Many years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and most recorded
music involved an orchestra, Mohammed had to come to the Mountain. That is to say, the equipment was brought to the orchestra
and not the orchestra to the equipment: mobile recording was the rule, rather than the exception.
A cutting lathe or a tape recorder and some microphone pre-amplifiers
or perhaps a small mixing desk was brought to the hall where the orchestra or its leader thought it sounded the best.
This method was fraught with difficulties, such as less-than-perfect
acoustics and the problems of outside noises. It only required the local authorities to decide to dig up the road or for a
car to backfire (as they often did in those days) for a recording to be spoilt. Also the lathes and the vacuum tubes in the
equipment did not like being moved and bumped and so were prone to failure. It is for these reasons that EMI decided to build
the Abbey Road Studio to record Elgar.
The Abbey Road Studio may be the largest in Britain at 455 sq m, but even
that is too small for some things and large projects still have to hire large halls. Watford Town Hall in North London has
become fairly popular recently and was where a great deal of film music has been recorded.
So for a long time, mobile recording was nearly all for radio
broadcasts. But back in the 70’s a growing demand for live albums that had to be recorded using multitrack equipment
lead to the building of control rooms in a truck that came to be known as mobiles. This could be anything from a small desk
and some recording equipment in the back of a VW bus, all the way to a 40-ton truck-and-trailer units with expanding sides,
so that a 56-channel large format studio desk, large effects racks and a machine room for at least two 24-track reel-to-reel
recorders could be installed.
For about ten to fifteen years these trucks did good, if somewhat
intermittent, business and every large rock act wanted to have the definitive live LP. Some of these recordings became milestones
in the history of rock and no Baby-Boomer LP collection was complete without several live albums from Yes, Genesis, Queen,
Isac Hayes, Eagles, Roxy Music, Grateful Dead or Deep Purple.
But there was a limit to the number of supergroups that were
prepared to spend vast sums to have huge trucks drag state of the art equipment from city to city, recording their most golden
musical moments. The golden age of mobile recording was coming to an end.
A handful of mobiles were able to survive on the sound for televsion
shows and the occasional live recording and today they are busier than ever, recording large concerts for release on DVD-video.
These are usually streamlined affairs that concentrate on quality and reliability and have dispensed with racks full of effects
that will not be used on the final mix anyway.
With the advent of the DVD-video, live concerts are one of the key products
that any major musical act must have and lean, keen and efficient mobiles are enjoying something of a boom.
When I started out in this business, there was almost no such
thing as a mastering studio. There was such a thing as a mastering laboratory and their job was to check for phase and other
gremlins and then cut the lacquer and this was used to make the stamper from which all those black vinyl disks were made.
The mastering engineer had to reshape the sound to take the changes made by the process of turning the tape recording into
a black vinyl disk into account. Because of the negative effects of adding a generation of tape, any changes to the sound
had to be done right there in the cutting lab.
But today’s mastering studio (sometimes known as pre-mastering studio)
has a very different role. Its job is to take the mix and turn that into a more pleasant sound.
This begs the rather obvious question, why doesn’t the
mix down engineer do that in the first place? There are three answers, tape, tape and tape:
Tape: In the past the saturation effect of tape gave us the
sound we wanted.
Tape: The negative effect of adding a copy-generation to the
signal often outweighed the benefits of an even better overall sound.
Tape: Digital is easier to get wrong. Every signal is sharp
and crystal clear and if it too loud in some parts or you have done something silly, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Digital
may be perfect, but it is unforgiving. Every sound may be perfectly reproduced, but then so are the mistakes. The need to
load the tape with as much signal as possible to keep away from the noise floor on the final mix, meant that we were forced
to balance things out better.
The first CDs sounded OK because they were originally recorded
onto tape. Later, when 24-bit multitrack machines came onto the market, making all those digital mistakes became possible
and a new type of expert came along to fix the mistakes. He sat in a small room with every type of speaker, or with one set
of very high quality speakers and a host of good outboard including compressors and equalizers and basically, just fiddled
until he got a better sound.
There is no one system that does it all, when it comes to getting
that better sound. True, there are some systems that claim to do it all, but there are some tasks that are best done in analogue
and others that must be done on a workstation in digital. So the mastering studio will have a series of analogue eq's, compressors,
reverbs and other toys, as well as a DAW armed with a large range of mastering plugins for normalisation and other effects.
There may also be a large range of speakers and a speaker management system, so that the engineer can switch between
different types of listening environments and sub-woofers. Today, mastering suites have to cope with 5.1 monitoring and encoding,
so the investment in monitors will be considerable.