Music Mixing Console Blues
Other than a forest of microphones, what do you think of when you think of the equipment for a professional recording session? Chances are it's a mixing console – a big mixing console, filling a control room, with a window right in front of it for watching what's happening in the recording area, a "talk-back" microphone somewhere on it for communicating with the artists, a pair of nearfield monitors properly positioned for the engineer to hear exactly what's being recorded, and virtually every other square inch of its surface covered with meters, knobs, dials, and slide-pot attenuators.
Yeah, that's what I thought, too, before I thought about it. And for much of my time as an audiophile, that's what I secretly wished to own.
Back when I was a Hi-Fi Crazy teenager, I got into professional recording for a while. If you take a look on the back cover of some of the Big Band recordings made in the late 1950s and early 1960s at Valentine Sound Recorders in North Hollywood, California you might just find the name "Roger Skoff" listed in the credits as "Junior Engineer." Yup, that was me as a kid, when, after having become an audiophile years earlier, I tried to carry it to the next level by actually getting involved in the recording process.
I didn't really do much, but Jimmy Valentine, the studio owner and recording engineer, let me hang around, learn, and help out with some of the setup and tear-down processes. He also taught me a lot about musicians and about how what we finally hear as a finished recording is made. And he was kind enough to give me those credits.
Before my stint with him, I had already done some recordings of my own. I had bought an Ampex 601-2 portable stereo recorder, a small mixer, and a complement of microphones – some of them bought used from the closing of RCA's Sycamore Street studios in Hollywood, and others including mics from Electro-Voice, Shure, and Telefunken (dynamics, not U-47s, drat!) that I picked up used from various sources.
Using them, I had recorded such things as the pipe organ at a local church, various bits of live folk music at The Unicorn and other local beatnik-era hangouts and my girlfriend, singing and playing guitar, in the living room of my (really my parents') house.
All of my recordings had a problem, though: Even when I rigged an improvised echo chamber, using a speaker and a microphone in the shower stall of one of the family's bathrooms to mix in with the recorded sound, nothing sounded "commercial". My girlfriend, for example, didn't sound like a great recording; all she ever sounded like was my girlfriend singing and playing guitar in the living room.
It was my hope that Jimmy Valentine would help me to learn to do better than that, but what I truly wanted was his equipment. Ah! To have equalization (far too expensive at the time for a kid to ever afford), and a real echo chamber, and all the toys and goodies that would allow me to make recordings that would sound like professional recordings rather than just like musical instruments and people performing with them.
And that's where the mixing console comes in. Real consoles, the kind we've all seen pictures of and that I lusted after, aren't just mixers. Instead, for as many as 64 separate channels (that I know of, and quite possibly even more) they are mixers, equalizers, phasers, flangers, and who-knows-what-all other special effects devices designed – and with a mighty ability – to take the realistic sound from one or more microphones and transform it into a commercial recording, possibly with little or no resemblance to just the real thing.
With the powers of a modern mixing console, I could have taken that one girl and, if I wished, turned her into the sonic equivalent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. If she were singing off-key, I could, using an autotune device, have brought her back, spot on. Or I could have made her into a baritone or a group of backup singers to accompany herself however I wished.
With modern multi-track recording and the mixing and mastering consoles available today, I could – as is and has been, regularly done – make a recording for which there was never any original live session and, if I had the talent, I, as an engineer, could have made myself the most important creative force in developing it.
And that, finally, is the point of this article.
As a teeny-bopper recording engineer wannabe, although I thought I was looking for the ultimate in high fidelity sound, I was overlooking entirely the real meaning of the term "high fidelity" – the faithful and accurate reproduction of music or sound as it was actually heard live in the venue of recording at the time of recording.
What I really should have thought was "Wow, my recording of my girlfriend playing guitar in the living room sounds just like my girlfriend playing guitar in the living room. Wow, I have done it!"
That understanding didn't come along until much later, however, and it's only in the last many years that I can listen to a recording and appreciate how real it sounds more than how spectacularly it was recorded. Don't get me wrong; I can still be blown away by sonic spectaculars. Having a system and a recording that will make me fear for my listening room walls as the cannons are fired at the end of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is still thrilling, even though I know that the cannons were dubbed-in later.
And pure sonic constructs like anything from Yello, or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album do more than just tickle my fancy, even though I know that they just seem to be real.
At this point, I've given up on the idea of owning a fancy mixing console to impose my will upon the music. I no longer want to be part of the artistry or to make things "better".
I just want to put on some tunes, sit back, close my eyes, and...