Painting with Sound: How Recording Has Changed Over Time
Recently, while cleaning the garage, I pondered the collection of hundreds of vinyl records I still have. None of them are newer than about 1985. One especially interesting piece of vinyl in amongst the spandex and dross was “From Brussels with Love,” a 1980 compilation of mostly obscure (though in some cases, highly influential) recording artists. However, one especially interesting track on the LP wasn’t a song at all. It was an interview with Brian Eno.
Before I talk about why that interview was so relevant to this discussion of recording, I need to remind you that my journey into music came by way of the guitar. Like thousands of other guitarists who came of age during the golden era of rock music (1967 – 1973), I started out learning songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and graduated to more challenging stuff (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Queen) before writing anything on my own. I was a guitar jock in a way, and constantly sought to learn new licks and play with greater facility and authority. I was competitive with myself and with other guitarists. Unlike earlier forays into musical instruments, no one had to make me practice. I played eight hours a day when possible.
This approach the guitar was, in retrospect, rather limiting musically. It left out a lot of interesting music, because it was too “wimpy” or had no lead guitar parts. It was a masculine and aggressive mindset.
Brain Eno said something amazing in his interview: “I tend to work in a painterly way.” He was describing an approach to music which was that of a visual artist. It completely changes how one thinks about listening to and creating music. It sees sounds as colors and songs as paintings.
Experts can argue about who invented recording and when, but there is no doubt that Thomas Edison was the first to successfully commercialize it. His early wax cylinder phonograph gave way to the disk based gramaphone, and the demand for recorded music soon overwhelmed sheet music and player piano rolls.
Early recordings used a single source to capture the sound being made. With the advent of radio and telephone, microphones replaced mechanical methods for capturing sound waves. For decades, however, most recordings were made using a single microphone optimally placed to capture the sounds of the assembled performers. The players were well-rehearsed professionals. The job of the sound engineer was to place the microphone in such a way as to achieve a pleasing balance or mix of the sounds being made. There were no overdubs. If someone flubbed a note or came in late, the recording had to be done all over again. The beauty of the early jazz, blues, and pop records is that they were made live. This gives the performance a certain excitement.
After World War II, the magnetic tape came into its own as the superior recording medium. Magnetic tape is basically iron oxide particles glued to plastic tape. Bing Crosby gave his guitarist Les Paul a portable tape deck, and Les took it from there. The portable tape deck meant that Les could record at home, or take the deck with him and record on location. Very quickly, he figured out how to add a second record head to the tape deck and get “sound on sound” recordings. This meant that he could overdub on top of something until he had a stack of sounds. His hit records with Mary Ford are an example of this — two or three guitar parts and four part vocal harmony, with all the sounds made by just two people. The Andrews Sisters had to do it live all at once, but Les and Mary could do everything themselves.
The problem with sound on sound is that it is destructive. Once you record something, you can’t change it. Each layer is part of the finished product. If you make an error, (or the doorbell rings), you have to start all over. Les later figured out how to have multiple discrete tracks, and true multi-track recording was born. It would take a long time before it became standard practice. And the demand for more tracks meant that some great recordings (such as The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) were made using four track machines which required a modified version of sound on sound, “bouncing tracks” to put more tracks on the record. This was also destructive, and therefore risky. Make just one mistake, and you had to start over again!
Once multi-track recording came into its own, artists like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Jimi Hendrix quickly began experimenting with the possibilities. Recording had moved from taking an audio picture of a single live performance to being a medium in which one could work in a “painterly way,” adding sounds like colors experimentally, and then taking them off, treating, or modifying them.
The golden age of analog multi-track recording hit its peak in the mid-1970s with artists like Queen, whose multi-tracked orchestral vocal and guitar arrangements were directly descended from Les Paul and Mary Ford. They eventually required 48 tracks on a pair of 2” tape decks which were “slaved” together using a computer time code called SMPTE.
Eventually, progress in the development of computers yielded digital recording. Like magnetic tape recording before it, there was a long cycle of development to bring the technology into a stable, reliable and user-friendly form. By the mid-1990s, high quality digital recording had become available for home use, with Pro Tools being the leading software.
Digital recording made it possible to record without the limitations of tracks. It made it possible to overdub endlessly – no more worrying about the oxide particles wearing off the tape. Engineers can now make endless corrections of meter and pitch. You can build a drum part by looping one measure of performance. You can correct the pitch of a singer using Auto-Tune. You can re-arrange a song by cutting and pasting, not cutting tape with a razor blade.
All these possibilities come with a price, of course. Just as we now have nine varieties of corn flakes in the cereal aisle where there used to be just one, these unlimited recording options create potentially unlimited creative dilemmas. The relatively low cost of recording means that anyone can make a good-sounding recording — but any artist will tell you that limitations are useful.
The high costs and technological limitations of analog recording served a useful purpose in their way. The internet makes dissemination of audio information easy, but impossible to control. Just as broadcast television has lost its monopoly, so have commercial radio and major record labels. Distribution is nearly free, but capturing revenue is very difficult. You can put your garage band on MySpace in a matter of minutes, but not many bands who do are generating any revenue.
I did my first recording on a friend’s Teac Four Track reel-to-reel when I was 17 years old. I diligently rehearsed four instrumental compositions on a borrowed electric guitar, and recorded them in a couple of hours with minimal overdubs. It is a unique thrill to hear a good quality recording of something you have written and performed. Despite my amateur capabilities at the time, I can still recapture the feeling of that June afternoon in 1977 by listening to that old tape.
Now I own a recording studio, and I can record using the latest in digital technology. It is still a thrill. And it raises some interesting questions.
Next time: The way forward.