RECORDINGS: the appeal of demos

If you are a musician or serious rock music fan, you will know what the term ‘demo’ refers to in the context of recorded music.  ‘Demo’ is shorthand for ‘demonstration record(ing).’  IE., a recording which is not intended for public commercial exploitation, but rather to demonstrate the assets of the various artists involved to the industry.  Which various artists?  Generally speaking, demos are made by bands (musical performers with or without vocals), solo or group vocalists, and songwriters.  Demos are made in the hope of getting the attention of record labels, song publishers, other artists who are looking for new songs to record, club and concert bookers, etc.  Demos are generally ‘rougher’ and ‘less produced’ than commercial masters.  This is for a few reasons:  first off, demos are usually part of the process involved in GETTING a paying deal or getting a paying project green-lit, so there will be less money behind them.  Another reason is that since demos are made for an audience that is supposedly experienced and knowledgeable, demos can be a little ‘rougher’ since this special audience should be able to ‘hear past’ the rough quality and easily imagine what the band/singer/song will sound like once someone puts more time (and money) behind it.  This ability to correctly see ahead, past the performance flaws and technical imperfections of a ‘demo,’ is what will allow a record company scout, talent agent, or song publisher to key into top-quality talent early, thereby potentially getting themselves a better deal on this new property.

There is a lot of mystique and even superstition surrounding demos in the music/recording world.  People will speak of ‘demo love,’ AKA the condition wherein the commercial master can’t seem to eclipse the emotional impact that the demo manages to achieve.  On the other hand, some people will tend to apologize for their demos, even though their particular demo may be the best recording achievable on their budget, and even though it is the job of those in The Industry to ‘hear past’ the demo.  Anyhow, I am not interested so much in the operation of demos in their contemporary context, but rather, the special qualities that we can experience in the demos of the past.

Here’s a songwriting demo from Jim Ford, an obscure soul songwriter most active in the early 70s.  Several collections of his songwriting demos (demos created to ‘pitch’ his new compositions to artists who might potentially record them, thereby earning Ford and his publisher royalties on the recordings) were released in recent years by Bear Family, a German record company.  It’s sloppy and crazy and messy and my god.  It is cool.

16 Go Through Sunday

We generally agree that a demo is a ‘less produced’ recording.  OK.  but what does ‘produced’ mean?  Record production is an art that involves a great many details, many of them incredibly specific to particular genres and trends and microtrends that may last for brief years or even months.  Generally speaking, though, producing a commercial recording featuring some musical performers and a vocalist will involve, at minimum:

*)Some sort of dedicated recording space with the relevant tools and technology available (aka a ‘studio’).

*)The ability to capture multiple takes of a song, and edit between them if necessary.

*)A ‘producer’ who’s main minimum responsibility is essentially that of quality control – IE., someone with the authority and experience to say, “that’s the one.”

*)And, finally, time.  Enough time to set up the equipment properly. Dither around with all the knobs and positions and instruments until the desired effect is truly achieved.  And then do as many takes as needed, and afterwards, edit and mix and re-process all the various recorded audio signals until everyone who is invested in the project can say ‘what up, DONE?’

Let’s consider a typical example of a production task.  Music production of  instruments and especially vocals generally involves various electronic processes intended to enhance the sound of the performance.  For instance:  no one likes to hear a vocal that is not as well on pitch as the singer had intended.  But if the singer just can’t nail it, what do you do?  As an audio operator, you will employ various processes to either draw attention away from the flawed performance or even to correct the flaws.  Until 1965 or so, this was done by adding reverberation and/or echo in order to ‘smooth out’ rough transitions between notes.  (Try singing in the shower, or some other reverberant space, and you will notice that your signing sounds better!)   Moving on, in the late 60s/1970s, aiding a pitchy-y vocal was often done by recording multiple takes of the same part and layering them on top of each other (a.k.a. ‘double tracking’ -made feasible because now you could have 16 or 24 separate tracks on a multitrack tape rather than just 4 or 8 tracks).  by the early 80s and the advent of readily-available digital audio technology, you suddenly had the ability to ‘sample’ off pitch notes, correct the pitch, and then re-insert the corrected note into the performance.  By the early 1990s and the dawn of the Digital Audio Workstation era, you had the ability to manipulate the performance basically however you wanted to.  ANYTHING was ‘fixable’ given you had enough time and skill.  And finally, by the late 1990s, we were given the technology commonly referred to as Auto Tune, by which a performance could be pitch-corrected nearly automatically, with very little skill or experience required even on the part of the audio operator.

So that’s the broad strokes, and one macro example, of music production.  Back to my earlier line of inquiry:  If a demo is a less-produced recording, then, a demo is basically a recording that is less manipulated.  It has been subjected to less human-time spent modifying the audio.  It is more simply the product of the performances and the physicality of the microphones, recording environment, and  instruments that created the performances.  Also, randomness and chance likely will play a bigger part in the finished result.  None of what i am saying are absolutes – these are just generalizations.  But in general, when we hear a demo from, say, 1970, we are given the chance to peer back in time in a way that produced commercial recordings don’t always allow us to.  We can hear the way that an actual human drummer played a take In The Year 1970, as opposed to 7 recorded takes that were edited together and oh btw we tape-edited the drums in the bridge to really make it groove there.  Is this better or worse?  Neither.  it’s different.  It’s a matter of what you like.  But, the demo will likely offer closer access to the performances and the actual sounds of the instruments/microphones/studio spaces that were used in ‘those days,’ whatever those days may be.   I think in general, most people would associate ‘demo’ with ‘Lo Fidelity’ and ‘Studio Master’ with ‘Hi Fidelity,’  but when you think about it, a demo (so long as the recording equipment used was of decent quality) will actually bear much more fidelity to the actual acoustic event than a commercial master.  We could get on a major sidetrack here about the quality of the equipment did matter back in the day/still matters today, but you catch my drift.

Have you ever seen ‘Shadows’ or any of the Cassevettes films?  I was really struck by ‘Shadows’ when i first saw it at maybe age 18.  My god, i had never heard people talk like that!  Or move like that!  Cassevettes as a director really relied on his actors to improvise, and therefore, I think his films offer us a better view into how people actually behaved back then.  Sort of like what documentary films can offer.   Granted, his ‘people’ were generally trained actors, but still.  It’s less the work of a committee and more the work of One Person In Front Of A Camera.  And for this reason, i feel like it gives me better access to that actual historical moment in which the film was made.  I feel the same way about old demos.  Here’s a really obscure recording from around 1970 that i found on a cut-rate compilation LP called ‘the now sounds.’  The LP contains recordings of various pop hits of the day, credited to basically anonymous vocalists.  There is no information to be had on ‘jerry walsh’ or this recording.  I imagine that it may have been recorded as a demo for this singer.  Probably not for the band backing him, as there is a bad tape edit (or lack of an edit!) going into the guitar solo where the beat gets lost.  If this had been created to the satisfaction of the band, the drummer would have likely not found this to be satisfactory.  On the other hand, if the drummer was just hired to back up ‘Jerry’ that day, well…

04 Let It Be

Anyhow, yeah this is all conjecture on my part.  Nonetheless, when i hear this recording, i feel like i am really getting a good sense of what it would have been like to hear an average singer, fronting an average band, in some average bar, anywhere in America in 1970.  I’m not hearing The Entertainment Industry (which i have heard a million times, and it usually pretty much sounds the same).  I ‘m just hearing some guys making a demo.  And it’s evocative.

Does anyone  out there collect and compile ancient publishing company demo recordings?

Is Jerry Walsh out there somewhere?  Was this made as a demo?

Recycled Champs

one of the most famous electric instrument amplifiers of all time is the tweed-covered Champ amplifier made by Fender in the 1950’s thru early 1960s.  Here’s a image of one from 1959 that i pulled off the web:

Fender made true vacuum-tube champs until the late 1970s, but the tweed-covered Champ (and it’s close cousin the tweed-covered Princeton) differ from their later namesakes in a lot of ways.  In the case of the final Tweed Champs, the lack of bass and treble controls  means that there is roughly 20db more gain available vs the later Black Tolex-covered Champ.  This does not necessarily make for a louder amp.  This does, however, make for an amp that can get super distorted and generally Sound Like Awesome.

Tweed Champs cost a fortune to buy.  Eric Clapton apparently used one for the Derek And The Dominos record.  This fact became widely known, and they have been very expensive ever since.  Fender now even makes a ‘re-issue’ (never a good idea) that sells for close to $1000.

champSchem

The schematic is posted above for anyone interested in checking it out. They are very very simple.   Anyhow, since these things do sound so great and they are so simple to build, it’s a lot of fun to build them into Any Old Thing that catches your eye.  Here’s a quick survey of some Champs and Princetons that i’ve built into found enclosures.  You’ll see recycled Intercom units, school PA system speakers, and 16mm film projector speakers.  The circuits in these are all new, built with new or lightly used parts; but the cabinets (that part you actually SEE and touch) are straight up ancient.  I generally take plenty of liberties with the circuit, changing parts, adding features (reverb, add’l gain control, EQ, etc), even building them using different (but similar) tubes, and i’ve yet to be disappointed.

Issac Hayes Buys Some Used Components

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is The Rockford Files.  James Garner plays a laid-back ex-con private eye.  He’s an old-fashioned guy kinda coasting around half-confused amid all the far-out hippies and irresponsible bon vivants of mid-seventies Los Angeles.

He’s kinda like If Johnny Cash Was A Detective.  He drives a gold Firebird (NOT a Trans-Am – too tarty-) and he’s generally pretty alright.

Since our show is set in mid-seventies LA, there is plenty of music-biz shenanigans throughout the series.  In one of my favorite scenes, Rockford impersonates (oh-btw- his general workflow consists of 70% impersonating fictional people and 30% fast driving) an A+R guy who proposes remixing an ex-con’s old record with new string overdubs ETC…  another one has him head-to-head with a squirrelly label head with a payola/coke/murder problem.  it’s all pretty great.  ANYHOW.  in the scene below, Gandolf Finch (played by issac hayes) describes doing something that no one really does anymore…  he BUYS USED STEREO COMPONENTS thru the classifieds.  IN THE PAPER.

Wow.  people used to actually needed to buy an amp, a tape deck, a tuner, a record player, speakers…  crazy.  Nowadays it’s an ipod dock with a lil amp built in.  Would a 12 yr old kid even understand WTF Gandy is talking about here?   Components?  Furthermore, the whole plot of this episode hinges on the fact that the used speakers turn out to contain a shit ton of stolen money/drugs ETC.  What could u fit in one of those ipod docks?  a few roaches and a coupla nickels?  Certainly not enough to get Rockford out of his trailer.  (oh yeah- Rockford lives in a mobile home on the beach).  Check out the clip below, and check out The Rockford Files streaming on Netflix. Season 2 is the best season, IMO.

GandyGetsAUsedStereo-desktop

Hey it’s one of those old horn speakers

Along the lines of the ‘Carbon Mic’ (see earlier post) are these early horn speakers.   They are visual icons that have become separated from their actual sonic function due to the fact that they do not interface with any other audio equipment that any normal living person would own.  But don’t those things look great?  yes they do.  They look very similar to the acoustic horns that are mechanically coupled to the needles of ancient record players, but in fact these are electrical.

here’s an example of a very old record player which has a horn mechanically coupled to the needle:

On the other hand, the early electro-mechanical horns were made for use with early Tube radios. They have drivers with permanent magnets attached to the base of the horn.  Driver:

These type of speakers date from the 1920s, and they are the earliest common electro-mechanical transducers.  I picked up this example, made by Music Master of Philadelphia, at a yard sale.

Here’s the base of the unit, which contains the driver.

i plugged the very frayed cloth-covered wire into an old receiver and…  sound!  it worked.  the volume level was very very low, tho, even with the 50 watt receiver turned up all the way.

Turns out that these early speakers require a slightly different sort of amplifier than we use nowadays.  Not surprising.  So i built something to do the trick.  I describe the process below for those who want all the bloody details.  Once i had this thing running properly, tho…  the big question… how does it sound?  well, when listening to music recorded in the 1920s (like my Blind Willie Johnson), it sounds fine.

Later music sounds pretty bad.  and not even in an interesting way.  just bad.  But old classical and gospel are cool.   Hearing those old recordings played back on the same sort of system that folks would have used 90 years ago…  wow.  it’s fun.  I have the horn (and it’s attendant special amplifier) hooked up to an Apple Airport Express which hides in the base of a corner cabinet in our house.

Other rooms in the house have their own full-range systems with their own Airports, so it’s really easy to switch up the playback systems depending on mood etc.  Love iTunes on the laptop.

Here’s the tech-y stuff for those of you who care.  So why did the speaker not play back at a decent level when used with my old SONY receiver? A quick bit of online research revealed that these old horn speakers have an effective impedance of 1000-2000 ohms.  WAY off from the 8 ohm speaker output of a contemporary receiver.   Anyhow, to confirm this, i inserted my handy University Sound universal impedance matching transformer (wired to couple 8 ohms to 600 ohms) and what do you know.  the speaker worked fine.   Decent volume level with the volume knob set at 10’o-clock.

Anyway, rather than run this thing all the time with a giant shitty receiver, i decided to simply build a tiny 5watt tube amplifier with the highest impedance that i could easily generate – 600 ohms.   I had some Edcor 5K/600 single-ended transformers lying around from a mic preamp project that i aborted because…  well…  the Edcors don’t have enough low end response to make a good mic preamp.  In this decidedly lo-fi application, though, they work just fine.  I used a 6J7 (for the old-timey look) into a 6V6 tube with a 5V rectifier.  I initially built the unit with a 6L6, but the edcor was getting REALLY hot (i guess they mean it about the 5watt rating) so i switched the tube to a 6V6 (and changed the cathode resistor appropriately).  It runs cool now.

Anyhow, this little amp also has the added feature of two RCA input jacks that passively mix to the input grid of the 6J7.  which is a necessary feature since i use this to listen to (stereo) music from iTunes via the Airport Express.  Also: super-nerdy but maybe worth mentioning – dig the old ‘screw-lug’ speaker connection.  i have been using these a lot lately and i think they add a little charm, even tho they do generally require some dremel-ing to the chassis in order to mount. (i hate the dremel and will do almost anything to avoid it.  Greenlee punches 4eva)

If you find one of these speakers for a good price (mine was $25, down from the sellers asking price of $80), and you can confirm that it works, you might want to pick it up.  One caveat: i apparently got lucky with the speaker that i bought.  Apparently, it’s common in these older units for the magnets to actually have lost their charge, and if that’s the case, they will need to be re-magnetized using wire and very high voltages.  Dangerous and irritating.  There are a few pages on the web that describe this procedure.  It’s pretty incredible to me that this technology is so old that the magnets have lost their charge.  crazy.  will this happen to all of our permenant magnet speakers some day?  will all of those coveted old Alnico drivers be useless at some point?  when?  2050?  Can’t wait for “The Day The Tone Died”  haha i can’t believe i said that….   awful.    Hate ‘Tone’ as a synonym for ‘pleasing sound quality in an electric-guitar sound reinforcement scenario.’

Does anyone out there use one of these speaker systems for music listening?

Anyone have a dedicated ‘antique’ system for listening to certain genres/ periods of recordings?

About the header image on this page…

The main page of this site is currently displaying a small sliver of the image reproduced below.  It’s a page from a SONY consumer electronics catalog (Japanese) from the early 70s. 

I pulled this page from a website that i sometimes refer to as The Greatest Website In The World:  the “product design database” of the Quatre Design Corporation.   I have no idea what the Quatre Corp is or what they do, and i have no idea how i stumbled upon this page…  feel like it was in the pre boing-boing era…  anyway, check it out.  Basically, these Quatre folks (likely industrial designers) have hi-res scanned and archived hundreds of Japanese-language consumer electronics and automotive catalogs from the past 50 years.

http://my.reset.jp/~inu/ProductsDataBase/index2.htm

This is a veritable goldmine of 70s audio hardware, as well as some of the wackiest audio marketing concepts that I Have Ever Seen.  Check out the SONY catalogs especially.  There is something so great about this style of photography.  the soft light, the ever-present gradient background…  it’s so dreamlike and futuristic all at once.  Get ready to waste some time…

RECORDINGS: Steve Douglas “the music of cheops”

Steve Douglas was a studio session saxophone player who performed on countless hits of the 60s and 70s.  Allmusic.com has a write-up and credit list for Douglas if yr curious.   In the mid-seventies, Douglas apparently went to Egypt and got permission to record some improvised music in the Kings Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.  Here’s an example:

09 Track 09

According to the liner notes, the whole thing was taped live by his buddy to 2-track Nagra tape deck (a Nagra is a high-end Swiss-made tape recorder which was generally used on film and television shoots in the era before DAT tape decks).  I am not sure how to explain the polyphony (IE multiple notes occurring at the same time), but it’s possible that Douglas was playing two saxes at once, a trick i have seen myself many times.

From what i can gather, this was originally a private press LP that was soon picked up by Takoma, the avant-garde/folk label.

This recording really illustrates how much information there is in simply hearing the sound of a room.  How much can be added to a recording by putting the performer in the right space.  The room sound of the chamber is the real content of this album.  Douglas brings this point home by including some brief ‘street noise/Cairo’ bits on the record; it lets us know that we are in for a largely sonic (as opposed to largely musical) experience.  I was in Cairo recently and it is a very visceral place.  noisy, crowded, smoky, strong smells everywhere- it’s overwhelming.  Even the pyramid park is stressful.  Cops with machine guns circle and extort money from tourists (yes for real).  In contrast to all of this is the inner quiet of the pyramid chambers.  Silence, darkness, no motion.  Check out this clip where we hear a percussive piece that seems to be wholly constructed from the valve and pad noises of the saxophone.

Cheops_ValvePiece

Douglas was not a really a jazz musician (although there are certainly ‘jazzy’ passages and scales on the record), and i think that’s part of why i like this album so much.   Jazz musicians tend to focus their energy on certain kinds of expression:  usually personal ’emotional’ expression, or some expression of their thoughts on jazz idioms and jazz form.  CHEOPS, though, is an audio expression of the physicality of an incredible place.  It is really just about the sound, and it’s beautiful.  I transferred this album from LP.  It’s available on Amazon (with a really terrible new cover), and if you like Eno, Budd, etc., i think you will dig this.

http://www.amazon.com/Music-Cheops-Steve-Douglas/dp/B00020EXME

Does anyone know anything else about this record?  What sound effect units he is using?

Any similar records out there to hear?

ICON: “gimme one of those real old mics…” :::UPDATED:::

When you are creating a set for a musical performance, nothing says ‘old school’ and ‘authentic’ like one of those mics…  those real big old mics with the springs…  what the F are they called?  Turns out that they are called Carbon Microphones, or more specifically, Double Button Carbon Microphones.

And while many a rapper, RnB singer, or songwriter type may favor them for their music video, i can promise you two things:  *)no one would be able to actually hook the mic up and use it, and *)if they did, they probably would not dig the sound.

Carbon mics are the oldest microphone technology still in (albeit limited) use today.  They actually pre-date vacuum tubes.  Wikipedia has a great article on their history and use, so no need for me to retread those waters.  Carbon mics are used in landline telephones, so we all have a basic idea of what they sound like.  midrangey, a little crunchy (distorted), compressed…  hey wait a minute!  that sounds pretty good to me!  Aren’t there like a million expensive DAW plug-ins in order to give you ‘that sound?’ Anyhow, we all know in general what they sound like… but how do those big old music-video props sound?

In order to find out, it turns out that it’s necessary to actually build a power supply.  Carbon mics need a few volts of a DC current moving through them in order to operate.  I found this handy schematic online and put it together.

I added a DC voltmeter so that i could monitor the effect of varying the voltage on the sound (the mic i have seems to like 6 volts).

I used a double-button mic input transformer salvaged from an ancient tube PA head that i had.  To the output of this transformer i added a second transformer to bring the impedance back down to Low-Z mic impedance so that i could use this whole rig with whatever mic preamp i wanted to.  The particular mic i have is a Lifetime Model Six.

I bought it years ago on eBay along with a little tube amp and some shitty speakers (and about a mile of useless rotten old speaker wire) for $150.  Anyhow, i won’t bless you with any vocal performances, but here is an acoustic guitar recording from my living room.  The left channel is the Carbon mic.  The right channel was recorded simultaneously with good equipment (414/omni into an API 512) so you can get a pretty good idea of what i was hearing in the room.  I put a little EQ on the Carbon mic to make it more audible (low pass at 3k, 5 db peak at 1.7K). No other processing was used.  Check it out.

carbonMicTest

Does anyone out there use double-button Carbon mics for audio production work these days?  Music recording? Sound design work?

I heard recently (maybe Tape Op mag?) that someone was making new-production ‘professional’ carbon mics.  Has anyone used these?  thoughts?

UPDATE: I recently had the chance to use this Lifetime Model Six Carbon Mic in a modern-recording context.  We tracked the following cut at Gold Coast Recorders, using the Lifetime for the vocals.  It sounds pretty outstanding…  I feel like you could get 90% of the way to this vocal sound with an SM57 and a fuzz pedal, but that extra 10%…  it’s a game of inches, ain’t it.   This is ATLANTIC CITY, my studio project with T.W.   Take a listen:  Ten Past Midnight

Introduction

This is a website about audio.  More specifically, the history of audio, and our relationship to audio.  Audio, broadly defined, is the electrical representation of sound.  Sound has existed for at least as long as anyone has been around to hear it, but audio is a relatively new technology.  The ability to ‘capture’ sound and then ‘play it back’ divorced from its origin in time and/or space is the most basic function of audio technology.   In addition to this role, audio technology can also be an instrument; a tool to create unique sounds that do not originate as acoustic sound.  I do not mean to imply that these are separate functions; capturing and playing back sound will always change the sound, regardless of the intent of the audio operator.   There is always a grey area between documentation and manipulation; every audio operation creates the potential for a new sound.  We have developed a great many audio tools and technologies to maintain the ‘fidelity’ of audio: that is to say, maintain a ‘true-to-the-original-sound’ quality in our audio signals.  We have also developed a great number of tools and technologies to enhance, distort, combine, separate, and generally manipulate audio.  It is these tools and technologies that I am interested in exploring.  I am interested in their effects, their methods, and their development.  Most of all, I am interested in their potential to create meaning for the people who experience these new sounds.  Sounds that have been brought across great distances, through spans of time, bearing the artifacts of the particular tools that have crafted them.

I will not be presenting a chronological narrative.  I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive or thorough treatment of audio history.  Instead I will focus each post on a particular subject: a technology, a technique, an individual, a recording, a piece of hardware.  I will provide historical context, and offer my thoughts about what significance the subject may have.  Some posts will be very broad in nature, and some will be fairly technical.  Much of what I write about will stem from my own experiments with audio hardware and techniques.  I hope you find the information useful.

information and ideas about audio history