News From The Woods.13

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published September 1, 1997


"Technology On Parade"


And the Audio Engineering Society said: Long before Digital there was Analog. And, BEHOLD, it was so. But even further back in audio history there were recorders that operated on not tape but wire. That's right, wire. Plain old spun wire on a cylinder. We're talking WWII here. A lot of wire has passed over the old cylinder in the past 50 years.

Everybody's talking now about the new 5.1 mixing technology. That's Left/Front (1), Right/Front (2), Center (3), Left/Rear (4), Right/Rear (5) and Subwoofer (.1). Before that it was stereo. Well, actually, quad for a couple of years but it didn't catch on because there was a total lack of standardization (remember Beta video?). Anyway, before THAT, it was mono. No stereo panning. No Beatles "Rubber Soul" with music on the left speaker, vocals on the right. Just plain old, glorious monaural audio. Not one single 4-track, 8-track, 16-track, 24-track, 32-track, Stephens 40-track, or a synched-up 48-track multitrack recording system in sight. And you could depend on mono sounding pretty much the same on everybody's sound system, which at the time was feeble to say the least.

Do you know how recording was done, even as late as the 60's? I do. I was there. First, you get your band situated at equal distance from each other in the recording room. There are maybe 4 microphones on stands in the room. Then you put your singer(s) as far from the drums as possible and situated around a very expensive studio microphone. Next, you instruct everyone to play and sing at the same time while the engineer moves about the room aiming the guitar amp off-axis from the mic, or placing a blanket over the piano, or stuffing a pillow in the bass drum, or getting a sax player to stand closer to a mic than the trombone player. Now the key idea here is to get a decent recording of the song as it was performed live all at one time. What a novel idea! Heaven help the player or singer who screws up at the very end of Perfect Take #42, because that means EVERYBODY has to do it all over again. That is unless the engineer knows how to use a razor blade and hasn't had too many cups of coffee.

Before sequencers there were drummers. They weren't perfect, but it was all we had. Yeah, they showed up drunk sometimes.... Or not at all. They took up a lot of room on stage and always got into a fight with their girlfriend minutes before the show. Sometimes their meter would drift in and out like the tide but let's face it folks, music without drums is like a heart without blood. No drums, no beat, no life. And a machine is a machine is a machine. Quick-thinking manufacturers like Roland have in recent years added a feature to their new line of drum boxes called "human feel". It is supposed to restore that old tempo-lag (read: sloppiness) but I can hear an "automated" drum track coming from a mile away. It's great for getting a groove to build ideas on though. You can always sober up the drummer just before the recording session......

Before samplers and workstations there were reel to reel tape recorders and razor blades and grease pencils. Also, there was no "undo" function. Before Mackie there was Tascam, and before that, Shure Brothers mixers: little black boxes with 6 knobs and mono output. I still have one and use it to this day mixing lavaliere mics while videotaping court deposition cases. No fuss, no muss, no frills. 5 input knobs and a master volume with a single mono output. No EQ controls to color the sound. And it works right EVERY TIME. And it has NEVER BROKEN DOWN. You just can't get much simpler than that. I have actually recorded in studios that had three Shure M67 mixers bridged together running mono to a single channel tape deck. Simple? You bet. WYHWWYG (What You Heard Was What You Got). Need some reverb on that vocal? Just put him out there in the stairwell with the microphone! If it's a "do-wop" song put the backup singers in the tile shower, but make sure the water is turned off.

Before guitar pre-amps and processors there were Fuzz boxes and wa-wa pedals. I remember the day in 1964 that we drove all the way to Little Rock to get a Maestro FuzzTone pedal so our guitarist could do "Satisfaction" at the Homecoming Dance at the Armory. You should have seen the look on their faces when we started that song and Steve hit the FuzzTone for the opening bars. We must have played "Satisfaction" three times that night! WE were COOL! Then the market was flooded with the first CryBaby wa-wa pedals, Echoplexes, and Phase Shifters. Then Fuzz boxes were passe'..... NOW they're back again and can be heard in about 98% of the new "grunge" sound. Lesson to learn: NEVER throw away that old FuzzFace, Small Stone, Heil TalkBox, or UniVibe because it will soon be back in style again, only with a higher price tag.

Before the transistor, there was the Mighty Tube! Talk about a phenomenal come back! Way back in 1968 our band, The Vipers, took a broad technological leap at the time and purchased a Standell PA system, one of the very first solid state set ups. It consisted of a transistorized microphone pre-amp with EQ and an internal spring reverb, and two speaker columns, each with 4 12" speakers and a solid state 75-watt power amp in the bottom of the cabinet. These columns could be chained together forever and ever for as many as you could afford to buy. When Hartley Peavy entered the scene with his first solid state guitar amps there was resistance at first, but eventually the "clean, lightweight, and efficient" transistor won out except for a few "tubehead" die-hards. Now we are witnessing a complete resurgence of the vacuum tube in everything from rack-mounted processors and pre-amps to microphones themselves. Entire cottage industries are being built upon vacuum tube or "valve" technology. It seems that with all this digital recording nowadays, tubes are needed to add some of that old time "warmth" back into the signal. Imagine that! Full circle in less than 30 years. Ain't technology grand?

Before the Nord Lead synth there was the ARP 2600, a huge monster that covered part of a wall with dozens of patch cords running back and forth over the control surface. Remember "Frankenstein" by Edgar Winter? I still have that video where he is in a studio with Rick Derringer on guitar and Bobby Caldwell on drums and they are doing a "music video" to that hit song. The 2600 was very imposing and took up a quarter of the room. The keyboard itself sits on the floor and Edgar is flailing his hands at it like a crazed madman, and these thrashing, pulsing, surging synthetic sounds are emanating from the thing. Looking back on it now, it sure was simple, but at least it was pure and honest. Of course, this was all before Milli Vanilli. Eventually, synths grew from a simple monophonic instrument with dozens of knobs and wheels and patch cords into a very sophisticated polyphonic, multi-timbral, velocity sensitive assortment of sound files and sequences, all accessed through screen after screen of displays. Today's players want more control in a real-time sense, so guess what? Yep! Knobs and sliders and filters - OH MY!

Before MIDI there was sheet music. You actually had to learn how to write music notation. Now you load it up into the computer and play the tune as the printer prints out the sheet music in real time. Not that anyone can read it anymore........

Before CD's there was cassettes and even before that there was 8-track cassettes. I can even remember the LearJet 4-track stereo cassette. And so technology goes on and on and on and on... Just like that irresistible and unstoppable little pink rabbit banging that bass drum. Just between you and me I'm hanging onto my Betamax and 8-track tapes. You never know...........


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