R/E/P Community

Please login or register.

Login with username, password and session length
Advanced search  

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 5   Go Down

Author Topic: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?  (Read 21342 times)

David Kulka

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 578

I'm a little nervous about starting this thread, and don't want to seem negative or disrespectful to anyone working in audio back then, but I think the topic is worthwhile.

I think most would agree that during the 60's and 70's, tremendous advances were made in recording technology.  I think we'd also agree that among the hits of that period, there was a huge range of sonic quality -- some records were superb and rival anything ever recorded, others were downright bad and suffered from obvious problems.

I was an R&B fan back then and collected a roomfull of records.  It was clear that some sounded much better than others and when I started in recording -- as a mastering engineer in '75, on a Neumann system -- I began to wonder why.

Motown comes to mind -- I hope Bob Olhsson will forgive my naming them, and will offer his perspective.  The sonics of Motown records were a back and forth, or maybe random study in recording quality.  Songs on an album would sound totally different from one another, some were compressed to death, some weren't, some had hum from beginning to end, others had clipping or high frequency distortion.  Why?

Now, I did a yearlong research project on Motown recordings, and have spoken to a few of the original engineers, and have spent a lot of time at the Motown museum (though that's only one of the many facilities Motown used back then), so I think I know a few of the answers -- but I'd like to hear what others, who were there at the time, have to say.

As a side note, I've noticed that listening to CD versions of the old albums that I know, things don't change that much -- although background noise and distortion are improved and there's generally less compression, the great ones still sound great, and the others still have problems.

All in all the Memphis hits sounded pretty damn good  and trust me, I have listened to a lot of those records -- a lot.  "Comparisons are odious" they say, and generalizations aren't much better but I'll stick my neck out and say that in my opinion, Stax and the associated Memphis labels beat the Atlantic disks in terms of sound quality.  (By the way, wasn't Stax distributed by Atlantic, and didn't they use the same pressing plants?  The disks looked and felt the same.  And where were the Stax records mastered?  Locally, or at the pressing plants, or in New York?)  Anyway, there was a sonic gamut with the Memphis hits too -- not so much, but it was there.

I'm wandering a little, but this is the heart of my question: what were the specific reasons that some recordings weren't nearly as good as others that were done at the same studio, perhaps in the same month?  Malfunctioning gear or maintenance problems?  Unqualified engineers?  Executives or producers with demands that backfired?  Bad monitors?  Booze, or working under too much pressure, with too little sleep?

Again, I have the utmost admiration for the talented people who made these great records; some of the best American music ever.  It must have been dizzying and challenging recording in the 60's and 70's; big records recorded around the clock, while technology surged forward at a mad pace.  Bravo to the men and women that made it happen; I hope no one will mind my poking around and asking about some of the problems back in those days.
Logged
http://www.studioelectronics.biz

Service & Restoration of UREI dbx Neve Eventide Marshall AMS Tube Gear and more

compasspnt

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 16266
Re: The 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2005, 12:56:11 am »

David Kulka wrote on Fri, 11 February 2005 00:25

 

All in all the Memphis hits sounded pretty damn good  and trust me, I have listened to a lot of those records -- a lot.  "Comparisons are odious" they say, and generalizations aren't much better but I'll stick my neck out and say that in my opinion, Stax and the associated Memphis labels beat the Atlantic disks in terms of sound quality.  (By the way, wasn't Stax distributed by Atlantic, and didn't they use the same pressing plants?  The disks looked and felt the same.  And where were the Stax records mastered?  Locally, or at the pressing plants, or in New York?)




Boy, great thread opener!

I want to respond to many things you have said, and will, given time for thought.  I'm sure many others will do the same.  This topic is loaded.

But I will quickly respond to the quotation above, which requires fact, more than philosophy.

Stax was distributed by Atlantic for it's first few years (up until about '69 or '70, or perhaps '71?). after which they changed to Gulf + Western (Paramount).  Then they later changed distribution to CBS, which dealt the death blow (that's a whole different story there).  The Atlantic Stax records were indeed pressed at the same plants as Atlantic's own product.

The whole Atlantic/Stax thing I think is actually a bit of a sticky subject, at least as far as the true Stax people were concerned.  They were proud and excited that Atlantic were getting their product a wider audience, and better distribution, but were somewhat resentful of what they felt (even if not overtly demonstrated) was the intrusion of "the folks from New York" into their domain.  The usual cast of executives and producers at first came down to Memphis to "oversee" the production and the audio quality of the product, but there was mild friction.  Stax made it known that they would take care of everything themselves.  This was not a big fight or anything; quite a bit of it all was by implication.  I, too think the Stax product (indeed most of the Memphis product) sounded better than the Atlantic (but then perhaps I'm too close to it all, and a bit biased?)

At first the Stax product was mastered by the local tech genius Welton Jetton, who was the manufacturer of the SpectraSonics-by-Auditronics consoles that both Ardent and Stax used (amongst others at Stax).  He had his mastering first at the Pepper (commercial house) Studios, and then independently at his Auditronics Mastering.  (This was where I mastered Led Zeppelin III.)

But later (forgot what year) Stax put their own Neumann lathe into their building on McLemore Avenue.  It had the standard Neumann rack mounted "console"  with EQ & compression.  Larry Nix was the mastering engineer, but the "closest thing to a producer"  of each project would usually co-master his products.  Cropper did this, and Booker, and Hayes/Porter, and I did as well for Al Bell & my stuff, or for many of the things I mixed for people, and also for the first Ardent records, including Big Star #1.

We used to joke that the long acetate threads which were "thrown away" by the lathe (from the groove cutting) was really Isaac Hayes' hair (for those who don't know what this thread looked like, it was a very jumbled, thin, spaghetti-like black mess which went into a jar-like container, and had to be emptied when full..we would put a match to it for fun.)  This lathe was later sold to Nix himself, who put it into the Ardent building on Madison.  Brad probably knows the rest of that story.

But more to come from many on the rest of your questions or comments, I'm sure!

Terry
Logged

Bob Olhsson

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 3968
Re: The 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2005, 02:11:46 am »

I could (should?) write a book. In a nutshell, Motown paid for bleeding edge production technology with some pretty funky sound. Our home brew 8-tracks had pretty bad hum and not much top end on both tracks 1 and 8. This meant bass was recorded at a hot level on 8 and the lead vocals were recorded on 1 because it could be high-passed and brightened up with a Pultec.

Beginning around 1959, Berry Gordy started recording and editing backing tracks in his basement which then had lyrics written and were taken into a studio for vocal overdubs and mixing. He reinvested the proceeds of his early success in a photography studio that he converted into the Hitsville recording studio.

In mid 1961 Mike McLean, our resident mad scientist/chief engineer, built a pair of 1/2" 3 track machines with sel sync from Ampex parts. The track for "Please Mr. Postman" was recorded during the first 3 track session. Things soon evolved into going 3 and 4 generations 3 to 3 before a final mix. (These were the first tape machines I'm aware of to have a bias ramping circuit for punching in tracks, the technique being lifted from an article about a new 35mm dubber with that capability in the SMPTE journal.) This was followed by the pair of home brew 8-tracks 3 years later. (The first 8-track release was "Where Did Our Love Go.") Now we were only doing 2 or 3 generations before mixing!

Things cleaned up quite a bit, at least back to the best 3 track level, after we finally built a desperately needed mix room in early 1966. This had a 3M 8 track reproducer and a pair of Studer C37 1/4" machines which were awesome sounding. The funky studio 8 track machines finally got replaced by brand new Scullys in '68 but we got the 16 tracks before ever using them for anything but transfers. We wound up using them for tape echo and extra mike preamps.

The production method was frequently one of fill up the tracks and then sort it out in the mix. We mixed a LOT, dozens for very release. These were all compared to each other from hot-as-possible 45 10" acetates by the quality control department. (The artists were never charged for studio time.)

By '64 it was entirely union sessions and we were expected to come up with at least one finished track an hour for six hours every day. In many ways it's amazing it sounded as good as it did. I also don't think most of the reissues have really done it justice. It's been a battle getting them to use the right masters that, fortunately, we have been winning lately.

Radd 47

  • Jr. Member
  • **
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 56
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #3 on: February 11, 2005, 06:40:18 pm »

Remember that a lot of the early stuff was mixed to sound good on AM radio. Some of the tunes did not translate well to FM.
Logged

Bob Olhsson

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 3968
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2005, 08:15:53 pm »

I frankly never saw that. Berry Gordy would reservice DJ copies if he heard a problem but this was about musical balance, vocal level, etc. rather than the limited bandwidth. Frankly the sound of AM radio in the '60s was frequently better than the sound of over processed FM is today.

Radd 47

  • Jr. Member
  • **
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 56
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #5 on: February 17, 2005, 09:15:45 pm »

I think the  Buck Owens stuff was eq'ed for AM. I think it was a matter of killing the bass a little as AM has a tendency to make the bass a bit pronounced,(one of the reasons Motown stuff sounds cool on AM) and that would not go good with that "train coming down the track" Bakersfield sound.
Logged

Bob Olhsson

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 3968
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #6 on: February 17, 2005, 10:22:51 pm »

Don't get George Martin started on what Capitol did to the bass!

We were among the first to use eq for effect rather than just trying to make things more natural sounding but what we did had a lot more to do with what it sounded like in the music director's office than what it sounded like on the air.

drumsound

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 638
Re: The 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #7 on: February 17, 2005, 11:55:27 pm »

Bob Olhsson wrote on Fri, 11 February 2005 01:11

I could (should?) write a book.


Please do!

Thanks for the informative posts.
Logged

stevieeastend

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 1297
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #8 on: February 18, 2005, 04:08:39 pm »

...again Spectrasonics...

There has to be something special about this...?

cheers
steveeastend

WhyKooper

  • Jr. Member
  • **
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 91
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #9 on: February 18, 2005, 05:34:32 pm »

Bob-

So does this mean there are rooms somewhere full of reels of 3trk-16trk Motown multitracks?  Especially the earlier stuff?  Like in the zillions of reels of Beatle 4 track stuff that was sent to Pro Tools and remixed for the Beatle anthology?

Have all those Motown multitracks been archived?  Is anyone working on or negotiating some remixing?  Or were the original tracks thrown away/erased as submixes came together?  I wasn't quite following what might still exist.

Early Motown stuff has it's place in history, but I for one would like to hear some remixes after 40 some years of hearing the same Supremes/Smokey Robinson etc mixes over and over and over and over.
Logged

compasspnt

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 16266
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #10 on: February 18, 2005, 05:48:50 pm »

steveeastend wrote on Fri, 18 February 2005 16:08

...again Spectrasonics...

There has to be something special about this...?

cheers
steveeastend


Hi Steve,

I was just about to answer a  few days  ago, but was "interrupted" in being able to post...

Anyway, at the time, the SpectraSonics consoles just seemed "normal" to me.  It was what I had, and what I  used.  And I haven't heard one in years now...I only can go with the sound of the older recordings compared to what I work on now.

Those desks were, in retrospect, very simple, basic, and clean.  I would say that there was somehow a lack of buildup of low-mid frequencies (the dreaded 250-400 range!).  This allowed the 'good' lows and the 'normal' high end to shine through well.  I don't know to what to attribute this, but it is my first thought about the SpectraS sound.  The mic pre's I always liked a lot.  I distinctly remember in the early 70's getting hold of my first  API, and not thinking very much of it, compared to the Spectra's I was using then.  Now, this is hard for me to believe, and to say, as I use the API's (and Brent Averill versions thereof) quite a bit.  But that was my very first impression "in the day."  

The EQ's were OK, in my recollection.  They were very basic and simple, and took a lot of turns to get anything out of them.  While this may have seemed a bit weak, it also probably kept me (and other users) from going over the top with EQ...that is, everything stayed in a "good and normal" range.  And I do believe that  the best thing to do is usually nothing...keep it simple...

There were few features on the desks, meaning minimal echo/cue sends/returns, no automation, and usually not even a  monitor section.  But I would like to be able to listen to one today, just to see.

And again, these consoles used in Memphis at the time (Ardent, Stax, Pepper, et al) were built locally by Auditronics, under license from SpectraSonics.  The later Auditronics (non Spectra) consoles I did not like much, and I don't know a lot about the non-Auditronics Spectra's made in Utah.  But Mr. Dilly, the owner, was quite a character, and really into the hi-fi side of recorded audio, so they're probably good.

I was sort of the test platform for their real-life use of the Spectra products.  They sent us the first prototype limiter, which later became the 610, and we helped tailor it to pro use.  I wish I had one of those now, too, just to see what it's like today.

Anyway, maybe I'll run across something to try out now, and can give a much better report.

Thanks,

Terry
Logged

Bob Olhsson

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 3968
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #11 on: February 18, 2005, 09:05:44 pm »

Universal has all of the Motown catalog at their New Jersey reissue facility. They have been doing some remixing although frankly most haven't been as good as the originals.

Many of the songs are very challenging to mix and thus far nobody seems to have wanted to invest in the amount of time that would be necessary to do better. Many of the bigger hits were remixed after we built the mix room in 1966.

J.J. Blair

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 12809
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #12 on: February 18, 2005, 09:08:40 pm »

David, I believe that the Mussel Shoals studio had a going through by Tom Dowd, who was recording many of the Atlantic sessions there, like Aretha and Otis Redding.  That could account for the good sound that came out of there.

It's funny, jazz recorded to 2 track in the 1950's by Rudy Van Gelder sounds so much superior to stuff even recorded today.  (Yes, I'm not sure that technology is always to blame, because people still make shitty sounding records.)  Then I listen to those 1970's Al Green records, and even though they have vibe for days, they sound terrible.  Or listen to live records from 30+ years ago.  Live At Leeds still blows me away.  Live Dead, recorded in 1968 was one of the very first 2" 16 track records.  What a great sounding record.  The Newport Jazz Festival recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s all sound great.  You had a stage full of U47s with make shift pop filters on them!  
Logged
studio info

They say the heart of Rock & Roll is still beating, which is amazing if you consider all the blow it's done over the years.

"The Internet enables pompous blowhards to interact with other pompous blowhards in a big circle jerk of pomposity." - Bill Maher

"The negative aspects of this business, not only will continue to prevail, but will continue to accelerate in madness. Conditions aren't going to get better, because the economics of rock and roll are getting closer and closer to the economics of Big Business America." - Bill Graham

Bob Olhsson

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 3968
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #13 on: February 18, 2005, 09:53:36 pm »

J.J. wrote on Fri, 18 February 2005 20:08

 The Newport Jazz Festival recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s all sound great.  You had a stage full of U47s with make shift pop filters on them!  

You also had no stage monitors!

compasspnt

  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Offline Offline
  • Posts: 16266
Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #14 on: February 18, 2005, 09:57:40 pm »

J.J. wrote on Fri, 18 February 2005 21:08

David, I believe that the Mussel Shoals studio had a going through by Tom Dowd, who was recording many of the Atlantic sessions there, like Aretha and Otis Redding.  That could account for the good sound that came out of there....


Hi JJ,

Yes, the Aretha was recorded there, and was beautiful; not sure where those were mixed.  But Otis was recorded only in the bigger of the two Stax Studios in Memphis, and mixed either there by Cropper, or on a couple of occasions, mixed by Cropper and me at Ardent on National Street in Memphis.

Quote:

....Then I listen to those 1970's Al Green records, and even though they have vibe for days, they sound terrible....


I also mixed the Al Green stuff.  They were tracked by the staff at Royal Studios (home of Hi Records) in downtown Memphis.  The multi's were unbelievably distorted in tracking, which made the mixes very diffucult.  That's why producer Willie Mitchell brought them to me; he knew that they had great songs, great performances, and great vibe, but technically they really needed  cleaning up.  I did what I could, and I actually (today) love the result, that is, the overdriven carefully sound mixed as well as was possible.  But back then, it was a struggle, and I never felt it was as good as it should be.

Terry
Logged
Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 5   Go Up