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A Sound Education

The Birth of Home Recording

"I bought a Dutch barge and turned it into a recording studio. My plan was to go to Paris and record rolling down the Seine."
Pete Townshend, The Who

What do you get when you combine a $150 microphone, a simple audio interface, a computer, audio recording and mixing software, and some musical talent? Maybe a hit record, even if it's made in an apartment living room in the middle of the night. The tools to produce quality music recordings are ridiculously good, affordable, and plentiful these days. It wasn't always like that. The Beatles, for instance, recorded the bulk of their music in London's EMI studios, a corporate juggernaut complete with tie-wearing audio engineers. In the U.S., record companies practically burned cash using session players such as Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, and Carol Kaye of Wrecking Crew fame in commercial studios. In the 70s, The Porcaro brothers, Steve Lukather, David Foster, and other household musical names rode the session player wave until synthesizers and affordable recording equipment came along.

I'm conflicted on the topic of recording music at home. The business part of me frets about studios losing out on billable hours. The musician part of me relishes creating art in a non-pressure environment. But the history of artists recording radio-ready songs in their humble abodes goes back further than you might imagine. Let's explore how affordable home music recording for the masses came to be, but also look back at the origins of this revolution in recording.

Blank recordable phonographic discs first appeared in the mid-1930s as a way to instantaneously record sounds to disc. Some of these early direct-to-disc recorders were somewhat portable, at least enough to be carted around in the trunk of a car. John Lomax used a 300 pound one to crisscross the south recording folk songs from such legends as Lead Belly for the Library of Congress. I discuss John and his son Alan in my article "Recording History" here. Over time, direct-to-disc cutters shrank to the size of a small suitcase, but the convenience and quality of the next big recording technology would overshadow it.

Enter magnetic tape recording. Technically, it was invented at the turn of the century, but its development was in Nazi Germany. In 1945, when the Allies were divvying up the spoils of war, the U.S. chose the Ampex Corporation to manufacture the first American-made reel-to-reel recorders. Artists like Bing Crosby and Les Paul pushed the technology to its limits while inventing new techniques and recording methods along the way. Working out of his home, Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded a string of hit songs using crude overdubbing and half-speed effects. Paul was also fortunate enough to have the first 8-track recorder, again inventing recording methods that would be used for decades. I also wrote in detail about Les Paul in my article "Recording History."

But these machines were beyond the budgets of ordinary people. For much of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, multi-track recorders were bulky, expensive, and hard to maintain. Recording tape for multitracks, usually 1" or 2", cost a small fortune. Consoles to record and mix on were also quite expensive. But things were changing. Microphones started to come down in price in the 60s, especially when Shure introduced the SM57. The "57" is now a staple for recorded and live music (and is still the preferred microphone for Presidential speeches).

As post war technological advancements matured, inventions such as the transistor and IC (integrated circuit) started to shrink electronics. Japan had rebuilt its factories and started to make major innovations in electronics. The Japanese company TEAC (later Tascam) almost single-handedly invented the home recording market in the early 1970s with affordable 4-track recorders that used miserly 1/4" tape (I used the TEAC 4-track in my very first recording experiences in the 70s). By the late 70s they had introduced an 8-track 1/2" recorder. In later years Tascam would sell other firsts, like the first 8-track reel-to-reel / mixer combo, the 4-track cassette recorder, the R-DAT, and the MiniDisc multitracker.

In the early 80s, another Japanese company, Fostex, rocked the world when they introduced an 8-track reel-to-reel recorder that used 1/4" tape. They later squeezed 16 tracks onto 1/2" tape and 24 tracks onto 1" tape – with SMPTE and MIDI sync to boot. The G24s was the ultimate affordable tool of small studios until digital recording came along.

In the 80s synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and sequencing software started to take over the music world. Much of the performance was done in the musician's home on the keyboard while a computer acted as a modern piano roll and recorded data from key presses and the sustain pedal. With simple mixers and affordable recorders, all that had to be added were live performers in a studio.

Some classic albums have been wholly or partially recorded and mixed in home studios with this early affordable technology. Tom Sholz cut most of the guitar and drum parts to Boston's first two albums in his basement on a Scully 12-track 1" machine. Tascam's 4-track cassette recorder was the center piece for Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Wu-Tang Clan's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Iron and Wine's debut The Creek Drank the Cradle.

Today's cheap but effective music creation tools, such as GarageBand, are available to the masses like never before. So hold off angrily pounding on your neighbor's door in the middle of the night. Maybe that glass-rattling thumping bass might be the next Grammy-winning album being made.

Read about Tom Scholz creating the first two Boston albums in his home in Guitar World.

Mix Magazine talks with Scholz about the classic song "More Than a Feeling."

Tascam is the subject at the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

Fostex gives their fascinating history on their corporate web site.

Mix Magazine's behind-the-scenes look at session musicians during the heyday of the LA recording scene in the 1970s.

11th Hour Message

1-field op

"Hostilities will cease along the whole front from 11 November at 11 o'clock."
Marshal Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces via radio atop the Eiffel Tower.

This week marks 100 years since the end of the war to end all wars, known today as World War One. In 1918, on the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1,500 days of fighting came to an end. The armistice was agreed upon just six hours earlier in a railway car halfway between Paris and the Western Front. What's remarkable is the speed at which most troops were informed of the impending armistice. This war, like in so many other ways, forever changed the world of communication.


Video on Vinyl and Other Turntable Transgressions


"Hello from the children of Planet Earth"
From the gold records aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft

Vinyl is the format that won't die. It'll probably still be around after humans are extinct and our sun has gone supernova. Perhaps in eons, Voyager spacecraft with the golden records aboard will meet distant stars and future vinyl lovers. But in this eon, people will not stop pushing vinyl to its limits. Mad scientists and crazy artists like putting something other than music on it - or in it. More on that later.


As Seen on TV


"Treat the recording studio as a laboratory for conceptual thinking — rather than as a mere tool."
Brian Eno

When I was young in the...cough...60s and 70s, the only real glimpses I got inside a recording studio was through television and movies. There was a smattering of documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage of studios and radio stations. I was always straining to see the control board and tape machines, or marveling at the cavernous studio on the other side of the glass. It was absolutely riveting to peek inside them and see how a record was made. The 8-foot long mixing console was often shot through a fisheye lens. Long-haired musicians were sunk down into a couch smoking cigarettes (?) and listening to their masterpiece. And there were close-up shots of that big fat 2-inch tape rolling past the heads of the recorder.


In the Moment


"He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough."
Lao Tzu
Father of Taoism

When is enough, enough? When do you stop finessing, polishing, correcting, perfecting, or otherwise fixing something important you're working on? When you're done – either because of deadline, budget, or exhaustion – are you satisfied? Don't overkill your project.


The Elephant in the Room


"My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It's in the apartment somewhere."
Steven Wright

The deep seismic audio world holds many secrets, including how elephants communicate over long distances. Find out how ultra low sounds affect how a recording studio is designed and built.


Golden Ears


“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
James Bond
"Goldfinger" (United Artists)

The other day, someone said to me, "You must have golden ears." He was referring to my profession as an audio engineer. He assumed that I physically had much better hearing than the average person. I don't. In fact, I often have trouble hearing conversations at loud parties and can't hear high-pitched whines that drive 20-somethings crazy. But I do think I have better hearing than a lot of other middle-aged folks only because I've protected it all these years.


Listening to the Enemy


“The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.”
Amaryllis Fox
Writer, peace activist, former CIA Clandestine Service officer

These days, it seems nothing is secret. We can't talk on the phone, cruise the internet, or walk down the street without being snooped on electronically. Enemy anxiety, especially since 9/11, has driven governments to monitor everything being said. Think it's bad now? During World War II it was even worse. Everyone had to be careful about what they were saying and who was listening because "loose lips sink ships." There wasn't the level of electronic communications in the 1940s as today, but the groundwork was being laid for modern tech that we use every day. Even snooping technology.


How Hollywood Hears History


"The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What did Paul Revere's famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington sound like in April 1775? If you were there, you might recognize the approaching horse as a Narragansett Pacer mare. This once popular breed of horse, now extinct, was known for its ambling gait: a smooth riding four-beat gait that is faster than a walk, but slower than a canter or gallop. You might also notice the calm surroundings interrupted occasionally by crow calls, trees rustling in the wind, or the occasional farm dog barking at the stranger barreling down the rough dirt road. Just someone in a hurry.


Ghost Whispers


"I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."

Thomas Edison, 1920

What if you nonchalantly recorded something around your house, let's say a music practice session. Then when you played it back, you clearly hear someone whispering. You didn't hear it when you recorded it, so what was it? Many unfamiliar sounds throughout history can be attributed to nature, machinery, and even hoaxes. As our post-industrial society grows, so does the list of unexplained sounds, like trumpet sounds from the sky, humming cities, and ocean whistles. The proliferation of audio and video technology has generated its own tally of the strange. Specifically, weird voices that have been inadvertently and unknowingly captured. These recordings and transmissions sound eerie but have a very unsexy-sounding name: "Electronic Voice Phenomenon," or EVP.


We're Fifteen!

Neil at 12 playing DJ

"I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am."

Francis Bacon

Dynamix turns fifteen years old this month. Well technically sixteen, because I incorporated a year earlier and did small jobs out of my basement until I could step out on my own. When I did, I couldn't have timed it better.


A Myth-terious Thing

2015-March Myth-terious

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Arthur C. Clarke

To the average person, audio can be a mysterious "myth-terious" thing. Many people don't want to admit that they are intimidated by the technical side of it, and that makes sense. The closest most people get to manipulating audio is adjusting the volume on their stereo.

People probably have more experience manipulating visuals. We create a picture with a camera, crop it, make it brighter, sharper, more colorful. We may even shoot a video and trim the beginning, cut clips together, or add a title in a simple movie editing program. But manipulating audio can be challenging and mystifying. It's rare that someone has competent audio equipment or software in their homes. Even some musicians with home recording gear will admit they know just enough to kill feedback or get something recorded on disk.

Most people are pretty adept at listening, though. We air-jam the lead guitar in our favorite song, or marvel at the sound of jets flying through our living room during an action movie. We also know when something just doesn't sound right.

When making a video on our smart phone, the most common problem is poor audio. What's poor about it? Most people will say that there's too much noise. Usually this means there is too much ambient sound because the microphone is too far away from the subject. The microphone is on the camera/phone, not close to the source. Next time you watch the news, notice the little microphone(s) clipped to the lapel or tie of the anchor. On the rare occasion that one fails, we hear the sound coming from one of the other anchor's mic. It's far away and sounds amazingly like a smart phone recording!

If you've ever watched behind-the-scenes videos of movie-making, you've undoubtedly seen the person holding a very large hot dog on a very long stick over the actor. It's not Oscar Mayer, it's the boom operator. That is a highly directional microphone that will reduce ambient noise but pick up the actor's voice with a natural balance between voice and background.

So let's put on our turbans, uncover the old crystal ball, and dive into some audio myths that you might find surprising.

Audio Myths

Myth #1:
Recording good sound takes years of experience.
Not true. Simply reducing ambient noise may be enough to get clear sound. But getting the microphone as close to the subject or source is the first thing to do.

Myth #2:
Expensive microphones and recording equipment are needed to record good sound.
False. I recorded an NPR-like radio feature using a $100 microphone. It included multi-layered environmental sounds and an interview. I've found that the microphone on an iPhone 5 and above will record decent audio in a pinch. See Myth #1.

Myth #3:
Because a microphone is built into my video camera, it must record good audio.
Busted again. The microphone was put there by the marketing department. If you're twenty feet away from the subject and you're zoomed in for a tight head shot, where is the microphone? Twenty feet away on the camera! Just because your eyes see something close, the microphone won't. Get a mic up there!

Myth #4:
My ears hear the subject just fine, so the microphone will hear exactly what I do.
False-err-een-o. Your ears are connected to your brain, which selectively filters out what it doesn't want to hear. A microphone has no brain and is dumb. Here's a fun test you can do. Right now, one-at-a-time, listen to everything in the room and coming from outside. Do you hear a clock ticking? The furnace running? A siren? Yourself breathing? Did you hear those before I told you to listen? Your ear is just like that dumb old microphone - it heard everything. Your brain filtered out what wasn't important. When recording, choose the right microphone, get rid of the ambient noise, and get it close.

Myth #5:
It's cheaper if I shoot my video using the onboard microphone. I can always fix it later in edit.
Nada. In most cases, you'll be dissatisfied. In some cases, you'll be calling someone like me to try to fix the bad sound. It can cost at least as much or more to help bad audio than hiring an audio recordist with good equipment for a day. Plus, it will never really sound as good as it could with properly recorded audio. It's still twenty feet away.

Myth #6:
They put all those audio tools in my video editing program. That must mean I can get perfect audio using those tools.
Well...yes and no. If the audio was recorded properly, sometimes less is more. But they were really put there as a convenience (and by the marketing department again). Sometimes, all you need is a little equalization and dynamic control. But with the ever increasing formats and places we see video, the sound requirements can vary drastically. For instance, did you know there are different level and peak requirements (and metering devices) for television, radio, cinema, and DVD/BD? Plus, music, web, audiobooks, internal communications, and other formats have no standard level. Are you sure you have the right tools to confidently deliver to all those places?

Myth #7:
I just have voice-over and music, I'll just lower the music so I can hear the voice and it'll be good enough.
Not so fast, partner. If you want to lasso that voice and still let the music have impact, you have to start by herding the parts of the music that are gettin' in the way. By selectively reducing certain frequencies that are stampeding the voice, you can bring the music level back up. But it doesn't stop there. Using some ace-high dynamic control, you can have the music ducked anytime the voice gets lost under the music. Try them spurs on.

Myth #8:
Plug-ins, processors, etc must be used on recordings to make them sound good.
Oh, si faux. The holy grail for recording engineers is to record something that needs no manipulation whatsoever. If one chooses the right location, the right microphone(s), the right placement, and captures a truly perfect performance, then you're halfway there. The best recording is in the ear of the beholder. I was once told by a seasoned engineer that instead of using equalizers to boost or cut frequencies, they would chose microphones that had the sound they wanted. Magnifique.

Myth #9:
You must have expensive and complicated audio software to produce great sound.
Of course I'm going to debunk this one. Ones and zeros are ones and zeros. The input into a recorder or computer is the critical part here. It must be able to record the strongest signal with the least amount of noise and digital artifacts. Although there is low-/no-cost software that can degrade audio quality, most offer a wide range of acceptable editing and manipulation tools. The most common distinctions between low-/no-cost software and higher-cost ones are support, upgrade frequency, and more control over parameters. One of the most powerful programs out there - Audacity - is free.

Myth #10:
Digital is better than analog.
This is a loaded double-barrel shotgun question. It can only really be answered by the user. If one wants smooth, natural-sounding, and expanded dynamic range, then analog might be a good fit. If one wants cutting edge, fast workflow, and unlimited manipulation tools, then digital is probably a good fit. There are valid arguments for both sides. When cost-effective digital audio workstations (DAW) first came on the scene, they were integrated into existing analog rooms. After a decade or so, studios ditched most analog gear and fully embraced digital. Now, a lot of studios are re-integrating analog gear and techniques back into their workflow. The current ideal studio is a blend of digital and analog.

The Shadow Knows


Shadow: No, Mary. I suspected a trap, so after I opened the door, I walked across the room and stood behind them.
Apple Mary: But your voice.... it came from near the door.
Shadow: Ventriloquism. A simple trick of projecting the voice.

The Shadow
"The Blind Beggar Dies"
Radio broadcast: April 17, 1938

We're fooled by Mother Nature all the time. She uses light to conjure up a mirage on a hot desert day and Aurora Borealis on a cold Alaskan night. She also has a bag of tricks for sound, like flinging noises a hundred miles away. But one of her best is when she makes sound disappear. This slight-of-hand by Mother Nature may have even changed the outcome of several battles in the American Civil War. What are these shenanigans of sound? Magic? Illusions? Sorcery? As the old radio serial hero said, "Only The Shadow knows." They're called acoustic shadows.