The Lure of the Studio

Twenty years old and fresh out of college with a BA, I answered a want ad in the New York Times and entered the record business.  One of the courses I’d taken in school was called “Audio Production” but there really wasn’t any practical (or even theoretical) learning about producing audio.  However, we did learn the fundamentals of audio editing – not music but spoken word, recorded on analog tape, edited with a razor blade, as that was the extent of the technology of the time.  Also, the teacher, who worked part time at a real recording studio in midtown Manhattan, allowed me to visit one afternoon to see the real thing.

What is generally referred to as a studio is usually more than a single space.  While the studio proper is where the musicians actually perform for the microphones, the “control room” is where the engineer does his or her work.  Most control rooms have a large glass window, through which, the engineer and producer can have visual contact with the players out in the studio.  (There are exceptions.  Some studios don’t have windows and use video monitors for visual communication.  Some studios have additional, smaller spaces used to isolate individual players from the rest of the ensemble.  Some studios have the control room inside the studio itself.)

Probably the first thing that grabs a visitor’s eye when walking into an audio control room is the console, also known as the mixing desk or simply, “the board”.  To many folks, it can appear as complex as the cockpit of a jumbo jet or perhaps a space craft.  It is only upon closer inspection that one might notice the console is comprised of many repeating iterations of the same knobs, dials, faders and meters.  Not that it doesn’t look impressive anyway – just that a closer look reveals it is merely a grouping (often a large grouping) of individual “strips”, each providing the controls for one individual signal.  Every microphone in the studio feeds one of these strips.  Additional strips on the console might be fed from outboard gear in the control room – for special effects and other signal manipulations.  Sometimes, strips are fed by other strips, depending on what the engineer seeks to do with any given individual sound or any group of individual sounds from among those entering the console.

Studios used to bring in unpaid apprentices to learn the ropes, assist the main engineer and perform whatever other tasks needed doing.  This was the traditional means of entering the ranks of engineers: as a “gopher” (or “go fer”, because you would go for whatever was needed), sometimes called a “BP” (button pusher).  I got lucky.  I was hired with a regular salary.  (Hey, $77 a week!)

The console certainly filled me with awe but so did the rest of the environment.  The only tape machines I’d had any experience with all used 7” (~18 cm) reels and ¼” (~6 mm) wide tape.  The stereo machines in the studio used 10.5” reels (~27 cm) and the multitrack machines used either 1” (~25 mm) wide or more often, 2” (~5 cm) wide tape.  While stereo machines have two tracks (left and right), multitrack machines allow the separate microphone signals to be kept separate — 8, 16, 24 or more at a time — until they are mixed to stereo.  The control room had one stereo machine, one 8-track machine using the 1” tape and one 16-track machine using the 2” tape.  Over head, on either side of the control room window, hung huge loudspeakers, with cabinets perhaps a cubic yard in size.  Atop the equipment rack to the side of the console sat the power amplifiers, with tubes glowing orange.

That control room was the first of several in which I experienced something words struggle to illustrate:  When the musicians are all warmed up and the music is flowing, the reels of tape on the recorders are turning and the sounds being captured, the speakers singing into the control room and the lights dimmed down to spotlight the experience as a purely sonic one, watching something like several dozen to a hundred or more meters — on the tape machine(s), the outboard gear and the console — all “dancing” to the music, is a magical experience like no other.  It is as if the meters move, not merely because of the electrical voltage passing through them, but as if they are, like listeners, filled with the spirit of the music itself.  How fortunate I am to be among those who have seen this and felt this.