Recording studios - why can recordings made in the e.g. 1960s sound good in 2011?

I apologise for the title, but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate to capture my query.

 

You see, I noticed many artists of several different genres releasing material that was originally recorced by perhaps an orchestra in the 1960s or even the standard guitar, bass, vocals.... but they are still released as remasters in 2011.  So the question I have is based on the fact that it appears oxymoronic (if that is a word) as surely the technology back then didn't capture the sound as well.  Surely so much distortion emerges and frequencies captured are narrow.  Sorry for the lack of technical terms.

 

Can anyone explain this?  Is it along the similar lines to how World War I was filmed in colour but that couldn't be played back until technology existed to play it?

 

Regards,

 

Jon

Don't spoil what you have with what you wish for!

Original Post

Jon,

 

I am no expert, and more knowledgable forum members may correct me, but I would guess that recording technology back then was somewhat better than replay technology, so that the full benefit of what was captured could not be realised until fairly recently. Some old recordings can indeed sound surprisingly good, and some modern ones can sound dire! Of course with modern re-mastering software older recordings can be tinkered with by an engineer to make them sound even better. In more general terms, I think we all over-estimate somewhat just how far recording and hi-fi reproduction has progressed over the years. Some early hi-fi set-ups can still sound pretty convincing even by today's standards.

 

Peter

This is the best book on the history of recorded sound yet written and it answers your question over many chapters. Milner discovers that simplicity was the key for 1950s and early 60s recording, particularly at institutions such as Columbia and EMI. In some ways everything that comes later involving overdubbing and multi-tracking introduces copies of copies and theoretically sounds worse, exacerbated by the home recording movement and culminating in technology such as ProTools. The men in brown coats who once ruled the roost really did know what they were doing.

AllenB.

There are some excellent punk recordings out there....

 

Don't forget "punk" was often done on a shoestring ergo simple recording methods which, as mentioned above, is the best way to get a clean recording.

 

Todays music is often very complex in it's layered arrangement and instruments. Try doing a Suzanne Boyle style recording with 1950's methods and gear....you won't much like the results I'd say.

 

Back in the "old days" things were kept simple all the way through from writing, to playing and recording the song hence the apparent clarity of the recordings.

You only have to listen to Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section to realise that 50 years elapsed time does not equal 50 years improvement in recordings.

 

Rather the reverse. The mechanisms for recording have been rather fine for the best part of 90 years. It is not the machinery for recording that has caused the undeniable general decline in quality of commercial recordings [with notable exceptions of course] but the recording technicians part of it. Sadly like many aspects of production, the best is without doubt gradually improving, but that great proportion between the best and the worst is unfortunately getting worse and worse. Complare Buddy Holly recordings with something from Coldplay, The Killers, or Snow Patrol and ask yourself what has gone wrong?

 

ATB from George

Hi Richard,

Your absolutely right about "Perfecting Sound Forever". It takes you from Edison to Protools, via magnetic tape, micro groove vinyl, multi tracking, Fairlights and loudness wars. It made me realise just how much the development and nature of the music we love has been a function of the technology available at the time.

Keith

I think that it's down to (a) the equipment and (b) the producers.

 

The 1950s/1960s/1970s produced wonderful, if somewhat limited, recording and replay equipment, such as 4-track, 8-track and 16-track tape recorders, mixers, stereo, decent microphones, and LP records. But most recording was done 'live', with minimal studio touching up.

 

And there were visionary producers in those times: think Walter Legge or John Culshaw (classical) or George Martin or Phil Spector (popular), just to name a few. Otto Klemperer or Jimi Hendrix had to produce their sounds to tape, without too many technical tricks. 

 

Now "artists" can expect autotuning of voice, 64 or 128 channels of digital mixing consoles, so it doesn't really matter if whoever is recording can't sing or play, and the production team will mix their efforts to sound good on an iPod.

 

So who's surprised that most modern stuff sounds sh*te? 

Originally Posted by Lord Emsworth:
George You seem to be in agreement, so why the 'rather the reverse'?

Dear Nigel,

 

I did read you wrong! But I agree with your point. Too much recording today is worse than its counterpart of fifty years ago!

 

The best of classical recording has continued to improve in a fairly linear progression with two major dips since 1926..

 

Later 78s recording [i.e from 1932 to 1950] were often significantly finer than most tape recordings till the late 1950s, because tape quality was uneven, and monitoring not at all fine enough to show flaws in the tape set-up reliably. Initially it did not exist at all and the result of bias adjustements was a matter of faith till play back after the take was finished.

 

And the advent of multitrack/multimicrophone technologies brought about a tendency to try to fix balance problems at the mastering stage rather than avoid them by correct microphone technique.

 

Naturlly correct microphone technique is a more satisfactory solution!

 

Sorry to expressed myself badly! We agree, I am sure!

 

ATB from George

Thanks George; I was worried that now you have joined me in being 50 you were losing your grip! Glad that's not the case. Modern recordings can of course be excellent. I'm listening to a Rachel Podger and Jane Rogers violin/viola duo album on Channel Classics (2011) and it is absolutely beautiful.

Rachel P- is my current joint favourite violinist with Tasmin Little!

 

I have been to her concerts in Malvern and can only think that if given fine recordings her records must be nigh priceless! I intend to get her Bach recordings next year, as things settle down here!

 

ATB from George

Making a great recording is an art. That was appreciated back in the '50s right up until the early '80s.  The kit and the technology were seriously expensive back in the '50s and '60s. That mean't things had to be kept simple.  Multi-tracking and ultimately digital made recording engineers lazy.  Have a read of John Culshaw's "Putting the Record Straight".  Plenty about Decca's Golden Age of recording during the '50s-'70s.  The engineers employed by Decca, particularly the great Ken Wilkinson, were truly artists in getting both the performance and the spirit of the performance first onto tape, and then onto vinyl.  As recordings go, many are still held up as unmatched in their artistic acheivement.

I think the issue is the mastering stage. Battle for loudness which means savage limiting, which kills detail and dynamic range. You can blame it on laptop and iPod listening, I guess. I have had many recordings mastered and prefer the unmastered versions, but they don't compare well on laptop speakers, car stereos and iPods... but they sound way better on a decent system without savage squashing. A bit is fine to pull the mix together and add a tad of bite and excitement, of course. But the nailed to the wall mastering can kill even the finest recordings.

 

There are bands out there who play with flair, finesse, subtlety etc. The sausage machine would easily lead you think otherwise.

 

On another note... a bigger concern. I said to a mate the other day that I'm thinking of giving away some music online. The odd track. He said "you cannot give it away when people are having so much fun stealing it!". And he's right!

 

Industry has never felt more bleak, tough, demoralising. The internet and iTunes have caused as many downs as ups!

 

Regards,

 

Mickey. 

Originally Posted by Richard Dane:

Making a great recording is an art. That was appreciated back in the '50s right up until the early '80s.  The kit and the technology were seriously expensive back in the '50s and '60s. That mean't things had to be kept simple.  Multi-tracking and ultimately digital made recording engineers lazy.  Have a read of John Culshaw's "Putting the Record Straight".  Plenty about Decca's Golden Age of recording during the '50s-'70s.

About seven this evening, I listened to Erich Kleiber's 1953 Decca recording with the VPO of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, and I think it would be hard to better it in quality in any respect!

 

Mono of course, but you would never notice that if you were not listening for it, so natural and clear is the effect.

 

And on CD, which shows that the original recording must have been able to stand re-visiting and restoration fifty years after it was made. A tribute to everyone involved!

 

ATB from George

Originally Posted by Lord Emsworth:
George I have her Bach Concerto recording with Brecon Baroque and it is really excellent. It's a very small ensemble, and very different to my other favourite version of the same pieces by Hilary Hahn on DG. Neither is better, just very different.


Dear Nigel,

 

I have more Bach violin concerto versions on recordings than any other music. I never counted then, but Oistrack, Grumiaux, Arnold Rose [leader of the VPO till 1938], Standage with Pinnock, and the recordings with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Plus the Bach reworkings as keyboards concertos. I bet Rachel is as fine or finer than any of these! And among them I have no favourite so all must stay! All different, and all illuminating!

 

Must buy some more CDs. Soon for sure!

 

ATB George

Another vote for 'Perfecting Sound Forever' (Geddit?) Every audiophile should own and read it. The book contains a wealth of fascinating information from Edison cylinders to mp3 codecs and everything in-between.

 

In the Analogue section there is a chapter entitled 'Presence'. Some engineers argue that valve mics and recording equipment provided 'presence' to a recording, and early (relatively poor) solid-state technology lost it.

 

Solid -state technology got a lot better and then early digital technology/conversion was questionable (according to some) - and when that was improved, the industry got into 'The Loudness Wars' - started by radio stations to grab attention.

 

Major labels aren't interested in the audiophile. They want music to sound impressive on the radio or an mp3 player. I'm finding of late that it's much more likely to be small indie-label recordings which produce what we would call a good sound.

 

John.

I don't know if many people are aware of it,.. but the fact is a modern digital recording can have as many as 3000 edits in it for a single album. This degree of meddling was not possible in the 60's, let alone the era of shellacs, where performances were essentially unedited. Sound issues aside, this alone would account for the greater warmth and naturalness of older recordings. Bro
Originally Posted by Consciousmess:

I apologise for the title, but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate to capture my query.

 

You see, I noticed many artists of several different genres releasing material that was originally recorced by perhaps an orchestra in the 1960s or even the standard guitar, bass, vocals.... but they are still released as remasters in 2011.  So the question I have is based on the fact that it appears oxymoronic (if that is a word) as surely the technology back then didn't capture the sound as well.  Surely so much distortion emerges and frequencies captured are narrow.  Sorry for the lack of technical terms.

 

Can anyone explain this?  Is it along the similar lines to how World War I was filmed in colour but that couldn't be played back until technology existed to play it?

 

Regards,

 

Jon

I agree that many early recordings from the late 50s through to late 60s sound great as they were simple, and some were on 4 track tape. I have superb recordings from this era. I also find interesting the quality difference from studio equipment in the mid to laye 60s between the UK and US with the latter often sounding significantly superior. IMO things started to decline with large scale mufti tracking in the 70s and early digital in the 80s. Initially much digital was 16 bit and quantisation distortion when mixing became significant which lessened with the move to 24 bit or higher.
We then had early analogue to digital conversion for CDPs  which often sounded quite harsh compared to modern converters.
Now we are in the era easy and cheap digital manipulation, where compression, companding, fancy eq are all easy to do... These functions by definition distort the sound.. If over used or used to optimise for mp3 or iTunes, it will sound unnatural or poor  on hifi equipment.
Of course there are artists out there who embrace modern technology for its quality and it's ability to become transparent  rather than its gimmicks or features, and such modern recordings can sound wonderful, but I suspect this is the minority.
Simon

Yes (with a reservation, see hereafter), plus several Harry James, Amanda McBroom, Lincoln Mayorga. The Drum and Track records drove up the wall several cartridge owners ...  

Unfortunately, Thelma Houston (Lab no. 2) was no more avalaible as direct-cut, but only as TLD version (as are The Moscow Sessions).

adca  

Originally Posted by Lord Emsworth:
Some of the best recordings I have are jazz records from the late 1950s. You only have to listen to Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section to realise that 50 years elapsed time does not equal 50 years improvement in recordings.

Man that is one of the best LP's in my collection!  I have used it for years to demo new kit and it's incredibly effective.  The last time I used it was for speaker demos.  My preferred speakers produced the set as a bunch of great musicians having the time of their life (on 'You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To) the 'also rans' made the set sound like a bunch of jobbing musos itching to get home to watch the telly!

 

What makes those recordings so fantastic?

1. great musicianship and jazz 'chops'

2. single takes (I'm guessing) with great spontaneity 

3. simple two mic analogue tape recording 

4. intelligent mastering from tape to vinyl

 

Originally Posted by George Fredrik:
Originally Posted by Richard Dane:

Making a great recording is an art. That was appreciated back in the '50s right up until the early '80s.  The kit and the technology were seriously expensive back in the '50s and '60s. That mean't things had to be kept simple.  Multi-tracking and ultimately digital made recording engineers lazy.  Have a read of John Culshaw's "Putting the Record Straight".  Plenty about Decca's Golden Age of recording during the '50s-'70s.

About seven this evening, I listened to Erich Kleiber's 1953 Decca recording with the VPO of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, and I think it would be hard to better it in quality in any respect!

 

Mono of course, but you would never notice that if you were not listening for it, so natural and clear is the effect.

 

And on CD, which shows that the original recording must have been able to stand re-visiting and restoration fifty years after it was made. A tribute to everyone involved!

 

ATB from George

I believe the general rule at Decca in Culshaw's day was that a small selection of recording venues (places like Walthamstow Town Hall) were used and the recording set-up was a simple two mic arrangement (pace my post on George' Contemporary label recording).

 

It's interesting to compare Decca recording to DG recordings from the same era when the latter was using multi-mic techniques on their orchestral recordings. IMHO the DG recordings are not a patch on the Decca LP's from the same period.

 

Having said all of that DG produced many of my favourites including the Schubert lieder cycle they recorded with Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore (another demo favourite)

Decca usually used a three microphone arrngement in the early LP days [and the end of the 78 era], with the resort to occasional spot microphones that were mixed at the time of recording to the mono track or to the stereo pair.

 

There is a strange story about Furtwangler, when he and the LPO recorded the Second Brahms Symphony for Decca right at the end of the 78 era. Because as Furtwangler was more or less [at that time] exclusively recording for EMI, he was used to their policy of using often only one microphone [as had been the practice for Reichrundfunk recordings and live broadcasts], he asked the engineers to remove all but one of the microphones, which actually foxed Decca's engineers.

 

The resulting recording [Waltham Town Hall I think] was not a success in that the balance completely favoured the string orchestra at the expence of the woodwinds. This was probably enough to convince Furtwangler to continue with EMI at that time. The is a contemporary recording of Brahms' first from EMI with Furtwangler and the VPO [done in the Musikvereinsaal] that shows how well one microphone can catch a just and informative musical balance.

 

But Decca's "tree" of three microphones did get superb results, when the recording team was allowed to get on with it without advice from the musicians concerned!

 

Another peculiar story concerning Furtwangler came from a 1954 VPO session when they recorded  [Wagner's]Seigfried Funeral Music for EMI. The company had just introduced a new and improved microphone, which could be set further back without loss of clarity. Furtwangler insisted that the microphone be brought forward to the normal place. But as there were two scaffolds carrying two independant microphones for safely recording on two separate tape recorders, one of the microphones was brought forward and the other left where it was, and the recording carried on using the further distanced microphone. Furtwangler was never told this of course, but he was pleased with the balance of the new microphone for all that!

 

ATB from George

Originally Posted by George Fredrik:

Decca usually used a three microphone arrngement in the early LP days [and the end of the 78 era], with the resort to occasional spot microphones that were mixed at the time of recording to the mono track or to the stereo pair.

 

There is a strange story about Furtwangler, when he and the LPO recorded the Second Brahms Symphony for Decca right at the end of the 78 era. Because as Furtwangler was more or less [at that time] exclusively recording for EMI, he was used to their policy of using often only one microphone [as had been the practice for Reichrundfunk recordings and live broadcasts], he asked the engineers to remove all but one of the microphones, which actually foxed Decca's engineers.

 

The resulting recording [Waltham Town Hall I think] was not a success in that the balance completely favoured the string orchestra at the expence of the woodwinds. This was probably enough to convince Furtwangler to continue with EMI at that time. The is a contemporary recording of Brahms' first from EMI with Furtwangler and the VPO [done in the Musikvereinsaal] that shows how well one microphone can catch a just and informative musical balance.

 

But Decca's "tree" of three microphones did get superb results, when the recording team was allowed to get on with it without advice from the musicians concerned!

 

Another peculiar story concerning Furtwangler came from a 1954 VPO session when they recorded  [Wagner's]Seigfried Funeral Music for EMI. The company had just introduced a new and improved microphone, which could be set further back without loss of clarity. Furtwangler insisted that the microphone be brought forward to the normal place. But as there were two scaffolds carrying two independant microphones for safely recording on two separate tape recorders, one of the microphones was brought forward and the other left where it was, and the recording carried on using the further distanced microphone. Furtwangler was never told this of course, but he was pleased with the balance of the new microphone for all that!

 

ATB from George

Fascinating, George

 

How / where did you discover this insight?

I have had a fascination with recording technique since I was eleven, and noticed the clear difference between HMV 78s from 1931 and 1932, when AD Blumlein's moving coil microphone and cutting head replaced Western Electric's Moving magnet equipment at EMI. The best of those Blumlein recordings still have a fresh clear sound that can still rival the musical values in the best made since, except of course being in mono. Actually the first Blumlein stereo recordings were made in 1934 as part of the development of binaural recording for cinema use. The whole system was so far in front of its time that EMI did not make commercial stereo recordings before November 1954, and then only in secret. Decca went to patent a stereo recording system in 1954 [before EMI were considering it] only to find that there were significant EMI patents [Blumlein's inventions] already in existence. EMI was galvanised into action, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

I bet not many eleven year olds know the name of a leading electronics engineer, let alone start reading about his life and inventions!

 

ATB from George

Likes (0)
×
×
×
×