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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. www.artandscienceofsound.teachable.com (musicians playing together),
OUT OF THIS WORLD
 
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 www.artandscienceofsound.com/assr-online 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. 


 
BEATLE (INSPIRED) MANIA
Get a suite of amazing products from ASSR normally priced at $338 for just $129!


 

It’s been A Hard Spring’s Year, to twist Ringo Starr’s comment-turned-song- album-movie A Hard Day’s Night by the Fab Four more than 50 years ago.

The Beatles inspired a generation back then and their legacy continues to inspire music and musicians to this day.

London’s Abbey Road studios, The Fabs’ spiritual home and crucible for almost all of their recorded work, was both home and home school to Alan Parsons. Alan went to work at the studio as a lowly tape op on what would become the albums Abbey Road and Let It Be and emerged a decade later having engineered Dark Side Of The Moon and produced a string of hits for countless artists including himself as The Alan Parsons Project.

Talk about an inspiration.

So this month, to give you something to watch, do, read, enjoy and work with, we’ve put together a media mix of Abbey Road related goodies and slashed its price by over 60%!

First, the watching and learning…

Downloadable Videos

In 2015, we spent two weeks at Abbey Road hosting a pair of recording sessions and master classes produced by Alan Parsons in Studio 3. Everything was filmed and we subsequently released two lengthy Video On Demand videos that give you immersive, blow-by-blow insight into an Alan Parsons recording session. If you want to know how a professional recording session is conducted—what happens when, who does what, how long should you spend on…? This is how to find out. These are unapologetically lengthy videos that don’t gloss over any aspects of a session so, perfect things to watch when you have a bit of time on your hands.

Abbey Road Video On Demand Session 1 (8 hrs 46 mins)

Abbey Road Video On Demand Session 2 (9 hrs 37 mins)



Now the doing…

Raw Multitracks

Load the actual raw session files from these two Abbey Road sessions into ProTools® direct (or load the raw wave files into any other DAW) and get to work! The two artists at the above sessions were Edward, an interesting folky / rocky band from Sweden led by singer, writer and pianist Johan Lagerstrom Pollack and Fish On Friday, a prog rock institution in their homeland of Belgium. At the session the band was augmented by bass monster Nick Beggs and British prog rock stalwart John Mitchell on guitar.

These two premium “Session Files” not only let you climb inside an Alan Parsons session but also into the ’sound‘ of Abbey Road and comprise the folder of 88.2kHz wave files, .ptx file, full track sheet with instrumentation, microphones used and session notes and photos from the session.

Getting behind the wheel on sessions like these you’ll find is a highly educational and also exhilarating experience.

Session File Dogs by Edward Session File The World’s A Stage by Fish On Friday

Some light and enjoyable reading…

the BookBook

If the downloadable videos and raw multitracks give you a bird's eye view into how Abbey Road looks and sounds today, Kenneth Womack’s brilliant book Solid State, The Story Of Abbey Road And The End Of The Beatles transports you back to the 1970s where their time making Beatles music was coming to an end but their legacy and enduring influence began to take shape and take off.

With a foreword by Alan Parsons, who was there working with The Beatles at the time, Womack captures the tone and tenor of the era like you’re in the room, as the world’s most captivating recording artists' conjoined careers come to a close. The total price for all of these is a worthy $338.64.

 
But for a limited time only were taking out the machete and offering this ASSR

BEATLE (INSPIRED) MANIA
package at just $129.00!

   


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Dateline: April 28 2020
The magic of video that the public sees when a band ‘big’ or other, or cast of thousands of singers appear to performing together at the same time over the internet is of course just that. You can’t have multiple performances over the internet in real time, in sync.

There’s a variety of ways to seem to be achieving this feat and last weekend Alan Parsons and recent MCTS vocal star David Pack delivered a beautiful performance of The Beatles' Tell Me What You See for the Los Angeles Mayor’s Fund to assist those on the front line in the fight against against Covid-19.

David took the lead on this and simply recorded (on video and audio in ProTools) his part, which he then sent to Alan as two tracks of audio (vocal and guitar) with his accompanying iPhone video. With his trusty engineer Noah Bruskin safely in his own home in Santa Barbara, driving Alan’s ProTools session remotely using TeamViewer (’a bit slow and fuzzy so Noah couldn’t work at his usual lightning fast pace,” says Alan), Alan then miked up his own voice and acoustic guitar and played along to David’s track. They didn’t use a click, just a count-in as you can hear on the broadcast.

A sprinkling of reverb on the vocals and that was about it, a quick balance, and that was about it. David didn’t hear or see Alan until Alan had recorded his part.

Even once the current health/isolation crisis is over no one is going to forget this in a hurry nor figure that it can’t happen again. But even though we won’t be able change the laws of physics, we will get better at these domesticated concerts. Whether it’s Paul McCartney in his kitchen (does he really keep a Rhodes in there?), Elton John in his shrubbery, or Eddie Vedder on his harmonium ’somewhere,’ this might not become the new norm exactly but it will become commonplace and we will - and dare I say need to - get better at it.

We’ll be offering more thoughts on options, equipment and more in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.