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The US vs. the UK sound: Meaning in music production in the 1970s

Simon Zagorski-Thomas, London College of Music, TVU

 

Introduction

This research is still at an early stage and this paper should be seen as a first step in a larger research project. I must thank various people for their help. Pip Williams was especially helpful as always but I’m also grateful to Andy East, Rob Bowman and several engineers and producers who communicated with me over the internet.
Aside from my interest in the actual differences in the sound that variations in the recording process can impart, I’m also keen to discover the reasoning behind why some techniques are chosen over others. I’ve already explored this in a paper on record production in world music markets. Different elements of a piece of music will perform different functions in different musical cultures and this will affect how they are treated in the recording and mixing process. Thus guitars were more important than percussion in creating the rhythmic impetus in Congolese Rumba. Any rhythm section instruments in Spanish canto chico recordings in the 1960s were recorded and equalised with very weak bass ends so as allow the full frequency range of the guitar and voice to be heard.
In this paper I want to investigate the reasons for the perceived difference in the sound of American and British record production in the early 1970s. How much of this difference is due to technology and recording techniques and how much to the differing musical cultures? My first problem is, of course, to attempt to pin down what the perceived differences might actually be.
What’s the difference?
I’m going to start by playing a two segments of the Who track ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ which were both recorded and mixed in 1971. The first was recorded in New York and was produced by Kit Lambert and the second, the released version, was recorded at Olympic Studios in London and was produced by Glynn Johns. Obviously this is only one example but I think it demonstrates a point that can be heard fairly consistently elsewhere in recordings of the time. (Example: The Who. 1971. Behing Blue Eyes from the album ‘Who’s Next’ both versions from CD release).  For me the American recording has more separation whilst the British recording is fatter but less well defined. Whilst the drums aren’t quieter they have more ambience in the British recording and thus don’t seem so close. When we look at spectrograms of the same bar from each recording this seems to be borne out.
 
UK Recording of Behind Blue Eyes.
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US Recording of Behind Blue Eyes
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For those of you who are not familiar with spectrograms, the vertical axis is pitch, the horizontal axis is time and the darkness of the graph depicts the strength of the signal. Thus, in the American example, the snare drum hits have more high frequency energy than the British version and the energy bursts are shorter and sharper. In the UK example the snare drums have a less intense attack transient but they last longer. The British recording also has a wider and stronger range of frequencies in the bass end. Both of these features are consistent with greater ambience in the recording and British examples more even amplitude, especially in the lower frequency range would account for the ‘fatness’: The US example may have higher peaks but the UK sound seems to have a higher average amplitude which will make those lower frequencies be perceived as louder even if the individual peaks are lower than the American ones.
My next examples come from the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album which was recorded from 1970 to 1971. The first and third segments you’ll hear were recorded at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabamma and the second and fourth were recorded at Olympic Studios in London. The same things apply to these examples as far as ambience is concerned but they also illustrate the related concept of separation. The American recordings have a much greater separation of the instruments whilst the instruments in the British recordings merge together more. (Example: The Rolling Stones ‘Sticky Fingers’ 1970 – 1, Brown Sugar (Muscle Shoals, USA), Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Olympic, UK), Wild Horses (Muscle Shoals, USA) and Sister Morphine (Olympic, UK)
Separation is much harder is harder to see in a spectrogram but I think the areas of acoustic energy in the American recordings are much more clearly defined than the UK ones.
UK Recording from Sticky Fingers: Sister Morphine
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US Recording from Sticky Fingers: Wild Horses
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UK Recording from Sticky Fingers: Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?
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US Recording from Sticky Fingers: Brown Sugar
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This makes the British recordings more live sounding but less clear than the more artificially distinct recordings of the American tracks.
I think these areas of difference can be identified in the dance music of the time as well as we can hear in the next examples. Here we start with a live sounding 1973 recording by Hot Chocolate, a UK group, a more distinct and cleaner track by the American KC & The Sunshine Band from 1974, another live-ish Hot Chocolate track from 1975 and finally a very artificially distinct KC & The Sunshine Band recording from 1976. (Example: Hot Chocolate: Brother Louie. 1973, KC and the Sunshine Band: Get Down Tonight. 1974, Hot Chocolate: Disco Queen. 1975 and KC and the Sunshine Band: Shake Your Booty. 1976).
The snare drums on the American recordings have a much tighter and less ambient sound than the Hot Chocolate recordings.
The next area of difference that I’d like to mention is more to do with mixing practice than with the recording process. It concerns the balance of instrumental and vocal tracks. I would argue that American recordings of this period have a much more pronounced differentiation of lead and accompaniment – of foreground and background – in the mixes. I’m going to play four very short excerpts. The first and third are American and the second and fourth are British. (Example: Simon & Garfunkel Cecilia (1969), Cat Stevens I Think I See The Light (1970), Neil Young Heart of Gold (1971) and Steeleye Span One Misty Moisty Morning (1972). The vocals and solo instruments on the American tracks are far less embedded into the backing tracks than the UK examples. In the Cat Stevens example the piano is fighting for attention with the vocal and in the Steeleye Span example the vocal is much more evenly balanced with the various lead instruments than in the Simon & Garfunkel or Neil Young examples.
Differences in recording practice.

Studio Live Room Dimensions

UK

Olympic Studios - 190m2 and 110m2
Abbey Road Studio 2 - 190m2
Air Studios - 190m2

US

Muscle Shoals - 42m2
Sunset Sound - 80m2
Village Recorder - 60m2


One difference that jumps out quickly both from interviews and from a study of photos and websites is that the studios used for popular music recording tended to have larger recording spaces with higher ceilings in the UK. Of course, there were smaller studios in Britain, like Trident, and larger studios in America, like Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York. The larger studios in the US seem to have been used more for orchestral and musical theatre recordings though. These smaller recording spaces combined with more extensive use of close microphone placement and screening in the US would certainly account for the less ambient recordings with greater separation that I’m suggesting are characteristic of the American sound. The claim that screening to separate out the musicians and reduce ambience was more prevalent in America is made on the basis of anecdotal evidence from engineers and an examination of photographic evidence. The same types of evidence are used to support the claim that close microphone placement was less common in the UK in the early 1970s. Abbey Road engineers at the end of the 1960s had to ask for special permission to use close microphone placement as it was feared that the sound pressure levels would damage the microphones.
The examples we heard earlier from the Who, the Rolling Stones and others are all consistent with the hypothesis that the British recordings used some combination of larger rooms and a more ambient microphone placement.  The American recordings had shorter and sharper attack transients because of smaller rooms, greater use of screening and closer microphone placement with a microphone on every drum in a kit.
A further example of these differences can be seen in The Eagles recordings in the early 1970s. The first and second examples were recorded in London and the third and fourth were recorded in L.A. Listen to the snare drum sound in particular on all the tracks to hear the ambience on the British tracks compared to the cleaner, tighter sound of the American recordings. You can see from the spectrograms that the UK snare sounds are longer and more ambient.
UK Eagles Snare: Witchy Woman (1972) Island Studios, London
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UK Eagles Snare: Best of My Love (1973) Olympic Studios, London
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US Eagles Snare: Already Gone (1973) Record Plant, L.A
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US Eagles Snare: Take It To The Limit (1974) Record Plant, L.A.
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At the start of the 1970s the American company Westlake started a trend for deadened acoustics in the design of studio performance spaces. The idea was to make the spaces neutral so that recordings made at a Westlake studio could be added to at any other Westlake studio in the world. This wasn’t necessarily popular with all engineers. In an email correspondence the American sound engineer, Tom Fine (2005) said “In my opinion, by far the worst trend that caught hold in the USA was the ‘dead room’ …syndrome that gripped the business from the late 1960s until the 80s.”
Another technical question was whether the access to different types of technology in Britain and America made a difference to the sound of record production in a consistent or even noticeable way. It has been suggested that the use of solid state electronics might have spread more quickly in America than in Britain but it’s difficult to find any consistent patterns. Whilst America was generally quicker off the mark with solid state technology, Rupert Neve in the UK was designing solid state EQ and consoles for studios in London from 1964 onwards. It does seem however that the differences in EQ circuit standardisation in the US and Europe may have made a noticeable difference to the sound of American built consoles. In a personal interview, Pip Williams told me that he noticed that American built desks such as API, Helios and Quad8 that started to appear in some British studios from 1973 onwards had a “less choked” sound than the early Rupert Neve desks.
There’s plenty of scope for further research here into other potential influences such as
•    the ways that the different microphones that were more or less available in each country
•    the differences that the AC electrical supply may have made to amplifier performance
•    the availability of various types of compressors and other equipment may have made to the sound of records in this period.
Another obvious area for the creation of difference is in the training of engineers and producers. Edward Kealy  defined three stages in the development of sound engineering practice: the Craft – Union mode, the entrepreneural mode and the art mode. I think it’s fairly easy to argue that the entrepreneural mode was much slower in developing in the UK than in the US and that this had an effect on the way that innovative practice developed in the two countries. Just how easy it is to quantify and evaluate those changes is another matter.
Authenticity in the UK seems to have been based on the fact that a recordist’s identity was associated with tradition and older techniques. As to whether trade practices were more firmly entrenched in the UK, more research is necessary. As mentioned earlier, Geoff Emmerick recalls there was a rule at Abbey Road studios stating that microphones couldn’t be closer that 18” to the instrument and that he had to have written permission for close microphone placement on The Beatles sessions in 1966.  The entrepreneural model was slower to appear in the UK but perhaps this didn’t inhibit creative practice. It can be argued that creative practice in the UK seems to have been related to younger engineers acting as naughty boys in the big studios and as the financial clout of popular music became apparent groups were given more artistic freedom in the studios. The entrepreneural model and the smaller scale studio associated with it would inhibit any creativity that involved unproductive experimentation or anything that might be dangerous to expensive equipment. Pip Williams also commented  that that studio time was cheaper at this time in the UK and that US studios also charged extra for any non-basic equipment. That may have discouraged the type of experimentation that was seen in the UK in the everyday use of studios.
How musical and cultural aesthetics affect production techniques
Returning to the differences in mixing practice mentioned earlier and the issue of vocals being less prominent in UK mixing practice I would like to address the question of broader cultural values and how these were embedded in working practice. If there might be an inherent tendency to value instrumental music more highly in the UK that might provide a broader cultural or socio-economic reason for vocals being less foregrounded in the mix. This both allows the backing tracks to be heavier and also to give the close, intimate sound to instruments that is usually reserved for voices in the US.
Was this difference the result of socio – economic differences between the consumers in the two countries? Was there a difference in the dominant artistic and cultural ideas in the two countries and from where did that stem? Was it a cultural accident that emerged from different training techniques for engineers and developed into an issue of national pride?
These questions are beyond the scope of this paper but perhaps this difference may be to do with the importance of jazz singing and crooning in American culture.
Whatever the cultural reasons, there does seem to be a difference in the musical aesthetics of the two countries at that point. It might be argued that the USA moved towards ‘cleaner’ sounds in production because of the intimate form of communication that was inherent in country rock (soft vocal delivery, acoustic or cleanly amplified instruments, laid back feel) whilst the UK had The Who, The Stones, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and then Glam Rock which had more elements of the more ambient ‘live band’ sound. Further to that we can identify a much stronger influence of the classical music tradition in the UK compared to the US. Progressive Rock, with its adoption of many aspects of the classical tradition and the lionisation of the rock virtuoso as a predominantly British phenomenon (at this point in time) can be contrasted with the folk, jazz and popular music based traditions in the US. Perhaps this dichotomy in aesthetics also had an influence on engineering practice in the two countries.

Conclusion

I would argue then that the two most important factors in the perceived difference in the ‘sounds’ of rock production between the UK and the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s stems from room size and mixing practice. It should be noted however that this is a view based on quite cursory research and should be viewed as a pointer for further research rather than as a conclusion in itself.

Bibliography


Cunningham, Mark. Good Vibrations: a History of Record Production. London: Sanctuary, 1998.
Kealy, Edward R. (1979) ‘From Craft to Art: the Case of Sound Mixers and Popular Music’, in On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin. London: Routledge, 1990. 207–20.