"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
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.
"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.
"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.
"Treat the recording studio as a laboratory for conceptual thinking — rather than as a mere tool."
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.
"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
How authentic should sound designers be with history? If we were telling the story of Paul Revere's famous ride with sound, should I be accurate, or should I make it sound "Hollywood"?
"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.
"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. I bust 10 common myths about recording audio.
"The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings."
Ralph Carpenter, Texas Tech Sports Information Director
Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer, would have loved Star Wars. He may not have understood what a light saber or X-Wing fighter was, but he would get it - even with his eyes shut. That's because the Star Wars films are rich with composer John Williams' scores that employ a musical tool that Wagner himself was a master of: the leitmotif.
"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? "
Bell Labs was born more than a hundred years ago out of the need to improve the nascent telephone. It grew into a pure research facility that made an astounding number of scientific discoveries, improved or invented new technologies, and even influenced art and music.
"Analog is more beautiful than digital, really, but we go for comfort."
There's been a growing trend over the last several years to bring back the sound of classic analog gear, such as compressors and amps with vacuum tubes, ribbon microphones, and even reel-to-reel tape. Let's look at how old school charm is finding new love.
"The rockets came like drums, beating in the night."
From "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury
Walter Gripp is the last man on Mars. All the rockets to Earth have launched without him. One evening in a deserted town, he hears a phone ringing. This creepy scenario from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has captured the fascination of science fiction fans for decades. The reader wonders, who could it be? The scientist wonders, what would it sound like? We're about to find out...maybe.Read More...
"Shh! Listen! Someone's coming! I think -- I think it might be us!"
J. K. ROWLING, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Imagine if we could time travel without changing history. If we could go back 50 or 100 years would people view our technology as magic? If we were visited by time travelers from the future, would their technology be magic to us?
"Cooking is like music: you can tell when someone puts love into it.”
The transition from mono to stereo music recordings in the late 1950s had its challenges. Find out how Rudy Van Gelder and other recording engineers worked out the details.Read More...
"Every crowd has a silver lining.”
126.4 I think that's what will be inside a little oval sticker that I'm going to put on my bumper. I see "26.2" bumper stickers that marathon runners proudly display. Colorado mountain climbers have "14er" stickers. A lot of dads are number "1." Then what's so special about 126.4? It used to be a number for Kings, but now it's a number for Cats.
Before I start to sound like a broken record, let me back up and tell this story from the beginning. Team Cornett wanted to raise the profile of UK Health Care and their close association with UK Athletics, so they came up with a plan to get the attention of a sports crowd. There's no better place for a hyped up crowd than Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. With nearly 24,000 people, its been known to get really loud in there. It would be the perfect place to try and break the world record for the loudest crowd roar at an indoor sports event. And what basketball game would have the biggest and loudest crowd? A made-for-ESPN-TV marquee matchup: Kentucky versus Kansas.
"The key to this plan is the giant laser. It was invented by the noted Cambridge physicist Dr. Parsons. Therefore, we shall call it the Alan Parsons Project."
Here's something that will blow your mind and make you paranoid at the same time. Someone can listen to your conversations in your house or office from hundreds of feet away using light. The "light" is a "laser," and it's bounced off a window pane to detect sound vibrations. It's hard not to imagine Dr. Evil, played by Mike Meyers, air quoting "laser" when we mention that word. The theory was first proposed in the 1940s, but had to wait until lasers were actually invented in the 1960s to gain traction. By the 80s, the Cold War had us and the Soviets spying on each other using "lasers."Read More...
“Square in your ship's path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by;
woe to the innocent who hears that sound!”
by Homer in The Odyssey
I live on a busy street. My house sits roughly between three hospitals - all with helipads and emergency rooms. That's good for me if I have a really bad day, but my poor cat thinks wolves are after her whenever someone else is having a really bad day. I'm talking about the incessant sirens going up and down my street. And they seem to be getting louder – they penetrate my windows and brick walls with even more ferocity than ever before. It turns out that I'm not imagining this, because some emergency vehicles are now employing something called "low frequency system," or LFS. I call it "Loud F*@#$%^& Siren."
In addition to the regular high yelp of a siren, you may have noticed a lower yelping sound that seems to penetrate your car and go straight through your chest. That emergency vehicle has a secondary siren system that emits powerful omnidirectional bass tones from about 200-400 Hz. In this range, sound is "felt" more than heard - up to 200 feet away. These frequencies can penetrate auto glass and metal, wood and brick buildings, and human flesh and bones.
"I used to judge the quality of music by whether I could make a 90-minute cassette and not repeat any artists."
What? Another old audio format is making a comeback? Yessiree! If you want to be hip, then dust off your old Sony Walkman. But like me, you've probably dumped all your old cassettes along with your floppy disks and Trivial Pursuit. These days, my pocket can carry the same amount of music that drawers and drawers of cassettes can. But there are people who want to drag this once noble king of convenience from its analog obsolescence.
"I hate modern car radios. In my car, I don't even have a push-button radio. It's just got a dial and two knobs. Just AM."
Maybe you haven't noticed, but AM radio has pretty much sucked the last twenty years or so. Maybe you didn't notice because you weren't listening. A lot of people aren't, and the FCC is out to change that. The FCC? You bet – this isn't your father's FCC. We're so used to hearing "FCC" and "restrictions" in the same breath, that broadcasters were pleasantly surprised last October when the FCC announced an "AM Revitalization" initiative.
"I throw more power into my voice, and now the flame is extinguished"
Physicist John Tyndall, 1857
There's been a recent breakthrough in fighting fires - using sound waves to extinguish flames. Since 1857, scientists have known that sound waves could put out a flame, but they weren't exactly sure why.Read More...
"As so much music is listened to via MP3 download, many will never experience the joy of analog playback, and for them, I feel sorry. They are missing out."
There's a growing trend in the music business - recording to reel-to-reel tape. Wait, I thought we got rid of that when we went digital. The truth is, it never went away. Much like the recent boom in sales of records and film, reel-to-reels are gaining new fans and bringing back old ones.
"I hope I inspire people who hear. Hearing people have the ability to remove barriers that prevent deaf people from achieving their dreams."
Did you know that more than 37 million Americans aged 18 or older have some kind of hearing loss? And 30 million Americans aged 12 or older have hearing loss in both ears? With a media-rich society, that makes listening to narration, dialog, and speech in general difficult for them. Before 1972, anyone hard of hearing had to watch television with the volume turned up.
"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners."
Eighty-six years ago, three musical tones, "G-E-C," were played on a fledgling network of radio stations. What started as a technical cue for local stations, has become an instantly recognized trio of notes woven into the American identity.Read More...
"They number girl spies different. She's what you call a 36-23-36."
Max Baer, Jr. as "Jethro Bodine"
Double-Naught SpiesThis month, the new James Bond spy movie Spectre will be released. It's the 24th film in the long-running franchise based on Ian Fleming's novels. "Hot Dog!" as Jethro Bodine would say. James Bond and all his gadgets were hatched from Fleming's experiences while serving in the British Navy Intelligence Division during World War Two.
Gathering intelligence during any war requires innovative and clandestine communication techniques, especially deep within the enemy lines. In the Revolutionary War, invisible ink and garments on a clothesline were tools to send secret messages. The Civil War saw women disguising themselves as nurses, slaves, and even soldiers to gather and smuggle information. During World War One, the human body itself became a vehicle for secret messages via invisible tattoos. Read More...
"Podcasting - I swear to you - on its worst day, the podcasts are better than our best films. Because they're more imaginative, and there's no artifice, and it's far more real."
Podcasting RevisitedModern podcasting has now been around a little more than 10 years now. The roots go back much further, into the 1980's in fact. The idea of subscribing to an internet-delivered audio service dates to the early 1990's. But it wasn't until portable devices, such as the iPod, came onto the scene that it really took off. History shows that portability drives popularity – the battery-operated radio, the portable record player, the audio cassette, and the funky 8-track. I remember the iPod being described as a digital "Walkman," even though poor Sony already had moved beyond the cassette into portable digital players. Read More...
"Science is magic that works"
That Magic Sound
Researcher Dr. Diana Deutsch at UC San Diego has been studying the psychology of sound since the mid-1960's. Her findings illustrate how people can hear musical tones wildly different from each other. These "illusions" can cause great disagreements between listeners, even highly trained musicians. And interestingly, one group of stereo illusions has right-handers and left-handers perceiving them differently. Read More...
"If a tree falls in the forest, and hits a mime, does anyone care?"
Shhh! Quiet!Have you been hiking lately? Where'd you go? Red River Gorge? The Smokey Mountains? Yosemite? In the last 10 years, have you ever experienced a place devoid of all human sounds? Gordon Hempton, an Emmy-Award-winning recordist, claims there are less than a dozen places left in the continental U.S. that are "quiet." Hempton defines "quiet" as a natural environment that has no human-intrusion sounds for at least twenty minutes. Read More...
"In radio, they say, nothing happens until the announcer says it happens."
Legendary Detroit Tigers Announcer
The Fancy Pants AnnouncerThere was a time when Americans who wanted to sound important and upper class spoke with a half-American, half-British accent. They call it mid-Atlantic, presumably because the accent lands somewhere in the middle of the ocean between our countries. It was dominant in movies, on radio, in theaters, and on early television. Today, it sounds pompous. Some early practitioners were Franklin Roosevelt, James Cagney, Orson Wells, and Katherine Hepburn. Some more contemporary holdouts were William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Read More...
"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."
There was a recent study* that tried to understand how audio quality affected the perceived quality of the human voice. The researchers understood from the beginning that the results could be highly subjective, but they approached it using measurable methods. While tallying up the results, they were surprised by one finding they weren't attempting to measure. But it's something we in the advertising and production business already knew. Read More...
“Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.”
3D Audio on the Right Track
It's said that when an early motion picture was first shown to the public, women fainted and men ducked from an approaching train. The director made a bold new decision that would alter the course of filmmaking for the next century. Instead of just placing the camera in front of all the action like an audience watching a stage, the director moved the camera to a new position - within the action - to create perspective. That’s been happening in filmmaking ever since. But the same has been happening in sound as well. And now with emerging technologies, virtual 3D sound is now here. Read More...
The new generation is discovering what the old generation stopped loving - LPs. LP sales are the highs they’ve been in 22 years. Records aren’t just for hipsters anymore, everyone, including the older generation that gave them up, are groovin’ to them.Read More...
What if we could see sound? Aside from graphical representations of sound like waveforms and meters, we can't just look at an orchestra and see sounds flying out of the trombones. I wish we could watch the beautiful tones flow from Itzhak Perlman's Stradivarius. But we can - sort of.Read More...
No, it's not the Kentucky Derby. It's an overcrowded commercial with too much information that's been crammed into 30 seconds. Read More...