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Sounding The Way We Do

By Roger Armstrong

There is nothing quite like the feeling of holding the master tape to a classic record, in particular when it is of 50s and 60s recordings; the tape that was inthe studio when the record was cut, the box annotated with all of the engineer's logs, comments on the producer's choice of take and doodling by a bored drummer. But more than the artefact aspect, open the box and there is the promise of hearing the original master and therefore the best possible source available. At first listen it may not even sound that spectacular. It will often be a little dull, in need of something extra to make it sparkle. And that is precisely why we then take it through a post production or mastering stage , just as it would have been for its original release.

But first the analogue tape is carefully copied to a digital source using the best available analogue to digital converters and playing it back on the best available analogue machine. Ace's Graham Sharpe, who makes all our transfers, is based in the the post-production studio Sound Mastering, where he is equipped with state-of-the-art analogue playback machines and digital converters to guarantee the best lay off.

Although the quality of the digital copy is of the utmost importance, the next stage is where the record really comes to life. Mastering is crucial, this is where the final audio is produced, that will go to CD. No more chances to think again, wish there was more bass on there, wonder if the top end isn't a bit fizzy etc etc etc, through every frequency range imaginable. And that's in essence what the mastering is about, frequencies. Put crudely adding more bass means that there appears to be less treble. So the process of post producing or mastering is one of balancing the different frequencies within the piece of music until it sounds, well , right. There is more to it than that with compressors and various devices to affect the width of the image at times being used judiciously. But also, given that the track will not be in isolation, it must blend in both sound and level with all of the other tacks around it.

But ultimately the thrill of finding the master is the thrill of knowing that this is the best source available to represent the issued record in the best sound possible. This is the holy grail.

The Record As Document

First I will go back a bit in the process and give a little background on the development of recording techniques. Without going into the deeper theory of the involvement of Turkish cigarettes and Bing Crosby's golf habits, the tape recorder as used for recording music and reproducing it with clarity was developed by the Germans during World War II. Eventually Bing's desire to spend more time on the golf course led to its introduction into the world of radio recording.

Immediately before the advent of the 1 track mono tape recorder, records were generally cut onto large (usually 18") acetates. An acetate is a soft version of a record on to which a groove is etched in essentially the reverse process of playing a record. It looks like a record and can be played like a record, but is not as enduring and wears out after a few plays (there are, however, some Northern Soul DJs who do not believe this). Even with the advent of tape the acetate was still involved at the back end of the process of making a record. But before tape the master session was usually cut onto two 18" acetates simultaneously. One was played to decide which take was to be used on the final record, and the other was only played to make another acetate disc, this time a 10" one, as these were the days of the 78 rpm shellac disc. This 10"disc was then processed to finally make a metal master negative to produce a production run of discs.

Initially tape was only regarded as being suitable as a safety recording, in case something went wrong with the acetates. Having heard some early attempts at using tape versus the equivalent acetate it is clear why it was viewed this way. Like any process the end result is as good as the people using it and their knowledge of the medium. But soon the advantages of tape became apparent and engineers' ability to manipulate it to sound almost as good as an acetate heralded the end of recording direct to disc. Tape could be edited readily, a process that was more complex and degenerative to the sound on acetate. Especially useful in the classical world, longer pieces could be continuously recorded. Tape could be played many more times without degenerating and the same source could be used for assessing the performances as well as making the record. But still the tape was used to cut a master acetate for processing purposes, in the same way as before. Early tape-based systems could still only record in mono.

Stereo was the next step, as two recording and playback heads were synced together for the first time. The mainstream pop and classical worlds benefited from this, immediately reproducing the full orchestral sound in all its glory. The need for stereo on the funkier end of the rock'n'roll scene was less obvious. However techniques such as cutting the backing track on one channel and the vocal on the other soon came into play, allowing the master disc to be cut louder using compression techniques.

One theory has it that the jump to 3 track was occasioned by the plethora of duff singers around in the early 60s. It was the orchestras that cost money in those days and not the studio time. So to keep the overheads down 3 track (and a thing called simul-sync) was developed. This way the "Bobbys" could spend as much time as they liked "overdubbing" their vocals on a pre-recorded stereo orchestra track. Simul-sync allowed two of the tracks to be played back and monitored while the third could be used for recording.

Up to this point the basic principal generally held of balancing the musicians via a number of microphones through a recording (or mixing) desk and on to the chosen medium. Initially the third track was generally a convenience.

The Concept of Multi-Tracking

Phil Spector soon hijacked the format and used it to overdub multiple times, recording basic tracks on two tracks, balancing them and recording to the third track (known as bouncing) and recording further overdubs on the now emptytwo tracks. Though this process is degenerative to the sound quality, Spector used it as a key element in his "Wall Of Sound".

Just to intercede here, there was, of course, the inevitable exception to this stately progress through the track numbers. In the late 50s Atlantic Records had a custom-made 8 track (I have heard that there was a second in Detroit). It is reported that Leiber and Stoller's response was 'what do we do with the other six'? True or not, this gives an insight into the development of the technology versus the producers' need to use it.

In the days of 1 track, records were cut live out of necessity. Sure there were the exceptions such as the guitar genius and recording pioneer Les Paul, who overdubbed from acetate to acetate - playing along with what he had recorded and recording the combined performances to a second acetate, then taking this and repeating the process to a third etc etc. It is rumoured that the process would sometimes exceed 30 "bounces". He also played the discs at varying speeds during the transfers. But in general the whole ensemble: rhythm section, horns, strings, backing vocals, lead singer etc were balanced straight to the final medium, be it acetate or tape. Which meant that the finished record was in essence made as soon as the last note was played. As the number of tracks available increased, this changed, as did the way records were made. Indeed the very nature of those records soon altered.

Simultaneously with the development of multi-tracking the number of inputs (& outputs) on the mixing desk increased. However with both 3 and even 4 track many of the studios still operated as they had with 1 and 2 track machines. Essentially the group still played live but was balanced across the three or four tracks with several instruments combined on one. The vocals and maybe even the horns were sometimes added later on a track that was deliberately left spare after the basic band track had been recorded. This was then mixed down (re-balanced) on to a 2 track tape. This added an extra generation of tape transfer and when this happens there is a reduction of sound quality.

Up to and, to an extent, including 4 track, records were in essence a representation of a performance. From an engineering standpoint multi-track provided certain advantages in terms of choice, but essentially the crucial part of the balancing was done in the first stage of recording, i.e. the band was balanced to the tape. Of course there are exceptions to the idea of the record as a document of a performance, from Phil Spector's Wall of Sound to say the wildly processed sounds of Gary U.S. Bonds. But even when two 3 or 4 trackmachines were used to overdub and bounce, the end result was more oftenthan not in essence a live performance.

The advent of 8 track brought about a change. Many records became the "stuff of imagination" rather than the documenting of a performance. The possibilities increased enormously of overdubbing extra instruments and vocals to produce sounds that would be next to impossible to create live, even in the studio.

I have to put in a word here for the incredible performances of Spike Jones and the City Slickers, who managed to commit incredibly complex musical mayhem to tape as a live performance without the aid of overdubs or multi-tracking.

8 track, unlike four, allowed eight first generation recordings to be made without having to resort to "bouncing down" from tape to tape - essentially a degenerative process. Given that engineers still had the skills required to balance the basic band track to two tracks this left six to play with. It was at the end of the 60s that 8 track became prevalent and guitar overdubs and stacked harmony vocals went suitably over the top.

In the US there were short-lived 10 and 12 track systems, but the next major development was to 16 track. It was at this point that the idea of recording even the basic band track live almost disappeared. Increasingly instruments were recorded separately, to the point where drum tracks were being recorded without the rest of the band playing. Records were being constructed like buildings and any hint of the ensemble performance was lost. Even if other musicians were involved in basic backing tracks they would tend to re-record their parts later. 24 track followed and when the technology was developed to "slave" two machines together the possibilities were endless, as indeed were the indulgences created by the excessive number of tracks available. Digital multi-tracking added whole new possibilities and now in the world of Pro Tools and a virtual infinity of tracks, it's hard to see how anyone ever finishes a record when there is always so much more that could be done. But hey we are a reissue company so that no longer concerns us. Though we do find it useful for remixing lost masters, and truth to tell the new technology allows edits and other changes that could not have been imagined when most of the record weissue were made.

Regardless of whether mixed from 46 track multi-track or first generation tape recorded directly to mono it is the final one or two-track master that we want in order to bring the best sound possible to our sharp-eared listeners. Occasionally the master itself will be damaged through bad handling or storage. But contrary to the view that analogue tape degenerates of its own accord, it is a remarkably resilient medium on which to store audio. Let us hope that digital recordings prove to be as enduring after they have been around for 40 years.

Digital tape has changed the rules to a large extent, in that a copy is not degenerated, except in the most technical sense, and, provided that the transfer from analogue is made with due care, attention and expertise, the digital copy should be the equal of the analogue original. The advent of digital recording has been a real boon to us. It enables a large number of analogue tapes to be stored on a small cassette-like tape without sound impairment,and at a negligible cost in tape stock. We were in the front line of digital recording back in the early 80s when Sony introduced the PCM F1 system. This was a low cost digital recorder that used Betamax videotape transport combined with a custom digital converter. Intended by Sony as a high-end domestic system that used the same tape machine to record both video and digital audio, it was reasonably portable and so allowed us to travel to the USA and make digital copies without loss in quality. With the advent of CD we were able to go to our stock of digital copies and immediately produce fantastic sounding discs directly from the masters. An early review of our Dion "Best Of"suggested that we had set the standard for the quality of audio that listeners should demand. We think that we continue to achieve that.

The Master Tape

As I mentioned earlier the master tape is the "Holy Grail", but what is a master? For our purposes it is the acetate; the one-track; or the stereo tape that comes at the end of the recording process. Let's just consider quad, a bad dream involving people with four ears. Either the finished recording is made directly to this tape or via a multi-track recording, which is then reduced or mixed to the final 'master'.

The acetate or tape that was in the studio is not necessarily the final sound source that produces the record. This tape is equalised, maybe compressed, even edited and reverberation added before the final disc was issued. Frequently a further "master" tape is produced containing all of this processing and this is called the EQ tape. Equalisation is essentially changing the relative frequencies of the audio on the "master" recording or mix. The sound on the EQ tape is the same as that on the record, less a generation or two. Invariablythe EQ process brightened the sound, though sometimes the processing was carried to extremes. When radio was king, usually mono, and coming out of a relatively small speaker, often a lot of EQ, compression and reverb was added to make the record louder, more exciting, as it spat over the airways. On a modern hi-fi system these additions tend to get in the way of the music and when put to shiny hi tech CD can just sound cheap and cheesy.

There are those who would argue against this view and say that it is this EQ tape that is the master, as this contains the sound of the record as issued. We take the view that, though this may be so, this EQ master is by definition a generation away from the recording master. Also the EQ etc that was added to the recording master was often done so for reasons of commercial expediency at the time. In some cases the difference between the recorded sound and the final EQ master is radical. We would always prefer to have the original master, pre-EQ as this then gives us the freedom to equalise, add echo etc insympathy with the original, but using contemporary equipment that does not add so much distortion. Much of the processing in the past added noise to the music as a by-product.

There are inevitably exceptions when the eqing process is so integral to the essence of the record that it cannot be replicated. It can also be deceptive when listening to an EQ tape as it, by definition, almost always sounds brighter and livelier, so one is immediately attracted to it over the rather dull-sounding original. However the latter usually shows its mettle when it in turn is EQd for release. Modern digital work stations are an absolute boon to the mastering process. With access to an infinite range of EQ settings and editing possibilities that were unimaginable in the analogue domain, silk purses can often be turned out of sows' ears. And though we always want to use the original master, we sometimes have to put up with a lot less. When stereo came in it created the horror known as "reprocessed stereo". This took many forms. Sometimes severe EQ was applied to the left and the right channels,with one being made to shriek with an extremely high end being added and the other sounding like it was played through a ball of cotton wool. Then there is the dastardly out of phase trick, whereby the mono is played through two channels and the phase is reversed on one of them. This can be seriously injurious to health and hearing on headphones. And then there is the worst devil of all , the comb filter. Here the mono signal is sliced into layers of frequency ranges and each slice alternatively placed to the right and left channel. This has even fooled a well known engineer, who managed to issue a bunch of comb filters as if they were stereo on a well known beat group CD. However we regard all of them as crimes against humanity and take delight in unravelling as best we can.

The last resort is always the disc dub. Sound Mastering has a transcription deck that handles up to 18" acetates and has a cleaning machine that makes a huge difference to the audio quality. With digital devices like Cedar, much of the snap, crackle and pop can be removed in the post-production phase.There are those for whom analogue will never be surpassed, and certainly over-processed digital can be every bit as irritating as over-processed analogue ever was. As one of Sound Mastering's engineers said when it comes to the argument as to whether analogue is better than digital , "It depends on what kind of distortion you prefer".

A few random stories from the tape vaults....

Selected releases

  • They Wandered

    "Have I got Laurie tapes? I've been falling over them for years - come and take them away." This joyous statement came from Bruce Hailstalk at RCA studios over the phone and I knew that we were onto something big. Just before I had left for New York, Trevor had suggested that I try RCA for the "missing" Laurie masters. Since doing the deal with Laurie Records, all we had managed to get was very late generation tapes, many of which were EQd as "fake stereo".

    I went round to see Bruce the next day on 5th Avenue and this big and very friendly black American guy took me through this labyrinth of racking and over to a back wall where there were rows and rows of Laurie Records' tapes. The first thing that I noticed was the familiar Bell Sound sticker on many of the boxes. This was the first sign that we were in the presence of master tapes. As I pulled tapes at random familiar song titles leapt from the labels, and that was just the Gerry & the Pacemakers tapes! Soon I started pulling session reel after session reel of Dion's material.

    I had booked into Associated Studio on Broadway, so braving the vulture-like traffic wardens of Manhattan, I parked on a multiple yellow line and began to make Bruce's wish come true and took away the Laurie tapes. Associated was run by Nat Schnapf and had been the demo studio for the Brill Building writers. So not only did I get to go through the Laurie masters, but got to talk about many things with Nat, once I had recovered from the leg-crossing sound of a"castrato" that he was transferring from wire.

    The Laurie tapes could not have been better. There were whole sessions, including that for 'The Wanderer' - all two takes! Take two nailed it and someone (I presume Gene Schwartz, one of Laurie's owners) said "next"; there was no inkling that they had just cut a multi-million selling record. Many of the tapes were in a form of stereo. Band to one side, group to the other and Dion in the middle. I did find some three-track versions of these and I believe that at Bell they would cut from the three track, adding the EQ, echoes, limiters etc at this point. I think that the two-track tapes were used for playback to assess the master take. Many had comments written in different ink and obviously at different times, indicating that they had been played on several occasions as if auditioning. Usually the master take is circled and often M is written beside it.

    The annotation on some of these reels was more speculative, often M with a question mark. But these two-tracks were perfect, straight off the studio floor, no processing, just what they heard in the studio when the records were being made. To say that the difference between these and the issued records was night and day would be a gross understatement. I can see why the echo was added and all the bottom and top was EQd out and they were limited to hell - it was because that's what sounded great on the radio or coming through the speakers of a Dansette record player.

    But here we were on the verge of CD and we had these beautifully recorded tapes. It is a myth that old recordings were invariably a bit distorted and gritty. A myth that's often fuelled by the EQ that was added for purely commercial reasons. Bell Sound was a state-of-the-art studio in the early 60s with a great room and fantastic microphones that are still in demand to this day. They also had engineers who knew how to balance a live performance onto two or three tracks perfectly. Even though they were working to what now would be an impossibly tight schedule, the musicians and singers sound so relaxed, probably because they were also well-rehearsed. So we issued these fabulous masters with just a splash of echo and the very wide "stereo" picture pulled in a little bit.

  • First Impression

    All the tapes bar one were in for the Impressions' "ABC Rarities" compilation (CDKEND 170) and as sod's law would have it the only disc dub looked like being the opening track, 'Can't You See'. The track had appeared on the first pressing of "The Impressions", their debut LP for ABC-Paramount. However when 'It's All Right' became a hit in September 1963 the album was reconfigured with this on it, losing 'Can't You See'. I contacted the ever-helpful Lynn Kerman at the Universal tape vault in Los Angeles and asked her to pull the stereo master reel for the A-side of the album. I asked her to check how many rills (spacers between tracks) were on the reel and the answer was six. This meant that there were seven cuts on the reel and as the A-side of the album only had six I assumed that the missing stereo master of 'Can't You See' had been parked at the end of the reel when they substituted 'It's All Right'. I was right. It had and we received a fine stereo master just in time for the CD's issue.

  • Unravelling B.B. King

    Ultimately the only way to really find out what the tape is like is to play it, however reading the box can equally be informative. We have spent many hours researching the B.B. King tapes, a process that began in earnest when we first compiled the tapes ready for "The RPM Hits" (CDCHD 712), "The Modern Recordings 1950-1" (CDCHM2 835) "The Vintage Years" 4 CD box and all the Crown LPs we've released over the last few years, which comprise the original LP plus bonus tracks. B.B. was on the road constantly and so he cut records in studios all over the States. On several of the boxes in a faint pencil handwriting is "Houston" or "Chicago". Apart from adding to the history of the recordings, these slight annotations help to indicate that this is indeed the master tape. These are invariably dull-sounding compared to an EQ'd album master. However that small annotation and a suitable EQ from the engineer soon convince that this is the real deal.

    B.B. tapes are a particular nightmare. Although he left Modern Records in 1962, they managed to issue singles and albums right up to 1971. They achieved this by recycling old recordings, frequently "updated" with new rhythm sections to produce a "stereo picture" of sorts. Some of these were very cleverly executed and it can take a sharp ear to hear that they are indeed overdubs.

    One charming story from the research into the RPM Years CD (CDCHD 712) concerns 'Crying Won't Help'. The original master for this was found on a box marked "Chicago" and to check that it was indeed the correct take I was playing it simultaneously with the version used on the "Blues" album. They tracked identically right up until the end, when B.B. let out a yelp on the LP version followed, a split second later, by the same yelp on the "Chicago" master. They had pulled B.B.'s exclamation closer to the track for the issued version. We did likewise on ours.

  • Otis and a Chilling Moment

    I was in the middle of the first of what was to be two 10-day blitzes through the Stax vaults at Fantasy Studios, it was around 3am and I had a trolley full of 4-track tapes in the studio. I was on my own and I picked up a box that simply had "Otis" written on the spine. As I removed the tape a scrap of paper fell to the floor and on it was written 'Dock Of The Bay'. I threw the reel up on to the machine and re-wound to the head. The unmistakable drawl of Ron Capone laconically announced "'Dock Of The Bay' take 1". I couldn't believe it as the familiar intro started and within moments Otis was making seagull noises. So that's where the idea came from! The irony is that he never did know that the idea was used as the overdub session for the electric guitar and the keyboards where recorded after his tragic death. The seagulls and waves were spun-in from a separate tape on the final mix. I later found the seagulls and waves two track tape. I mixed all of the available basic tapes that night and, though I remixed on a couple of other occasions, eventually the mixes I made of takes 1 and 2 that night were what I used on "It's Not Just Sentimental" (CDSXE 041). Given that takes 1, 2, 5 and 6 are the only complete takes on the multi-track master and that take 3 has a piece missing, I assume therefore that the issued and overdubbed master is take 4 with a small piece of take 3 edited in.

  • One in a Million

    When trawling the Scepter/Wand vaults in Nashville, Ady Croasdell turned up the tape box for Jack Montgomery's 'Dearly Beloved' with both sides of the 45and 3 unissued mentioned on it. However the tape played an unidentified gospel group and the chances of finding the Jack Montgomery reel were minimal to say the least. Six years later and our man at Kent Records was talking to the man next door. Next door happened to be a disc cutting room and somehow the subject of Jack Montgomery came up - as it does. "I'm a big fan of Jack Montgomery" said the man next door, "in fact I cut 'Dearly Beloved' on an album and probably still have the tape". He did, but alas without the three unissued. That would have been just too much of a co-incidence.