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"Blues" music was created to chase away gloom... The Happy-go-lucky songs of the Southern Negro we call "Blues" - W. C. Handy, 1919. "The Father of the Blues" points out that you've got to be happy if you want to sing the Blues. Quoted by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in "They Cert'ly Sound Good To Me: Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, And The Commercial Ascendancy Of The Blues" in Ramblin' On My Mind, David Evans, ed

Author Topic: Pre War Recording Techniques  (Read 4712 times)

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Offline Flatd7

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Pre War Recording Techniques
« on: January 10, 2008, 06:13:05 PM »
Happy New Year Weenies!

Sorry I don't get here often enough, but I always go to you guys when I have a serious question.

So, we've added a piano player (David Bennett Cohen) to my little combo and it creates new gig audio challenges. We started as an acoustic stringband trio and now are a five piece. We still try to perform at most gigs with one large diaphragm mic. However, a piano can be loud! We also have a great wash tub bassist, but at all but the larger gigs you don't need to mic it seperate. It requires a lot of moving in and out to the mic and keeping an eye on your partners as you move in and out of the "sweet spot" for vocals, harmonies and solo's.

So, as we've recorded rehearsals I started thinking how the hell did they record those 78's? They must have had the piano a mile away. But then how did they keep the vocals front and center? Did they even have headphones for those 78's? They must have thrown out a lot of wax huh? Baffling can certainly help, but it's really remarkable they they got anything. when you think of the seperation that some of those recordings got, with vocals and solo's front and center, but a good overall mix . . it's pretty impressive.

Are there any books or articles that the actual engineers have written or been interviewed for? I'd love to know more about the tech side of how those recordings were made. It must have been a huge challenge.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2008, 08:33:58 PM »
Very interesting subject FlatD7. I hadn't consciously noticed it until you mentioned it but the piano does sound quite 'distant' on many of the classic female blues singers' recordings.

I was recently looking for graphics on the web, pictures of old recording equipment, studios and so on, to add to the 'Name that CB artist...' page, since it would help visualize the studio experience when these guys were calling out to each other. I found some pics of mics and wax recorders, but nothing showing or describing the studio layout.

Bessie Smith's bio 'Bessie' has many descriptions of the sessions but nothing about layout and techniques. Likewise Porterfield's Jimmie Rodgers bio. Both concentrate on the human dynamic between star, producer, other stars and assorted accompanists. So I'm really interested to see if your post brings in more information.

Offline Flatd7

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2008, 06:59:17 AM »
For instance, listen to the State Street Boys recordings. They are some of my favorite all time cuts. You've got Broonzy and Carl Martin on Guitars. Bill Settles on Upright, Black Bob on Piano, Jazz Gillum playing harp and occasionally Zeb Wright on fiddle. The get great seperation and you can hear most everything. Now the guitars do get lost a bit. Broonzy seems to play more of his signature single line motifs in the upper registers. But both Gillum and Broonzy take turns at the lead vocals and the piano and harp never seem to overpower what's going on. There's a fair bit of ad lib remarks, and they are all on mic.

Pretty tricky when you think of the recording equipment being used. Oh, how I would have loved to been a fly on the wall and maybe run out for coffee's for them. Although, without a Starbucks . . . that might have been tricky too?

Offline waxwing

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2008, 08:20:41 AM »
To me one of the most amazing recording feats is Leroy and Scrapper. The mic must have been close enough to Leroy's mouth to get his vocals, yet you can still hear Scrapper's guitar over the piano. Either Scrapper could play really loud, or Leroy could play really soft. Hmmm? Have you mentioned to your piano player that he could turn it down a bit?

I think mix volume is always an issue with acoustic bands. Having played in a jug band, with jug, kazoo, mando, harp and guitar (and sometimes washboard) I know how hard it is to get those players with the naturally louder or more cutting sound to ease up a bit to get a better mix. You really need an outside pair of ears and a lot of trust. No amount of friends coming up to the guitar player and saying, "Well I can't really hear you," will do the trick, it seems. It really takes a fellow musician with a lot of credibility to get people to trust that they can be heard when playing softly. Getting them to hold to those levels during the excitement of performance is a whole other issue, too. The whole thing takes a lot of trust and practice.

'Course, a reso guitar helps, but you still end up overplaying.-G-

I guess many folks have become dependent on individual mics and the sound engineer making the mix happen through the mains and monitors and the fine art of mixing acoustically is dying out. I applaud you guys for going the way you are, I'm sure "listening" to the mix will also make for more interesting interplay.

Back to early recording studios. I've heard about, and seen at least one drawing of a crude megaphone for the vocalist to sing into. The story, which I think I read somewhere here, in fact, (possibly in a long article posted by our primo historian/librarian, BH) was about the singer having to pull his head out of the megaphone to read the lyrics. I think your idea of baffles is not far off, either. Certainly they did tests to establish levels through instrument placement, but I don't think they could "play back" from the wax, and the process of making a Mother (from which the Stampers were made) is too time consuming to think they could play back from a Mother.

Of course, the recording process evolved fairly rapidly through this period. At a certain point records started claiming that they were "electronically recorded" which I think signals the advent of the use of the microphone, replacing the large horn connected to a cutter. It's possible that at some point the ability to mix mics was developed, but I don't know when. It does seem likely that headphones of some sort were available as the telephone was already in use. It's hard to imagine that at the end of the pre-war era, the atom bomb was created.

But I also think that playing only acoustically gave the pre-war players the ability to create the mix necessary for single mic recording.

This is a really interesting discussion, Jon. I too hope it produces some more knowledgeable answers.

All for now.
John C.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2008, 08:51:32 AM »
Interesting subject. I wonder whether anyone who has read Dixon and Godrich's Recording the Blues can tell us whether it has anything to say on the subject of actual recording techniques, or whether it is strictly about the records and companies.

Offline dj

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #5 on: January 11, 2008, 09:08:12 AM »
I don't recall Recording the Blues mentioning specific recording techniques.  I do remember a book that was published maybe 2 years ago that dealt with the search for a "natural" sound in music recording from its inception up through the end of the 1950s, but I'll be darned if I can remember the title or author and I can't seem to find it online.   :(

Offline Flatd7

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2008, 10:04:47 AM »
To me one of the most amazing recording feats is Leroy and Scrapper. The mic must have been close enough to Leroy's mouth to get his vocals, yet you can still hear Scrapper's guitar over the piano.

Yup, that's a conundrum to me. Now Leroy was a very talented and consumate musician, so I asume he kept his volume under control. However, even a Spinet with blankets on it and the top down is somewhat loud. I was just listening to the completed works, vol 3 as I read you post! (Wax and Flatd7 - Seperated at birth? Hmm? Have to ask Mom about that)

Sloppy Drunk Blues for instance is a typical barn burner Boogie. Yet, Scrapper cuts through. Document CD's are pretty bad to start with, I'd love to hear Blackwell a little closer to the mic. But the real challenge is that Leroy's vocals sound right up front. I've seen Scrapper standing in most of the Carr - Blackwell photo's. I wonder for instance, did many of the ensembles play standing up so they could move into the mic as their parts came up? That could have worked if the mic was up high and close to Leroy and Scrapper was leaning in. Lot's of possiblilities but it must have been trial and error.

Offline dj

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #7 on: January 11, 2008, 12:03:51 PM »
Quote
I do remember a book that was published maybe 2 years ago that dealt with the search for a "natural" sound in music recording from its inception up through the end of the 1950s, but I'll be darned if I can remember the title or author and I can't seem to find it online.

I remembered it.  It's Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900-1960 by Peter Doyle.  It turns out my (almost) brother-in-law has it.  Apparently it deals mostly with how and why people added echo and reverb to recordings over the years, and thus more or less incidentally with other aspects of recording.   

Offline banjochris

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #8 on: January 11, 2008, 03:20:50 PM »
There's a very brief bit about this in the Charlie Poole biography by Kinney Rorrer, "Rambler Blues." It mentions that Poole had to sit farthest from the mic and wasn't allowed to use fingerpicks (although he usually didn't anyway). Some writings about Uncle Dave Macon talk about problems recording him because he liked to move around a lot and stomp his feet.

And just to add an opinion, I think some of the most amazingly recorded pre-war sides are the Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers' sides. Those Victor folks must really have known their stuff; you can even hear them boost the volume a bit to compensate when the band drops out and Morton starts soloing. But you can really hear all the instruments, even the bass -- "Black Bottom Stomp" is a great example of this, and it was a pretty early electric recording (1926).
Chris

Offline Kokomo O

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #9 on: January 11, 2008, 06:09:23 PM »
John, you raise an interesting point regarding playback. I would speculate that they might have done test pressings on acetates--aren't those playable?

Offline Richard

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #10 on: January 12, 2008, 11:29:23 AM »
I can't speak for a blues setup but for a '32 electric recording of Ellington the studio set up was -

Mic in front of and flanked by bass and guitar, to either side of each were respectively drums and piano. Then one row back in a line the reeds and one further back in a line the brass so the whole band formed a pyramid with the mic as the peak, pinacle even !

« Last Edit: January 12, 2008, 11:30:27 AM by Richard »
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Rivers

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #11 on: January 12, 2008, 12:25:56 PM »
And the banjo player was out in the hall.

Offline blueshome

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2008, 04:24:19 AM »
The following reference (if a bit dry) indicates that multiple mics were used as far back as the early 20's. Mixing and momitoring the sound for electrical recordings would have been well within the scope of the technology - early radio receivers had headphones, radio stations must have been able to monitor their output so why not recording studios?

http://www.aes.org/sections/uk/meetings/0603.html

Offline waxwing

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2008, 09:42:00 AM »
Good find, Phil. Still I wonder if multiple mics were in use in the race record industry, tho'. Quoting from the article:
Quote
Standards don't always reflect the leading edge of technology, however.
I think it is doubtful that the equipment necessary for mixing multiple mics was carried to "field" recordings, even into the '30s, For instance, we have the testimony about RJ facing into a corner (either to hide his playing from the Mexican band or to "load-up" the mic -G-) which seems to indicate only one mic was used. Of course, mixing between vocal and guitar levels may have been a subtlety deemed too much trouble even if a second mic was available, eh?

But I guess studio recordings from Chicago or New York may have taken advantage of more advanced technology, provided the extra cost (equipment, labor and electricity) wasn't considered extravagant.

The more I think about it, the more I agree they must have had some form of headphones to monitor the sound.

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Pre War Recording Techniques
« Reply #14 on: February 07, 2008, 09:27:44 AM »
I came across this while perusing Sam Charters' book, The Country Blues. The usual caution is recommended, since Charters' work in this book has later proven to be incorrect in places. So I don't know if anything has surfaced that would dispute this, but:

Victor was the first company to do extensive "field" recording, and their technicians set the pattern that was followed by most of the other companies. It was not field recording in the present-day sense. They carried enough equipment with them to set up sketchy but complete studios, and if there was any kind of equipment in the city they usually rented the local studios while they were recording. The engineers still remember some of the difficulties they had to contend with thirty years ago. They leased General Electric equipment for the field trips, as most of the other companies did, and used two Western Electric condenser microphones, but in New Orleans it was so hot and the humidity was so high that the microphones shorted out. They had to use old-fashioned carbon microphones, but the heat made them 'sizzle' -- hum while they were being used -- so they had to pack the microphones in ice until they were ready to record. They used both microphones for most of their work, which was quite advanced for their day. The Victor engineers said that they were the only ones in the field using two microphones. "...the competition only used one microphone." The 'competition,' the Columbia engineers, confirmed this: "...we only used one microphone but the competition used two."