Rise of the Sound Engineer

Bing Crosby

For decades after the invention of the phonograph, fidelity was the central goal of audio recording. Edison had sung “Mary had a little lamb,” and listen! You could hear him doing so!
The general attitude was that the more faithful the sound you heard was to the sound he had originally made, the more successful the recording. That was the point … right?

But beginning at the time of the Second World War, and with increasing technical sophistication in the 1950s and 1960s, the goal was not merely fidelity, but something that may seem contrary — successful artifice.

The singer and entertainer Bing Crosby played an accidental role in this transition. Crosby is remembered as the ultimate crooner, the voice behind “White Christmas” and “Swinging on a Star,” as well as a movie star who appeared with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in the “Road” pictures. But what is forgotten is that Crosby was also a canny entrepreneur, and beginning in October 1946 he was hosting a radio program sponsored by Philco, appropriately enough a manufacturer of radios.

A Slip of the Lips

When Crosby first took over this role, Philco Radio Time was recorded on wax disks. There was a new technology for recording sound – magnetized tape – something that had been invented by the Germans and taken over by Americans in this period, along with rocketry and jet engine aircraft, as part of the spoils of war. At Crosby’s insistence, Philco Radio Time began pre-recording its shows on tape.

One day in 1947, Crosby’s producer, Murdo MacKenzie, thought that he would have to have the announcer, Ken Carpenter, re-do a certain commercial, because Carpenter had slipped up. Carpenter had said “The new Philcos gives …” The “s” sound at the end of the verb rendered the sentence ungrammatical. It is Jack Mullin, the fellow who was working the show’s tape machine, to whom one must give credit for a moment of inspiration. Mullin took out a pair of scissors and simply cut out the bit of tape that held the “s” sound.

Thereafter, anyone hearing the broadcast as taped would “hear” Carpenter say, “The new Philcos give …” The radio world caught on at once. This was something new. As Greg Milner emphasizes in his book,”Perfecting Sound Forever,” recording technology in 1947 took a huge unpremeditated step. It was no longer all about recording some authentic event – it was about creating something new. Carpenter had never actually said the phrase “The new Philcos give…” – but there it was on tape.

Just as you could take something out if you didn’t want it, you could with the same miracle of tape editing add something – splice together sounds made in very different contexts and make a new whole out of them.

The Sound Engineer

This discovery created a new profession, the sound engineer. Such engineers soon learned that they could play lots of tricks.
They could loop a tape, slicing one end to another so a phrase or tune repeats itself as often as is desired. Or, they might create an echo, a single sound that would repeat itself in a weakening, fading form, just by letting the output of a tape leak back into the input.

Sun Records Label

Echo effects, sometimes appropriately called “leak backs,” became part of the history of rock and roll, especially at the now-legendary Sun Records in the mid 1950s. Milner quotes Jack Clement, the engineer at Sun Records. We might say parenthetically here that Clement became a legend in his own right, out of the large shadow of the Sun. His boss there eventually fired him, and Clement thereafter worked with Chet Atkins, George Jones, and Charley Pride.

Anyway: Clement said of the mid-50s at Sun, “Sound would leak back into the vocal mike, and for some reason that sounded good.” Clement persuaded Phillips to buy a submixer, so he could start applying these echo effects selectively — to some elements in the music rather than others.

Sun Records, founded by Sam Phillips in 1952, became the label of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and too many other legends to mention here, all the beneficiaries of its distinctive studio-borne sound. Rock-and-roll was built, then, not only on the talents of its performers but on the (analog era) trickery of the sound booth, something that had its start in a real although modest seeming way because Ken Carpenter had once flubbed the line, “the new Philcos give….”

Authenticity

All the same, the world’s popular cultures (or pop culture singular – it may have all bled into one by now) preserve the notion that sound trickery is a bad thing, that the authentic preservation of the sound the musicians actually make is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Since music recording went digital, the “trickery” has become easier, and with ease there is a sense of artlessness to it. It has all become too routine to warrant comparison with Jack Mullins’, or Clements’, moments of inspiration.

The psychologist and philosopher William James once used the image of “the tiger in India” to make a related philosophical point. Here I sit, in the northeast United States, far from any tiger. What am I doing when I formulate to myself the image of a tiger in India? I am postulating what could be, and what would be were I to book a trip, disembark in India, and go looking for a striped beast. Any good idea about or image of a tiger, then, is in principle one that will “lead to it through a context which the world supplies.”

Perhaps we should learn to think of the relationship between a recording and an actual performance in this way. The tiger isn’t something that happened in the studio, it is what would happen, were the artists to be giving a live concert. The recording, and whatever studio trickery it entails, does its work well if it increases the odds that the performer and the listener will someday get together, in the same room or arena, in unmediated contact.

But let’s close by enjoying the studio-created reverb at the heart of the popular 1964 Beatles’ recording of “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.”

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