Back when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was friends with Skip Weshner, who had a program on KRHM (FM) called “Accent on Sound” that was sponsored by what seemed to be most of the top hi-fi brands of the day. I was also friends with Jimmy Valentine, of Valentine Sound Recorders in North Hollywood, California, who was a respected local recording engineer and, among other things, did all of the recording for the Stan Kenton Big Band (and even let me help out, on occasion, as a sort of “junior engineer”).
By that time, I was a thoroughgoing hi-fi crazy, and was even (counting the stuff with Jimmy Valentine and a bit of location recording that I was doing with my own Ampex tape recorder and an ever-growing collection of studio-quality microphones) well on my way toward getting into professional recording.
Even though I had my own (bought used) microphone mixer from Studio Supply Co. in Hollywood, a well-known Los Angeles custom recording electronics firm of that time, what I was always drawn to and lusted after each time I visited Skip at the radio station or Jimmy at his studio was the large and elaborate mixing console that seemed to be the center of everything at either location.
That was back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when most studios still ran just two channels, and even the most advanced multi-track stereo tape recorders had just eight channels. Those consoles, in those last days of mono broadcasting (the first FM stereo station in the United States didn’t come along until June of 1961) and still early days of stereo recording, were nothing compared with the wonders and glories that that would come along within just the next two decades. Even so, to my wide, youthful and easily impressed eyes, they seemed to be the pinnacle of perfection and, with dreams of the near-godlike powers of mixing, equalizing, and adding “reverb” or other sonic trickery that one might give me, I longed to have a console of my very own.
The reason, of course, was quite simple: When I did my own recordings — my girlfriend, for example, playing her guitar and singing — it was awful! My recording only sounded like my girlfriend singing and playing her guitar in the living room, and didn’t sound “commercial” at all. Even my jury-rigged echo chamber — running a speaker and a microphone into a shower stall in one of the bathrooms, while she performed in the living room, and mixing the reverberated signal from the shower back into the live sound — didn’t help. If only I had a studio console, with all of its wonderful toys and goodies, I thought, things would be different.
Do you know the old saying “Be careful of what you wish for”? Well, that’s exactly what happened — not just for me, but for (with, unfortunately, all too few exceptions) the entire recording industry.
By 1967, Ampex was building 16-track tape recorders, and at that point the flood gates opened. Sixteen tracks went to 24; 24 went to 32; and 32 tracks eventually went to 64, all with suitable mixing consoles, perhaps the best known of which were built by Rupert Neve, to provide for multi-mic mixing and level control plus such individually tailored effects as separate reverb, “phasing”, “flanging” and equalization for each track. (Well, what did you think that all of those seeming thousands of knobs, dials, switches and slide pots were for?)
This all happened over time for a combination of sonic/technological and purely economic reasons: The sonic part is easy to understand; engineers are engineers and whether their field was recording or the electronics that supported it, they really wanted to make things better. “Better” was the goal on the economic side, too, for two very basic and very important reasons. Better (read, in this case, more “commercial-sounding”) records sometimes sell more copies and make more money; and being able to record tracks separately and “master” them (read “dick with” them) later made for recordings that were both potentially cheaper (a bad “take” on the drums didn’t necessarily mean having to re-do the take for everybody) and “better”-sounding.
From there, it did as should have been expected: Do you know the old saying that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Well, having the power to diddle infinitely with the sound led to people diddling infinitely with the sound and, as I’ve written before, it got to the point where recordings were made of studio or concert events that never actually happened, and altogether too few recording engineers, record producers, mastering engineers or, in some cases, even the artists themselves could see a button, a switch, or a slider smiling up at them from the deck of a mixing console and just leave it the hell alone!
One of the most obvious effects of that has been the death of anything even remotely resembling natural dynamic range, as radio-oriented decision-makers seek to maximize whatever airplay they can get by smashing the sound all together at maximum volume. There’s more than just that, though, and, it’s gotten to where even the very finest, best set-up home music system (our audiophile ideal) can no longer hope just to reproduce the natural sound of the music because there’s precious little of that left.
It seems that simply being able to hear the sound of a girl singing and playing a guitar in a living room and having it sound like the sound of a girl singing and playing a guitar in a living room is — with just the rarest exception — is no longer possible (unless you do it yourself).
I’m upset by that, and nothing, not even a Neve can console me.