Ran across a picture of one of my old recording studios the other day… and it hit me how dramatically different it is now from say, thirty three years ago.
That’s when this picture was taken. That’s Dillon and me, in my office at Doppler. There, in 1987. Looking at the equipment in my office, we see two small, almost useless computers of the 4-track variety, a Commodore 64 (remember those?) and another portable, neither being able to record anything but a synthesizer. The analog to digital audio age didn’t even begin for practical purposes until 1993, when the first affordable multitrack recorder hit the consumer market. The ADAT format was born… an 8-channel system which used S-VHS tapes. Sometime In ’93, Tascam launched a digital 8-track recorder, using Hi-8mm video tapes. Naturally, we all got at least one.
See, you home studio computer guys of today probably don’t know what we had to do to record live audio for all those years before digital finally came into being. Sound recording began for practical purposes in 1925. Since I wasn’t born ’til 1943, I’ll be dealing with the second half of the 20th century.
Low Tech, High Hopes
I worked for a recording studio outside of Boston for two years, ’69 to ’71. While there I learned the basics of audio recording and a whole lot more. After moving to Atlanta in the Spring of ’72, I was invited to move my electric piano and a few small items into Sandy Fuller’s basement, in North Atlanta.
Sandy’s studio looked just like this one, an old studio in Memphis. That’s Don Montana in the booth – a terrific Blues drummer in the Seattle area!
Sandy had an old 4-track radio console, with rotary faders and four huge VU meters. He mixed to a 2-track Crown… it was rough, but it worked. Sandy and I worked together out of his basement for a year or so, until I was able to finally save enough money to buy the bare necessities to start my own place. Here’s a brief history of my recording studios. I opened my first recording studio in ’75.
1. Sandy’s basement in Chastain Park ’73 – ’74
2. Small room in the Marietta Mall ’75
3. 2 small rooms in an office strip on Roswell Road “Steve Hulse Music” ’75 – ’78
4. Room in Doppler ’79 – ’84
5. Room in the new Doppler annex ’85 – ’87
6. Upstairs in the Virginia Highlands house ’88
7. Office space next to Buster, Joel & George “Aria” ’89 – ’91
8. Office space in the building in Stone Mountain “The Tucker Group” ’92 – ’94
9. Bigger space in back of building, Stone Mountain “Kindred Spirits” ’95 – ’99
10. Small room upstairs in new house, Decatur “Music For Pictures” 2000 – ’01
11. Office space in Crawford Post “Music For Pictures” 2002 – ’04
12. Corner of living room in cabin in V.C. “Fort Apache Sound” ’05 – ’14
13. Corner of B’s living room in Coupeville, WA “Penn Cove Sound” from 9/9/16 ’til now.
#1 through #11 were in the Atlanta area. There are stories that go with each location, stories for another time. My biggest studio, with the best sound, was #12, Fort Apache. Big living room, no parallel surfaces, mostly wood with carpeted flooring, I recorded some beautiful live stuff in there. And the atmosphere, of course, was wonderful. As you can see, the vibe was very mellow!
#9 was probably my best money maker. It was ’95, and right after I moved in I bought a Mackie 24 in – 8 out console to feed my Tascam ADAT. Soon after I got my first Mac and Digital Performer software package that could digitize, edit and mix analog sound, and finally eased into the digital age.
Before that, however, I want to give you a peek into what we analog recorders had to do to get even close to a decent sound in our studios. First, we had tape recorders, right? And with them came a host of problems and extraneous gear just to keep them functioning reasonably well. These days I can record, edit and have an automated mix in the computer, then burn a CD of the whole thing without the entire project ever having to leave the computer. Back in the day, we had to have some sort of mixing board that could mix to a two-track recorder of some sort… a two-track tape recorder or a cassette player. Ugh.
Strangely enough, the radio stations and tv stations all accepted master tapes from small studios for years, and the music from my studios (jingles) was good enough to play on those Atlanta stations.
But what was needed to have a decent-sounding studio was ridiculous…
– at least two tape recorders
– an outboard equalizer of some sort to cut tape hiss
– a Dolby or DBX unit for noise reduction, when they finally appeared
– a tone generator to calibrate your machines
– an alignment tape
– a mixing board of some sort
– a spring reverb of some sort… sometimes from a guitar amp
– a $3K video recorder/playback that could send time code
– a patch bay for connecting the machines and other various outboard gear
– extra wires and adapters
– wire strippers, electrical tape
– head cleaner, cotton swabs,
– head de-magnetizer
– reels of tape, hubs and flanges
– a splicing block with razor blades and splicing tape, for editing
– at least 3 microphones with mic stands
– plenty of wires with canon plugs
– at least one condenser mic, with its own power supply
– at least 3 headphones, with a head phone amp
– 2 good monitor speakers
– 2 small speakers, Auratones, or “awful tones, as Joe Neil used to call them, used specifically for radio and tv mixes
– a time code generator
– when the Tascam 8-tracks came out, we learned that you didn’t record much high-frequency material on the edge tracks (#1 & #8) and when we used time code to sync to an outboard video generator, we would put the code on track 8, making track 7 unusable as the tone bled into it. Forcing 8 tracks onto 1/2 inch tape didn’t leave much room between tracks. You had to know this stuff, usually learning the hard way.
There’s more, I’m sure, but that’s easily enough to show you the difference between then and now. Radio Shack brought out the hats and horns every time they saw me coming, and I was on a first-name basis with their salesmen. Semi-pro studios, which mine generally were, all got along fine with a certain amount of cheaper gear, such as phono plugs to rout some of the audio, mono headphones and AC lifts where needed, all things the larger studios would simply not do.
Here’s a track we did in my tiny two-room studio on Roswell Road. I could only work at night, as there were offices on both sides of mine, and no insulation between them at all. This was an original instrumental that some of my pals helped me record. I’d get levels on everyone, then start the machine and run out into the room and join the guys. The drums were in the same room with us, good luck trying to get a decent sound that way! Marvin Taylor did the guitar work on this cut, Leo LaBranche played the flugelhorn solo… two great musicians! Either Lyn Deramus or Ricky Keller played bass, and James Stroud played drums. Remember, this was back in ’76, when wah-wah was king!
At any time I had over $15 K invested in equipment alone, and at one point figured I had a bit over $25K in it until 1997, when I could buy a $2K computer, a $900 software and have a complete digital audio workstation. Wow!
Bet you can’t imagine how amazing it was to be able to record live audio into the computer… then mix, edit, change notes, change the speed of the track, with more special effects, bells and whistles close at hand than I’d ever had before. One of the best parts of it all, for me anyway, was the automated mixing, and the limiter/compressors, reverbs, echoes and equalizers that worked as well as their high end older brothers & sisters of years past… and so much easier! Also, syncing to video suddenly became a snoozer!
The hardware version
The software version
The 70-100 jingles I did in my little studios back then way more than paid for the equipment I needed. At first I kept track of it all, thinking that perhaps some of the expenses were unnecessary… but after a few years I realized that I needed it all and that each piece helped the next one. There were constant updates back then, as equipment seemed to be improving, sometimes several times a year. Plus we always had to keep the equipment that our clients demanded. A good Neumann cost between $1700 and $2500 back then. My best mic was an AKG 414-B which served me beautifully over the years. Also, I had a MacIntosh 250 tube amp that I bought new in 1969 and it still works! The only thing I’ve done is change the light bulbs in the VU meter windows. It’s a horse and sounds so good… I left it on continuously for 8 years once! Joe Neil had a bank of them in Sam’s Tape Truck – most impressive!
Somewhere along the way I finally figured out that part of my love of recording music came from my unfulfilled desire to be a pilot, which always had to do with lights, gauges, meters, buttons and slidey things. The audio consoles provided so much satisfaction in that area… the faders, the VU meters, the EQ buttons, the channel routing buttons and mutes – always fun to learn a new console and try to get the best sound possible from it. And for you young guys who never had to try to nurse a decent sound out of a spring reverb without the twang… well, you haven’t lived.
I recorded some really good projects in my career, yet never even touched the brilliance of Joe Neil (who taught us all a lot) or any of the Doppler engineers. Yet owning a small studio was a most rewarding way to make a living. For all its inherent difficulties and sometimes outrageous expenses, it was mostly very happy times, recording music for clients, making music with friends, helping others out with their songs or their demo reels… I’m proud to have lived in the 60’s through 90’s, recording with the technology, such as it was, back then. And to those of you who were audio engineers or owned your own studios, I know a bit of what you went through, and I take my hat off, to all of you.