Column: [Can't Make A Living] – An Ode to Minimalism Pt. 1
In this and the next few installments, I will cover a topic I’ve been intimately familiar with for the past six years: the process of making albums. Being an ex-studio-owner I’ve facilitated, contributed to, been privy to, and (in a few cases) overseen the making of many albums, CDs and EPs by artists of nearly every genre: classical, jazz, heavy rock and a lot of indie rock.
In my life as an engineer and producer I’ve come to realize that in the world of capturing/creating music on tape (or hard disk) there are two schools of thought that exist along a sort of sliding scale of extremes. Roughly, (for lack of better terms) there is the minimalist school and the sound collage school.
(Please note, I’m not using “minimalist” and “sound collage” in the classical sense, but rather I use these terms to describe attitudes towards modern recording techniques employed by most producers today.)
A lot of the rock and indie rock recordings these days are the result of a combination of processes informed by both the minimalist and sound collage attitudes, leaning mostly (and increasingly) towards the sound collage end of the scale.
“What?” – you might be thinking.
Before I go on to define these terms I want to make one thing perfectly clear: as an artist and producer I feel both minimalist and sound collage attitudes are equally valid and this column is not an attempt to pass value judgements on certain recording techniques or to dredge up some “old school” versus “new school” debate. I am a fan of all album-making processes. I am however, going to focus on the lost art of minimalist recording techniques for the next few installments.
The reason for this is because I believe that in today’s “technological climate” it has become increasingly easy to employ one type of process over the other – that is, it’s become easy (and cheap) to adopt a sound collage attitude to making records (to sample, create composite takes, edit, multi-track, etc.), whereas minimalist attitudes and techniques are seen as “difficult” or expensive. It is my hope that these next few installments will bust this myth for some of you.
Some of you by this point (no doubt) are confused, so here comes some explanation.
A Super Brief History of Recording (and What I Mean by Minimalist Attitudes):
Once upon a time [in the early 1900s], there was only one way to make a sound recording: the minimalist way. The musicians would gather together in a room that was specially designed to be acoustically neutral. They would place themselves around a sound capturing device (like Edison’s sound horn) in such a way as to achieve a balanced sound. They would then perform, as an ensemble, all at once. If someone made a really glaring mistake, they would have to nix the wax cylinder [the chosen physical recording medium of the time] and start again.
Eventually, engineers starting using electricity to help make recordings. The mass-commodified radio of the early 1900s played a big role in the development of sound-capturing technology (i.e. vacuum tube amplifiers, and the speaker cone). Someone invented a better method of transduction (the dynamic microphone), which could be pre-amplified and the signal processed so that the ensemble sounded more real and balanced. This performance would then be cut directly to a master disk. Then World War II broke out.
Eventually the Allies would beat the Axis (Germans and Co.); in addition to making great strides in rocket science (read: surface-to-air missiles) the Allies discovered that the Germans had also made great strides in sound recording technology: they perfected the microphone (Telefunken / Neumann, etc.) and had invented a new recording medium called magnetic tape.
Not only was tape less noisy than direct-to-disk recording, but now you could edit sound – so if the ensemble made big mistakes in an otherwise good take, it could be cut out or a better section spliced in over top of the mistake – and so we have the very first sound collage technique: the splice. Nevertheless, our intrepid ensemble was expected to “get it right” when recording to tape.
The 1950s saw the birth of Rock-n’-Roll and a few producers – most notably Sam Phillips of Sun Records – were developing ways of making their recordings sound more exciting for the young folk who bought them, by summing multiple microphones down to one channel (thus artificially blending the ensemble’s instruments) and employing artificial tape echo and reverb techniques, generally pushing the needles into the red. This made Rock-n’-Roll sound explosive compared to the “cleaner” stuff the old folks were listening to. By this time, it was standard practise to have the vocalist “overdub” his/her vocals over a finished instrumental track.
Meanwhile (1949), a guy named Les Paul put out a record called The New Sound. He had tricked out his Ampex 200 tape machine so that it could record 8 discrete tracks, making him and his wife, Mary Ford, sound like eight people playing at once. In addition to multi-tracking, Les Paul also developed techniques such as “close mic-ing for proximity effect”. Pretty neat.
Pretty soon most major recording studios (usually owned by major labels) employed 4- or 8-track machines and mixing desks as standard equipment. Despite this – with the exception of groundbreakers like Les Paul – the norm for most rock and jazz records up until about 1964 was to have the act play together all at once and then overdub the vocals over the finished instrumental track. The extra tracks were used for “separation” so the engineer and producer had more control over the final balance. This still meant that a band had to know their material well in advance of the session.
In the mid 1960s, things started to change. As musicians became more “groovy”, they pushed the boundaries of the record-making process. The artists’ attitudes towards the studio changed. The studio was seen as an instrument itself rather than just a means to an end. Some believe it all started with a record by THE BEACH BOYS called Pet Sounds (1966), which was the catalyst for THE BEATLES’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Regardless, those records are not the manifestations of a band in a room playing together: they are sound collages manufactured in the studio using every technique available at the time. Sgt. Pepper was not the first psychedelic record, but by 1967 a definitive line had been drawn in the sand between artists who “used the studio as an instrument” and artists who simply documented their live performance.
In my opinion, the minimalist attitude is based on “pre-psychedelic” notions of making a record. It is an attitude (or aesthetic) in which the recording engineer attempts to capture the live sound of a band performing together and the producer attempts to coax the most exciting or authentic performance from said band: it does not eschew modern technology but rather uses it as a tool towards that goal.
It is notable that while psychedelic and sound collage techniques continued to evolve throughout the late 60s and into the present, so have “documentarian” or minimalist techniques. Compare Sgt. Pepper’s to THE DOORS’ self-titled debut (1966); or PINK FLOYD’s Animals to THE SEX PISTOLS’ Never Mind The Bullocks (1977); or just about anything to an album by THE WHITE STRIPES; and I think you’ll get what I mean by sound collage versus minimalist attitudes.
All of these records have benefited greatly from the advances in recording technology, they just put those technologies to different uses.
To Be Continued Next Week …