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Technology - Compact disc or cd


Compact disc or cd Jargon.

As in any business, professionals in the music industry have technical terms for things they deal with every day. These terms, while widely understood within the industry, can sometimes be obscure to those outside the industry, who think of these terms as jargon. Several of these terms are used in the notes provided with the CD reviews in the book Oldies on CD. Hopefully, the following rundown on how records are made will help with these terms.

Before the late 1940s, recording techniques did not usually involve the magnetic tape that it does today. Rather, the recording was cut directly to a disk, and it is this direct-to-disk technology that leaves the oldies of the 1940s with the sound of surface noise when reproduced on compact disc. There just aren't any master tapes of the songs of the 1940s or before; everything must be transferred from a disk of some kind. Magnetic tape, full-track monaural at first, started to be used more and more starting in the very late 1940s, and by the early 1950s, virtually all but the very minor labels were recording with tape.

In the early days of rock & roll, the mid-1950s, records were recorded in a fairly straightforward way, similar to the way you would record a friend singing a song on your home tape recorder. The engineer in the studio would control the monaural recorder, start it up, tell the performer it was on (or rolling), someone would count off to give the performers the right tempo to start the song, and the performer performed. If the singer or musicians made a mistake, the entire recording had to be made over again from the beginning. Often if the mistake was early in the song, they would stop right there and start over (this is known as a false start). If they finished the song and felt they could do better, that recording (or take) was saved, and they recorded another take. Sometimes the alternate takes (or out-takes) that weren't used for the hit version make their way to reissues. A re-recording refers to a recording done at a completely different session from the one where the hit was recorded, often years later, and often without the spontaneity of the original.

In those early days, since everything was being recorded in mono and all the voices and instruments were going onto the tape together, the relative loudness of the instruments and voices was adjusted (i.e., they were mixed) while the recording was being done. Once the recording of a song was over, the mix couldn't be changed, so a bad mix was just as much of a mistake as an error by the musicians or vocalists; that is, it caused the song to be done over. A half-dozen takes for a song was not uncommon, and sometimes it required a lot more than that to get it right.

The raw tapes, complete with the sounds of the performers and others in the studio talking before and after the actual song (studio talk), count-offs, false starts and the like, are called session tapes, since they are the unedited, first generation recordings. A first generation tape is one where the sound from the performance goes directly to the tape; a second generation is a tape of that tape, etc. The coming of compact discs has generated an unprecidented quest for session tapes, since they often have less tape noise (hiss) that is unavoidably generated when tapes of a tape (i.e., higher generations) are made.

The session tape was used to prepare a master tape, usually for a 45-rpm single. This usually involved editing off all the studio talk and just leaving the part we normally hear as the song. The term master tape just means a tape that is used to make copies, for 45s, albums, CDs, or whatever. There can be lots of different master tapes of the same song, some made from the session tapes, and others made from tapes of tapes of tapes. Each tape copy is another generation, so the best sound quality is usually found on low-numbers of generations, preferably first generation.

The advent of multi-track recording in the late 1950s really revolutionized the way records were made. First, using a two-track stereo recorder similar to the ones in common consumer use today, the engineer could record part of the sound on one track (say the lead vocal), while the remainder was put on the other (say, the instruments). This allowed freedom to mix the voice and instruments later, cutting down on the takes needed. Early two-track recording was often done only as a tool for the engineer to mix the song better, and not particularly to present this two-channel sound to the consumer as a stereo recording (even though technically, it was a stereo recording.) Two-track also made it easier to add things (e.g., a guitar, a vocal harmony part) to a recording after it was done, a process that required playing the recorded song and recording it again while the voice or guitar was added (a process called overdubbing; the putting of sound onto tape is called dubbing.)

If two tracks were useful to a recording engineer, why not three? In the late 1950s, many recordings were done in 3-track. Why not four? The early 1960s saw the rise of 4-track recording. If four were good, why not couple two 4-tracks into an 8-track? How about two 8-tracks into a 16-track? And on and on. By the end of the 1960s, 16-track recording was common, with experimenting being done with 32, 48, 64, and 96-track. Ninety-six tracks?? But there aren't that many different things to record, even if every voice or instrument has its own track! Actually, the rise of multi-track recording changed the industry in a much more fundamental way. Now instead of having to do many takes, if a basic rhythm track could be recorded, each performer could record their part on a different track at their leisure. Even if they made a mistake in one part of the song, they could record that part over correctly on another track, and the corrected performance for that part could be mixed in (punched in). No longer were songs being recorded with the entire band recording songs over and over until they got it right; in fact, the members of the group didn't even have to be in the studio at the same time! Now the basic tapes for the songs became known as multitracks (multis for short), since they were rarely recorded at a session as in the early days. A multitrack tape is mixed down from, say, 16 tacks to two for use as a stereo master. The result of this mixing is the mixdown tape.

With multitrack tapes, the person behind the controls (the mixing console) has a large influence on how a record will eventually sound. Since most songs are mixed down to two channels for stereo playback, this involves deciding where to place instruments and voices in the stereo spectrum, how loud the various things should be relative to one another, and what kind of electronic tools to use to alter the sound. One of these tools is reverb, which gives a voice or instrument a sound like being in a hallway, spacey but not quite an echo (a voice with added reverb is often called wet, while one with no reverb at all is called dry). Another is equalization (EQ), which can be thought of as a kind of sophisticated bass-treble control that can be used to boost or dampen a narrow frequency range, giving a recording various sound emphases. Still another is dynamic range compression (or compression for short). Dynamic range is more-or-less the difference between how loud the loudest and how soft the softest parts of the song are. Compression tends to make everything sound like it's at the same volume. It's a favorite trick of rock and roll radio stations to add compression to their signal; they fear that if a potential listener tunes in during a soft part in a song, they won't realize the station is there.

While we're on the topic of radio stations, they have their own favorite terms. If a record starts with an instrumental passage, the time between the beginning of the record and the first voice heard is called the intro. This is important to disc jockeys who have a pathological need to talk over the beginning of records (if they're still talking when the singer starts, then they've stepped on the record). Likewise, the musical part of a record after the singer last is heard (also fair game for deejays) is called the outro. If there is no intro to a record, that is, the first sound heard is the voice of the singer, the record is said to start cold. If the sound gradually fades out at the end, the record is said to fade. If the song comes to a stop without fading, it is said to end cold. There were also special deejay edits made of certain songs, so what we heard on the radio and what was on the 45 we bought at the store were not always the same.

The 1960s and 1970s also brought us differences between what appeared on a 45-rpm single and what appeared (often in stereo) on an LP. Many times the song itself would be shortened (edited) for single release by splicing out parts of the tape used for the LP. This was usually done because radio stations didn't like long singles, preferring to play many short singles rather than fewer long ones. This gave rise to 45 versions and unedited LP length versions of the same take of a song. For some songs, the LP versions were completely different takes or recordings, the LP stereo versions sometimes lacking overdubs used in finishing the single.

For the 1990s, we now have digital recording, where the sound information is stored on tape as a series of numbers (digital) instead of a magnetic wave pattern (analog). The digital recording revolution may have changed many things, but the process of recording, mixing and mastering is still with us. The As and Ds found in three-letter combinations (the SPARS code) on compact discs refer to these processes. The first letter refers to how the song was recorded, the second to how it was mixed from the multitracks in making the master, and the third letter refers to what type of master was made. A cassette tape or vinyl record use analog mastering, a CD uses digital, so the last letter in the three-letter combination for a CD will always be D. Almost all recordings before 1980 (and even most rock records made in the 1980s) were analog, so the first letter of the three-letter combination will be an A for most oldies. In most cases, digital mixing (D for the middle letter, or ADD) means that the original multitrack tapes have to be in hand to accomplish this, which usually (but not always) means excellent sound quality because first generation tapes are being used.

But the sound quality of all songs you see marked AAD are not the same, by any means. The code says nothing about what was used for a source before it was converted to digital for compact disc. Some companies use first generation tapes, others use later generation tapes, and some even use phonograph records as sources, it's all still AAD. The book Oldies on CD tries to give you some idea about what you're likely to hear.





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