What Can We Learn From 60s Recording?
In September 2022 I wrote and presented this paper at the ICMP Production Conference in London. The paper is a summary of lessons from the interviews I have conducted on That 60s Recording Podcast, where I been been fortunate enough to feature some fantastic guests, who's lived experience of 1960s recording and generosity in sharing their knowledge has allowed me to write this summary.
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What Can We Learn From 60s Recording?
A summary of Lessons from interviews on That 60s Recording Podcast
Hello, my name is Joe Montague and I am a drummer, producer and studio owner from Leeds. I started life principally as a drummer playing live and occasionally being fortunate enough to record sessions at various studios across the UK. I always took a keen interest in the inner workings of the studios, and made copious lists of the outboard gear and microphones used, along with photos of their placement around my drum set. After succumbing to the all too familiar story of my band failing to secure the record deal we were promised following the departure of the label’s A&R, and the subsequent implosion of the group, I decided to move on by embarking on a project even more time consuming and expensive; the eternal rabbit hole that is, building a studio.
My studio style naturally gravitated towards vintage sounds, from the 1960s and 70s. I love the style, the fashion, the feeling of excitement and hope that emanates from the music. I also love the seeming simplicity of the studios, no multi-band compression or Lexicon reverbs, just oversized metal military style units, with a handful of controls brimming with saturation. There’s a musical purity about the studio environment back then, what comes out is essentially an improved version of what goes in and therefore, the focus is on ensuring that what goes in is the best that it can be. Edits are a major operation involving scissors and tape, and a ‘fix it in the mix’ mentality is nowhere to be seen.
As we entered lockdown in March 2020, I realised that a lot of these engineers, producers, tape-ops and assistants who were involved the music I love would be sat at home, just like me, all I needed was an excuse to talk to them. So That 60s Recording Podcast was born. My reasoning was that if I was interested in something then surely there must be some other people out there who are also interested in it, who knows how many, but I thought maybe around 50. Never did I anticipate the thousands of downloads the podcast currently has, and I certainly did not foresee standing in front of a room full of academics having to talk about it! If I had I would definitely have taken more notes from the conversations (or at least more legible notes), and I definitely would have asked some different questions! To date, interviewees include audio giants Ken Scott, Malcolm Toft, Shel Talmy, John Kurlander, Bob Olhsson, Gerald Chevin and Ted Fletcher as well as musicians such as Jack Casady, Alan White, Clem Cattini, David Hood and Colin Blunstone. I have also spoken with numerous younger producers and engineers involved with analogue recording and industry heavyweights such as Steve Jackson of Pultec and Eve Anna Manley of Manley Labs, who’s incredibly experienced and educated viewpoints are most certainly relevant to this discussion.
For this discussion, I have dug back through the archive and attempted to make sense of my haphazard questioning and distill the incredibly generous answers given by the guests into the following summary, so that we can all learn something from their unique and important knowledge. I will conclude the talk with a summary of an album recently put together at my own studio, an album of songs written by Ron Ryan, an unrecognised but important contributor to 1960s music and writer of many of The Dave Clark Fives hits. The album was recorded using many of the techniques and ideas we are about to explore, and I hope it encapsulates what can be achieved by adopting even just an essence of 60s recording practices.
Unlike now, back in the 1960s in order for an artist to obtain some coveted recording time, they had to earn it. Think of the countless hours The Beatles spent in Hamburg, or as Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane attests, “singers like Aretha Franklin, who worked for years in the club scene, putting a lot of miles on and learning to project their voice before getting an opportunity to record”. Studio time was a precious commodity and having put the work in the only way you could access the high end machinery of an expensive recording studio was to get a recording contract.
Once in the studio and with the clock running, time was of the essence. Bob Olhsson of Motown Records remembers, “you didn’t have the possibilities of doing ten takes and editing the pieces together and tuning them.”. Artists were required to be incredibly well prepared and well rehearsed, particularly as records were made altogether in the same room. Most sessions were limited to three hours in length, and according to Ken Scott at EMI studios, now known as Abbey Road, engineers and artists often had to record three songs in that time.
Recording in this way had numerous advantages as Malcolm Toft of Trident studios states, “people say recordings that were made back in the 60s and 70s have such a vibe and an amazing feel to them, the reason for that is spontaneity. In those days everybody had to play together, so when a band came in they were well rehearsed, they knew that if somebody made a mistake you’d have to stop the tape and say ‘sorry guys, we’ve had a bit of a goof can we play it again?’. Everybody was on their A-Game, and that that meant was the adrenaline was flowing and everybody was really on it. You’d get half way through the second run through and the bass player would put in a little glitch or something like that and the drummer would pickup on it and play a little offbeat and it would turn into this amazing session because everybody was pumping! It was the eye contact and being in the same room together. It’s essentially making a live recording.”
At Motown they discovered that once they’d got rid of the headphones the sound and the quality of the performance increased dramatically. Sounds were monitored directly in the room using PA speakers, so the musicians were hearing what it sounded like going in direct and that affected the touch on their fingers. Allowing the musicians to hear themselves and each other in the most direct and human way possible was paramount to a getting a great performance. In fact, old studios such as Motown were specifically designed to have a flat response off the walls, in order to help the musicians hear each other.
If a band or artist could not be relied upon to get the sound and part right in the required time, the studio pros were brought in, session players such as drummers Clem Cattini and Bobby Graham, guitarist Vic Flick or bassist Herbie Flowers. Having top quality musicians in the studio contributed enormously to achieving the final product. Malcolm Toft again, “they knew exactly how to play for the studio. You’d push the faders up and the hairs on the back of your neck would just go up, it would be like a mix!”. Motown bassist Bob Babbit once asked Bob Olhsson how he attained his legendary tone, Olhsson explains, “in his case we didn’t do anything! So I demonstrated not doing anything but with a transformer direct and he played his precision bass and said ‘ by God that’s it!’”. Olhsson goes further, explaining that an important component of achieving Babbit’s tone was what he calls, the ear to finger feedback loop.
With great monitoring, and of course a great song, performances can then come from the subconscious as it were, performers don’t think as much and react intuitively and viscerally to the music they are hearing. This is where the best performances come from, and often very quickly. Ken Scott claims that of the 4 albums he co-produced with David Bowie a large majority of the vocals were one take end to end and often the first take. Scott would run the tape, ask Bowie to sing along to get sound and level, then take the tape back and hit record. Bowie sang the track one time through that’s what we still hear today.
You might assume that such precious and ephemeral performances would be captured with scientific precision, and to a degree this is correct. However, recording is as much a science as it is an art form, and beyond the white lab coats of Abbey Road, engineers were improvising and making as many instinctual decisions as any of the musicians around them.
The overriding aim of engineers and producers was to get the sound right as it went to the tape. Equipment was primitive in comparison to modern day standards, so options in post production were fairly limited. Ken Scott explains, “I make decisions all the time. I EQ on the way in, I get the sound that I want on the way in and it’s there permanently. More often than not when I come to mix I don’t have to EQ anything else. I come from a time when we had very few choices. I started on 4-track and we’d be recording on one track. We’d be recording bass, drums, keyboard and possibly guitars all mixed together at same time. So you had to make the decision on what all of these sounded like for the final thing then and there. I’ve continued that. Ok, I moved to 8-track, so I could separate it a bit, but it was still very much making decisions on what the sound was going to be like very early on.”
The culture of recording studios at the time allowed knowledge to be passed down from more experienced engineers to youngsters, who would then step up when time came and crucially, make mistakes. Shel Talmy remembers starting work at Conway Studios in LA, under the tutelage of Phil Yeend. “I had a chance to make mistakes, because by today’s standards it was fairly primitive. Phil and I experimented a lot on how to mic up everything better and it really was very worthwhile doing all of that stuff. Everybody was making mistakes but there was a lot of very good recording going on by people who had invested the time, like I had. Phil was the same way, he was a brilliant engineer.” Talmy’s time came very quickly after being allocated solo engineering shifts within three days of starting work!
At EMI Studios progression wasn’t quite as speedy. Engineers would start out working in the tape library or mastering department, and occasionally observe sessions. This was an essential part of the learning process as Ken Scott states, “we were working on vinyl back then and there are limitations to what you can put on vinyl, you can’t have too much low end, the record will jump, you have to be very careful of high end especially sibilance because it will make the cutting head distort. The management at Abbey Road where clever enough to realise that it’s best to learn the problems before you can work on tape, which you have absolutely no problems putting anything on. Thinking back on it, I had the most amazing training in the world, no one would ever have the kind of training I had. Starting at the bottom and working up, that is the best way to learn.”
John Kurlander had a similar experience at EMI a few years after Scott, working in the tape library before graduating to assistant engineer and being thrown into the deep end at age 23 on a session with the 90-piece Liverpool Philharmonic. “The engineer called and said he can’t go this time, do I want to do it. I said it was a lovely compliment, but I’ve never done it before. So he said, ‘just do what I tell you, don’t get cocky and start trying stuff!’. I’d seen Stuart setting up so many times, and together with his notes, I knew how to do it, and there was no temptation to deviate in any way. When in doubt, stick to the formula.”
Ken Scott’s chance came in 1964 with the biggest band in the world, The Beatles, as assistant engineer on A Hard Day’s Night. In 1967 Scott was promoted to engineer and began working on the Magical Mystery Tour album where he was afforded an opportunity to make mistakes in circumstances that one can only imagine. “I got to experiment more than anyone would ever get to experiment. Here’s a band with no time limit, no monetary problems, budgets or anything and they wanted things to sound different every time they recorded. So that gave me carte blanche to experiment with mics in different positions and different pieces of equipment. I was working on the premise that I could screw everything up, use completely the wrong mics, in completely the wrong place, over compressed, wrong EQ and all that, and there was as much chance of the members of the band coming up and saying it urgh it sounds like shit, as there is them coming up and saying it sounds like shit I like it and we’ll use it! That’s amazingly freeing.”
A similar story comes from Gerald Chevin, who worked at Advision Studios in Fitzrovia as a tape-op… “I used to get to the studio early, about 8 o’clock in the morning and set the sessions up for what we were doing that day. Roger Cameron, the engineer, phoned up and said he’s not well and not coming in, so I said ‘what’s going to happen’ and he said ‘you’ll have to do it, you must know what to do by now’. So this orchestra came in and we did this track called Pied Piper and it made it to number 5 in the UK chart and number 1 in Canada!”.
Having a set of standards and best practice to fall back on is helpful for any engineer, as well as an understanding of what a quality recording should sound like. Keeping the destination in your sites keeps you on course, but making a record is rarely plain sailing and having the confidence and flexibility to adjust course if necessary is an important skill as Shel Talmy describes in his approach to production; “I’ve always been able to hear in my head what I think the finished product should sound like and I was working towards that. It wasn’t cast in cement, I was lots more flexible than that, but I had an idea of where the thing should wind up sounding like and I worked with that unless things occurred to me in the studio and we took a left turn or a right turn and did something else. I think every producer should have some idea of what they want to wind up with.”
With respect to microphones it would be unfair to suggest that choice was limited, however the selection available wasn’t nearly as broad as it is today. Studios tended to have a choice selection of quality microphones that they new could be relied upon to deliver in the heat of the moment. It is testament to the quality of the designs that we still see many of these microphones in use today, as both vintage and modern models. For example, the STC 4038 or Coles 4038 ribbon microphone, which was the drum overhead of choice for Beatles engineer Norman Smith in the early 60s and the Neumann U47 large diaphragm condenser, a favourite for vocals. RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones were also popular in both the UK and US, and although copy-cat models exist nowadays neither have sustained popularity to quite the same degree as of the Coles or Neumanns.
Studios would often have a large number of utility microphones that would be used for multiple sound sources. At EMI this was the AKG D19, a relatively cheap dynamic microphone which has now become synonymous with the Beatles drum sound from 1966 when Geoff Emerick took over as engineer from Norman Smith. It may be surprising that major studios would be happy using cheaper utility microphones, but as Malcolm Toft points out, “it’s not about spending money on equipment. You start off with the right instrument properly tuned, in the right acoustic space, with the right type of microphone, in the right position. If you get those things right everything else becomes very simple after that.”
Motown studios took utility microphone usage to another level, exclusively using the Neumann KM86, a condenser microphone with dual capsules that could be configured for use in omni, cardioid and figure-8 patterns via a switch at the base of the head. Bob Ohlsson remembers how he was able to achieve a great drum sound, even with such a restricted microphone choice, “One of the biggest lessons I had was for drums. I was recording Jeff Beck and Mickey Most, the producer, was constantly saying duck the cymbals. I had nothing but Neumann KM86s, so I thought, I’ll set it to figure 8 and aim the edges at the cymbals. Well, low and behold that got the best overhead drum sound I’ve ever heard and I’ve done it every time since. It kind of thins out the cymbal sound so you don’t get that much low frequencies and you have to EQ the bottom up a little bit and it gives you a really good overall drum sound. You use the snare mic and the bass drum mic as fill.” A combination of experimentation and limited resources pushing engineers to come up with creative ideas to get the sound they want. Equally, at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, they came up with a different solution to the same problem, using a KM86 in front of the drums to achieve their drum sound.
As we have seen, with many technical decisions on sounds and equalisation having been made earlier in the process, as well as significant weight put on the performance of the musician, the mix down was a relatively simple task. Malcolm Toft describes the mixing style at the time, “for a lot of engineers their tenet was that when they mixed all the faders were in a line. That was a common thing, if an engineer didn’t have the faders in a straight line you’d wonder what went wrong during the recording. It was a totally different mindset, a totally different way of working.”.
John Kurlander, a little playfully still describes himself as a balance engineer and recounts, “back then you might have had 8 faders or less, and it was all about balance. Nowadays there’s so much emphasis on plugins and processing, but a lot of what makes things sound good or bad is in the balance, so that you can hear the things you and the artist want to hear and get rid of things you don’t want people to hear.”. He also recalls one piece of tongue in cheek advice he was given as a young balance engineer, “if you can’t make it good, make it loud!”.
One aspect of the mix that certainly does want to be audible all the time is the vocal level, as Ken Scott attests, “I play with the vocal level all the way through a song. I will go through quite a few times, learning the quiet words, the loud words, the quiet syllables, the loud syllables. I play the vocal all the way through to make sure it’s the volume I want it at every single moment of that recording.”. Note there is no mention of heavy compression as a tool for this job, Scott is talking purely about volume.
Balance engineers were restricted by the equipment they had in front of them, mixing boards didn’t have a full range of EQs or busses and much of the equipment was custom built by individuals, small companies, or built in-house at the larger studios, such as the REDD desks at EMI or the desks designed by Malcolm Toft at Trident or Gerald Chevin at Advision.
Ted Fletcher began his career in music as a backing vocalist working mainly with Joe Meek at 304 Holloway Road. However, with a background in electronic engineering before he knew it Fletcher had completed a full studio build for Keith Prowse Music on Denmark Street and was building equipment for studios and radio stations all around London and the rest of the UK as he recalls, “people were asking me to build things, generally little bits and pieces, mic amps, EQs and compressors in a very small way and it got slightly out of hand!”. And experimentation wasn’t restricted to the studio live room, with no two studios even remotely using the same equipment, as Fletcher describes, “it was a very fluid situation, everyone was trying out different things all the time.”
A common trait of music of the equipment used in studios in the 1960s was an extremely high tolerance level, the gear could be pushed to its absolute limits yet, in the main still sound pleasant and musical. Ken Scott describes the EQ on the REDD desks at EMI as so limited you learned to get the sound in the studio because you couldn’t do much in the control room! Scott also remembers The Beatles pushing the desks to the edge of their capability, “there are several tracks on the White Album where The Beatles had this thing in their brain, they wanted every track to have full bass and full treble and that’s what we did. You can’t really tell the difference which ones were like that and which ones we did very carefully. So it shows how little effect our EQ had, it all had to come from the studio.”
There is no doubt that the studio equipment of the time left a very clear signature on the sound of the recordings. Valves and later transistor based equipment produced even order harmonic distortion which Ted Fletcher explains is the most common form of distortion found in nature, most notably in the human voice. Conversely odd order harmonics, present in modern integrated circuits, produce a metallic sound which is very unpleasant to the ear and even at low levels can cause sounds to have an uneasy feeling about them. EveAnna Manley of Manley Laboratories, one of the world’s leading valve based outboard companies, points out that with analogue equipment such as that which was used in the 1960s, you may even retain imperfections on the recording from the equipment itself, further humanising the sound. There is no wonder modern engineers constantly strive for analogue warmth.
There was beauty in the simplicity of the design of much of this equipment, uncluttered and uncomplicated facias with large dials, limited EQ bands and relatively basic operations. Pulse Techniques or Pultec as it’s more commonly known manufactured one of the most popular EQs of the 60s, the EQP31A Programme Equaliser, designed by Eugene Shenk. Steve Jackson, who revived the company in early 2000, revels at the simplicity of its design, stating it is basically just a voltage divider.
Mastering is the final step in the recording process and as Ken Scott points out mastering in the 1960s was very different to mastering now with engineers doing as little as possible to the audio they receive. A mastering engineer’s main aim was to bring up the audio to the loudest possible level without causing issues when the vinyl was played. Bob Olhsson, who mastered numerous Motown hits by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, states; “At that time our job was to get the hottest possible 45 single recording because the challenge was to get through the broadcast programming meeting that decided what went on the air. Somethings got overlooked because they weren’t as loud as everything else. That’s what it’s about, that first impression.”.
All of this was expected to happen extremely quickly and Olhsson describes how when mastering a hot 45 single they were expected to get it out in 20 minutes, and this also went for mixes, a complete mix down to 8-track in 20 minutes. In some part this was a result of a unique way that Motown had of approving mixes, which required numerous mixes to be submitted by different engineers with a winner being selected by the control department. Olhsson elaborates, “a record would be judged on what it felt like to dance to and what it felt like to sing along with, and that was the test. It was an amazing process. We divided the work up, largely to keep it objective, to come at it with fresh ears.”
The speed of the recording process made a huge contribution to the sound of 60s recordings and can not be overlooked. With Jefferson Airplane, Jack Casady recalls, “the clock was ticking, the first album took four days and the second took 2 weeks and the third album was over 2 months”, even 2 months is enormously quick by modern standards. One of the most celebrated albums of all time, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ was written, recorded and mixed in about 10 days. Bob Olhsson states, “There was no time. But it also meant there was very little left brain intellectual bullshit, it was very right brain from the gut what I’m feeling stuff. It was all thrown together and boom… out the door! You can get more stinking from thinking than you can from drinking. That’s the lesson from that album, work fast.”
After 18 months of hosting the podcast I found myself in a position where I was extremely keen to put some of this practical knowledge to the test. I had previously interviewed Ron Ryan, the uncelebrated writer of some of Dave Clark Fives biggest hits, who subsequently sent me a large number of demos of songs he’d written through the 60s and beyond. Ron described to me how we writes songs, picturing Aretha Franklin in his mind’s eye and a large choir behind her. So I decided to make a record, with a nod to Motown via Denmark Street, not strictly limited to 60s recording techniques but an attempt at realising what the mindset of 60s recording has to offer.
Logistics dictated that we record basic tracks for each song, before overdubbing vocals, strings and saxophone. Knowing the importance of the sound going in I recruited a group of extremely high standard session musicians, who I knew would be capable of interpreting my ideas quickly and would inevitably bring their own individual flavour to the recordings. We set up in a circle of sorts, with minimal baffling so sound spillage was unavoidable, making sure we could all make eye contact and the basic tracks for 12 songs were recorded over three 3-4 hour sessions, using lead sheets for instruction. With Shel Talmy ringing in my ears, I had a strong idea of where I wanted each song to end up but allowed the songs to evolve naturally as each session progressed and musicians reacted to each other in the moment.
The vocal sessions followed, and we set up with the lead vocalist on one microphone, with the backing vocalists on one separate microphone immediately next to the lead. Again I had strong ideas for the backing vocal lines, but these ideas changed throughout each session as the singers responded to each other and suggested their own ideas.
The recordings are littered with happy accidents, which may not be obvious to a listener, but even before mixing they had contributed to a sound that was unmistakably 1960s. One especially notable happy accident is the chorus vocals on ‘The Thought Of Never Seeing You Again’.
During the recording of the basic track I had made mistake on the lead sheet, notating the chords as double the length intended and when we came to the vocal session it quickly became apparent that the original vocal line wasn’t going to work. We came up with an arrangement on the fly, pushing the vocalists to the limit of their abilities, and the result is without doubt a highlight of the album.
The album was mixed across two sessions, grouping the audio into subgroups and mixed down into an 8-channel mixer then to 1/4” tape. We deliberately didn’t pour over the mixes, balances were made using gut feeling and repeated plays until everything was audible, and relying on our emotional response to the music to dictate when the mixes were complete.
The process of producing and recording this album taught me an enormous amount about the 60s mentality and is the culmination of many months of conversations with some of the leading lights of 60s recording. High quality musicianship, the right recording environment where the musicians can openly communicate with each other, instinctual decision making throughout the whole process, experience coupled with a willingness to adapt to the natural ebb and flow of creativity, working with speed so as not to overthink and ultimately never relying on the ability to fix anything later down the line. Though put simply, these are many of the qualities of recordings from the 1960s and in the modern world where we are overwhelmingly spoiled for choice, there is no doubt that we can all learn lessons from the golden era of recording.
I will leave you with one final quote from Jack Casady.
“There are moments when you gel and you have that sound. We want to capture the unique sound of those people coming together, and that’s what we’re after.”
If you have any questions at all about any aspect of this paper, or anything else drums, 60s music, recording related then please give me a shout here: