Entering the Recording Field (Mar. 1973)

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By Joseph Giovanelli

Judging from the numerous letters I have received over a short period of time, there is a considerable interest and fascination surrounding the area of sound recording. Many of the readers who have written me have asked what is involved in entering into the field of sound recording as a vocation. It is in response to this reader interest that I have prepared the following information.

Those of us who entered the field of sound recording did so because of tremendous personal interest and enthusiasm for this fascinating area.

At the time we became interested in this field, a typical studio was comprised of a couple of microphones, a mixer, and a disc recorder.

In contrast, today's recording studio can include 30 microphones, a console, tape recorders capable of recording up to 24 individual tracts, synchronizing equipment, reverberation and echo systems, limiting amplifiers, equalizers, programmers for automatic mix-downs, automated disc mastering equipment, and an arrangement by which all of this equipment can be interconnected.

The early recording studio procedures required a relatively short time to understand. Even then, however, the recording technician did need to know basic electronics theory and did need to have a knowledge of the mechanical work required to maintain disc-cutting equipment. With these basics, a little "feel" for music and with customers, the studio was in operation.

The complicated electronic equipment of the recording studio today requires more knowledge than did the earlier studio. Hence, more time is needed to achieve proficiency. Most modern studios cannot afford the time to teach a new-comer this necessary information.

The novice cannot expect to begin his career by mixing for the "Rolling Stones" or the Boston Symphony. He can expect to start as a messenger, an office worker or even as a floor sweeper. If he demonstrates enthusiasm for the "action" in the studio and shows his great interest in practical ways, someone will notice and he will eventually get a chance to get into the studio work.

Somehow the knowledge required by the modern studio must be gained.

Observation of repair sessions, and actual recording sessions, is invaluable.

Learn to listen and you will find out why a technician rejected one "take" during a session and accepted another.

A studio cannot teach the basics in electronics. This material can sometimes be learned through extensive reading. A formal education, however, will probably prove a time-saver in the long run. Fundamentals of electronics can be secured as part of a general college program. This is not always practical. In many communities, however, there are technical schools which offer courses in electronic theory. A course of this type should include laboratory work. It is one thing to have a theoretical understanding. (Under actual studio conditions it is often more necessary to have skill in handling a soldering iron than in handling a slide rule.) If your community does not have such a school, there are correspondence courses available.

Neither AUDIO nor I recommend any particular school. The names and addresses of a few schools which appear to offer the kind of electronics background applicable to the needs of today's recording studios appear at the end of this article.* Although an electronics background is important in keeping a recording studio in operation or in planning future expansion of its facilities, the art of actually making recordings is a completely different process, requiring different skills. These skills can be acquired in various ways. One excellent way to learn many of the basic elements of that art is to use your tape recorder. Another way is to observe recording at a recording studio in operation. A third way is to obtain formal training. It is best to combine all three of these methods.

Using Your Tape Recorder

The only way to learn to use a tape recorder is to acquire one and start working with it. Preferably, it should be a stereo machine. Start by recording from phonograph records or from FM. Classical music generally has a wide dynamic range which poses problems which will be understood after you have gained some experience in recording this material. (By "dynamics" I refer to the variation between the loudest and softest musical passages.) Get to know the recorder so well that you learn to keep distortion as low as possible, and still maintain as good a signal-to-noise ratio as possible. You will make mistakes which will lead to distortion. It will be your task to learn how to correct such errors. Clues can sometimes be found by reading the instruction manuals which you received with your recorder.

There are some recorders which have automatic means by which level can be controlled. Do not use such a tape machine; lots of the things you must learn will go by you by so doing.

When these techniques are mastered, use your microphone with the tape machine. Record anything at all: children playing, conversations over dinner, a babbling brook, moving traffic outside your window, etc. Try to record a rock group or other music event for the fun of it and for the experience.

You must listen to all of your recordings critically, not just with amazement that anything at all was reproduced. Many of your recordings will be terrible. It is up to you to determine why and to correct the situation in future attempts.

As in any skill, recording requires time to master, even when working at it every day; there is no way to reduce this time.

A companion to tape recording is tape editing. I suggest that you obtain a good splicing block. The better ones are complete with basic instructions dealing with the procedures by which good splices are made, plus some helpful hints as to the kinds of edits which can be successful, plus those which cannot. Try editing a conversation leaving out portions and see if the content is still sensible. Try to edit a piece of music, leaving out a chorus.

See if you can do this without any listener being able to detect the point where the section was removed. Practice inserting what is known as "leader tape" between pieces of music or between sections of your tape. What would occur if you had a quarter track machine with selections on both sides of the tape, and if you edited one side of the tape? Listen to the second side.

If you discovered any problems, how could you solve them? (You won't find the answers to these questions here.) If the studio in which you hope to work has disc equipment, it is a good idea to follow the same procedures as for tape recording. Try putting your tapes onto discs.

Sometimes it is possible to locate used, inexpensive disc recording equipment. Such a recorder will really show you what disc making is all about. The machine will not have any of the refinements found on studio mastering equipment. It will produce rumble and the nature of the head may be such that you cannot obtain as high a signal level as might be desirable.

It may be so old a machine that even if it does cut at 33 1/3 RPM, the groove spacing will be wide, not microgroove.

However, you can see all its parts and can gain a real insight into the operation of a recording lathe. It would be nice if you could obtain a small, over-head lathe, but this is riot really necessary. In this connection, however, I must tell you that even if the machine came to you inexpensively, it is not cheap to make records. Styli are perhaps $5.00 each, but this varies, depending on the requirements of the head. A mistake will cause the stylus to chip and it will be ruined. 12-inch blanks are about $2.00 each, and you will have to buy them 25 at a time.

Smaller sizes are proportionately less expensive. Discs, however, cannot be reused as tapes can. By the time you have mastered the art of this machine and understand all of its peculiarities, you will have gone through a great many discs and considerable money, especially if you break a few styli along the way. Along the way you learn about groove depth, and about the maximum permissible levels found on recordings.

Search through your local library to discover any possible books on the subjects of tape and disc recording.

These books will supplement your practical experience.

Observing Studio Operation

Even if you have not begun your work in a studio as a floor sweeper, perhaps you can get to know someone in a recording studio who can, from time to time, let you in as an observer of the "goings on." There is probably much which can be said regarding what you should look for except that, under the pressure of a session which can, in larger setups, run into thousands of dollars per hour, this is not the time to ask the engineers questions about the work they are doing. The time for this is after the session has been concluded. What you have observed during the session can form the basis for what will probably be better questions than those you might have asked earlier. Many of those original questions would be answered merely by watching the session as it proceeds.

Some of the things you might watch for could include: how the engineer went about setting up his microphones; why the engineer rejected some of his own work; how the engineer edited a reel of tape. There are, of course, countless other details, and there is insufficient space to "run them down." About all I can say, therefore, is for you to keep your eyes and ears open.

Formal Training Unfortunately there are almost no schools with instruction related to studio operation. The only schools I have been able to find are listed at the end of this article.* The student able to attend any of these schools will receive invaluable training. What this training will do is to give the student an entree when applying for a position in a recording studio. It can also shorten the time required to learn the operation of the studio which hires you.

In any case, no studio of any size will employ you as a mixer on the first day of your new position.

Part of formal training should include courses in music, including how to read an orchestral score. The primary work done in any studio is that of recording music, therefore, a "feel" for it is essential. With an understanding of what the musicians are attempting to do, you will have a better idea of how to produce a "mix" which will satisfy their requirements.

Your understanding of music also helps to create a rapport with the performer. He will know that you understand what he is doing, and, therefore, he is likely to be more ready to listen to any suggestions as to mixing or what have you, that you may offer.

There is another element in working in a recording studio that is of the utmost importance. No amount of formal training can help you learn it either. This element is the ability to get along with people. The artists who keep a recording studio in business range from the easy-going to the very temperamental. It well may be your sometimes unwritten, difficult assignment to keep friction down between members of a musical group or between the group and yourself.

From a reading of the foregoing it is hoped that you do understand that there is more to working in a recording studio than rubbing shoulders with famous people. What is involved is hard work, often done under great pressure. Therefore, you must enjoy the work for its own sake.

Our basic discussion so far has been slanted toward the large studio which has facilities to do virtually anything.

There are other types of studios which specialize in a certain kind of sound recording. One type of studio is set up to produce master tapes but not discs. Modern disc recording often involves a fantastic investment in equipment, and it is an art in itself. Therefore, a studio of this kind "farms out" its disc work to studios which specialize in that area.

When applying for work in a studio you may wish to specialize in a particular aspect of recording work. Keep in mind that there are only a limited number of studios. These studios have little turn-over of personnel. In order to get into a studio, therefore, you might have to do some other work than you hoped for, just so you get "your foot in the door." As a result of the limited number of positions available, the owner of a studio is in a position to select the "cream" from all of those applying. Patience and enthusiasm on your part are essential. Any resume must be neat and well thought out.

Those resumes written on wrapping paper or with crayons or the like will not be read. (I'm not making that up; I've seen such professional summaries.) A studio is looking for, not necessarily the highest qualifications, but for clues as to your interest in the work, your overall background and willingness and ability to learn.

Many of you reading this may ask why all this formal work, when most people started out knowing little about the work. As I said at the beginning of the article, lots of us got started at a time when things were less complex, when the pace was less frantic. As new things came along, we had the time to absorb them. Any one starting out now must learn a lot rather quickly. I think some of this "pioneering spirit" can still work for those who are really "sharp". Training, however, helps to get you started.

Working in a studio is not the only way to operate in the sound recording industry. There are successful technicians in business for themselves, who :specialize in such fields as the recording of weddings, recording and transcribing business and other conferences, language laboratory work, cassette and tape duplication, you name it and some one is doing it. If no one is, you should. The field is limited only by your imagination.

You can see that some of this work requires a minimum of equipment.

This equipment, however, must be reliable because there is usually only one chance to make a recording of this kind.


I wish to thank Mr. Al Grundy, Institute of Audio Research, Inc., and Mr. John M. Woram, Vanguard Recording Society, Inc., for their help in preparing this material.


Cleveland Institute of Electronics 1776 E. 17 Street Cleveland, Ohio 44114

Bell and Howell Schools 4141 Belmont Avenue Chicago, Illinois 60641

R.C.A. Institutes, Inc. 320 W. 41 Street New York, New York 10036

International Correspondence Schools Scranton, Pennsylvania 18515 Teccart Institute Montreal, Que., Canada


Mr. Edward H. Easley, Director of Admissions Eastman School of Music 26 Gibbs Street Rochester, New York 14604

Institute of Audio Research, Inc. 64 University Place New York, New York 10003

Brigham Young University Special Courses and Conferences 242 Herald R. Clark Building Provo, Utah 84601

Loyola University Montreal, Que., Canada

There are other schools which offer basic electronics backgrounds. If we hear of them, we shall print their addresses here in this column as soon as we can.

I know of no other schools which offer formal training in studio operation. There are some dealing with broadcast techniques, but this is really not completely applicable to this discussion. Again, should I learn of other schools, I will print the information.


(adapted from Audio magazine, Mar. 1973)

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