Recording Studios: The Feeling of Ensemble Doesn’t Exist

SKF NOTE: My introduction to percussionist Mark Stevens was as a percussionist on the 1969 album, Spirit Of 1976 / Live At Donte’s, by percussionist Emil Richards & the Microtonal Blues Band. Later I discovered an earlier album by that band, Journey to Bliss. I enjoyed both albums as ear opening travels through new percussive sounds and odd-time signatures.

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Armin Steiner

It was a kick, many years later, to speak with Mark Stevens, and to help him put together an early 1980s Modern Drummer feature article on miking drums. Mark interviewed a few noted recording engineers, I transcribed the interviews, and edited them. My recollection is that I consulted Mark while editing because some of what I was hearing was new to me. I wanted to be sure I had names spelled correctly, for example.

As with most recorded interviews edited for print publication, there is plenty of material leftover, much of it good advice, or of historical significance. It always seemed to me a shame to ignore those significant leftovers until I’m dead and house cleaners toss my transcripts and tapes into dumpsters and haul them away.

Here’s an unedited excerpt from Mark Stevens’s conversation with pioneer recording engineer Armin Steiner. Most people who’ve studied or chronicled early rock and roll records should be familiar with Armin Steiner’s garage — which is now a famous West coast recording studio. At the time Steiner’s garage was just that — a garage converted into a recording studio.

Armin Steiner and Mark Stevens echo a point I heard in conversations with other recording engineers Tom Dowd and Jack Clement. That is, recording studios are dead sounding, and modern recording engineers try to use a myriad of electronic effects to reproduce the live or ensemble sound of the original recording studios.

Can they do it? No, they can’t.

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Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens: I wanted to talk to you about recording drums and recording orchestras.

Armin Steiner: I think we should trace the history of what has gone down over the years: original drumming and the acoustical influence. I think there is the key to why drums sound the way they do — or the way they should, the way they mostly don’t.

Studios were designed to be used as an ensemble device. People all played and were listening to each other. The rooms were very live.

The role of a drummer in those days was mainly brushes, and cymbals, and very light things — just to keep time. In many cases the drums weren’t even miked.

When I started out in this business they used to use one drum, and an RCA-44 or a[n RCA-]77 — whatever we had available at the time — was hanging over a complete drumset. And the drumset consisted of a bass drum, a snare drum, and a couple of tom-toms, maybe a hi-hat, a couple of overhead cymbals — if even that — and everyone played and balanced each other in a rather live acoustical environment.

Even in the big band recording, very few microphones were used in those days. It was until maybe ten or twelve years ago we decided that we’d use a bass drum microphone.

But what basically has happened is that the feeling of ensemble has diminished itself to the point where studios have become totally dead. The feeling of ensemble isn’t there. The feeling of ensemble is only made through a headphone. It’s not made by musicians listening to each other.

Mark Stevens: Because of the way the studio is set up — that’s impossible.

Armin Steiner: Of course. The rooms have become so bloody dead that this feeling of ensemble just doesn’t exist. Sometimes you can’t even hear the person sitting next to you.

Mark Stevens: For me, most of the time I can’t hear the person sitting next to me.

Armin Steiner: Absolutely. So it’s all done with mirrors today. That’s why all these electronic devices — your DDL’s (Digital Delay Lines), [and] all of the other fancy electronic instruments are made, basically, to put the orchestra back in the room again.

But during this many years of transition there have been problems. The studios have gotten to the point where everything is done on an artificial basis.

I feel sorry for those people who haven’t had the background of dealing with an orchestra, or dealing with an ensemble, in a live condition. Now they have to deal with it only from what they know from records. It all comes out in a massive dose of artificiality. There’s no feeling of ensemble playing.

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