So how do they make albums? Notes of the Reno Jazz Orchestra from the studio


A brief history of the recording studio from 1877 to the present day

Chuck reider

Submitted by Chuck Reider, Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

I spent a lot of time at Tanglewood Productions finishing the Reno Jazz Orchestra album with music from Earth, Wind and Fire. For musicians, the recording studio is a special magical place set up to capture the best performances. I thought it was a good time to find out about the history of recording studios and share it with you.

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and began the recording process which has evolved through time and technology. The first period is known as the acoustic era because musicians and singers had to gather around a large horn which focused the sound on a sensitive membrane which vibrated and “scratched” the sound on a cylinder of wax or soft metal.

Recordings of the time generally featured louder instruments such as trumpet, trombone, and tuba replacing quieter instruments like guitar and acoustic bass. Singers in front, with all instrumentalists strategically placed further away. Recording studios were any convenient room or building away from street noise.

The electric age began in 1925 when Western Electric introduced electrical components such as the microphone, amplifiers, and speakers. Now sound could be captured, amplified and balanced when the record was muted. Yes, it was still an acoustic process to create a master record, but new technology has made it possible to mass produce records for the public.

This new technology required a new profession, the sound engineer. As this technology progressed, it was now possible for quieter instruments like guitar and bass to join the recording set. Singers no longer had to “let off steam” to be heard, which introduced the “crooner” style of song.

The saxophone section of RJO in the studio at Tanglewood Productions.

Recording studios were no longer a convenient place, but rather buildings with appropriate acoustics. Columbia Records, for example, converted an Armenian church that had a ceiling over thirty meters high. Mitch Miller (who remembers Mitch?) Worked at Columbia as an artist and repertoire manager, meticulously fine-tuning the acoustics in the converted church studio with curtains and other devices. He gave strict orders so that the curtains were not moved or the parquet floor cleaned so as not to change the acoustics.

Elaborate echo chambers were built below the studio. Made of hard surfaces with a speaker on one end and a microphone on the other, they gave recordings a distinctive sound. Baffles in the chamber were used to change the sound of the echo. Recording houses design and manufacture custom equipment and mixing consoles.

A new German invention, magnetic tape recording, ushered in the magnetic era in 1945. Tape quickly became the norm as the quality was higher and made it possible to record longer pieces of music. The band introduced high fidelity to the public and began the art of multi-tracking.

So what is multi-tracking? Think about the master disc that was recorded by cutting it out of vinyl. There is no way to take two different discs and mix them to make an instrument recording on both discs. This is not the case with duct tape! In the 1950s, guitarist Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford were the first to create multiple tracks and produced recordings of large ensembles consisting only of Ford’s vocals and Paul’s guitar.

New record manufacturing processes led to the 33 1/3 rpm album (I have a lot of them) and portable tape recorders. The studio has grown from a place meant to perfectly reflect the artist’s performance (think photography) to a full-fledged instrument (perhaps think a painting). George Martin’s production of iconic Beatles albums is a prime example. You hear the band, but there are sound effects, orchestral parts coming in and out, and even sounds played backwards.

1975 Sony introduces the PCM PCM-1 Audio encoder, known as CD, and the digital age begins. Instead of capturing analog sounds to tape, it converts analog sound into very small digital samples that your CD player converts back to analog (so you can hear it).

Ry Cooder’s 1979 Bop Till You Drop was the first popular CD sold. As computers got faster and hard drives got bigger, recording equipment adapted. The bandwidth limited the number of tracks you could record at a time. Two inches allowed thirty-two tracks. If the engineer wanted more tracks, he would have to sync with thirty-two track machines together.

Computers have theoretically unlimited tracks. Instead of using a razor to cut and paste duct tape to move sound elements around, on a computer you are essentially dragging and dropping where you want the sound to go. Studios no longer needed physical echo chambers, and computer programs provided new ways of “painting”.

Recording studios have become more than just a place to record music. Many have been 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 pose his immortal tracks. Musicians are drawn to these studios not only for the unique sound they bring, but also for the vibe of being in the same room with your musical heroes. Inspiring.

You want to know more ?

A virtual tour of Tanglewood Studios (fast forward until 4:30 am for the start of the tour)

Legendary Engineer / Producer Tom Dowd

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Henry R. Wright