Evolution in the Recording Studio

A few months ago, I listened with interest to an interview with Joe Walsh (James Gang, Eagles) as he described his re-entrance into the studio after a 20 year pause in recording. He talked at length about the remarkable changes in editing and the drive for absolute perfection in each part, each phrase, each musician. He lamented for the earlier days when the music was less about perfection and more about feeling and interaction between the musicians. In his view, mistakes reflected our human condition and they injected quirkiness in the song that could not easily be replicated as mistakes cause the song to feel real and less like a song created by computers. Victor L. Wooten once said, “Never lose the grove to find a note.” I agree with Victor and Joe.

In 1936, a recording engineer team lead by Ernie Oertle used a modest recording studio in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio to record Robert Johnson.  The studio was built with the simplest of equipment, installed in a hotel room by Brunswick Records for the event; in effect they recorded direct (in the same way we record digital direct) with just a few very sturdy microphones.  They had little or no control over frequency response or the warmth of the recording.

When the recording team first arrived at the hotel, they tried more than one room, looking for the least amount of background noise.  As they tested the recording room, they had to listen for ambient rattles or any other sounds that did not belong in the song.  The windows were closed, it was hot, no air moved in the room.  This was the nature of the vintage recording process.

The Brunswick engineers did the best they could with the situation, they worked to enclose the room, they used common sense for the mic placement, tested the connections, and tried to produce a clear recording that captured Robert’s songs.  For the most part, the songs were ‘one takes’ because it was expensive to repeat the song in an attempt to improve the quality of the recording or correct mistakes.

Jack White said that mistakes are beautiful, they spur conversation, they draw in the listeners and make them part of the scenario.  Perfection is a hopeless and fleeting ideal for art and music, it’s the mistakes that involve other people and let them own the experience.

Musicians from my generation have discussed Robert Johnson’s recordings for as long as I can remember.  I studied his songs in college music theory classes.  We examine the meter, sonic range, scale, chord arrangements, honesty, and style – every possible aspect of the recordings.  The Johnson recordings have shaped the sound and focus of countless blues musicians (myself included).    The Johnson recordings, in part, define the delta blues model.

Many senior rock musicians have publicly lamented for the good ol’ days of analog recording sound boards as if these tools were the Rosetta Stone for high quality recording.   Often, in this digital age, musician’s record in virtual studios and tracks are cut with little or no ‘eye to eye’ contact between musicians during the creative process.  Even when musicians are together in a studio, the studio is partitioned into rooms where we cannot really feel each other’s vibe.

Jack White said it best when he stated, “This generation needs to be turned on to the tangible side of music, I want to involve teenagers in music in a real way. Teach them that real life experiences, and things you can hold in your hands, are so much more beautiful than mouse clicks and sound bites.”

I suggest you keep your music simple, honest, and full of integrity no matter what recording technique you choose.   I think it is best to focus on the being honest and allowing for the human condition, rather than trying to deliver a perfect recording.

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