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There’s that word provenance again. In my last article, I introduced the concept of a recording’s origin or the production path and philosophy applied to a particular album. It’s critically important to recognize and understand that the fidelity of any album is established or “locked in” at the time of the original recording. When the acoustic sound waves impact the diaphragm of the microphone and are captured on the recording device, the fidelity is as good as it will ever be. There’s not really much that can be done to improve the recorded fidelity of an analog signal after the fact. Although with sophisticated digital tools like NoNoise® from Sonic Studio, timing enhancements from Plangent Processes, and other restoration tools from Izotope, marginal audible improvements can be applied to older analog masters — sometimes at a hefty price. When I was restoring analog masters using my $60K NoNoise software back in the early 90s, I was charging $300 per minute to scrub away noise, clicks and pops, and distortion — and clients were happy to pay it!
And what actually constitutes an “original recording?” Is the original the multitrack master, the stereo mixdown tape, the mastered final transfer, the duplication master copy? It depends on the production approach preferred by the producer, the musical genre in question, the recording budget, and the available technology at the time of the recording.
I was listening to Peter Asher, half of the 60’s pop duo Peter and Gordon and prominent record producer, on Sirius XM’s Beatles channel the other day discussing the fact that The Beatles had to abandon their usual recording venue, EMI Recording Studio (later renamed Abbey Road), for London’s Trident studios because Trident had a new 8-track machine. EMI Recording Studios was still recording on 4-track machines. Don’t forget that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on a 4-track.
Recording to Analog Multitrack Masters
This is probably the most common production method used in the creation of commercial pop, rock, and country albums. Before digital recording became widely available in the 90s, producers and artists had to carefully assemble the different musical parts that comprise a track onto the limited number of tracks on the analog recorder. The drums, bass, rhythm guitars, vocals, and lead parts were judiciously spread out among the 4-tracks available on the Studer at EMI Recording Studios when producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick began recording Sgt.Pepper’s in late 1966 and into 1967.
As you can imagine, the limited number of tracks and time in the studio demanded actual musical talent (both playing and singing) from the band members. There was no autotune, autoalign, drum machines, virtual instruments, or specialized “digital” repair tools at the time. All the engineer and producer could do to “fix” a part would be to have the musician perform or sing the part over and over and punch in and punch out of the track in the hopes that things would be better. Nowadays, even non-singers can leave the isolation booth after a few passes and count on the engineer to correct all of the “pitchy” sections, timing errors, and phrasing before its released to the public.
Some years back, an engineer associate was kind enough to give me a copy of the 4-track master of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s record. Listening to each of the individual tracks of the tunes is a revelation. The Beatles could really play and sing. The rhythm section is recorded on one track, the lead vocals on another, and individual solos, other parts, and background vocals exist as a patchwork on the remaining tracks. The luxury of dedicating a track to an individual part throughout the entire song, a normal occurrence in today’s systems, was unimaginable.
As multitrack recorders from Studer, Ampex, MCI, and Otari moved from 4 to 8 to 16 and finally to the industry standard 24 tracks through the next decade, artists and producers had a lot more room in which to be creative. The microphones around the drum kit didn’t have to be mixed down and combined with the bass and rhythm instruments onto a single track. The kick, snare, and high hat actually got their own tracks and the engineer dedicated a stereo track pair — the left and right overheads — for the toms and cymbals. The bass got its own track and the piano could be recorded in stereo — two microphones on a single instrument! And the music changed as a result. The Beatles and other bands of the 60s could record an entire song during a morning session and another in the afternoon.
Compare that with the 1700 hours that engineers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut spent with Fleetwood Mac at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California recording the No. 1 album Rumours in 1975. The 24-track multitrack masters for Fleetwood Mac’s albums of the period had layer upon layer of guitars and vocals — each with their own track. I’ve heard the multitrack of Rumours and the imagination and complexity of the parts is astounding. I guess that’s why it took them a year to complete the project. And most of those individual parts are missed when you listen to the album. The 5.1 surround remixes allow all of the parts to be heard because they’ve got their own location.
Producing a record like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumour, and Peter Gabriel’s classic So can be a very lengthy process involving lots of imagination, experimentation, listening, acceptance and rejection, and critical judgement.
The end results are often very different from the initial demos and preliminary recordings. Ken Caillat shared some of the early demos of the Rumours record with me when he was producing the deluxe edition, the one that included the 5.1 surround mixes. The evolution of the tunes from demo to final track can be very instructive.
Mixing Down to Analog 2-Track Stereo
While a 24-track analog tape machine can be synced with another 24-track analog machine using timecode allowing engineers and producers to expand the available number of tracks, I’m not convinced that doing so results in better music. It does mean that engineers can capture instruments or background vocals in stereo, a technique I use quite often.
However, most of the time the multitrack masters are passed from the tape machine through an analog mixing console to a 2-track stereo analog tape machine (which adds 3 dB of noise in the transfer). The mixing engineer uses processes available “onboard” the console like equalization, filters, panning, and faders to blend the tracks in to a final stereo mix.
Additionally, mixers routinely send individual tracks or subgroups to “outboard” processors such a digital reverberation, harmonizers, chorus effect, and compressor/limiters. The goal of mixing is to bring each instrumental and vocal part into proper relief dynamically and spatially. And it can take a while. The best mixers may spend months fine tuning a mix.
But is the stereo mixdown the same thing as the final “gold” master? No. It turns out there’s another one more final step in the production of a commercial release. The individual tracks that have been individually mixed — maybe by different individuals in different studios — are sequenced, spaced, and sonically processed to a common fidelity. This is mastering.
Mastering is an art. It requires the best studios, equipped with the best equipment and speakers, an experienced engineer with great ears and knowledge of the gear at his or her disposal. During the analog era, the mixdown tapes are run through a mastering console and subjected to additional dynamics processing (make it louder!), equalization, and amplitude balancing. And transferred yet again to another analog tape machine with another 3 dB of noise added. Is this the final “gold” master? Sorry not yet.
In a manner similar to film prints that were photographically copied from the final “gold” master of a motion picture for distribution all over the world, safety copies of analog “master tapes” were made and sent to pressing facilities all over the world. And yet another 3 dB of dynamic range was lost. The notion that audiophiles hear the sound that the artists, producers, and engineers heard in the studio is fiction.
The music industry, the consumer electronics companies, and organizations want us to believe that we can experience what the “artists intended” in the studio but the truth is we’re stuck with the sonic compromises that are part of the production and distribution chain. Does anyone really believe that pressing a tiny groove in a piece of vinyl is capable of delivering the same fidelity that was played back in the mastering studio? Are things better with today’s digital equipment? Yes — maybe. The potential for great sound has certainly improved but the demands of the marketplace often trump the best intentions of those of us that strive for the best fidelity. The recordings we hear on FM and satellite radio, on YouTube, streaming on Tidal and Qobuz, and from CDs and DVDs are mastered to remove fidelity and increase profits. Louder is better.
Other Production Approaches
The production process outlined above was used in the majority of “classic” period commercial music releases since Les Paul invented multitrack recording back in the 50s. It is not the only way recording methodology. There are plenty of other way to capture a performance for posterity. I’ll share some of the alternative approaches in a follow up article.