Studio Stories: How the Great New York Records Were Made: From Miles to Madonna, Sinatra to the Ramones
By David Simons (Backbeat Books)
The development of American popular music and the emergence of new technologies to capture that music are inexorably tied together. Technological limitations during pop’s golden age of the 50s and 60s fueled the imaginations of artists, producers and engineers to push the boundaries of recorded sound to come up with new, innovative ideas that in turn changed the art of recording itself. Design improvements may have done too good a job in the long run, as recording music over the past 50 years has become more about getting “perfect” sounds by the flick of a switch rather than capturing a great performances, warts and all, with the toil and sweat and trial-and-error process that often turned inspiration and innovation.
Studio Stories: How the Great New York Records Were Made: From Miles to Madonna, Sinatra to the Ramones by David Simons (Backbeat Books) is both a love letter to the practitioners of a lost art and an obituary of an aesthetic noticeably missing in the digital world. It is a fascinating read that details the tricks of the trade of some of pop’s most enduring recordings. Filled with great stories compiled from interviews with the producers, engineers and artists who made those works come to life, Studio Stories is as fun to read as it is informative.
New York City was a heady place for music in the 50s and 60’s, brimming with bright, young talent and teeming with great songwriters. Rock and roll shifted the balance of power in the music industry as a plethora of small independent labels flooded the charts much to their profit and to the Old Guard’s chagrin. Columbia Records, under the strict auspices of A&R director Mitch Miller, wouldn’t embrace rock until after the British invasion. But their 30th Street studio, a converted Armenian church overseen by ace engineer Frank Laico, was the object of worldwide envy for its spacious, distinctive sound. Among the most famous and influential records made there include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis and nearly three decades worth of Tony Bennett recordings. The use of natural echo chambers, hand-built mixing consoles and the use and discreet placement of the finest microphones made for magic.
A little further uptown, Atlantic Records became one of the prize jewels of independent studios. The legendary Tom Dowd, whose body of work can be heard in the grooves of the likes of Ray Charles’ 50s sides to John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and even Lynyrd Skynyrd, oversaw a studio that was truly at the cutting edge, embracing the new multi-track Ampex machines years before such devices would become commonplace.
Simons probes the secrets of Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios, Bell Sound, Ultrasonic and several other classic rooms where history was made. There was a time when alert listeners could identify which studio was used by just listening to records. The overwhelming thread that runs throughout the interviews and commentaries boils down to the fact that what made those classic records so great was the fact that the musicians and singers performed live in the studio, generating the aura and excitement of a live performance. This practice is contrary to current methods which seek clinical sonic isolation in the search for “perfect” sound at the expense of spontaneity and the passion of a live performance.
Lovers of classic music who can’t put their fingers on precisely why their favorite records sound so great will be handsomely rewarded with Studio Stories. It is a tale of romance, mystery and nostalgia that has much to teach the next generation of recording artists and engineers about what makes for exciting music. Simons is passionate about his subject and, although casual readers may be a tad intimidated by some of the technical details, has delivered in Studio Stories an engaging and detailed portrait of a time and place that is well deserving of documentation. These stories needed to be told as the old-school engineers are fast becoming a dying breed, taking their secrets with them.
One hopes that Simons and Backbeat Books have plans for similar volumes over the coming years that focus on other regional studios and their signature sounds. A Hollywood volume, for example, would be a great read with tales of Western, Goldstar and Capitol, as would an exploration into the great studios of London, Nashville, Memphis and Chicago. We can only hope. As it stands, Simons has done a terrific job seeding the fertile imaginations of music fans with lush, even romantic tales, of days gone by when great music was captured on the fly only to become classics by which subsequent recorded music would be judged. Highly recommended.