Making Records in 1937...

While I find the process of phonograph record manufacturing in 1937 to be extremely fascinating (“almost 25 million produced in this country alone last year!”), as an engineer I'm even more fascinated by the glimpse this video gives inside the recording studio of that era. In the 1930's (lasting well into the 1960's) making a record was a real-time process, capturing a single performance, a moment in time, rather than the multitrack, overdub by overdub process of creating a production that is standard procedure nowadays.

Obviously, the limitations of the gear required a different approach then: the extremely basic four channel mixer printing straight to an acetate with no further processing by way of mastering processes.

I love the narration: “Let's look in on the noted band leader, Duke Ellington as he prepares for a recording, working toward that accurate balancing of musical tones required for effective reproduction.” How true. If you examine the video you see that the acoustic guitar and the upright bass are in the front of the band closer to the mics. I see one mic over the piano and another in the front center that the sax player and later the singer use. Drums and brass back behind (they're louder). Balancing (or you could say 'mixing') was done by placement of the the players, and their movements/locations were literally choreographed to create the balanced of the mix (i.e. the solo sax player walks up to the mic for his solo).

I once saw a picture of legendary band leader Spike Jones (father of Skywalker Sound Director of Music Recording and Scoring, Leslie Ann Jones, btw) with his band, the City Slickers, in the studio in the 1940's. I have scoured the internet for this photo, so I could link to it, but cannot find it anywhere (I saw it in print several years ago – if you know a link, please send it to me!).

The photo is fascinating – the floor of the studio is marked out in large, numbered squares with band members scattered among them (most of them standing - mobile). Along the front of the rows of boxes are 3 or 4 mics, and that's it. No doubt the numbered squares were used to choreograph movement of the various musicians.  

If you have never heard Spike Jones and the City Slickers you MUST check out tunes like Der Fuehrer's Face (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZlFBSRrSR0&feature=related), Cocktails for Two (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYrv-kBUh3Y&feature=related), Chloe (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KME5UuR9DZw&feature=related), or just about any other tune of his. These are all single performances, committed straight to the recorder, using rather spartan technology with the 'mixing' being done through choreography instead of multiple mics, tracks, takes, and a mix session after the fact.

I am a fan of modern technology, we've got tools that can process and mangle a signal into submission, which is cool, but I believe that all too often these tools promote laziness in our recording technique. Listening to these masterpieces of the past, and knowing just how meager was the equipment used to capture them, I come away reminded and encouraged to not use my tools as a crutch, but to improve my work by relying instead on my ears to select the correct mic and placement for each instrument to minimize the amount of processing required to make it fit in the mix later.

Whenever I've adhered to this philosophy the end result has always been better.