Monday, June 9, 2014

The three minute song, the woodblock, and the bass sax

Some of you may know Christian Bossert, and his page, Swing DJ Resources.  He recently invited me to contribute something to the page.  I was not sure what would fit, but I wrote about modern versus vintage recordings.  I tried to keep it short and focussed, but there is a lot more to say on the subject.

This time, I'd like to talk a little bit about how the recording technology of the 20s and 30s shaped the music we know from the period.  

If you have never seen a record from the period, you might be surprised to find that they are very different from later ones.  Most of us are used to 12 inch records made of vinyl, played at a speed of 33 1/3 rpm, and holding about 20 minutes of music per side.  These are a relatively new invention, though.  Before WWII, records were usually 10 inches, made of shellac, and held only three minutes per side, playing at 78 rpm.  This, essentially, is why classic jazz recordings are three minutes long.  There is plentiful evidence that the bands played longer versions during live performances, but when it came time to record, the song had to be arranged to last three minutes.  For this reason, commercially released records give us only a piece of the picture-- this is not necessarily the way the music was performed.  There are some recordings available from radio shows in the 30s and 40s which did not have this time restriction, and these have much longer versions of familiar songs.

Another important fact is that the technology of the 1920s simply could not handle the sound of a typical jazz band.  Drums were especially problematic-- they were simply too loud and percussive and would result in the recording device skipping or distorting.  This is why so many recordings from the period feature only wood block and cymbals for percussion; it is not because drums were not part of the style.  Full drums sets were common in jazz bands, but they could not be recorded.  Even a musician stomping his foot could be a problem.

Here is a quote from the book Jazz Anecdotes (which I highly recommend):

Cuba Austin described some technical problems on a date at Victor with McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1928:

We had a lot of trouble with the engineers.  In those days everybody took off their shoes and had a pillow under his feet so the thud from beating the rhythm didn't ruin things.  Well, on Milenburg Joys the band was beating a fast rhythm and then, bit by bit, the pillows kept sliding away.  We ruined several takes that way.

Now the worst of all was Prince Robinson.  Don Redman hit on the idea of lashing Prince's ankles and knees together with rope to hold him steady.  We started another time and things went smoothly 'til Prince started a solo; then he began to bob up and down with his feet tied together, and finally gave up in the middle of it-- looked at Don and said, "Aw, Don.  I can't play tied up like this."

Bass instruments were equally problematic.  On early recordings, it was nearly impossible to capture the sound of a string bass.  Tuba came through better, but it tended to end up sounding "blurry."  Tuba does not have the sharp attack of a plucked note on a string bass, and these early recordings only emphasized the problem.  The brief popularity of bass saxophones may be partly due to this problem.  The bass sax was simply easier to record than tuba or string bass.  (Even so, most recordings from the period use tuba or string bass, though they are often very hard to hear.)

Singers had problems too...  Without a microphone, the only way for the singer to be heard over the band was to sing louder than the band.  Few singers have that kind of power, and the necessity of doing this (live and for recordings) shaped the singing style of the day.  The "shouting" style of singing that we hear on these recordings may not have been an artistic decision so much as a practical requirement.  It was only with the use of microphones that singers could sing more expressively and still be heard.

Likewise, banjos were popular in pre-microphone days largely because they are so loud.  It's just very difficult to play an acoustic guitar loud enough to compete with a horn section.  As technology changed the guitar became more viable.  It didn't really become possible to play guitar solos until the advent of the electric guitar.

All of these problems were greatly reduced with the arrival of "electrical" recordings.  These were recordings which were made using a microphone instead of a purely mechanical device.  They first appeared in 1925, but it was not until the early 1930s that all recordings were made this way.  There was a transitional period during which the recordings which were expected to be most popular were made electrically, while other bands were still recording mechanically for "budget" record labels.  (These budget labels were often owned by the same companies that were making electrical recordings under another name.)  Unfortunately for us, much of the most interesting music of the period was not regarded as having a lot of commercial potential, so it was recorded with the inferior process.

By about 1930, recordings were generally of very high quality, and improving all the time.  But there are a couple of very important considerations which did not change until the 1950s.  One was the three-minute time limit.  The other was the lack of multi-tracking.  Today, each instrument can be recorded separately.  This has two effects: first, one can layer sounds endlessly, and the product can combine musicians who played at different times in different places.  Second, one can fix mistakes.  Did you play a wrong note? That's okay, we can go back and record over it with the right one!  I love listening to older recordings knowing that the performance I hear is the one that the band actually gave.  There was no editing, nothing fixed, no one added or subtracted.  These old recordings are full of mistakes.  You will find them if you listen carefully, but I don't mind them at all.  They just make it more interesting to me.

So, next time you listen to recordings from this period, remind yourself that what is on the record may be very different from the way the band played normally.  These recordings only give a glimpse of what the music might have been, not a true picture of what it was.

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