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How did recording artists achieve the lush, lounge-y 1950s sound?
January 9, 2013 11:31 AM   Subscribe

Enlighten me on instrumental and recording techniques of the 1950s.

Specifically, I'm thinking of instrumental passages such as those in the intro and at the 1:38 point of this recording of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable." At 1:38, cords are played on a piano, but they seem to be backed up by a percussion instrument, such as a xylophone, to give them added depth. Is this the case? And what makes the plucked violin strings sound, well, so defined and almost tinny? Later on, the lush violins kick in, an effect that I believe was derogatively called "1000 strings." How did studio bands or sound engineers achieve this lush effect without actually employing 1000 violinists?

What were the other techniques and tricks employed by musicians and sound engineers to engender the lounge-y sound of this era?
posted by Gordion Knott to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 


(well, the remake with natalie cole, but there's some info in there on how the orchestra was recorded originally)

I think basically it's minimal production with careful micing in those days. Effects the way producers use them now didn't really exist back then.
posted by empath at 11:44 AM on January 9, 2013


Don't overlook the value of a good room.
posted by holgate at 1:09 PM on January 9, 2013


(More on Studio B at Ocean Way.)
posted by holgate at 1:14 PM on January 9, 2013


At 1:38, cords are played on a piano, but they seem to be backed up by a percussion instrument, such as a xylophone, to give them added depth. Is this the case?

Yup, sure sounds like that to me. You can hear it at the beginning of the tune, too.

And what makes the plucked violin strings sound, well, so defined and almost tinny?

I'd say the "defined" part is actually more about the technique of the players. The "tinny" aspect, IMO, is possibly because the mics picking up the strings were not close to the players, and so weren't picking up much low end (see Proximity Effect.)

How did studio bands or sound engineers achieve this lush effect without actually employing 1000 violinists?

Well, they may not have had literally 1000 violinists, but recording full-on 30+ member orchestras in the studio was certainly common back then. (Nowadays it's pretty much limited to movie soundtracks - actual orchestras tend to record in concert halls.) You don't need a mic for every violin or other instrument, orchestra recordings are very often done with 1 to 3 mics. Here's an article from the mic manufacturer AKG on some of these techniques: Orchestral Recording Basics. I'd say capturing 20-30 string players plus the natural reverberation of the room with minimal mics does a lot to create that lush sound.

A lot of the sound was really just about placing musicians in the right place in a room with certain acoustic properties, then placing really good mics in proper position in relation to the musicians and the room.

Banking off empath's answers, check out the Sound on Sound article on recording Miles Davis' Round Midnight and Mix Magazine's article on recording Tony Bennett's I Left My Heart in San Francisco. (Both of which, as it so happens, were recorded by the same engineer in the same studio.)

What were the other techniques and tricks employed by musicians and sound engineers to engender the lounge-y sound of this era?

Heading into "very much personal opinion" territory here, but to me the "lounge-y" tenor of the era doesn't have that much to do with technical stuff from the engineers - they used a lot of the same mics & techniques & equipment regardless of the style of music. It's got a lot more to do with the arrangements. You've got singers performing what are fairly simple, catchy, 3-minute pop songs, but backed by a large string orchestra and jazz horn players and drums, bass, piano, maybe guitar and assorted other instruments like xylophone. Arrangers often wrote some complex, swooping, dramatic parts for the backing instruments (like the strings in "Unforgettable"), but notice that even when Nat isn't singing the piano/xylophone combo isn't straying far from the melody. Tempos were also often very moderate, as in "Unforgettable."

In contrast, the jazz of just before & during this era often was not catchy, was more harmonically & melodically complex, used a wide range of tempos, and was performed by small 3-5 person combos. Then rock'n'roll showed up not long after Nat recorded this, and of course while catchy, the instrumentation & arrangements were stripped way down, tempos were faster and the feel was more driving or insistent.

In other words, we consider music like this "lounge-y" because of how it compares with the music just before and after it, not so much because it has specific audio qualities as a result of the recording process.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:21 PM on January 10, 2013


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