Adventures in Sound: Wait a Minute!

When I was in elementary school, I was thrilled to discover that the “sound with sound” feature on my brother’s tape recorder allowed me to play a musical part on one instrument, then add another part while playing another instrument.  It was many years later that I learned the technical term for what I was doing is “overdubbing”.  Around the same time, I became entranced with the idea of being able to have a tape with many musical parts, recorded at different times, sometimes in different places and combining them at will into a “mix”.  My first experience of a console, the hardware that facilitates mixing, felt like a dream.  The feel of well designed faders under one’s fingers as they are pushed and pulled to achieve the desired musical balance leaves a special tactile memory reserved for those who have had the experience.

Now I was working in a real recording studio, assisting in the recording of basic tracks, overdub sessions, mixdowns and editing sessions, and interacting with the musicians and producers and arrangers daily.  I was learning how records are made and further, I was part of the process.  My day to day work took me from the studio and control room, to the mastering room that housed the lathe used to cut the lacquer discs that were sent to the pressing plants to make the finished records.  (Once I was familiar with all the studio processes, I learned to cut lacquers for vinyl in the studio’s in-house mastering room.)  If the dancing VU meters in the control room were one form of magic, watching  a fresh groove get cut into a lacquer disc as the vacuum removes the “flash” (the cut away part of the lacquer which used to fill the space that was now the record groove) was a similar enchantment.  I was involved from placing the microphones for the original recording session and subsequent overdubs (where additional parts were added to the original recording), to the mixdowns (to create stereo mixes from the multitrack masters), to the editing sessions, to the mastering room where the final stage of production (and first stage of manufacturing) takes place.

Along the way, I was exposed to a number of publications aimed specifically at studio personnel.  Among them were dB magazine and from the UK, Studio Sound.  These added to the copies of Audio, High Fidelity, Stereo Review, Stereophile and The Absolute Sound I was digesting on a monthly basis, in addition to occasional copies of another UK journal, Hi-Fi News.

Now that the studio environment and procedures were becoming familiar and less overwhelming than they were at first, I also started to notice something.  What I heard in the control room did not sound like what I heard out in the studio with the musicians.  The large overhead speakers certainly produced a lot of volume and could reproduce dynamic “slam” such as when the drummer hit his snare drum, but even this did not sound like what I heard out in the room, in the physical presence of the drummer.  The smaller speakers that sat atop the meter bridge of the console, used as a “check” on the larger speakers, presented their own version of the story and that too, did not resemble, other than in the most superficial way, what I heard out in the studio.  Further, after we’d received the finished copies of each recording, when I got to take a record home and listen to it there, it sounded different again.  Sonic adjustments made while listening to the big speakers didn’t always work on the small speakers.  Similarly, adjustments made on the small speakers sometimes didn’t make sense when the music was subsequently played back on the larger speakers… and even less sense when I took the finished record home.  When I asked the senior engineer about the discrepancy between the sound “in here” (in the control room) and the sound “out there” (in the studio), his response, delivered somewhat abruptly, was that it was “not supposed to sound” like what I heard out in the studio.  To myself, I began to wonder exactly how it was supposed to sound.

Actually, I began to wonder about a lot of things.  For example, every mic we had in the mic closet had a very distinctive sound.  It added its own character to the sound of whatever it captured.  One of those large diaphragm condensers lent a certain crispness to the sound of a grand piano or of the drummer’s cymbals.  However, this was not the sound of the piano or the cymbals as I heard them out in the studio.  Switching to one of the dynamic microphones warmed up the sound and perhaps lost a bit of that crispness.  But this too was not the sound of the piano, cymbals or anything else as I heard them out in the studio.  With either mic choice, the large speakers in the control room provided one presentation and the smaller speakers provided a very different one (bass and dynamic capability differences between the speakers notwithstanding).  Back at home, I heard another, completely different sound.  Which of these, I wondered, if indeed any, was the truth?  It took me years to find out why but even before I knew, I suspected the answer, particularly with regard to the studio monitoring, was “none”.