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Author Topic: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?  (Read 21273 times)

David Kulka

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #45 on: March 10, 2005, 06:46:17 pm »

At the moment I'm in North Carolina, and have just spent an interesting day with Mike McLean who was chief engineer at Motown, starting in the early 60's.

Among other things, I had been looking forward to picking his brain about this topic.  One of my first questions was "So Mike, why is it that when I listen to the early Mary Wells songs, I hear hum all through the tracks?

He laughed and said "Because at the time I was just a young kid, and didn't know that one side of the tube heater wiring needed to be grounded!"

He explained that when he was first hired, Motown was young and on a shoestring budget, but Berry Gordy desperately wanted a 3-track recorder.  Ordering an Ampex machine would have cost too much so after a few days of prodding, Mike finally convinced Gordy to let him build one from scratch.  Mike copied the Ampex audio electronics, and bought a deck from a local manufacturer that made tape transports.  It saved Motown several thousand dollars; "Please Mr. Postman" was the first hit recorded on it.  If the signal to noise ratio wasn't perfect I guess Mike can be forgiven, because he was only 20 at the time!

Also, Mike showed me a two part interview in Audio magazine (November and December 1997) that points out another angle in this "What happened..." question.  In the article, he says that test acetates were evaluated on "...an incredibly crummy phonograph, just like a gum-chewing teenager might have.  You know, a crappy little thing with a crummy arm and a cheap crystal cartridge.  They'd put that acetate on there and see if it skipped.  That was in addition to a good hi-fi Empire turntable with a Fairchild SM-2 magnetic cartridge."

I guess it's important to remember that Motown's main market wasn't hi-fi enthusiasts with expensive gear, it was the gum-chewing teenagers and that if it came down to a sonic choice between the two, good sound on a crummy phonograph would be the deciding factor.  I'm sure no one thought about or cared how those records might be judged 40 years later, on a high end audio system.

By the way, a footnote to this story is that as we were eating dinner at Applebees a few hours later, "Please Mr. Postman" was played on the sound system, causing me to do a slight double take.  But I guess Mike has experiences like that all the time!
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David Kulka

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #46 on: March 10, 2005, 08:55:55 pm »

In a way this is Part 2 of the previous thread.

On the "60's and 70's songs that stand out" thread, I was tickled to see that someone mentioned "Laugh Laugh" by The Beau Brummels.  I'm pretty sure that my uncle, Leo Kulka, recorded that one at Golden State Recorders, his studio in San Francisco.  (A recent Mix article gives him credit for it, though I have also seen Coast mentioned -- maybe someone else knows.)

I'm not sure whether I've mentioned Leo on this forum, but he was a recording veteran with many decades as a recording engineer.  I won't get into the story of his career, but anyone who's interested can find an article about him on my site, in the Scrapbook section.

Leo was very active and recorded a number of Beau Brummels tracks.  At the time the band was signed to Autumn Records, which was run by the amazing Tom Donehue.  Sly Stone was involved in a lot of the productions, as was Bobbie Mitchell.  All three were well known DJ's in SF.  (Tom Donehue was an amazing talent who had a tremendous influence on 60's music, and not just in San Francisco.  But that's another story.)

As a kid I watched the Beau Brummels record at Golden State and I agree that some of their old tracks sound really, really fine, and I can tell you why.  For one thing, Leo deeply understood all the aspects of recording - the music itself, mic'ing, EQ, editing, tape bias and levels, and mastering.  He was a hi-fi "nut" who was always fooling around with one system or another at the house and an afficianado and producer of classical music, and also made a lot of experimental hi-fi and sound effects records.  I really believe that background gave him a huge edge in making pop records that sounded especially good.  (And not to disparage Motown, but I'm certain that he'd never have used a cheap phonograph to check the sound of a disk - that just wasn't where he was coming from.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I think in the 60's and 70's there may have been two camps -- older, established engineers who were grounded in the fundamentals and all but wore lab coats, and younger upstart talents who pushed the boundaries and got exciting new sounds, at the expense perhaps of some basics.  Both sides made a lot of great records but maybe something was lost in the transition.  (Perhaps this same something is also missing from some of today's recordings...)

By the way, the 60's and 70's San Francisco recording scene hasn't really been discussed in this forum, but there's a whole universe of history, stories, and great music there to be mined there.  New thread?
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Bob Olhsson

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #47 on: March 11, 2005, 08:16:38 am »

What Mike left out was the fact that the crummy little phonograph had been calibrated using a series of RCA skip test records and the acetates were being evaluated for their likelihood of skipping and not for what they sounded like! Thankfully he quickly learned the hard way to ground his filaments and every Motown 3-track and 8-track recording was made on one of his home brew machines. Mike's 3-tracks, by the way, were the first machines, other than mag film dubbers that I'm aware of that were capable of punching into track as a method of editing.

And yes, we were indeed all kids. Kids who had a lot of people at the major labels really pissed off because we were consistently all over the singles charts while most of their artists couldn't get arrested. The most amazing part of the story is that I've recently learned this apparently was done by offering a more compelling product and not by paying off radio which most of us assumed had  at least been a factor!

WhyKooper

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #48 on: March 11, 2005, 10:12:04 am »

This 3 track thing reminds me of a question that's always bothered me....

If Les Paul had Ampex build a custom 8 track recorder for him in 1953 (or whenever it was)...which worked well, WHY did it then take 10 or 15 years before these things were dumped into the market.  As far as I can see, NOBODY on planet earth thought this would be useful other than Les for most of the 50's and maybe into the early 60s.  

If Les Paul could afford to write a check for one of these, Capitol and Motown could've certainly bought a few earlier than they seemingly did.

"Let's see, I'm Capitol Records over here on Vine and I can afford ten 3-tracks or I can afford ten 8-tracks....Uh, guess we'll buy a bunch of 3-tracks."

W-h-a-t was everyone thinking?
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compasspnt

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #49 on: March 11, 2005, 12:40:15 pm »

WhyKooper wrote on Fri, 11 March 2005 10:12

If Les Paul had Ampex build a custom 8 track recorder for him in 1953 (or whenever it was)...which worked well, WHY did it then take 10 or 15 years before these things were dumped into the market....W-h-a-t was everyone thinking?


Yes, Why Kooper, Why?  One has to wonder.

Most people recording in the early 60's, and ALL those recording in the late 50's (with the exception of LP, and perhaps a very few others) just didn't think one needed "all those tracks."  Music was recorded to emulate live performance.  Not until the mid 60's did producers and artists start making recordings to better, or at least be different than, live music.  The Beatles were obviously a big part of this change, amongst others, of course.  Then only after that did the "change" happen so that live acts were trying to emulate the recorded works!

I don't recall getting a four track until about '64 or '65.  Then the floodgates were open, and we got 8 very quickly.
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vernier

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #50 on: March 11, 2005, 02:21:26 pm »

Columbia was one of the first with eight track ..early '66, maybe sooner.
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compasspnt

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #51 on: March 11, 2005, 02:48:33 pm »

 Here's an interesting quotation from engineer Wayne Wadham's book, Sound Advice: a Musician's Guide to the Recording Studio



"...My own favorite early multitrack memory is an afternoon in 1964 at A&R studios, then on 47th Street next door to the original Manny's Music Shop. Another engineer burst into the control room where my group was working and declared, "It's here." Our own engineer (now a major producer) took us out to witness the unpacking of A&R's first 4-track Ampex. The entire staff was speechless, circling it as though a spacecraft had landed. Then our engineer, with genuine puzzlement, said, "What are we going to do with four tracks?" Twenty years later I read an interview in which he discussed the awful artistic limitations of working with 24 tracks!"
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David Kulka

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #52 on: March 11, 2005, 09:39:01 pm »

Bob, after posting those replies I was afraid my posts might seem negative or critical.  I'm sorry if that was the case.  I have tons of respect for you and Mike and the whole Motown story, and personally am nuts about the Motown records from those days.  However, I thought it was pretty interesting that 40 years after the fact, a specific answer could be given for "what happened" in the recording of some some well known songs, and felt the story was worth passing on.

I'm sure you are right that the "crummy phonograph" was not the only way that recordings were evaluated, but I also think it's fair to say that at many record companies, busting through cheap speakers to get the kids attention was probably more important than making "superb quality recordings", and that must often have been the focus when sonic decisions were made.

I had some reservations when I first posted the topic, which by its nature may have been something of a negative set up!  Thanks for your comments and the information given.
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vernier

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #53 on: March 11, 2005, 09:57:31 pm »

Motown bass sound infuenced McCartney's bass sound (starting with "Revolver").
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sharp11

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #54 on: March 12, 2005, 08:48:39 am »

I believe Atlantic had an 8 track in 1959, courtesy of Tom Dowd's insistence.

Ed
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Bob Olhsson

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #55 on: March 12, 2005, 09:17:20 am »

I can fill in a little of the 8 track story.

Tom Dowd told me that he ordered the second one after hearing about Les's because it made a lot more sense to do a stereo mix later than try to do both mono and stereo at the live session. When he got the machine, it didn't work so he had to change some of the circuitry. He found out later that Les hadn't actually gotten HIS working until years later which is confirmed by a friend reporting that Les had practically assaulted him at an AES show when it came up that we were using an 8 track with sel sync as our main machine.

My understanding is that the Columbia Records machine had staggered heads. Remember that "legit" sessions prior to the late 1960s were virtually all done live and multi track was seen of as a means of redoing a screwed up live mix rather than as a means of assembling a recording part by part.

Bob Olhsson

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #56 on: March 12, 2005, 09:20:17 am »

Murray Cullen wrote on Fri, 11 March 2005 20:57

Motown bass sound infuenced McCartney's bass sound (starting with "Revolver").
When I was introduced to George Martin the very first words out of his mouth were "How DID you get that bass sound?"

Soundbox

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #57 on: March 12, 2005, 09:54:09 am »

Bob Olhsson wrote on Sat, 12 March 2005 09:20

Murray Cullen wrote on Fri, 11 March 2005 20:57

Motown bass sound infuenced McCartney's bass sound (starting with "Revolver").
When I was introduced to George Martin the very first words out of his mouth were "How DID you get that bass sound?"


Did you tell him you just used the direct out from a B-15? <g>

Just joking, but that's how it sounds when I do that with mine.

I've been meaning to ask if you ever did use that direct method on those Motown productions... Did 'ya?

-DP

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Bob Olhsson

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #58 on: March 12, 2005, 10:40:43 am »

It was just a transformer direct straight from the bass. The bass and all of the guitars were plugged into one homebrew amp that consisted of a 15" Altec speaker and a McIntosh 60 amp driving it. The front end was a mixer so the musicians could put their own monitor mix together. The directs were located at the input jacks of the mixer and came up on the patch bay in the control room.

The only "sound" was James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt playing their Precisions. I practically had a heart attack the first time I tried to get a sound on another bass player.

vernier

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Re: 60's and 70's records whose sonics weren't as good...what happened?
« Reply #59 on: March 12, 2005, 11:28:39 am »

I read somewhere that when Beatles were in the states,  McCartney visited a Byrds session and was taking notes in the control room, (who knows if its true). I figurerd he might have gotten the Altec compressor idea that way (but probably from another studio). Anyone ever see that compressor in a studio in the 60's?
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