A brief history of the recording studio 1877 to today
Submitted by Chuck Reider, Director of Reno Jazz Orchestra
I have been spending a lot of time at Tanglewood Productions finishing the Reno Jazz Orchestra’s album featuring the music of Earth, Wind, and Fire. For musicians the recording studio is a special magical place set up to capture the very best performances. I thought this was a good time to learn about the history of recording studios and share it with you.
In 1877 Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and began the recording process that has evolved through time and technology. The earliest period is known as the acoustic era because musicians and singers had to gather round a large horn which focused the sound to a sensitive membrane that would vibrate and “scratch” the sound onto a cylinder of wax or soft metal.
Recordings of the time typically featured louder instruments such as the trumpet, trombone and tuba replacing the quieter instruments like the guitar and acoustic bass. Singers in front, with all the instrumentalists strategically placed farther back. Recording studios were any convenient room or building away from street noise.
The electrical era began in 1925 when Western Electric introduced electric components such as the microphone, amplifiers and loudspeakers. Now sound could be captured, amplified, and balanced when the disc was cut. Yes, it was still an acoustic process to create a master disc, but the new technology allowed mass producing discs for the public.
This new technology required a new profession, the audio engineer. As this technology advanced, it was now possible for quieter instruments like the guitar and bass to join the recording ensemble. Singers no longer had to “belt it out” to be heard which introduced the “crooner” song styling.
Recording studios were no longer any convenient place but rather buildings with proper acoustics. Columbia Records, for example, converted an Armenian church that had a ceiling over one hundred feet high. Mitch Miller (who remembers Mitch?) worked at Columbia as an artist and repertoire manager meticulously tweaking the acoustics in the converted church studio with drapes and other devices. He gave strict orders the drapes were not to be moved or the wooden floor mopped so as not to change the acoustics.
Elaborate echo chambers were constructed underneath the studio. Made of hard surfaces with a speaker on one end and a microphone at the other they gave recordings a distinctive sound. Baffles in the chamber were used to change the sound of the echo. Recording companies designed and built custom equipment and mixing consoles.
A new German invention, magnetic tape recording, ushered in the magnetic era in 1945. Tape quickly became the standard as quality was superior and made it possible to record longer musical pieces. Tape introduced hi-fidelity to the public and began the art of multi-tracking.
So what is multi-tracking? Think back to the master disc that was recorded by cutting into vinyl. There is no way to take two different discs and mix them together to make a recording from instruments on both discs. Not so with tape! In the 1950’s Guitarist Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford pioneered multi-tracking and produced recordings of large ensembles comprised only of Ford’s voice and Paul’s guitar.
New disc manufacturing processes led to the 33 1/3 rpm album (I have lots of them) and portable tape recorders. The studio transitioned from a place intended to take a perfect reflection of the artist’s performance (think photograph) to an instrument in its own right (think maybe a painting). George Martin’s production of the Beatles iconic albums is a great example. You hear the band, but there are sound effects, orchestral parts coming in and out, and even sounds being played backwards.
1975 Sony introduced the PCM encoder PCM-1 Audio, we know as the CD, and the digital era began. Instead of capturing analog sounds to tape it converts the analog sound into very small digital samples which your CD player converts back to analog (so you can hear it).
Ry Cooder’s “Bop Till You Drop” 1979 release was the first popular CD sold. As computers became faster and hard drives got larger the recording equipment adapted. Tape width confined the number of tracks you could record at once. Two inches allowed thirty-two tracks. If the engineer wanted more tracks they would have to sync to thirty-two track machines together.
Computers have theoretically unlimited tracks. Instead of using a razor to cut and splice tape to move sound elements around, on a computer you essentially drag and drop where you want that sound to go. Studios no longer needed physical echo chambers and computer programs have provided new ways to “paint.”
Recording studios have become much more than just a place to record music. Many were made famous by the artists who recorded there. You all know the names of many of them; Abbey Road, Motown’s Hitsville, Muscle Shoals and the Capitol recording studio where Frank Sinatra sang to lay down his immortal tracks. Musicians are drawn to these studios not only for the unique sound they bring but experiencing the vibe of being in the same room as your music heroes. Inspiring.
Want learn more?
A virtual tour of Tanglewood Studios (fast forward to 4:30 for the start of the tour)
Legendary engineer/producer Tom Dowd
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