1960's Recording Techniques--Reborn!
by Fenris Wulf, KDVS Studio Tech
Originally published in KDViationS Fundraiser 2009 issue
This article explains how recording studios got things done in the era before digital technology. Almost anything you can do in a computer can be done better and faster with analog technology!
Rock and pop bands were recorded onto a multi-track tape recorder, which might have 2, 3, 4, or 8 tracks. Several microphones were pre-mixed onto one track, and all the tracks were mixed to mono or stereo to make a finished record. The microphones, compressors, and equalizers used at the time had fewer "features" than modern equipment, but often sounded better. Most of the equipment had all-tube circuitry. Mixing consoles were custom-built for each studio.
Dolby, dbx, and high-output tape weren't invented until the 1970's. But you seldom hear tape hiss on 1960's recordings. This is because they used very wide tracks to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. Instead of cramming 24 tracks onto 2" tape, a common format was 4 tracks on 1" tape. This format had superior fidelity and bass response compared to later formats.
If the producer wanted to combine two or more takes of a song into a "perfect" take, the mixdown tape was edited with a razor blade and splicing block. The tape was slowly "scubbed" past the playback head to find the edit point, which was marked with a grease pencil on the back side of the tape. The tape was cut diagonally to make a short cross-fade and eliminate clicks. The multi-track tape wasn't edited unless it was absolutely necessary, because there was no "undo" button if the engineer made a mistake.
Dynamics and Pitch
Many studios did not have compressors; volume was controlled by riding the fader. Vocalists had to control their own dynamics, which is a lost art today. On the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, little or no compression was used, to preserve the natural emotion of the vocals. Group vocals were recorded around a single microphone, and maestro Brian Wilson had the group sing numerous takes until the vocals were perfect. His own vocals had flawless pitch, and when he double-tracked his voice it would occasionally "phase" and sound like a single voice.
"De-essing" to reduce loud silibants, which requires a compressor with a sidechain, did not exist. Vocalists were trained to "flash" their esses by passing their hand in front of the microphone to block the sound.
Drums were usually recorded with two microphones: one overhead and one on the kick drum. The drummer had to balance himself; it couldn't be remixed later. This technique provided a very natural sound, because it avoided the phase cancellations caused by multiple microphones. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with modern cymbal-bashing drummers who have poor balance.
Jazz groups and early rock groups were often recorded with one microphone on the entire group, and the musicians balanced themselves. The sound is very "three-dimensional," despite being in mono, because it preserves the natural distance relationships between the instruments.
To add reverberation to instruments or vocals, a reverb chamber was used. The walls were covered with tile or painted with shellac to make them reflective, and irregularly shaped to randomize the reflections. The sound was fed through a loudspeaker, and the reverb was picked up by a microphone and fed back to the mixing console. A well-designed chamber sounds better than any digital reverb. Examples: all the drum, instrument, and vocal reverbs on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
A studio might also have a plate reverb, which consisted of a large metal sheet with transducers attached to it and motorized dampers to control the reverb time. The sound is more refined than a chamber, but it doesn't sound good on everything.
Echo was created with a three-head tape machine (separate erase, record, and play heads). As the tape traveled from the record head to the play head, the sound was delayed. The delay time was controlled by changing the tape speed with a variable-frequency oscillator connected to the motor. To make the echo repeat, the play head was fed back to the record head.
Chorus and Flange
Chorus and flange effects require very short delay times (1 to 30 milliseconds) that you can't normally do with a tape machine. Luckily, a multi-track tape machine can use its record head for playback (essential during overdubbing to keep the tracks in sync). To create a chorus or flange effect, the play head was routed to the mixing console, and the record head (which plays the track early) was routed to a second tape machine running at the same speed. By slightly varying the speed of the second machine, chorus, flange, or vibrato effects were created. All the effects on Beatles records were done this way.
Loops and Samples
To create loops, an actual loop of tape was made, containing a drum or instrument pattern with the splice on the first downbeat. An assistant had to stand next to the tape machine with a pencil to hold the loop in place. A skilled tape operator could synchronize multiple loops, much like a turntablist matching beats. Examples: Beatles, "Tomorrow Never Knows," assorted sounds. Pink Floyd, "Money," cash register sounds. Bee Gees, "Stayin' Alive," drums.
An early sampling keyboard, the Mellotron, used pieces of spring-loaded tape to play back samples of real instruments, one for each key, 8 seconds long and with the original attack and sustain. Digital samplers didn't have enough memory to do this until the late 1990's. Examples: Beatles, "Strawberry Fields Forever," flutes. King Crimson, "In the Court of the Crimson King," violins.
The electronic vocoder (which uses a voice to modulate an instrument to make it "talk") was first used in music by synthesist Wendy Carlos in the 1970's. But in the 1940's, an acoustic vocoder called the Sonovox was invented. The instrument sound was fed through a pair of small loudspeakers, the cones replaced with metal disks that were pressed to the performer's throat. The performer silently formed words, and a close mic captured the sound. The sound was much cleaner than electronic vocoders, but the effect was overused in radio commercials and the Sonovox is almost forgotten today. Go to youtube.com and search for "Sonovox" to hear this effect.
Long before digital pitch shifters, there was the Eltro Information Rate Changer, a 1/4" tape machine with four play heads mounted on a rotating drum. It was used in speech analysis, transcription, and broadcast, to change the speed of a sound without changing the pitch or vice versa. It was used for the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I believe it was used on the original Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," for the androgynous alien voices
Old-School Techniques Reborn!
In KDVS Studio A, we are bringing many of these techniques back from the dead! We have a 1" 8-track analog tape machine, compressors, equalizers, reverb chambers, tape echo, and tape chorus/flange. We have 4 different rooms connected with multi-channel cable, and all the capabilities of a professional recording studio. Future projects will include a DIY passive equalizer, a piano-string reverberator, a rotating speaker, and more. Studio A will be a living museum of old-school recording techniques, providing a unique experience for local and underground bands.