Saturday, June 30, 2018


A rumination from Occasional Reader

This is a very potted history of recorded sound, and the efforts made to produce a silk purse from many a sow’s ear. (Do they use that 16th century British idiom in the States?)

At the start of the recording era, copies were produced from a master that didn’t last too long. So it was not uncommon for popular recordings for the artiste to sing the same tune more than once – and collectors to find tiny variations in different pressings from different masters. When the singer was someone professional like Caruso they could sound identical (or as good as) on every “take”. Things drastically improved when electrical amplification came in around 1925 and the process allowed for copies of masters for disc pressing. So alternative takes generally became out-takes and were unceremoniously dumped.

But moving forward in time some performers who had not been classically trained really struggled to get the finished product together – take after take after take. One tiny mistake would ruin the whole thing. You couldn’t change anything when the voice wobbled or the guitarist hit a bum note, or the percussionist fell over his cymbals. You were stuck with it or dumped it. With some forms of music like jazz it didn’t matter because no-one knew what was going to happen when they started – least of all the musicians - it was going to fly all over the place anyway. But for standard pop tunes, with amateur pretty boys and girls plucked from the street whose delights were purely visual rather than vocal, it must have been a recording engineer’s nightmare. There was a very funny parody of the music business at the end of the 1950s by American Stan Freeberg called The Old Payola Roll Blues, where a kid is plucked from the street, given a song to sing and prodded with a sharp stick at appropriate points to make him sound like Little Richard.

So for aging collectors and completionists, outtakes have surfaced showing the processes that should have been dumped but weren’t. Buddy Holly struggled to record the song Take Your Time. He was tired, he couldn’t see the words properly; he really didn’t want to be doing this. Several duff attempts at the song have survived on the end of other master tapes and released to fans. Then there is Gene Vincent, one of the most exciting performers in his heyday ever. He came to Britain as his career nosedived in the States, was dressed in black leather by Guru Jack Good (later responsible for the cult American pop show Shindig) and limped with a bad leg sustained in a motor cycle accident. He looked and sounded MEAN. I used to do an impersonation of him at parties in my misguided youth guaranteed to offend all the straight-laced parents. Anyhow, there are several songs – I can’t remember which now – where the number of takes ran into the 30s. Vincent used to down copious amounts of spirits each day, which eventually did for him from stomach ulcers at the age of 36, and that affected him in the studio (and on stage towards the end). Someone I studied scripture with (wearing another one of my hats) had been in Vincent’s backing band in “Rock across the Channel” – where a ferry boat went from Britain to France around 1961. It was full of teenagers dressed as Teddy Boys raving it up with Vincent in a full blast performance, then disgracing themselves in some French port and un-cementing Anglo-Franco relations. Vincent’s alcohol intake on that trip was legendary. And thirty odd takes to nail a song – a song that was rubbish anyway –became depressingly common.

So recording sessions could be long as increasingly tired, fractious, and probably drunk performers tried to nail down their latest track.

But then the whiz-kids got in on the act and multi-tracking took over. It meant that American guitarists like Les Paul could sound like an orchestra of sorts. It also meant eventually that you could record all the bits and pieces separately and if something went wrong, you just replaced the one bit. George Martin did this for the Beatles. And it advanced so that now you can just change one word in the middle of a line and no-one outside of the studio will ever know.

Which brings me – finally - to my own recording adventures and the word “Time.”

Now I confess that I am not a singer. But since that has never stopped anyone else, and since I appear under several pseudonyms and keep bits of my life compartmented, I have been emboldened to try. My daughter is a singer and musician and sometimes has this quirk of wanting the Von-Occasional Family Singers in on the act.

So, on her latest venture I was drafted in to drone an odd backing vocal and on one song to do a duet.

The song was written and recorded by John Stewart many years ago. I was a fan of Stewart and used to inflict bootleg cassette tapes of him on my daughter as I drove her to and from school, so I guess I only have myself to blame.  

The song is called Hung on the Heart of a Man Back Home, and is a real stinker to sing – even for a real singer. And over a very long career no tapes have emerged of Stewart singing it live. I wonder why?

It has the usual quirk of folk-style music (although this song is probably more country) of cramming too many syllables into a line. So the verse of the song that I had trouble with goes

Spent our time mostly just laughing
Not enough time to name the day
(gasp for breath)
Ever feel like running away

I had trouble with the word “time” in the first line. I was told it was a diphthong, so I diphthonged it – ti-eme – nah that was wrong. So time, teme, tahme, thyme, oh drat - polystyrene peanuts!.

So on a round trip of around 400 mile I have just re-recorded the one word, TIME, time, time…. Time and time again. The least-worse rendition has been plucked from the iPad, and sent via Dropbox to a whiz recording engineer in Detroit. He, I am told, will plop the word seamlessly into the rest of my line. The results will be amazing. You might even imagine that Occasional could sing.

Hmmm. Just don’t ever ask me to do it live.


Anonymous said...

This information about the history of recorded sound is new to me, so thank you for sharing your ruminations.

Amy Goddard said...

I am currently recording some songs by a favourite artist and have managed to enlist the help of one of his original band members. I’m in the UK and he’s in California. We’ve never met and probably never will. The wonders of modern recording techniques!

Post a Comment