Calling all Recording Engineers

I am a jazz fan and alot of the CD's I have were origionally recorded in the late 1950's and early 1960's. I have quite a few CD's from the Bill Evans Trio, Art Blakely, Miles etc. that were recorded in this time period and they are absolutely superb, far superior to some CD's I have that were recorded recently. I would have thought that with today's digital recording techniques, this would not be possible. I am simply curious why and thank you all in advance for your explanations.
While I am certainly no recording engineer, I think the answer is "simpler is better." The recordings that you refer to are among the best that I have too. Fantasy, which includes Contemporary, Galaxy, Pablo, and Riverside all had a very direct approach. Many of these early jazz creations were made using a three track analog tape machine and a simple mixer direct to tape. There were often only two or three microphones used, and those were Telefunkens or other high end tube models, creating an unmistakable sound from that era.

Many valuable and prized classical music releases were produced about this same time by RCA and Mercury. These were recorded in this same direct manner, requiring great discipline and cooperation from the conductor and musicians, as the sound was pretty much laid down as it was being performed.

Unless the record labels return to a more intimate set up, where the musicians are simply performing for the engineers (and they capture it), we will not enjoy that sound again. As it is now, the musicians are more like captives, stuck within a strictly controlled environment, one that worships multi track digital recording and mixing, allowing the engineer total control. This gives them the ability to alter the sound, often resulting in a piece of consumer software that sounds nothing like the original performance.

We have all heard the stories about rock groups that cannot perform live. Their heavily doctored and dubbed digital creations are more the sound of the techniques of the record label than the players themselves.

This is a subject that I feel strongly about, as I consider music an almost sacred art. Obviously I am disappointed that much of what today passes for excellence, has been so planned, homogenized and edited that it is only a cutout of what could have been produced by a capable artist. Of course those that could not perform to this standard would fail. The people selling software are willing to pass up those opportunities for excellence, in order to have the guarantee that no recording session will "fail." There is always the bottom line staring everyone in the face, and the joy and passion has been exchanged for a consistent pay check.
A similar question came up in the EQ Experts Forum -
. Someone asked George Massengburg how the Beatles got their vocal sound. (GM is a major recording engineer and equipment designer - he invented the parametric equalizer.) GM's answer was that John and Paul were really good singers who practiced real hard. The fact that they used what is now considered classic recording equipment is nice, but great talent and work is what made their sound.

In today's recording environment it's now possible for an artist to easily fix mistakes. If the singer doesn't sing in tune, use an Intonator (this is a real product, if you've listened to a pop record in the last 2 years, you've heard what this signal processor does). If the drummer can't play on the beat throughout the song, don't worry, you can sample the verse where he played well and loop it over to the rest of the song. The guitarist can't hit the solo, no problem, you can computer program a solo with MIDI and use sampled guitar sounds. The current technology offers today's artist an incredible freedom. Talented artist will take the technology and run. They'll create music. Less talented artist use the technology as a crutch to mask their shortcomings.

One thing to remember, back in the day, musicians worked in clubs before live audiences, usually for years, before they went into a recording studio. This is not the situation today. Artist can have multi-platinum records and never performed in anything by a music video.
Not much that can be added to Albert's excellent response, other than to make everyone aware of the AMPEX Corporation and their contribution. Most of the recordings mentioned were made on Ampex 300 series machines. Ampex engineers were probably the most visionary team in the history of audio.The wonderful all vacume tube circuitry in the preamps back then were a major contributor to the creation of this sound. I once had a chance to listen to half inch full track mono safty masters from 1953 recorded at the speed of 30 ips. And the fact is its been all downhill after that point, sonically. Distortion is lower today but the magic is not there. (at least on full orchestra)
Magnetic tape formulations of today, are not as good, in my opinion ,as the older Scotch 111 acetate. The difference is like watching a wonderful movie done in technicolor, with all those vivid reds and blues, vs todays bleached out film colors
Frap, good to hear from a man that appreciates art. Thank you.
Kudos to all responders. It's rewarding to participate in a forum where the music is being discussed and not the cables, amps etc. that plays it back for us. All the great equipment is useless unless we have something good to playback. I hope we get more great replies in this thread. Great Job Ladies and Gents.
Excellent observations in the above posts. Since the original question concerns "classic" jazz recordings I will add my two cents worth in that context; although the same issues apply to classical or any other music (including pop) of value. I think much of the answer to this question lies in what makes these recordings "classic" to begin with. IMO there are (were) two things at work here that are very interrelated; in addition, it is very difficult to determine which came first and which was a direct result (at least in part) of the other. I'm referring to the decline of interest in live music on the part of the general public and the proliferation of technology. As concerns jazz, remember that jazz was one of the if not the most popular music of the first half of the century; and that was during a time when a very different aesthetic existed as concerned the arts. It was a very different time, and a very different social climate. There was more respect for quality in a general sense and that respect certainly applied to music. In addition there was much more interest on the part of the average person in performing music if only on an amateur level. In general the average person heard much more live music than recorded music. The implications of this are obvious. At the same time there was rapid growth in the development of technologies that could be applied to the recording of music. Technological toys that arguably were not needed; but since the technology was developed, there was pressure to find a use for it. Unfortunately, when it comes to the business of recording music, there really is very little difference between it and any other business endeavor. It has become more and more about expediency and protecting the bottom line, as was pointed out by Albert. This trend is really a reflection of our social climate and not something that is isolated and unique to the art of recording music IMO. Look at the quality of most pop artists today versus those of fifty or sixty years ago. Folks, Frank Sinatra was a pop star then; what more need be said. As concerns recording engineers themselves, I just don't think the love of the music is there to the extent that there once was. The great Rudy Van Gelder set up a studio in his own home and produced some of the greatest and most important jazz recordings of all time. Do we have a Van Gelder today? Is there jazz being produced today worthy of the kind of care and attention shown by someone like him? I'm not so sure. Again, which came first, the chicken or the egg? And while I'm certainly not going to excuse engineers for their lack of commitment to produce a great product, I do know that most today don't have anything resembling an audiophile sensibility. This one blows me away: One of the most common and frustrating observations by musicians is that in the vast majority of cases, while in a recording studio, the engineer never comes out of his booth to hear what the real thing sounds like before starting to try to capture that sound. They start turning knobs without knowing what the artist(s) really sounds like. Go figure.
Excellent points Frogman! I know you are a Bill Evans fan. On his album "Waltz for Debbie" the drummer uses brushes quite alot. On one particular number (I do not recall which) he rubs his brushes on his snare and it is the most live sounding recording I have ever heard. I could of swore the guy was in my living room with his snare and brushes. This recording was done on analog tape and it is one of the best I have ever heard, "pure ear candy". Funny thing is, with all the advanced digital do-dad's available today this recording which was done in 1961 is still the best IMHO.
Do you agree?
I'm not sure it's the best, but it certainly is one of the great jazz recordings of all time. Aside from the usual superb playing by Evans, that recording captures the sound and feeling of the Village Vanguard like no other that I have heard. I had the privilege of hearing Evans three times at the Vanguard, and have been there probably somewhere around twenty times over the years to hear other artists, so the characteristic sound of that club is familiar to me. It's really spooky how a recording can take you back to a particular venue if it's done right. The only problem for me with that recording, and it's a very minor one, is that at the Vanguard the piano is on the left as the audience faces the musicians. On "Waltz For Debby" one gets the perspective of the club from the bandstand facing the audience; in other words the piano is on the right. By the way and speaking of drummers, the last time I heard Evans he was auditioning drummers. That night Bob Moses and Joe LaBarbera took turns. To me LaBarbera was far superior in that setting; very intuitive and with a wonderful touch. Great brushes too. Regards.
Frogman, you lucky dog! I have not been fortunate enough to have seen the Bill Evans Trio play live. I live on Eastern Long Island and have to travel to NYC for good jazz. I try to stop by Fat Tuesdays and the Blue Note whenever I am in the city but I have never seen anybody as good as the Bill Evans Trio. I will be seeing Cassandra Wilson at the Planting Fields Aboretum this summer though. I can't wait. Think I will go listen to some Art Blakely now. Ciao...
Frap and ALbert both make valid points. Everything was very simple back then...the recorders were usually 2 or 3 track, not 4,8,16,24,48, or in the digital realm, 100+. A 2 or 3 track, 1/2" or 1" tape devotes more space to each track than a 1/2" or 1" tape that holds 8 or 16 tracks. The recorders, preamps and microphones were all top a matter of fact, they're still favored today (some in the form of reproductions).

They were also recorded on analog tape, as compared to Chesky or Stereophile recordings. Those people make very well engineered, digital recordings, but some people prefer the sound that the analog tape (and the tape compression) impart on the recording.

I think the main difference between then and now is in the engineering know-how. I'm definitely not saying that engineers don't know what they're doing today...they do...but many aren't accustomed to the basic recording that best captures an orchestra or a jazz band. They're used to close micing, multi-tracking, using a lot of outboard gear, digital recording, etc. The old engineers had no choice at that time...they mastered that simple form of recording. As mentioned above...I would also say that's one reason the Beatles albums sound much better than their pop contemporaries. They were recording in a top studio with George Martin and Geoff Emerick...two guys who had a lot of experience with orchestras and comedy records (Peter Sellers), and they knew how to record things properly (although, they certainly learned how to compress stuff and mess with the sound too).
Kudos to all who've responded. As with much in popular culture, there is a tendency to sink towards the lowest common denominator. The only force that seems to be able to raise itself above the average is "talent". To a large extent, talent makes the technology irrelevant. There's nothing "wrong" with synthesizers, multi-track recorders, samplers, spot miking, or any of the other modern recording tools. The question is whether the musicians and the engineers have the talent to maximize the technology? Apparently, very few do.

BTW, the Beatles were among the first to use 8 and 16 track recorders. They loved the freedom the increased number of tracks afforded. Then again, they were talented.