Guide for Education
The Recording Session Vault Educational Website project is dedicated to two distinct missions. First, it is my mission to do the very best job that I can to examine and discuss the rich history of professional music recording. Second, it is my mission to introduce the people, places and technologies which made the process of recording the great music of the past a true art form. The vast majority of the readers of this website project are music teachers, music students, young and aspiring music recording engineers and people who love the great music of the past. It is important to note (at this juncture) that when I speak of the music of the past, I am referring to how the pop, country, rock, R&B and hip hop music from 1958-2003, was recorded for all of us to be able to enjoy and to cherish. In this guide, you will find the following elements: a recognition of the legendary recording studio engineers of the past and their amazing work, a recognition of the historic and legendary recording studio facilities where the vast majority of the great music of the past was developed and a guide— just for you— of the tools and technologies of the past that were used to record the great music of the past that are still made by the same companies and easily available for purchase today to be able to use in your own projects. Whether you are a young engineer just starting to record your band’s first projects, a seasoned pro wanting to learn more about the past, an educator who wants to bring the tools of the past into their classroom to teach the music producers and engineers of the future or just someone who loves the great music of the past and you want to learn more about the people, places and technologies which made it all possible— there is a component in this guide that is just for you. The balance of this article will discuss each of the three sections of the educational guide in more detail, so that you can decide which area of the website and the project best fits your interests.
The Legendary Recording Studio Engineers of the Past
From 1958-2003, 168 legendary recording studio engineers either tracked (recorded) or mixed each of the hit songs or albums during that period of time. It must be noted that the credits that I have given each of the great engineers is through the documentation that I can find for their work. It is now easier than ever to locate the great engineers who recorded the great songs from Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, The Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey— each of whom dominated the charts during the period from 1958-2003, on the Billboard charts. I made the decision to base the list on the Billboard Hot-100 singles chart, the Billboard Hot-200 albums chart or the Billboard charts for both country and R&B music because these are the songs and albums that were made popular by the people who purchased and listened to them over time, rather than using the Grammy-Awards for example, as a criteria. Not every great artist, performer, song or album received a Grammy-Award and if engineers were held to the same standard, then so many people whose work has stood the test of time would be left off of such a list. For an engineer to earn a spot on this list they had to meet two very simple criteria. First, the engineer had to either record or mix at least six number-one hit songs or have worked on at least three number-one hit albums during their career. Next, they had to showcase that they were people of great character who brought a sense of honor and dignity to the profession during their careers.
It is my belief that it is important to know who these people are and how they would have worked to develop the great music of the past. The vast majority of the people who earned a spot on the list, even some of those who engineered some of the greatest hits of the 1960s are still living and a few of them— even from the era of the 1960s are also still working, too. Having the opportunity to be able to learn from them about how the great music of the past was made can be invaluable for those of us who have the desire to help shepherd the great artists, engineers, musicians and producers of the future. Just consider for a moment, an engineer who started their career in 1973. This engineer would have started their career at a time when large format analog consoles— the familiar centerpieces of most of the great studios of the period and large-format analog tape machines— came into being. If this legendary engineer worked into the early 2000s, as many of them did, then they would have had a tremendous impact on the creation of popular music during that time. If this legendary engineer also mentored and developed assistant engineers during the arc of their careers, it is a likelihood in most cases (according to my research) that these assistants in turn, also became legendary engineers at some point during their careers, too, and thus a family tree of excellence was created in the profession of music recording. Again, there are opportunities to learn from these true masters and from those amazing engineers who may still be working in the profession who can pass on both their knowledge, skills and wisdom to a new generation. During my stint in the professional music recording industry, I had the privilege of either being able to meet or even work with 12 of the amazing engineers on this list. Each one of them were amazing people to work with or to have the opportunity to get to know. It is my hope to be able to pass on the very best of them to each of you. The purpose of this section of the website is for you to be able to learn more about these master engineers who are true legends in the field of music recording, so that we can all continue the process of passing on their wisdom into making the great music of the future.
The Legendary Recording Studio Facilities of the Past
During the period from 1958-2003, each of the number-one hit songs by either a solo artist or a group were recorded in almost 1,100 (1,097) different recording studio facilities. Of that number, 64 recording studio facilities were the sites that I deemed to be legendary recording studio facilities. Just as I did in determining the status of the legendary engineers, a similar criteria was used to justify whether or not a recording studio should be deemed to be a legendary facility or not. The criteria was very simple. A recording studio facility during a decade of music production would have to have been the site where at least six artists or groups recorded either a number-one hit single or album on the Billboard Hot-100 singles chart, the Billboard Hot-200 albums chart or the Billboard charts for both country and R&B music from 1958-2003. Of the 64 recording studio facilities that achieved legendary status, slightly less than half of them (30) remain open as commercial recording studio facilities in the present. During my stint in the professional music industry, I was able to work in 6 of these facilities and of those— only 3 of them are still open as commercial recording studio facilities and one of them has changed both its ownership and its name since that time (A&M Recording Studios is now operating as Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood, California).
Most of the great recording studios which are on this list opened at some point during the period from 1965-1980. The vast majority of these facilities were built from the ground-up as recording studio facilities or were buildings, such as homes, churches or even commercial business buildings that were repurposed into great places for the purpose of recording music. For example, the legendary Olympic Recording Studios in London, was originally a theater that became a recording studio and now has returned to become a theater complex once more. Though home recording studios and small studio ventures exist in almost every American city and town, the vast majority of the major recording studio facilities that remain open as commercial facilities are quite large— consisting of multiple rooms for tracking performances, recording overdubs and mixing. It is to be noted that this list does not include mastering facilities. Mastering facilities actually deserve their own separate section, as it is a very important component of the process of creating music. It is a step beyond the scope of this article. The great recording studios that remain open as commercial facilities still have their large-format analog consoles, an array of tape machines and recording devices (analog and digital), racks of gear and amazing microphone lockers. Those legendary recording studio facilities that do remain open are busier than ever recording more than just popular music. Many of these historic recording studio facilities have forayed into recording soundtracks for feature films, television programs and even video games. Some of these facilities have also created podcasts and educational programs, while others have either formed partnerships with schools of music or even with college or university programs. It is important to remember that most of the great engineers of the past had their start as assistant engineers in these legendary recording studio facilities. In today’s world of professional music recording, there are actually more recording studio facilities than ever before, but in order to land a job in the profession, developing connections and building relationships are just as important as understanding the principles of using microphones to record a drum kit, understanding how to compress a vocal properly or how to use a digital audio workstation during a tracking session. The best way to start the process of becoming a great engineer has never changed— it is to build a professional relationship with a legendary engineer, perhaps earning the ability to become their assistant and to learn as much as possible from a master of the craft.
Do the great technologies which were used to record the legendary songs and albums of the past still exist?
The answer to this question is actually very simple. Most of the equipment that we would have used to make the great music of the past is actually still made by the same manufacturers even in today’s world of digital audio workstations and software plugins. Though I would caution that there are some revisions that have been made to some of the pieces of equipment over time and there are countless clone versions of classical gear out there in the marketplace, for the most part the original manufacturers of gear, microphones, monitors (speakers) and consoles are still making the same great products that they have made since (in some cases) the late 1960s. It is also important to keep in mind that software plugin versions of these pieces of gear are also available, but we are going to spend the vast majority of our time with the physical pieces of gear that were actually used during the recording or mixing sessions of the past that are still available for purchase today.
It is important for me to stress what inspired this section of the educational guide. A few months ago, I had an opportunity to be a guest on a podcast for a music teacher who wanted to know about what it was like to work with a legendary recording studio engineer. It was through this experience and my time as a classroom teacher who taught history, science and multimedia courses, that most of the truly wonderful people who are educating the future generation of artists, engineers, musicians and producers truly do not know very much about the process of recording the popular music of the past, or about the equipment that was actually used to do it. Another source of inspiration came from seeing that a well-respected university actually spent more than $250,000— on a single console for their new music recording program (I know that the console the university purchased in a 32-channel version would cost about $250,000, but, what they purchased was actually a 48-channel version of it, which I believe would probably be over $300,000 in cost. Needless, to say, it is quite a steep investment for any educational program to make at any level.).
I think that it is important to note that there are actually quite a few legendary recording studio facilities today which are doing extremely well commercially that do not possess a console of that ilk. In fact, most commercial recording studio facilities today are actually in a trend of downsizing their consoles and equipment, as quite a bit of the music recording process is being done in smaller recording studio venues or in the recording spaces that have been created by an artist, engineer or a producer. Plus, keep in mind, the $250,000 investment was just for a console and did not include any microphones, monitors, gear, computers, software or even a mention of the acoustic design process that would be necessary for all of the elements of the recording process to even begin to function harmoniously with one another. It frightened me as I did more research to see that the investment that this institution of higher learning made was actually not unusual, despite the fact that the commercial world is clearly trending in a very different direction. It truly bothered me that there was just so much money being invested in only one piece of the process of teaching students how to record great music when an entire commercial recording studio facility could be equipped for the same amount of money with the necessary gear, microphones, monitors, software programs, computer and console to be able to record great music in today’s world.
For these reasons, I have sought out and thankfully received the assistance of 45 professional audio companies who continue to make— not just the great equipment that we would have used to record the great music of the past— but, the very best professional audio equipment in the world. In the educational guide, readers will find the following: a brief introduction to each of the companies, a description of the products that were used to make the great music of the past that are still made by each of them and how we would have used each of their products to make the great music of the past. In other words, I am going to be introducing them to a new audience of readers, so that educational institutions can make the best decisions for how to create the programs that will teach the next generation of music creators. By the way, an educational institution could easily take a myriad number of combinations of the gear, microphones, monitors, recording equipment and consoles and design a great program for their students that would easily cost much less than $300,000. In fact, if I were to personally design a commercial facility, the cost of all of the equipment in it would also be less than $300,000— even if I was able to purchase every single item (brand new) that I could possibly wish to put into it. Another goal for the educational guide is to connect you to the amazing people at the companies which create these fabulous products, so that if you want to learn more about both the products and the people who make them, it will be a much easier process for you. If you want to also learn more about these great products, their use and the process of creating a great space for educating the future generation of music creators, I want to urge you to try to connect with the legendary engineers of the past, engineers who may be making the great music of today and the great recording studio facilities where great music is still being made and the wonderful people who work in them. Your greatest resource in making great music will always be the wonderful and amazing people who have made it in the past, or are making it at this moment. If you have a great recording studio facility near your educational institution or a legendary engineer who is willing to share their knowledge and expertise with you to help you design the best possible program for your students, I recommend that you start with these amazing people as both your first and truly most important resource.
I would like to take a moment to dedicate this guide to the truly legendary recording studio engineers of the past who inspired me to have the desire to want to work in the professional music recording industry and whose music has touched each of our lives for more than six decades and continues to do so. I want to thank two legendary engineers who have contributed so much to this project— David Thoener and Steve Marcantonio. Their continued generosity and assistance to this project have been immeasurable. Having the opportunity to work with them during my stint in the music recording industry was one of the true highlights of my time in it. It was a true honor. During my stint in the music industry, I was also able to meet or work with other legendary engineers including: Chuck Ainlay, Ron Treat, John Guess, Ed Seay, Mick Guzauski, Gene Eichelberger, Steve Tillisch, Csaba Petocz and Mike Shipley. It is my hope that in some small way, that my work on this project as it continues, will also serve to honor them and in the case of Csaba, Mike and Gene, their memories, as each of the three of them have passed-away. I want to start by acknowledging the first people who gave me the opportunity to set foot for the very first time in a recording studio as an intern during the summer of 1996, Patrick Kelly, the studio manager and Aaron Swihart, the house assistant engineer at OmniSound Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Of course, I also want to thank the people who gave me an opportunity to work in the business in the first place, Chuck Howard and his team, of which I became a member, if only for a brief time— under both Bob Campbell-Smith and Jeff Watkins. Plus, I want to thank my truly great friends, Aaron Bowlin and Craig White, both of whom are still at Curb Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and making the great music of today and leading the facility into an even brighter future. I want to also thank my Mom and Dad and my brother, Reid, and my wife, Stephanie, and too, my son, Quentin, who have supported me every step of this journey— both then and now.
But, in dedicating my work to the legendary recording studio engineers of the past, I also want this work to honor the memory of another legendary engineer who I did not have the opportunity to meet or to work with, but whose spirit and desire to give young people opportunities to work in the world of professional music recording helped launch the careers of some of the greatest engineers in the history of the profession— Roy Cicala. It was Roy Cicala who managed the legendary recording studio facility, The Record Plant in New York City and either brought in or mentored such legendary recording studio engineers and producers as Jack Douglass, Shelly Yakus, Jay Messina, Jimmy Iovine, David Thoener and Steve Marcantonio. During his career, he worked with such artists as John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Aerosmith, Prince, Sir Elton John, Roberta Flack, The Young Rascals, Bon Jovi, Queen, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and so many other amazing and legendary artists. He was always trying to help young and up-and-coming engineers get a start in the business and throughout his life he never stopped believing in them and in his ability to give them both an opportunity and the tools to succeed in it. It is fitting that this educational guide be dedicated to someone who was not just a legendary recording studio engineer or who managed one of the greatest recording studios in the history of the development of popular music, but, to a remarkable person who throughout his life also made his mark on the business of recording great music by giving other people the opportunity to make their own.
In Memory of Roy Joel Cicala, March 28, 1939- January 22, 2014