Classic Recording, Part 2

Julian Colbeck’s multi-part blog on what made classic rock (and classic country, classic folk, and classic hip hop) so compelling

In Part 1 I looked at the most important part of any popular music recording: the song, whether it's a carefully constructed, multi-part composition or just a loop knocked up on an MPC.

But having got the song, then what? Music biz execs used to say they could spot a hit if you just whistled it to them. Ha! More likely they couldn’t spot a hit if you wrapped it up in gold leaf and served it to them on a bed of Peruvian Flake. The Beatles were turned down by every label in the UK except Parlophone. Foreigner couldn’t land a deal with demos that included Feels Like The First Time. Missy Elliot was dismissed by one of the many execs who initially rejected her, simply as ‘too fat’ while Ed Sheeran’s multiple song rejections were bolstered by the observation that he was also (kiss-of-death on both counts) “chubby and ginger.” And so on and so forth.

It’s not enough to simply write a good song, you need to sell it, and by that I mean serve it up on a metaphoric bed of Peruvian Flake, wrapped in gold leaf. It’s called the ‘arrangement’ and this is almost invariably best manifested, if not created, by musicians playing and interacting with each other; refereed and then honed by a producer.

Who’s On First? Bass?

Before lifelong loopers and sample scouts get all foamy at the mouth, of course you can create—though often it might be more accurate to say curate—a decent track by yourself on Ableton Live. Music has always been a potentially solo sport ever since minstrels wandered the land. But the trap that 999/1000 DIY-ers hurl themselves into is to create/curate a bunch of self-indulgent, self-deluding twaddle where a single chord or note masquerades as a song, a breakdown with an offbeat kick drum constitutes an arrangement and the gradual opening of a filter passes for a performance.

Recording all the parts yourself, à la one-man-band, doesn’t have to be bad thing. Look no further than Billie Eillish and Finneas O’Connell’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? But don't overlook the fact that the O’Connell sibs had been studying and working on songwriting and production in their bedroom studio for donkey’s years. Nor the fact that they're an extremely talented—and dedicated—team.

Ditto Paul McCartney, who recorded ‘solo’ on McCartney (1970), Todd Rundgren on Something/Anything (1972), Mike Oldfield on Tubular Bells (1973), Prince on For You and Prince (1978 / 1979) and Steve Winwood on Arc Of A Diver (1980). But for every solo recorded classic there are probably 10,000 classic recordings made collaboratively.


The Eillishs, McCartneys, Rundgrens, Oldfields, and Winwoods of this world surely have vision and talent oozing out of them. And although Billie Eillish, Prince, and McCartney (twice, on McCartney II and McCartney III,) have repeated the concept, most one-man-banders tend to limit this to one time only. Why? Because it’s incredibly hard work. You need a surplus not only of raw talent but self-belief. And also because it’s a lot more fun to play music with other people.

Nowadays you can’t necessarily tell if a recording has been created by one person alone except to say that if it sounds like everything else that’s a bit of clue. One person can use the same loops, sounds and technology as the pack but it’s pretty unlikely that four people will be able to re-create the sound of another group of interacting players. Credits might run into double figures for songwriting and production these days but the player count often has a job getting beyond two or three.

The point is that, at the outset, most recordings now deemed classic have involved multiple musicians; playing with each other, at the same time.

On The Right Track

The foundation of this type of recording is the so-named ‘tracking session,’ where at least the nucleus of the band (rhythm section plus guitar or keyboard) play and are recorded at the same time. In 2022 we saw this gloriously brought back life in Peter Jackson’s Get Back movie where The Fabs not only recorded their instruments but the whole darned kit and caboodle.

For more mortal artists, a live tracking session mainly seeks to provides the song with its basic feel through interplay. Interplay involves listening to what your fellow players are playing at any given time and either stepping out of the way (a fill played over a fill rarely works) or consciously supporting a fellow player’s catchy slide, beat or run. In turn it’s then the job of the producer to listen to and spot these interactions on each run-through of the song and yea or nay them accordingly.

These types of interaction, that are not necessarily written into an arrangement, can constitute what’s commonly referred to as the ‘magic of the studio,’ in other words things that happen organically as opposed to bring pre-planned. Magic it may be but it’s not fairy dust sprinkled over the players as they entered the live room. It can be as innocuous as the bass player forgetting where they were in the song and playing E instead of C or the drummer accidentally continuing the fill for an extra beat.

Feel—magically enhanced or not—is something that happens when musicians play together, listen to each other, and then react as a unit. With all the pitch and timing correction in the world it’s extremely hard to ‘dial in’ feel by numbers. Maybe not quite in the league of monkeys’ problem with creating the complete works of Shakespeare simply by staring at a typewriter, but the magic of the studio is much less likely to strike if it’s just you staring at a computer screen.

Dark Side Of The Moon engineer Alan Parsons is adamant that this iconic record would not have turned out as it did if Messes Waters, Gilmore, Wright and Mason had not been playing together, live, in #3 Abbey Road on the initial tracking sessions. Much as this landmark record still sounds immaculate—and with great seeming separation between the various instruments—what you’re hearing is skillful writing, arranging, playing and recording.

Most of us do not have Abbey Road # 3 to play in, Waters, Gilmore, Wright or Mason to play with or Alan Parsons to play to. ‘Spill’ (where the sound of one instrument is non-intentionally picked up on the recording of another) may not be a deal-breaker but it’s still rarely desirable. A tracking session should ideally try to preserve as much separation as reasonably possible so that if you do need to replace a part, or a section, you won’t suddenly have a problem where a new part is dramatically different in sound to the one you’re replacing or that the ghost of the original won’t be heard as spill on other instrument mics.

Spill can be minimized by baffles, by the positioning of the microphones, or lack thereof: Try recording as many instruments as you can ‘direct’ i.e. not using a mic at all. Also by volume, or lack thereof. Easier said than done if you have an acoustic drum kit and drummer whirring away beside you but something to bear in mind. Ditto issues of a tracking session where acoustic drums and acoustic piano are being recorded simultaneously. Strangely, and within reason, you can often get more usable results by placing these instruments relatively close, and covering the piano/mics with heavy blankets. If two sound sources are, say, at opposite ends of the studio, you may well run into problems of timing, i.e. the spill being delayed and therefore much more noticeable.

There’s always a solution. The big thing is simply to give a live tracking session a try. Even if you’ve got a song pretty well dialed on Logic or ProTools or Ableton Live with yourself being all things to all players, try assembling a small coterie of players in a room and record the song—at least its most elemental parts, drums, bass, a guitar, and a keyboard pad—live. If you must ‘correct’ or fly in some repairs that’s OK but make sure what you fly in doesn’t make the feel fly out. Perfection is seldom fun to listen to. People are not perfect. Musicians certainly aren’t. Music shouldn’t be.

Character Assassination

The final and obviously vital piece of the live tracking session puzzle—and really one should say beauty—is the player.

Today, when not only sounds but loops are but a click away on Splice, the character or skills of any particular bass player, drummer or guitarist have seemingly become moot.

Looking back at some early classic rock classic recordings it’s ludicrous to imagine drummer Mick Fleetwood playing with any other bass player than John McVie on Rumours. Or Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris with Iron Maiden, Sly and Robbie, Chad Smith and Flea…

It’s easier for members of a band to be simpatico since being simpatico has presumably led them into being in a band together in the first place.

Instant simpatico is one of the great but rarely recognized skills of the professional session player.

Great session players manage, simultaneously, to have a chameleon-like ability to fit in with what and whomever else they are playing with AND still bring their own energy and character to the session. Think of bassists like Tony Levin or Carol Kaye, guitarists like Tim Pierce or Greg Leisz, keyboardists like Rami Jaffee or Greg Phillinganes, or the king of keyboard sessions, Paul Griffin.

Skills vary. Styles vary. But most recordings, almost regardless of style except, say jazz or progressive rock, tend to benefit from simple parts even if simple sounding is not necessarily simple to play.

Sound Judgment

Aside from the sameness of the notes or beats, the other dismal aspect of using pre-digested loops over live players is sameness of sound.

Classic records frequently have at least one distinctive sounding part – a guitar riff, a bass, a keyboard hook. In this respect modern recording tools offer no excuses whatsoever as even most pre-teen’s rig is riddled with VSTs bursting not only with presets but tools to twist and turn any sound into anything else.

But sound is not only the texture and tone of synth line or an effect on a guitar, it’s also natural characteristics: drums that ring sympathetically with neighboring drums, the squeak and thud of a piano pedal, string squeak on an acoustic guitar. Sometimes these can be annoying but sometimes they can enhance the rhythm or overall sound and be a vital component in the recording. The trick is not to automatically surgically remove artifacts before checking that you’re not surgically removing character as well.

Classic recordings are riddled with attempts to overcome or disguise a technological limitation when the recording was made. Or not. Surely Phil Spector could have captured a better sounding grand piano than what was used on John Lennon’s Imagine, which frankly sounds like it was recorded on cellotape. But it works. It’s distinctive, it’s non-pretentious. It was the right call.

Finally there’s the sound and sound limitations of the recording medium. Between 1950-1990 recording technology was exclusively analog tape based. From the 1960s the amount of linear ‘tracks’ that could be delineated on piece of tape went from 2 to 4 to 16, finally settling on 24 before digital re-wrote the whole chapter.

As an analog medium there is and was a certain amount of coloration – in part due to engineers exceeding recommended record levels, known as tape saturation, but in part just the limitations of the highs and lows that tape could either capture or reproduce, certainly on vinyl. At the time these limitations were universally felt to be a bad thing but, curiously, limitations also have the effect of making a record feel warmer, more cohesive, more human even.

The ugly step sibling of this was the limited number of tracks available to record individual parts on. Famously, if incredibly, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a 4-track tape machine. Dark Side Of The Moon on 16-track.

Although The Beatles could—and did—utilize several 4-track tape machines and bounce tracks together, this was still a cumbersome and restrictive process.

Or was it?

There’s a school of thought that says a degree of pain and suffering is a necessary part of the artistic process. Vital even. A limitation is rarely an insurmountable obstacle, it’s just a problem to solve or find a workaround and in that quest great art can often get produced.

So how does a producer working in 2023 on a digital audio workstation offering unlimited tracks (much less without the surprisingly useful period of tape ‘re-winding,’ which gives everyone’s ears and brains a break), unlimited sounds, unlimited undo and unlimited editing capability back themselves into a technological corner and force themselves into finding creative solutions? Hard to de-invent, but what you can do is stay on top of—and use—the technology and not become a slave to it. Jack White is a great proponent of self-imposed deadlines or self-restricting practices.

We’ll look at the subject of ‘perfection’ and whether we can actually handle the truth, in Part 3.
Living In Synths

Synthplex 2022: an LA expo of bleeps, bloops, wit and wisdom

Synth freaks come in many shapes and sizes. There’s your ‘muff wiggling’ modular and Euro Rack types (those who followed the forum MuffWiggler, now renamed, in more woke but less fun fashion ModWiggler), you have the brainy-as-all-get-out-but-often-from-another-planet ‘alternative controller’ folk, there’s people who just like old synths and are willing to increasingly pay ridiculous amounts for them on Reverb… There’s a sort of holy alliance between prog rock aficionados and synths, and finally there’s film and game composers, whose reliance on MIDI and synths, at least at the early stages of a composition and cues, make total musical and economic sense.

Factions and representatives from all these disparate groups came together Oct 27-30 in Burbank (LA’s film and TV production studio Mecca) for four days of furious knob-twiddlng—learning how to, learning about those who twiddled in the past, learning which modules to indulge said knob-twiddling on, in the exhibition halls, and finally listening to Those Who Can Twiddle on three live performance stages.

Some HIStory

Synthplex was dreamed up in 2019 by a man who straddles several of the above categories, Michael Boddicker. Boddicker found fame and fortune in the 1980s as the go-to synthesizer player and programmer for Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. In these worlds Michael is a star. (Hans Zimmer, of course, is God.)

Synthplex 2019 squeaked in just before Covid hit. It got postponed in 2020 and again in 2021. But in 2022 it appeared again.

2020’s event had been due to have another synth luminary, Jean-Michel Jarre, as keynote. This year Jean-Michel was back on the schedule and was all set to cross the pond until a family illness forced him to pull the plug at the last minute. He did, however, appear on Zoom for an entertaining hour’s tour of his studio from where he dispensed Gallic wit and wisdom to a crowd who’d obviously have preferred to The Oxygenated One at their feet but these are the times we live in: increasingly virtual, increasingly frustrating, but increasingly resigned to our fate.

That said, Synthplex itself was fantastic. If you weren’t there (and frankly if you were there I’d have seen you because attendance was sparse) you missed an absolute treat. Many of the presentations were priceless and many of the live performances worthy of regular gig ticket prices.

Prog Rules

‘Synthplex Live’ kicked off with a tribute to Keith Emerson courtesy of two solo performers Kae M Black on piano and Rachel Flowers on B3. Rachel in particular wowed the crowd with her prodigious technique, mainly rattling through Emerson’s early period with The Nice. She didn’t play Rondo, my personal favorite, but no matter, it was a joy.

Then it was over to Marc Bonilla, a guitarist/vocalist who’d actually recorded and toured with Emerson over his final years. This was a full band show, keyboard duties initially undertaken with aplomb by Jonathan Sindleman, who graciously confessed to me that your author had been an influence in his early days! Filling Keith’s boots is an extraordinary undertaking but especially on material from ELP’s most bombastically crazy period.

But even that wasn’t all, Sindleman got time off on the final three numbers (i.e. 30 minutes worth), handing over to prior Bonilla compadre Ed Roth, then Rachel Flowers, and finally Jordan Rudess for a spirited rendition of Tarkus. Rudess is a star in his own right and more about that shortly.

And this was just the appetizer on Thursday night. Friday morning and the event got going in earnest with two hall’s worth of NAMM-like booths and three breakout rooms for presentations and workshops.

Kickoff Keynote with Alan Parsons

There were way too many presentations and workshops to cover here but having seen pretty much all of them, here are the standouts:

Let’s hear it for our very own Alan Parsons! Alan talked very interestingly about his use and love of synths in his early days at Abbey Road. In particular EMS synths on Dark Side Of The Moon. He also explained how he was one of the first Fairlight owners and which sounds/samples were used on which of his iconic recordings.

Rudess Rules

Hot on Alan’s heels came Jordan Rudess, who took us through one of his “Wizdom” apps, GeoShred and new app Moises for which he’s brand ambassador.

GeoShred is simply astounding; way more musical instrument than mere iPad app, allowing you to jam with and create organic guitar lines using high level physical modeling technology developed at Stamford’s CCRMA lab.

As I’ve often said, such are Jordan’s talents he could make a stick of French bread sound tuneful but clearly this is a ‘performance’ app, on which real grown- up music can be played.

Moises, is one of several current apps or technologies that can separate out individual tracks (of music) from a (master) track stored on iTunes. Not only can it remove the vocal, but also—to maybe a lesser degree but stillimpressively—drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. It also has pitch and tempo changing, chord recognition and more besides. Jordan demonstrated it with Elton John’s Your Song: the vocal left in tact but with Elt’s piano removed and in place of which Jordan played. Weeeeel, not to be overly critical but if Elton had played it quite as busily and frillily as Jordan did, Your Song may not have been such a massive hit! Just saying. Bloody clever (ch)app though.

Children of the Greater Synth Gods

Dina Pearlman, daughter of Alan R. Pearlman of ARP fame, was just one of a significant number of sons and daughters presenting talks or material on behalf of their now-deceased techie dads. In spite of an ARP Odyssey being the first synth I bought, back in 1972, I knew almost nothing about Alan R. Pearlman, evidently because that’s the way he wanted it. Dina painted a touching image of this groundbreaking designer (great engineer; not so good at business). Check out her excellent Alan R. Pearlman Foundation at

Hail The Mighty Margouleff

Heading up Friday’s afternoon slot was IMHO the best presentation of the entire event: Robert Margouleff. Back in the 1970s, Margouleff, with his partner Malcolm Cecil, created an outlandish collection of interconnected synthesizer modules and controllers they named TONTO, or The Original New Timbral Orchestra. With Margouleff and Cecil in tow as engineers, programmers and producers, Stevie Wonder recorded Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fullfillingness’ First Finale; in the space of three years changing the landscape of popular music forever.

Margouleff’s talk could quite justifiably have been a ‘we did this and then we did that’ type of reminiscence. But it wasn’t. It was a vibrant, modern discussion of how to produce music in 2022, complete with incisive guidance on usage of Immersive Audio. In the space of an hour Robert talked more sense than has appeared on Twitter in the platform’s entire history.

Founding Furthers

Back to back, late afternoon, came a pair of founding fathers: Dave Rossum, of E-Mu Systems and Steve Porcaro of the band Toto. Brilliant talks both, though highly contrasting in style. Rossum breezed through E-Mu’s astonishingly key contribution to electronic musical products and technology and through which, music, from samplers to sample-based drum machines to multi-timbral modules, with the gusto of a kid who’d somehow been handed several winning lottery tickets. Steve Porcaro, meanwhile, offered us a hilarious and fascinating peek into the world of Hollywood super session players in the 1970s and 80s, including the extraordinary story of how his composition Human Nature came to be recorded by Michael Jackson, and how he created the iconic synth solo on Rosanna. Modest men both, they could have held court for hours.

Pioneering Spirits

Thoroughly enjoyed fellow Brit Paul Wiffen’s tell-some romp though his own illustrious career on Saturday morning. In his salad days, Wiffen had been programmer-to-the-stars; for Stevie Wonder, Keith Emerson, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and pretty much anyone who’s ever been anyone in the synth and keyboard world. J-M Jarre has been an important and influential figure in synth history and it was fascinating to be given a private tour through Jean-Michael’s warren of inner sancti at his French studio complex. Jarre, like Margouleff, seems not content to rest on his many laurels and it was great to hear his thoughts on modern synth technology and recording immersively.

Vintage synthesist Patrick Gleeson, with super smart sidekick KamranV (Quark, an app that lets you work in Quad via two channel distribution) showed and talked about composing in Quad (for Gleeson’s FOUREVER, quadraphonic vinyl release), which was intriguing in our new all-embracing ‘immersive’ (i.e. adding a height channel) world.

Composers and Movies On (and In) Demand

Also really enjoyed star British Hollywood composer John Powell’s inside scoop on writing movie cues for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. The level and depth of thought that goes into every beat and sample of a modern movie score goes some way to explaining the modern movie budget I guess. Mind-expanding stuff from a high-class composer.

Mind blowing, in a somewhat different sense, on the live sound stage was fabled horror and action thriller movie composer Alan Howarth played some of his landmark compositions (co-written with John Carpenter—Halloween sequels, The Thing) live to synchronized movie clips.

A similar(ish) live rendition of movie music came on Sunday night with the self- declared absurdist composer Ego Plum and two accomplices playing ambient- style selections of music from cartoon music king Raymond Scott (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies). Hypnotic and strangely moving. Raymond Scott’s son, Jeff Winner, had a booth in the Synthplex exhibit space showcasing his father’s work…alongside Michelle Moog-Koussa’s for her dad’s (Bob Moog) Foundation. Sunday offered many delights but especially Devo’s Gerald V. Casale who showed several disturbing new Devo-eque videos and expounded eloquently on the relationship between music, video, politics and philosophy. Prior to Casale’s presentation virtual choir creator Eric Whitacre treated us to some inside tracks on how he created his epic Spitfire Audio ‘Choir’ sample collection. Effervescent world renown Venezuelan-born, multi-instrumentalist and composer Pedro Eustache also dispensed some of his secrets and skills, at wind synthesis.

Erroneous Zones

The only panels and presentations that I felt somewhat missed the mark were some of the music biz or production ones, mainly because they seemed confused or just plain out of touch. A panel of music tech journalists banged on about the value of print media! A rights panel rolled out a litany of splendid protections composers and artists can now enjoy… so long as we’re not talking about our music’s distribution or dissemination on Spotify or YouTube (errm, are there any others nowadays?). Meanwhile a panel of young and seemingly hip producers began by earnestly propounding the merits of mixing in the box but closed by talking up their SSL consoles and saying how analog sounded better!

Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler!

If life is, actually, better outside the box and in the real world then there was no better way to bring Synthplex to a close than by boogie-ing on down with the inestimable Ellis Hall and his dexterous crew. Ellis Hall is a one-man good-time machine, a blind vocalist / keyboardist in the school (and league) of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. After four days of bleeping and blooping (sometimes interesting bleeps and bloops of course) it was still a welcome release to hear good old old-fashioned funk and groove and—whoa there, Triigger—chord changes!

Actually the final, final act of the event was cool young Frenchman Hugo Paris, who, in spite of being an accomplished bleeper and blooper himself on his Eurorack, also threw down infectious beats you could dance to plus had the nerve to impose actual, distinguishable chords on top of his sliken-textured soundscapes.

I predict a big future for this LA-French import. Hoping the same for Synthplex too. If it comes around again in 2023 you’ve got to come, OK?
Classic Recording
By Julian Colbeck

Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill from her 1985 album Hounds Of Love has been scampering up them charts in 2022 thanks to it featuring as the soundtrack to the crucial scene of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Let’s see, #1 on Spotify and iTunes, #1 in the UK, Top 10 in the US and counting… all after first ascending the (lower) echelons of International Chartdom 37 years ago. Is that some kind record, you ask? Indeed it is, in both senses.

Kate Bush was already a class act when David Gilmour discovered her at the age 16. Gilmour brokered her a record contract with EMI three years later, with a couple of Alan Parsons Projectiles in tow—arranger Andrew Powell and drummer Stewart Elliot. And Running Up That Hill is, with that impossibly catchy sixth interval in the melody of the song’s refrain, the impossibly catchy Fairlight sample, the brilliantly seamless transition from section to section, the lyrics, its uniquely weird and watery mix… a Classic Recording.

Can classic recordings be defined? Are they a thing? Can you learn classic recording? Absolutely. And classic recordings aren’t just ‘old’ recordings, on tape. Many old tape recordings should be consigned to a box in the garage for the 50+ brigade. Old does not equal good. Old is simply old. Good is good.

Classic Rock and The Foundations of Classic Recording

Classic recordings have no bigger standard bearers than classic rock records. With its beginnings in the late sixties sparked by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks, and The Doors, the seventies and eighties was classic rock’s defining period: Floyd, Queen, Supertramp, ELP, Yes, Genesis, Bad Company, The Alan Parsons Project, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac and on and on. Artists sold records by the truckload and thank the lord they did because recording studios like the Record Plant, Abbey Road, Trident and The Village were notoriously difficult to get into and charged colossal fees. $1000 a day was perfectly reasonable. And this was a time that bands could spend months in the studio. Do the math.

Classic recordings are not, however, exclusively reserved for rock. Nor are classic recordings about sound, per se. Almost everything The Beatles recorded is a classic recording and they embraced everything from avante garde, like Strawberry Fields or A Day In The Life, to music hall, to folk and folksy, to pure pop.

So if classic recording is not about a genre, or a medium, what is it? As much as anything else classic recording is about an approach; an approach forged in large and expensive recording studios and, for the most part but only because it was the only game in town, recorded on analog tape and initially released on vinyl record.

Approaches cover a multitude of practices open to musicians who had the time and money (thanks to a friendly—I use this word in its loosest possible sense—manager or record label) to indulge their passion in terms of developing a unique voice, developing songwriting skills, experimentation with sounds, and general creativity from the first twang of a bass guitar on a tracking session to the final twiddle of a knob on a mix.

The first band I was in that got signed (to Charisma Records) was run by one Tony Stratton-Smith, a large ebullient and emotional chap who’d signed Genesis and was devoted to them, to horse racing, and to Bristol motor cars in equal measure. Oh, OK, maybe it was four-way: to heavy drinking: in The Ship, a pub on Wardour Street, the Marquee club, also on Wardour Street, and the Speakeasy club a few miles away, every night. Literally, every night.

‘Strat’, as he was universally known, was Indulger In Chief or Benevolent Benefactor if you wanted to be more charitable. If a young band needed three months on a farm in Devon to find its voice he’d pay for it. The motto of all this was that my band, while never becoming particularly successful, did at least begin to find its voice. Moreover it instilled in all its members a creative code that underpinned our every move, summed up by our favorite saying: “If you’ve heard it before, DON’T PLAY IT!” Clearly, Yes, Genesis and the entire prog rock movement sang their own tune to this hymn sheet, as also did so many straight rock or pop artists of the time. The point was ‘not’ to sound like everyone else. The point was to sound like you.

A Digital Divide

Modern digital recording technology has cut the cost making a record by almost 100%. Check. Democratization is generally a good thing. Digital generation and digital distribution have also democratized talent, which is still a good thing if you believe that cream generally floats to the surface. If the pool of music you’re currently floating on is now the size of the Pacific Ocean as opposed to Pacific Pond down at your local park, that’s OK too. Everyone should be able to have a go. But the whole approach to recording was the baby digital threw out with 9/10 th of the bathwater, along with its cousin, the whole recording process.

Many people look and listen with misty eyes and envious ears to tracks like Queen and Bowie’s Under Pressure, or Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, or even such outliers as Don MacLean’s American Pie and feel that ‘they simply don’t make records like that anymore, as if there’s something in the digital medium or some algorithm in the wretched Daniel Eck’s Spotify that prevents great ‘classic recordings’ from being made.

Rubbish. There are plenty of great artists alive and well in 2022. Never mind the stellarly successful Billie Eilish and her bro Finneas, let’s also hear it for Sunny War, Shaina Shepherd, Britain’s Wet Leg and others whose status is anything but quo. What’s stopping more new classic recordings from being made is the almost wholesale triumph of marketing over content, and the tools and technology over time and the development of talent.

To better assess if, and if so how, classic recordings can be re-imagined we need to look at the constituent parts that make up a classic recording.

Let’s start with the song.

Going For A Song

Before there was any form of recording device a composer would ‘hear’ a melody or harmony in his or her head and then hastily scribble it down on manuscript paper or, if reasonably successful, bark at some lackey to do that for him/her. By the twentieth century, composers like Hoagy Carmichael were already just composing by ear and using recording technology and professional arrangers to establish and preserve their compositions for posterity. The likes of Carmichael and Irving Berlin (reportedly not only unable to read a lick of music but also unable to play an instrument except in a most basic fashion—he could only play the piano in the key of F#)—gave way to pop and rock songwriters for which the list who can’t write music on a stave is an order of magnitude greater than those who can.

But songwriting is not about notation or even transcription. Hoagy Carmichael once observed, as many have done since, that he didn’t so much ‘write’ his melodies as ‘find’ them. But the point is, he did find them and sometimes that process could take weeks.

On the face of it, digital recording media has done songwriting a giant favor because, again, seemingly, anyone can do it and can do it fast. To help us we have loops, samples, quantization, pitch correct, and now, should we want to get even lazier, we have the specter of AI. The thought of AI writing our songs for us is not so much terrifying but utterly pointless, except for the Daniel Ecks of this world who can then ‘legitimately’ not pay royalties to musicians and songwriters.

Songwriting is the manifestation of one or, increasingly, nowadays, for reasons I’ve yet to fathom thirty people’s creative musical or lyrical ideas. So, can a computer or an AI algorithm write a song? Duh! Of course they can. Point is, so what? It’s you, and your 29 friends, who will lose one of life’s most magical activities if you lose the ability to write a song.

The problem with digital technology, in terms of songwriting, is that it’s all too easy to skip over the actual songwriting bit and go straight onto, oh I don’t know, arrangement, production, mixing, mastering, marketing: straight onto YouTube or TikTok. If there’s one single reason why so much of today’s music seems so samey and sterile it’s because in place of a song there’s just an idea, or a loop, or a sample that gets repeated over and over, seemingly unchangingly, for 3m 30 secs.

Dare To Be Different

Try this: once a sound, or word, or phrase, or a beat gets those ‘I feel a song coming on’ juices flowing, DO NOT go straight into record on your DAW and start looping and adding more parts and playing with reverb plug-ins… in fact UNPLUG, and see if you can develop the idea further on your instrument. If your instrument is your voice, that’s OK too. Just sing, or rap, or experiment and record what you’re doing on your iPhone. Build a framework where you’re doing the work and not the computer and the music will come. It may take longer (though it could actually be quicker) but almost certainly it’ll be a better song.

In subsequent parts I’ll be be looking at the power and potential of live tracking sessions (musicians playing together), sounds, the concept of practice and how that relates to recording, mixing and much more.

Meantime, if you want to get a head's start on how to develop your classic recording skills, look no further than the Fundamentals of Recording & Music Production course, where Alan Parsons--he of countless classic recordings fame, starting with Dark Side Of The Moon--takes you step by step through all the twists and turns of this hopefully not dying art. (musicians playing together),
The dawn of a new era with audio recordings from Mars: Are You Prepared?

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The phrase Spatial Audio takes on new meaning this week as audio recordings are starting to be released from Perseversance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem as it begins its search for life on Mars.

Music has long been used to express and give emotional support to our fascination with space, from Holtz’s The Planet Suite to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, to Bowie’s Life On Mars – recorded exactly fifty years ago, with its many now-uncomfortably precient lyrical references.

Congratulations to DPA microphones for supplying the 4006 Omni mics (we’re not sure if this was the system that captured with first Martian wind, but it’ll surely come into play at some stage if Perseverance’s lead engineer at JPL, Dave Gruel (truly) has anything to say about it.

Low Resonance
We wonder if Perseverance’s ‘ears’ will be able to detect any Martian Schumann Resonances or indeed detect planet Earth’s 7.83Hz monster sub-bass tone but such matters continue to fascinate ASSR’s Alan Parsons, who played his space-sounds-focused One Note Symphony at NASA’s 50th Anniversary Apollo 11 mission back in 2019 at Cocoa FL back in 2019, supported by Neil Armstrong’s son Rick Armstrong and his prog rock outfit Edison’s Children. You can’t make this stuff up! 


Don’t miss the ASSR-Online Recording Course FREE Trial!

And speaking of not making stuff up, how is your knowledge of audio? No, seriously. Wouldn’t you like to feel confident about technical terms, processes, how to use pre-delay and the best way to record a kick drum…?

Well you can.

Enroll in ASSR’s online recording course and be prepared to turbocharge your knowledge of recording. With a renewed level of interest in all things audio you’ll thank your lucky stars you did.

The value might be Sun and Moon but the cost is absolutely down to earth. ASSR-Online is simply the best value course of its kind on the planet (or any other, so far as we know–but that could change!). Not only does it come with 26 lesson modules to get you up-to-warp-speed with acoustics, consoles, microphones, EQ, compression, delays and reverbs and more, there’s a ton of music multitracks to download and play with, quizzes to take, private forums to surf and post on, and much more.

And if you’re still skeptical, enlist in the FREE Trial where you can browse and take the entire first lesson module.

Alan Parsons in a world of his own from ASSR-Online’s video lesson module on Computers & Digital Audio.