Other Places: Studios And Sound

In their list of priorities, most serious listeners put music’s content before the quality of its sound. In one of our listening sessions at my house, I apologized to Paul Desmond for the scratchy surface of the old vinyl LP I was playing for him. “I don’t care if it’s recorded on cellophane strips,” he said, “as long as I can hear what everybody’s doing.” Nonetheless, Desmond’s own playback equipment was state of the art. He preferred first-class audio.
ericfelten.jpgThe Desmond episode came to mind as I read Eric Felten’s Wall Street Journal “De Gustibus” column about the importance of studios to the enjoyment of recorded music. Felten used as his point of departure the report that EMI may sell its Abbey Road Studios. Musicians venerate Abbey Road for the sound quality of recordings made there not only by the Beatles, Radio Head, Duran Duran and dozens of other pop performers but also by classical artists. Sir John Barbirolli conducted the premiere performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 at Abbey Road. French Horn virtuoso Dennis Brain recorded the Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds there.
Now, any 18-year-old tenor saxophonist with a computer and a bedroom can be a record company. Felten argues that the loss of the great studios to digital wizardry has resulted in homogenization and a leveling of individuality in recorded sound.

The digital-recording revolution has allowed producers armed with laptops and a few padded rooms in a basement to forgo the expensive environs of the traditional recording hall. Yet this comes at a cost.

Felten singles out the lamented Columbia 30th Street Studio as an example of what we have lost.

The airiness of classic ’50s jazz owed much to the acoustic properties of an old Armenian church in Manhattan converted by Columbia Records into its 30th Street Studio.
Miles Davis’s masterpiece, Kind of Blue, was recorded at 30th Street, and so too, just a couple of months later, was Dave Brubeck’s album Time Out. David Simons, in his book Studio Stories, suggests that the success of those two records owed something to how they sounded, something that wasn’t just a function of the quality of the recording equipment. There was the sympathetic resonance of the studio’s unvarnished wood floor and the distant reverberations reflected by its towering ecclesiastic architecture: “To hear 30th Street is to hear drummer Joe Morello’s snare and kick-drum shots echoing off the 100-foot ceiling during the percussion break in Dave Brubeck’s great ‘Take Five.'”

Davis Evans 30th.jpg
Much of the intimacy and warmth of Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah-Um (another masterpiece from 1959) and many of Thelonious Monk’s Columbia records also came from the unique properties of the 30th Street Studio. The same can be said of how RCA’s Studios A and B benefited recordings like Mingus’s Tijuana Moods, Desmond’s quartet albums with Jim Hall and the Juilliard String Quartet’s recordings of Debussy, Ravel and Webern. You don’t get that kind of sound with a laptop in your bass player’s rec room.
To read all of Felten’s thought-provoking column, including his reflections on the dread Auto-Tune, go here.

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  1. David Evans says

    A few years ago, I played on a recording for the French pop singer Dany Brillant, recorded at Piety Street Studio in New Orleans. Piety can do it the old way…big room, high ceilings, lots of wood and even glass windows up high and pressed tin ceilings. He talks about how sound “loads” in his room. Beautiful old ribbon mics.
    The only modern thing we did was track the big band and the 30-piece string orchestra on different days, using the same big room. The rough mix sounded like an old Capitol side for Sinatra…They lost a little bit of that sonic magic when they took it back to Paris and mastered it to more modern tastes. But, it’s still a very good sounding CD.
    “Histoire D’un Amour” on Sony/BMG, 2007. Great arrangements by Matt Lemmler, fantastic band.
    (Mr. Evans is a tenor saxophonist from New Orleans who lives in Portland, Oregon. — DR)

  2. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Isn’t this very subject about studio characteristics THE very thing that made Rudy Van Gelder & all the fantastic Blue Note artists & their albums what they are today? (Or was it Hackensack itself?!) Plus Michael Cuscuna’s contemporary remastering isn’t shabby either. That airy, smoke-filled Blue Note sound & all those great photos (Gottleib?) just seem inseparable.
    (The Blue Note house photographer, one of the label’s co-founders, was Francis Wolff — DR)

  3. Jon Foley says

    Many, many of the CDs in my personal collection would rank much lower on the “personal enjoyment scale” were they not recorded in Columbia’s 30th Street studio. Anyone with adequate hearing should be able to appreciate its sonic qualities.
    Recording environments DO make a difference.
    I hope someday someone here brings up the subject of “close miking.” Many people say, “It brings out detail”; Oh, you mean like the sound of piano strings being struck, pedals being depressed, squeaky guitar strings being fingered? If you were allowed to, would you put your head into the piano at a Bill Charlap performance? No? Me, neither – so why are microphones stuck inside the piano instead of being hung some distance away – like human ears?

  4. Dave Bernard says

    I must insist beyond studio quality, that the sound of Mr. Morellos’ drums were the Ludwig sound. Most of the hard bop drummers were using the boomy sounding Gretsch at the time. Without getting into who’s better, the Rich vs Roach Lp demonstrates how Roach’s big, rumbly sound sacrificed the crisp technique you hear with Rich’s drums. Morellos’ Ludwig drums sounded beautiful live, and in non-CBS recordings.

  5. says

    I do agree with the basic premise of this article although, one needs to consider the realities of budget. Most jazz musicians do not have record label support. The technology has made it possible for players who do have a musical vision, to capture some of that on to a recorded format. In my opinion, it’s more important to hear the developments of a generation than it is to always have pristine sound. Ideally it would be best to capture both. And If those historic Blue Note sides were recorded elsewhere, I would gladly listen to them with great pleasure because of content. To say they or “Kind Of Blue” owe any of their success to the studio, seems a bit myopic. It’s what was being played that completely defined an era of music. Sure good sound on any record is a bonus but let’s not place it in the same realm as the quality of a performance. And besides, it’s mostly in the mix, a bad mix is what ruins most records.

  6. Bruce Armstrong says

    The article brings back some nice memories. In 1969, while in the USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) Band, we spent a week in NYC doing local school concerts, marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and doing various armed forces-related recordings. The recording work was all done at the 30th Street Studio. Recording at 30th Street was a real thrill to most of us because we knew who had recorded previously in that hallowed structure. Just having the opportunity to talk with some of the engineers about some of the sessions they had been on was like a “living jazz history” lesson. One of the selections we did was an arrangement of mine for voices and instrumental ensemble. They made a reel-to-reel copy for me off the master right in the booth. Whenever I played it for someone I always made sure to comment that it had been recorded at 30th Street!

  7. Dick McGarvin says

    After reading your blog and Eric Felten’s WSJ column on the subject, the word ‘Maybeck’ comes to mind.
    (Mr. McGarvin’s enigmatic comment refers to the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley, California, where Concord recorded more than 40 albums by solo pianists and duos. Many of the CDs are on display at the following address:
    For a history of the Maybeck Studio, go here:
    http://www.handprintseries.com/maybeck.html — DR)

  8. says

    It’s been my experience that all phases of a project are important. First and foremost is that you have top end microphones. Without that, everything else is pointless. It’s preferable to record in a professional studio for a number of reasons. The room is de-tuned, no standing wave, no parallel surfaces. It’s essential to get clean, hot tracks. The mix is the fun part because you can manipulate the sound. a bad mix can ruin a good recording. Finally, mastering can also make or break a product. I absolutely hate some of those Blue Note recordings they re-mastered. They just ruined many of them. It’s as if someone just turned on the machine with the standard presets and then went out for a cup of coffee.
    Fact is, all of these aspects are essential and if one goes south, it’s over. There was a CD recently produced in Kansas City by some friends of mine. Great playing and songs, but a horrid mix. It’s just awful and such a shame. Those kids didn’t know any better. There are some excellent recordings that were made in someone’s basement or living room. In these cases, the expertise of the engineer made that difference. And, many of the recordings we refer to as “classic” were recorded badly and sound horrible today.
    Good equipment is cheap and everyone has it, which does not always translate into a good recording. In the end, it boils down to the ears of the engineer, producer and musicians. That has never changed. Sometimes it just boils down to personal taste.
    (Mr. Kessler is a trumpeter, bandleader and teacher in Kansas City, Missouri. — DR)

  9. says

    Much of the music from my collection would have a lower level to enjoy it.
    Not recorded in the studio of Columbia 30th Street.
    Anyone with a proper hearing should be able to appreciate its qualities