music recording business has a certain amount of irony. It's kind of amusing to me, as I have noticed a definite trend in the modern recording technique of music. As I have not written much lately about my craft, today is the day I get to expound on this latest irony in the recording biz. Let's start from the beginning:

Back in the mid 60's recording technology was still at a very basic stage. Multitrack recording had not yet been invented by Les Paul and Bing Crosby. My first venture into recording happened to me while still in high school. I wrote a parody of the song "Big Bad John" (Jimmy Dean) I titled "My Granny". The song's story centered on my grandmother's automobile. In those days, cars were almost the only thing on a young man's mind. Well, there was one other thing but we'll cover that one in another article. I was going to military school in Florida (THAT story will also be covered in another article. For now…..don't ask). Anyway, my grandparents lived a short distance from the school in Largo. They owned a 1961 Oldsmobile Super 88 four-door holiday sedan. The motor was a 394 cubic inch V-8 with a Holly 4-barrel carburetor. The color was 2-tone purple with a white top. It was definitely a family car, and yet the powerful engine would really get up and go compared to other family cars of the day.

Now, in military school you could only leave the campus on weekends on liberty. Two of the most verboten things a cadet could do on liberty is wearing "civvies" (civilian clothing) and driving a car. You simply did not do that, and hefty penalties were handed out to those caught in either mode. To this day I do not know if my grandparents knew that or not, but every weekend that I could get off campus (barring excessive demerits which kept you on campus marching on the Extra Duty Squad) I would go to my grandparents house, change clothes, and borrow the keys to their car. And since doing naughty things is no fun alone I would always take along a few fellow cadets for company. Soon our excursions became legendary on campus (what kid can keep his mouth shut?) and in no time I was sort of a folk hero, cruising the streets incognito in the "purple bomb". So when I wrote this song it was the most requested song on the canteen deck where we smoked cigarettes (if we had written permission) during our off time.

The lyrics of "My Granny" were inspired by and written about my own escapades in the Purple Bomb, but since driving was a no-no I wrote in Granny as the lead character. Rick Chyka, Phil Gilbert and I would hang out on the canteen deck, smoking cigarettes and singing these lyrics and the song just sort of caught on with other cadets. Pretty soon everyone on the canteen deck was singing "My Granny". For some unknown reason, my mother thought it was cute and decided to foot the bill for an actual recording session to record "My Granny" and another song I wrote called "Mustang", which glorified the brand new Ford product that was storming the country. And so there we were….. In a real recording studio in Tampa called Charles Fuller Productions. The Academy's official "combo", The Buccaneers, agreed to come and back us up. We had one rehearsal day when the band invited us to work on the two songs with them in the school chapel. I had died and gone to Heaven!

I had never been in a real recording studio before, and must admit I was pretty nervous when we got inside the large soundproofed room. The control room was separated from the studio by a huge double-paned glass window. The engineers sat facing us and the effect was we were in a giant fish tank. They arranged the musical equipment roughly in a circle with Rick, Phil and I behind a portable padded wall called a "gobo" with a window in it. The drums sat in a back corner with a single microphone on a tall boom holding a microphone which pointed at the kit. The bass and guitar amplifiers were at an opposite wall behind a baffled wall similar to the one which separated the singers from the band. The grand piano was right under the glass of the control room. The lid was up to a half-stick and covered with a large quilted blanket. The sax players shared a microphone and were roughly in the middle of the room. We all wore headphones and the engineers would talk to us on the phones for instructions. We did "My Granny" first and we all performed it together just as if we were playing the song live. Well, actually I guess we were playing it live because there was no overdubbing in those days. If someone made a mistake we all had to perform it over again. They recorded every take. We did it perhaps five times. The voice in the phones said "We got a pretty good take that time", but we felt that the ending wasn't quite right. We did it one more time and got the ending better but the overall performance of the previous take was much better. So the decision was made to splice the latest ending onto the previous take. This was done with a razor blade, but we stayed out in the main room and could not see what was going on in the control room. In a few moments they played it back for us and miraculously it sounded perfect!

And that is the way it was done back then. Everybody was in the room, separated by movable panels on wheels. Perhaps five or six microphones were used for the entire band, with instruments physically moved around until it sounded right to the engineers. Rick, Phil & I were grouped around a single huge microphone hanging from a stand that resembled a heavy equipment crane. If any one person screwed up, ALL of us had to record the entire song again and again until we got it right. A hit song was only as good as the single best performance of that track. The depth of your pockets was directly proportional to the amount of time you spent in the studio. I think we were in the studio for one hour doing two songs, and then Mom also had to spring for 100 45 RPM copies of the song. I sold every single record made to my fellow classmates and have only one single copy left to remind me of the experience, along with the still vivid memory of that day.

After graduating in 1964, I almost immediately got into the music business as a drummer in a rock and roll band. I jumped around from one college to another, keeping just ahead of the draft (for a while) with a student deferment. In 1968 I finally settled down to a career as a radio broadcaster, but I kept playing drums and fiddling with a reel to reel tape recorder I bought in Little Rock. I was bitten by the recording bug and practiced recording any time I had a willing subject standing in front of my crude collection of microphones. I could not afford "real" recording microphones because even then they cost more than my first car. The reel to reel was a Roberts 2-track (meaning "stereo") but I didn't even own a microphone mixer back then so I was limited to two microphones, with which I pushed the envelope as far as I could. I recall once buying six microphone extension cords and running one mic as far as I could to the end on a lonely stretch of road and placing the other mic at the tape deck which was plugged into power in my dad's real estate office. I hopped into my 66' Cyclone GT with a 390 HP Police Interceptor engine and burned rubber all the way down the road. The stereo effect was fantastic and I still drag it out for anyone dumb enough to say "Boy, I'd like to hear THAT!"

But I digress……….

Sometime after the release of the Beatles second LP, the professional 4-track recorder made it debut. These machines also had "sound on sound" capabilities, which meant that once a single track was recorded, additional tracks (up to three) could be added while listening to the original track in sync. This was a BIG DEAL in the industry, for now record producers and engineers could "build" a song piece by piece. The old methods of everyone playing at the same time slowly disappeared and the creation of music changed from "the song" to "the recording". In just a few years the 8-track recorder was introduced by Ampex, and was embraced whole-heartedly by the industry. The Beatles had opened the door for "concept albums" and the hit single gave way to the LP. This in turn changed radio as new forms of popular music were being explored by bands and audiences alike. Then came the 16-track, the 24-track, the 32-track, and eventually the Stephens monster 40-track recorder. Of course, with all these tracks something had to be devised to handle all the sound. Simple microphone mixers evolved into 12-foot-long professional recording consoles, with all kinds of gadgets on them. They had multiple bands of equalization and other features like phase reversal, volume pads, and "auxiliary sends". These sends could route the sound from one microphone input through a variety of "outboard equipment" (sound processors) which was being served up by manufacturers in giant heaps of expensive hardware like reverbs, compressors, and more discrete equalizers (just for starters).

Microphones were also being modernized and several revolutionary new models and types were introduced in the 60's and 70's. Microphones were designated as "dynamics", "condensers", and "ribbons". Each type had its own sound characteristic. This led to even more options for creating new sounds - which was the "Holy Grail" of recording engineers - for a new sound could and very often did launch the career of an artist or make a song sound SO different that it became a hit record just based on the new sound. The recording technique was becoming more and more complicated and audio engineers that could work all this stuff were elevated into superstars themselves within the recording community. The real giants in the industry knew what kind of mic to use, where to place it, and how to record it with such surgical delicacy that their names became legendary to those in the know.

And then…. Almost overnight….. Everything changed. This paradigm shift occurred when digital recording was discovered. Sound now became 1's and 0's. At first the industry laughed at poor little Digital because the early technology sounded SO BAD. But in time, new technologies were discovered that made it sound better, more like ancient old Analog. And once digital got the deep pockets behind it, the entire recording world turned upside down. That in turn drove prices down. And then the technology advanced in a way that blindsided the industry. Technology got cheaper and smaller, until eventually it even became affordable by the masses. The first affordable 4-track "Portastudio" was invented by TASCAM. It used cheap audio cassettes and totally revolutionized the music business. For the fist time, anyone could record multiple tracks in the comfort of their own bedroom for under $400. The only other thing they needed (beside a pair of headphones) was one or two decent microphones. This helped Shure Brothers attain the status of "workhorse" for their SM57 and SM58 dynamic mics, which could be purchased for under $100. Of course, the original DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) soon begat the 8-track Portastudio, the 16-track Portastudio, and so on and so forth.

And even before the professional recording industry could recoil from the first digital salvo, several enterprising young Turks working for computer software developers came up with interfaces with which to record audio using a home computer. And let me tell you about the advantages of this method. First, you have UNLIMITED TRACKS! Imagine that! …. HUNDREDS of tracks if your computer is powerful enough. And as if that isn't enough you now have an UNDO button. If you try something with a track and it doesn't work, you've lost nothing. If the desired chain of effects doesn't float your boat just hit UNDO and you're back to square one. We call that non-destructive editing. No more splicing tape and razor blades. And if the first chorus is perfect but the others lack something… you can just clone the first chorus and drop it in the remaining spots. You can combine the best composite vocal track from sixteen different takes. You can even tune the vocals so that flat singer sounds like Celine Dion. And that is just for starters. It wasn't long before other developers created software emulations of classic hardware counterparts.

What's the result?

I spent the better part of my career saving up and buying expensive pieces of audio recording gear and processing gear. After more than 40 years and spending thousands of dollars of collecting I have three large racks of VERY expensive professional recording gear. Across the room from those revered racks sits my computer. Inside that computer resides software that can do as good as and sometimes even BETTER than all that gear in my racks. The end result….. My racks sit silently in the corner, gathering dust. I even went to eBay with the intention of recouping some of my losses. What I found there disgusted me. Gear just like mine was selling for pennies on the dollar. It was an insult to me and I could not bear to part with my beloved hardware on such a tragedy. I am not alone. Thousands of professionals like me are sitting there staring at their own racks of gear, making painful decisions.

So where does the irony come in, you ask?

Well, I finally got here! Based on my observations gleaned from reading hundreds of trade magazines, I see a complete reversal of trends today. Large and expensive recording studios are still being built and used, but they are the tools used by already successful artists and bands. Largely because of the cost involved in maintaining these studios, recording rates are largely out of the reach of the masses. The ironic thing is these people have a learning curve with the digital counterparts which compares to the early analog learning curve. The successful recording acts of today use extreme (digital) measures in the quest to "make it sound like analog". Old techniques like everybody playing around one mic are once again being utilized. Experimentation with technology is once again gaining strength in the music community. About the only difference these days is that instead of creating the sound at the source at the moment, large numbers of tracks can be recorded and manipulated after the band has long left the studio. You can now record a guitar part onto six tracks (or more) 1- direct (no amp), 2- amp #1, 3- amp #2, 4- direct into a stompbox w/effects, 5- through a Leslie out in a large room (2 mics - near & far), and so on. Then, in the luxury and comfort of your own personal studio you can pick and choose which sound you want for what segment of the arrangement. The possibilities are absolutely endless.

As a matter of fact, about the only drawback to this Brave New World is that the software offered cheaply to the masses is "missing" some of the character of it's Big Brother (re: more expensive) software found in the Big Time professional recording studio. Call it a "Lite" version if you want. That's the "Gothca" … It sounds ALMOST as good as the pro version. They just had to do that or all the pro studios in the world would fold (some are anyway).

I am reminded about the song "The Snake", where the woman takes in the poor starving snake from the rain and pampers it inside her house. Of course, eventually the snake bites her and says "Hey! You KNEW I was a snake when you let me in!"


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