How a Record Is Made

Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Davy Jones
Info The Monkees, no longer satisfied with being only cute personalities, are learning to use the resources of the recording studio.

Now, for the first time, in the second part of an exclusive three-part series, HULLABALOO takes you into the fascinating and fabulous world of record production. Come with us and meet the Beatles, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, the Monkees, and many more, as we tell you all about

How a record is made: or how a song goes from the recording studio and mixing rooms right to the top of the charts via that dollar in your hand! Part II

Anyone who has ever tried to make a record in a recording studio knows of the sheer terror that clasps cold hands around the artist’s heart as he tries to create there—create amidst a jungle of microphone set-ups, floor wires, headphones, all the debris of the studio session. It’s not easy. You start to get into a song and feel it only to find that an engineer has goofed and it’s not coming out on the tape right, or that somebody knocked over an ashtray and that sound is on the tape, or that you’ve gone on too long and a change of reels is necessary.

All this plus the fact that you are naturally nervous sitting out there like a bug under glass, all surrounded by strange electrical equipment. It’s not easy to be spontaneous and relaxed and to do the song right when you are expected to keep your head so many inches from the microphone, not explode your p’s, and stop and start precisely on cue, like a robot. Also, there is no audience, no human warmth, only an empty and cold room and technicians, the latter listening with incredibly critical ears not to what you’re doing creatively but to what you’re doing wrong! And whenever the slightest mistake crops up, it’s “Do it over! Do it over!”

Exaggerated? Yes, but not by much. Recording in a studio is incredibly hard work and the sound achieved there is not often a natural or a “live” sound. That is, your group is going to sound different in a studio, especially with the new eight-track recording techniques now favored by most record companies. (West Coast groups like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane have had difficulties during recording sessions precisely because they favor a warm, almost evangelistic “live” sound to the more perfect, sometimes less soulful studio sound.)

Yet, rosk [sic] in 1967, unlike the rock of three or four years ago, has gone completely into the studio and become dominated by it (the Beatles have given up concerts because they cannot re-create the sounds they make in the studio on machines in their in-person appearances). Because of advances in recording techniques, a whole new philosophy has become dominant in the reproduction of popular music. Many groups (the Doors, for one) who used to dislike studio work now use the recording studio as a fifth instrument and consider it and its various electronic aids as both a challenge and the most creative and versatile tool at their command. This is the essence of the new philosophy. Today, the engineer and the producer are required to be members of a creative group team (not only the musicians do the creating), and one does not merely document a group on tape, but the group creates on tape, using the complex studio soundboards as a multi-layered palette. (A new group called the Clear Light used the sound of bottles breaking for one of their songs. The producer, Paul Rothchild, spent hours getting the sound of the breaking glass the way he wanted it, finally, through some electronic magic, electrifying the bottles so that the sound fairly shimmered off the record!)

Let us take a moment to explain briefly the eight-track recording system by which most groups are recorded these days. Eight tracks mean eight different spaces on which to record on a single tape and tape machine: eight things can be placed on a single tape through eight different microphones (understand, however, that one does not record the eight tracks simultaneously) and the sounds will remain separate and not bleed together. What does this mean?

Well, say you have a group with bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and vocals. This group is going to record the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” You’d think that the musicians would all play the song and the singer sing it at the same time, right? Wrong. Using the eight-track method, the rhythm section would lay down its tracks first, with no vocal or lead guitar work whatsoever. So, tracks one, two, and three would be used for bass, drums, and rhythm guitar, respectively, each instrument having a separate track all to itself, thus assuring needle-sharp fidelity and correct tonal quality. Then, the lead guitarist, listening to all three of the rhythm tracks on earphones, will lay down his solos on track four. Followed by the vocalist, listening to all four tracks on earphones.

There are still three tracks left, you say. But say the lead guitarist wants to add some more runs to complement some of the singer’s tricks. He dons the earphones once again and uses the sixth track. Then, the singer wants to sing along with himself during certain lines of the song. He can use track seven. If the whole thing sounds a little thin, some brass can be added on track eight to give body. (Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” came to Capitol with only voice and guitar. All of the orchestration was added later via the eight-track method. Neither Miss Gentry nor her guitar were required to be in the studio when this was done.)

After the eight tracks are all recorded, they are mixed. That is, the correct sound level is reached on all of them to create a pleasing blend and they are all played together to create the full sound of the song. This, too, can take weeks (the Beatles used four months to make Sgt. Pepper). But after the mixing is done, the record is made.


Magazine: Hullabaloo
Editor: Bruce A. Gedman
Volume: 3
Issue: 1
Publisher: YAM Publications, Inc.
Pages: 48–49