How did the recording sessions of the past work?
In this article, I am going to take you through each step of the process of making a record from the past. Most of the information that I am going to spell out would have applied to the process as it existed from the late 1950s to the early 2000s. I worked as an assistant engineer for a major record producer during the country music boom of the 1990s and continued to visit and work during the summers on occasion until 2011. My work experience gave me the opportunity to work on album projects with Grammy-Award winning artists and engineers in recording studio facilities in Nashville, Austin and Los Angeles. Typically, it took anywhere from 6-18 months to create an album. There were a number of people who were heavily involved in this process: producers, engineers, assistant engineers, mastering engineers, interns, production coordinators, musicians and artists. The role played by each person or group and the type of session in which they would have worked will be explored in this article.
The process of creating an album began with the producer, artist and production coordinator deciding on which songs to cut after pouring over what may have been hundreds of songs that had been pitched their way by songwriters and publishing companies. After culling through what may well have been an exhausting number of songs, normally the team would agree to cut about twelve of them. Due to the fact that I worked for a producer, my experience was very different than someone who would have worked as an assistant engineer in a recording studio where we may have worked on a project. These individuals would not have seen certain components of this process. No assistant engineer working in a studio would have seen or have been privy to the opening stages of this process. The stage where more people start to become involved in the process is not the first stage, but rather, it is the second one— tracking.
A tracking session was a process that began long before the session musicians and the artist even came into the studio to begin the process of recording. The producer (Chuck Howard), production coordinator (Lesley Albert) and the artist after hearing each of the songs that would be cut by the artist would select and begin the process of scheduling the session musicians who would be the backbone behind the actual music that the public would actually hear on the radio or go and purchase— at that time in the format of a compact disc, now of course, most people would simply download the song from a streaming service. Once the session musicians were scheduled and a studio was selected for the recording process to begin, as an assistant engineer, we would recieve the instructions from the engineer who would lead the session about what would need to be set-up for recording the session. We would always start setting-up for a major tracking session the afternoon before it took place. The cartage people (Underground Sound) would bring the instruments and set them up for us prior to beginning our work. The choice of what microphones, gear or recording device to use came largely from the lead engineer, or the producer. For example, if we did not know which microphone to use on an artist, a vocal shoot-out would be scheduled with the artist, so that we start the process of recording with the knowledge of what microphone and signal chain would work the best for them. The set-up process for preparing for a tracking session always depended on two factors: the number of musicians involved and how much involvement the lead engineer would take in the process of doing the work. Most of the time, we would set-up for a drummer, a bass guitarist, an electric guitar player, a steel guitar player, an acoustic guitar player, a pianist and the vocalist. Occasionally, we would would set-up for a keyboard player, a second electric guitar player, a fiddle player or a mandolin player. It was extremely rare that we would ever set-up for another type of musician in country music.
Once an assistant engineer had set-up each of the microphones for each of the instruments, amplifiers and for the vocalist, another assistant engineer (in my case, either Jeff Watkins or Craig White) would patch-in all of the gear in a series of signal chains so that each of the (now) tracks could be recorded, plus, we would set-up the cue system which enabled the musicians to hear their own work being recorded and so that there could be constant communication with everyone in the process of recording. Prior to leaving for the evening, we would use phase checkers (which emit a pulse or a click) to check to make sure that every component of each signal chain was working properly. If we were working in an outside studio (most of the time we recorded in a studio that was owned by the record company, as our producer, my boss, was also a high-ranking executive for the record company), then we might have the assistance of a staff assistant engineer, or in a few cases, of quite a few interns, who were almost always incredibly eager to assist us. (Incidentally, I can only recall two lead engineers, Steve Marcantonio and David Thoener, ever assisting us with a set-up for a tracking session.) It is to be noted that the vast majority of the time, the lead tracking engineer was almost always the same person who worked directly with and for the producer. In our case, this person was almost always Bob Campbell-Smith.
On the morning of a tracking session, we would re-check each of our signal chains with the phase checkers before a single musician or the engineer would ever show up for the session. Usually, we would arrive at least by 8:00 AM in the morning. At about 9:00 AM, the first musician to show-up for a tracking session was always the drummer and we might spend at least 15-20 minutes (or sometimes more) doing nothing other than focusing on getting great drum sounds. The next musicians to show-up were almost always the bass, electric and steel guitar players. We would focus on getting sounds from these musicians and adjusting our microphone placement as necessary on their amplifiers (almost every single time, the bass would come through a direct insert box). Next, we would focus on achieving sounds from the acoustic guitar player. The final musician that we would work on achieving sounds with was almost always the piano player. Last, but certainly not least, we would test out the vocal mic with all of the musicians (usually) playing something fun for all of us to listen to while we were doing our work. Some of my fondest memories are of working with the wonderful and amazing Nashville session musicians who were not just great musicians, but great people to work with, too.
Since, the world of professional music recording that I am describing doesn’t exist on the same scale anymore. It’s worth discussing how a session would proceed. We would start recording at about 10:00 AM in the morning. With the exception of a fix or two, which would be initiated by the musician that felt that it was necessary in just about every case, it would almost always take 2-3 takes and then the song that you would hear on the radio, or would purchase was recorded. I never saw the Nashville session musicians take more than 4 takes to have a song completely in the can. They were some of the most remarkable people in the entirety of this process of making music, in terms of their performance and what it would mean for the creation of the music that listeners would actually listen to in the future. We would usually have at least two tracking sessions in a day, which would come to a conclusion at about 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. This would mean that we had cut about 6 songs. We would normally come back the very next day and the process would repeat itself. In other words, in just two days we would normally have cut every single song that would appear on the album. It would normally take us (assistant engineers) about 2-3 hours to completely clean-up from the session and to make sure that the cartage people had picked-up each of the instruments that had been used by the session musicians.
On certain songs, not every musician could be in attendance at the time of tracking the material. Plus, background singers always came in during the overdubbing process. Overdubs would normally take an hour or two, almost always from start to finish. It was usually one or two musicians, or one or two background singers who would come into Chuck Howard’s small personal studio facility and we would record them. Setting-up for overdubs is what I spent most of my time doing and assisting on when I worked full-time in the professional music recording industry. Quite simply, this meant that I also had the opportunity to work with each of our artists, because the lead vocal was almost always in each case, an overdub, as well. Overdubs usually occurred in the evening session time— 6-9 PM because most of the session musicians were busy playing during the day and most of the artists and background singers were much more comfortable working in the evenings. The actual recording process, most of the time, took 30 minutes or less for an overdub session, once we were able to get started with it. Even though it was always fun for me to see all of the great session musicians together, the overdubs had a much different and more personable feel to them. Most of the time, the cartage people would deliver the instrument for the musician and their gear. By the time the cartage people had set-up for the musician, I was normally done with my work, too, so I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of my time getting to visit with the musicians, the background singers and our artists, as well. Cleaning-up after an overdub usually took about as long as the recording itself would take.
It is worth noting, that most of the musicians and even the background singers would only take 2-3 takes (just like in tracking) to have a master for you. Artists, depending upon their ability, were quite often a different story. Most of the time, our artists who were also great vocalists (like John Berry, for example) would only take 3-4 takes on a song, but sometimes artists took much, much longer to get a usable take. The vast majority of the time, we would never record more than 8 takes on a vocalist for a single session, though in the aggregate, I did see (over quite a few sessions) an artist sing one song more than 50 times before there were actually enough usable takes from this performer.
Vocal Comping, Editing and Tuning
It is worth noting that when I started working as an assistant engineer in the professional music recording industry, it was during a time of tremendous change. Analog and digital tape machines alike, were slowly being phased out and software-based digital audio workstations were slowly becoming the norm. When I first began as an intern in the summer of 1996, digital audio workstations had just been introduced. By the time, I completely stepped-away from visiting and assisting during the summers while teaching full-time in 2010, digital audio workstations had completely supplanted all of the other modalities of the recording process and the home studio revolution was in its infancy (now it is becoming the norm and not the exception, sad to say). We tracked and recorded all of our overdubs (at that time) onto 32-track digital machines (Mittsubishi X-850 and X-880 Pro-Digi machines). There were a few sessions which were tracked onto analog using a Studer A-827 24-track analog tape machine, which were then transferred to 32-track digital. We would then transfer all of the vocal tracks into what is Avid Pro-Tools (at that time, it was Digidesign) after comping them.
In fact, I worked regularly on comping sessions where we would ping-pong the vocal tracks (bouncing them) from each great part of a take of a vocal track to an open track on the machine— therefore taking, let’s say, 10 vocal takes from an artist to make one amazing vocal track, in the beginning. By the time I left the business, every component of that process (at least) was being done in a digital audio workstation. Also, the editing and tuning was being done in a digital audio workstation software program, as well. It was engineers who were true specialists, such as Jeff Watkins and David Boyer who did this type of work. If I were in a position to do so, I would often go upstairs in our studio facility to watch and listen to Jeff Watkins do his work. Even as early as 1998, we were tuning the vocals for an artist. For the most part, the tuning and editing components, though they were heavily involved for some artists, were used sparingly for most. If you listen to most of the songs from this period moving forward to the present (especially today, as compression today is often overused), you can actually hear it, if you know what you are listening for in a person’s voice. My personal opinion is that it has often been overused and has taken away from the character of a performer’s voice. I know that through their work, Jeff and David, tried as much as possible to use it in a manner in which it was not noticeable, but it is safe to say that some artists actually may well have needed it much more so than others.
Once this process came to a conclusion, we would transfer (at that time) everything back to the master tape for the song. At this point, the song would not immediately go to the mixing stage. Instead, an engineer (me— on a few occasions) would have to sit down and complete a rough mix of the song under the direction of the producer (Chuck Howard) so that the mixing engineer would have a roadmap to follow for the process of mixing the song. Personally, due to the fact that I was often presenting this song (and therefore, my stamp on it) to some of the greatest engineers in the history of music recording, instead of taking the 1-2 hours that were advised, I might spend up to 3 hours on a rough mix to make sure that the legendary engineer who would get it would be challenged or pushed to make the song better for the artist and also to demonstrate my growing abilities, as well. Quite often, Bob Campbell-Smith, who was our tracking engineer for most of our projects, would take 2-3 hours doing each of the roughs and I would assist him on it. His rough mixes were always very, very close to what the finished product in some cases would become. Once the rough mixes were completed, from that point forward the songs were now in the hands of the mixing engineer.
Typically, it was during the mixing process where a heavy-weight engineer from the outside would be brought in to work on an album project. It was at this point where engineering legends such as David Thoener, Steve Marcantonio, John Guess, Pete Green, Csaba Petocz, Mike Shipley and Mick Guzauski would make their appearance to work with us. As an assistant engineer, we would have two roles during a mixing session. The first role was to patch in the signal chains for the gear that the engineer would use when crafting the song. The second role was documentation. When the engineer had completed the mixing process, we would document how this person had used each of the pieces of gear in the process of crafting the version of the song that you would actually hear on the radio or purchase in a store. Documentation often took about an hour, because we also had to print versions of the mix of the song for the producer to check-out and approve. There were instances when an artist would also come in and give their stamp of approval for a mix, but this did not happen often. Most of the time, our tape services coordinator, Aaron Bowlin, would take care of making copies of a mix to artists, other co-producers (if there were any) and to other executives in the record company (Curb Records) at the time.
Mixing sessions were very different from tracking sessions. While tracking, you spent most of your time as an assistant engineer, either recording the session or working to make sure that there were no issues with the musicians in the studio. But, during a mixing session, you spent most of your time listening to the work of the engineer, as this person would shape or sculpt a kick or a snare drum, add sizzle to the electric guitar tracks or make the vocal track cut through with timeless emotion. It usually took an engineer 3-5 hours to mix a song (sometimes longer, rarely did it not take that long to do). When it was completed and had been approved by the producer, artist and sometimes the record executives, it was then that we would print versions and document the work of the engineer. After the master versions of the song were printed, then the song would go to the mastering process and to a new engineering team.
I was privileged on a couple of occasions to be the assistant who would deliver the master tapes to the mastering engineer. Depending on the project, there were two mastering engineers that we used quite often— Denny Purcell at Georgetown Masters and Hank Williams at Mastermix. The mastering engineer takes the mix of a song and makes certain that it can translate to any listening environment. These specialized engineers make certain that the levels of a song can be heard with crystal clarity on any listening system. It might take an hour to master a song and edit the beginning and end of it. Within two to three days, a mastering engineer would have an entire album mastered. Once the song was mastered, it then went to the promotional phase and from this point forward as engineers, it was no longer in our hands-- unless, of course, there was a call for a specialized mix or radio edit for it.
Onto the Radio and Into the Store
Once a song, or an album had been mastered, the process of creation had come to a conclusion. From this point forward, it was in the hands of the people who would market and promote the album and work to get it airplay on the radio. Artists would play showcase concerts for radio executives and promoters. We would almost always get invited to the artist showcase concerts, but I only had the opportunity to attend one of them and it was after I left working in the business on a full-time basis. On occasion one of the amazing people who was a part of this effort at Curb Records, Bob Bender, would actually come in and see the recording or mixing process for a song. On occasion, Mike Curb, himself would come in to hear the work that we were doing. But, by and large the people who were not on the production side spent most of their time doing their crucially important work of putting our work out there onto the airwaves and into the stores.
When a song first appeared in the stores, I would normally try to take the opportunity to go out and purchase it. At that time, music was largely available on compact discs. A critical difference between the way music is sold today, where you can download just a single song from an entire album that you want to hear versus having to purchase an entire album on compact disc, cassette or vinyl is that in the older formats, you could easily find our credits for the work that we had done in creating the album. It is sad to say that today’s music streaming services do not provide you with the credits for a song or an album when you purchase it. Now if you want to discover the credits for an album or a song, you will have to go to a site such as AllMusic, for example and hope that they may have the information on the site. In my experience, most of the people who purchased the music that was made in the past had very little idea of the tremendous team effort that it took to make it a reality. It is this issue which inspired me to create this website project in the first place— to educate fans, music educators and young engineers about how the music of the past was actually made.