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Blog #2— What impact did recording studio technologies have on my favorite singers from the past?

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

This question is often couched differently when I am asked about it. For example, I have had people ask me, ”Can the singers of today actually sing, or are they made in the studio? Or, I will hear someone say something to the effect of— “The singers of today cannot actually sing as well as those of the past.” Let’s dispel one notion quite quickly before moving forward. No one is actually made in a recording studio. It is the truth. Even a multi-Grammy Award winning engineer cannot make your neighbor who sings in the church choir that you think is amazing sound like Petula Clark, Barry Manilow, Linda Ronstadt, James Ingram or Jon Bon Jovi. There is only one Petula Clark, Barry Manilow, Linda Ronstadt, James Ingram or Jon Bon Jovi. In the insulated recording studio world, engineers can work magic, it’s true— but, so is the old adage that my grandfather used to say, “You cannot put into someone what God left out.” In other words, for the most part— the truly great singers that you heard on the radio in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, were truly as talented and amazing as they sounded.

While it is certainly true that there are more technologies than ever before that can enhance the performance of a vocalist in today’s digital audio workstation-based recording studio environments, they are not bulletproof by any means and are probably used more often than what they should be in the world of audio engineering. In fact, it is my understanding that some vocalists in today’s entertainment world want to rely more on the crutches than ever before that a recording studio can provide for them to enhance their performances. But, we all know that wanting to have the crutches and actually needing them are two very different things. Plus, there are a number of amazing singers out there in the professional entertainment world of today— Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande, for example, are both highly talented and quite accomplished singers that come to mind for me. But, it is true to say that the great singers of the past did not have the technologies to enhance their performances that the producers and engineers for the singers of today have at their disposal. While it doesn’t (in my mind) necessarily make the singers of the past better— which is often a matter of personal taste, might I add— it should make us have a very different appreciation for both them and the legendary recording studio engineers who recorded them.

For us to have a deeper appreciation for the engineers and the amazing singers of the past in popular music, we have to step back in time for a moment to understand what they had to work with to create what you were actually able to listen to. Let’s also keep in mind, that technologies evolved quite rapidly, so what a vocalist had in 1964, would have been very different in 1974, 1986 and 1992— and even today, there are so many enhancements to the vocal technologies that were in their infancy in the late 1990s. In exploring this topic, let’s use a playlist of songs, so that you can hear the amazing singers of the past and have a better appreciation for both them and those who recorded them.

Not long ago, I thoroughly enjoyed reading an article about how the song, "Downtown," performed by Petula Clark, which was one of the greatest hit songs of the British Invasion of popular music in the 1960s, was recorded. In 1964, when the song, “Downtown,” was recorded by Petula Clark, the engineer at the time, Ray Prickett, would have had the ability to use the following tools on her vocal for that classic hit song— a tube microphone (a U47 on Petula Clark and U67s on the background singers); a small tube-based console, live echo chambers, reverb plates, and a great room for the recording process, which was done completely live at Pye Studio One in London on October 16, 1964, on an Ampex four-track machine. In other words, everything— including the vocals were recorded at the same time. It took four takes, a few key edits and then it was mixed. It was mastered to disc and then within a few weeks, by December, 1964, it was a hit single in the UK and not long afterward, a number-one smash hit single in the USA in early 1965. In other words, for the engineer, Ray Prickett, there were very few tools that he could have used to enhance Petula Clark’s vocal— what you hear on the record is what this amazing singer was able to give to you during the recorded performance. (By the way, Petula Clark, it might surprise you, did not even have headphones to hear the performance of the song while it was being recorded— remember, it was recorded live in the fall of 1964.) Listen to it, it’s gorgeous— it’s just her, a great microphone and a tube preamp at a small Neumann console and a great live room with a highly skilled engineer. Petula Clark never had to be tuned, comped, or heavily edited. You just hear her beautiful voice.

By the 1970s and 1980s, engineers would have had a very different palette of tools to use to record the amazing singers of the past. In 1974, when the hit song, “Mandy,” was recorded by Barry Manilow, the engineers would have had access to tube microphones at the Hit Factory and Media Sound Studios in New York, New York, and with 24-track analog tape machines available and a large-format console, the engineers, Bruce Tergesen and Harry Maslin, had more of an array of options for recording the song and mixing it, as well, compared to a decade earlier— compression and equalization units were used and the song was not tracked live, but these are perhaps the only tools that could have been used on Manilow’s vocal at the time. His vocal performance is a timeless classic. In 1986, when the classic hit song, “Somewhere Out There,” a duet featuring Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram was recorded by Allen Sides and mixed by George Massenburg and Eric Tomlinson— the production team again would have had access to large-format consoles; compression, and equalization. It was recorded and mixed at (EMI) Abbey Road, so a pitch shifting unit, and digital reverb units could have been available to the production team and they would have had access to digital tape recorders, so the vocals could have been edited, for sure— but, not even in the ballpark with what engineers could do later in the next decade, or for certain, in today’s recording studio environment. Just listen to their vocals— they are a beautiful work of art.

By the late 1990s, the introduction of digital audio workstations changed the game entirely. Now using software applications like Pro-Tools for example, and plugins, such as Antares Autotune, engineers were able to both comp and tune vocals in a process that was revolutionary. All of the old tools-- great microphones, reverb units, compressors, equalization units, large-format consoles and tape machines were still there for sure, but by 1997, a production team could use digital technology to try to achieve a perfect vocal. But, just think of all of the great songs that came before these technologies, like the great Bon Jovi songs of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, not one of them made use of Antares Autotune, because it did not exist at that time. In fact, when I was working in the music business as an assistant engineer by 1998, we used it on almost every single artist— but, it was used sparingly. Today, because I have spent quite a bit of time with the program, you can tell that it is has been used way too often for way too many singers. In fact, a number of prominent engineers and producers use it extensively with their stable of artists and its use is pretty much commonplace in today’s pop and country music— but, it does not have to be and there are certainly plenty of amazing singers out there today who do not need it, just as Petula Clark, Barry Manilow, Linda Ronstadt, James Ingram, and Jon Bon Jovi did not need it in the past to deliver amazing and classic vocal performances.

Perhaps the public is waking up to this fact, as sales for older songs now make up more than 70% of the sales of popular music. It is no secret that the public can recognize both great talent and great music— perhaps the real problem is whether or not the music industry is willing to invest in something much more important than either the latest and greatest in software or recording studio gear and that is the process of nurturing talented artists who are gifted singers and allowing them to use their abilities to the fullest extent possible. After all, if there are not truly gifted and talented artists recording great music that people want to purchase, then there are not going to be the budgets to maintain great studio facilities and employ truly fantastic engineers-- and that is a big problem. Perhaps asking older and much wiser hit-making engineers and producers of the past to shepherd a new generation of talented young artists and producers could be an important part of the solution to this problem. If you're not getting the drift, my message sounds something like this-- there are plenty of great young singers out there right now at this very moment-- just find them, nurture them, and above all else, just let them perform. If this issue is not fixed, the popular music industry risks becoming nothing more than a jukebox and we should just start as Bob Seger, would say, “By taking those old records off the shelf,” quite literally.

In order to understand how amazing the singers of the past truly were, just give our brief playlist a listen, so that you can hear what music sounded like before the use of digital audio workstations and plugin software programs such as Antares Autotune. You can listen to them on Apple Music, Spotify, or YouTube at the links found below. (Also, just because a file states that it is digitally remastered, the vocals would not have been altered by today's performance enhancing software. The files were just adjusted for the purposes of level-matching for today's digital streaming services, so that they can be heard in their original glory.) Perhaps we should learn a lesson from these amazing singers and engineers of the past— that the human voice is truly both the most amazing gift and instrument that an artist can possess and that it, alone, is always worth listening to. And, there are plenty of gifted and talented artists out there today who are great singers, who in truth, just need the tools that we have always had to deliver the true classic performances of the future— a great microphone, a great preamp, a great compressor, a device to record it, and most of all, their own beautiful voice.

To listen to the music that was discussed in the blog selection, just click on the links below:

While visiting my parents this weekend, I gently pulled the first sixteen original records from my Mom and Dad's extensive vinyl record collection from the Golden Age of Music (1958-1973) that they have had since they were children. In the first sixteen records, I found the following artists (though The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis were also in the collection): The Supremes, Herman's Hermits, The Everly Brothers, Lulu, Carly Simon, The Carpenters, Patsy Cline, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Roberta Flack, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Platters, Gray Puckett and the Union Gap, Tammy Wynette, B.J. Thomas, The Association and The Beach Boys-- all are classic hits and none of them would have had the use of today's tools to enhance their vocal performances. (By the way, you can click the image to enlarge it and see each of the records in the collection that are displayed.)

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