Recording Methods: a brief overview

The basis of this text is taken from the article "Recording Methods", part of the "Album That Never Was" page on my Johnny Kidd and the Pirates site. 

THe world famous EMI recording studios in Abbey Road, London

EMI Studios, Abbey Road

Although mono was still King in the UK in the late 1950's (and would remain so for some years yet) the Abbey Road studios staff were well versed in recording large orchestras "live" onto a twin-track stereo machine for a virtually immediate stereo mastered product. The large sound accordingly filled the spectrum between the left and right channels. For a raw rock band consisting of four instruments plus singer a similar but economical "live" method would be employed where a few microphones were set up. Sometimes it was even more basic: the Capitol Studio where Gene Vincent's early stuff was recorded featured a single microphone, singer and instruments being distanced according to their relative volumes. Later on, the singer would have his/her own mike to help the sound engineers "lift" the volume of his voice (either during recording or mixdown) so he could be heard properly.

By comparison early Rock music was considered not "real" music, more a passing 'fad' by the establishment thus it didn't qualify for quite so much time being spent on it. Typically, a three-hour session would be arranged, enough for both sides of the next single - often with one or two extra cuts (for an EP or LP, should sales allow) - time was money, after all. You had to get it right in the studio as once you captured it on tape, that was basically it. Later on the widespread use of tape allowed more flexible editing techniques to be used; a Post-production session could then remove bum notes and apply basic equalising if necessary.

Rock mellowed into a more commercial "Pop" and using the twin-track machines to separate band from vocals allowed the engineer, given time, to play with the sound on each track, with a bit of EQ here, a touch more volume there, etc, so the best mono mix could be obtained to give a better, punchier sound for bigger sales. Before long the more adventurous engineers began recording the backing track - instruments only - on one track. The best "take" would then have the vocals "overdubbed" on the adjacent track until a satisfactory "take" had been achieved. Either then or at a separate "mixing" session the tracks would be blended into the one mono master for cutting into a 7-inch single. Each analogue tape copying increases the amount of distortion and the quality will eventually suffer as each generation adds it's own artifacts which, after much copying becomes increasingly distracting.

On the other hand Joe Meek, the maverick independent producer ("Telstar", "Johnny Remember Me") had tracked this way and more for years. Using two tape machines, one a twin-track job, he would record a bands' rhythm section, copy the result onto the other machine adding various additional instruments, finally the vocals, even 'bounced' back again in order to double-track the vocals. A Joe Meek production may have been bounced back and forth in this fashion up to six times. The heavy compression 'pumps' the sound and quiet split-seconds heave their way up in the mix with all the tape hiss this over-processing allowed. In this way Meeks' methods make a feature out of compression and distortion which went totally against the grain. And the power literally jumped out of the speakers at you.

When 4-track recording arrived at Abbey Road Studios in late 1963 it meant greater flexibility and control - the demanding Beatles couldn't wait to play but had to wail until the chief technicians had worked out what it was capable of. Where previously George Martin and his staff had used his experience and ingenuity to overdub the odd extra vocal or instrument to good effect they were now able to record the backing track and extras as required without altering anything already perfectly recorded. Shane Fenton's later recordings would almost certainly be tracked this way with the odd exception, especially after 1963. The Beatles reached 4-tracks zenith quickly as their songwriting became ever more complex; Songs like "Hello Goodbye" feature tape 'reductions', the four full tracks would be copied to another 4-track machine in a mixdown fashion freeing more tracks on the second tape for the continued overdubbing. Up to four of these operations occurred on any one tune - and we're back to the engineers trying to prevent too much distortion creeping onto tape with each copy.

Thankfully, it was only a matter of time before 8-track, then 16-track machines were introduced, and the only copying process would be in the mixdown from multitrack tape to stereo masters (mono would be all but obsolete in a couple of years). Too far in the future for Shane Fenton and co. whose recording career (released material anyhow) ended in 1964. Had any one of their latter singles, say "Don't Do That" or Hey Lulu" been the smash they were waiting for I wonder whether they would have made of the new technology offered in terms of recording freedom? They sadly didn't get a chance of an album when they were a chart act so we will never know. In just a couple of years time groups would start emerging who specialised in albums rather than having a dependency on the top 50.

Back to the "Related" page


[HomeShane Fenton Story: [Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]  [Recordings]  [Pictures]

The Fentones: [The Fentones]  [RecordingsOther items: [related]  [Linkages]


Site maintained by Adrian Barrett