The Sound of a Decade - 1960s

Posted by Rob B

Seen as a decade of musical evolution, the ‘60s were perhaps some of the most important years in popular musical history.

The Sound of a Decade - 1960s
Photo Credit: vintage.uk

During the span of only ten years, the world had witnessed the development countless styles and genres, all of which have paved the way for the musical diversity that future generations will have enjoyed.

In terms of musical innovation, the '60s have brought us the beginnings of rock music, the so-called British invasion, the first country and folkinspired singer-songwriters, the introduction of a variety of rock subgenres towards the latter half ofthe decade, namely psychedelic, progressive and surf rock, roots and hard rock. Whats more, the60s saw the rise of Motown, R&B, soul, funk and even that of experimental jazz and contemporary classical music, all driven by a cultural shift based on self-expression through art and fashion.

In terms of the equipment used in the early ‘60s, two-track and later four-track tape recorders were considered the norm. Long before the advent of digital workstations or even that of transistors, units like the legendary Revox G36 and Studer C37 helped countless artists achieve their iconic sound - The Beach Boys and The Beatles are the first that come to mind. While in America large corporations such as Ampex and RCA had access to significant funds to develop new recording equipment, in the UK, engineers were taking a more artisanal approach to designing new technologies – this was partly due to the post-war economic situation in Britain which lead to a slow progress in this regard, a situation which soon changed with the incorporation of companies such as Neve, Helios and Trident in the second part of the decade. 

For a while, America's music industry seemed to have the upper hand in terms of the quality of their record production - and by this i mean recording and production techniques. However, all this would change as producer George Martin recalls taking an ‘exploratory trip’ to LA’s Capitol Studios, a visit which made him realise why American records sounded sonically superior to the UK-brewed counterparts. In his own words, Martin adds - ‘They were recording on Ampex 3-track half-inch tape; we were recording on mono quarter-inch, though our classical people were using stereo quarter-inch. We never used stereo in the pop world – stereo pop records didn’t exist in England at the time. This 3-track Ampex meant that you could record the band in stereo on the outside tracks, put the voice in the center of the track, and you had the freedom to balance them afterwards, after everybody had gone home.’ 

The main difference between the two musical centres on each side of the Atlantic Ocean was their approach to the recording process. Being technically superior at that time, the Americans would choose to offer themselves 'headroom' by recording instruments individually [similar to modern techniques], allowing for tracks to be edited post-recording and making full use of stereo, while the Brits, who had somewhat limited access to the current tools of the trade, would throw themselves head-first into the recording process, committing to tape and making creative decisions as they went along - this was perhaps the main contributer to the 'British sound'. Until the mid ‘60s, the Brits were, in a sense, emulating the sounds of records produced in the US, as Paul McCartney remembers asking engineer Geoff Emerick for ‘a really clean American sound’ during the recording of Penny Lane at Abbey Road in 1966.  

However, history has shown us that the inventiveness of British engineers will not have gone unnoticed since countless techniques such as panning, printing effects and ‘offline’ editing were pioneered at that time, partly as a consequence of having limited access to the technology available at the time - just goes to show how less is more. The predominant technique for capturing drums was the Glyn Jones approach consisting of a matched pair of microphones, both equidistant from the center of the snare drum. Sometimes, a third microphone was placed in front of the kick, approximately a foot away from the drum kit. Guitars were mainly recorded using a single condenser microphone, also placed about a foot away from the center of the cone. Since this was a pre-synthesiser era, grand pianos were being recorded using condenser microphones, while for uprights, the usual choice was a dynamic mic as the sound emitted by the instrument was more focused and didn’t require the same level of detail as a grand piano would. In terms of effects and processing, there were four main categories used at that time: eq – usually built into the console and based on a valve design; compression – the classic Fairchild sound; reverb – the preferred unit was the EMT 140 plate reverberator; delay – Watkins Copicat - based on a tape loop mechanism.  

Another point worth mentioning was the fact that the 60s started out with an all-valve sound, since that was the existing technology - these units produced a warm, soft and sometimes fuzzy sound. The tube’s distortion characteristic produced a very pleasing listening experience as the units would softly oversaturate the sound across the frequency spectrum. The entire range of gear from tape machines such as the Studer J37 to the world-renowned EMI REDD consoles and of course the Telefunken U47 and its counterparts were all based on valve technology; therefore, music produced using this equipment would have had the unique character of tubes imparted on the recordings themselves contributing to the vintage character sought after today.

But despite all the gear, the techniques, all the innovations and discoveries made during those years, one thing remains certain – these records we have all come to love and to appreciate, records which have defined popular music as we know it, records which have shaped techniques used by generations to come, all have one thing in common: they are, above all, great songs and the people who recorded and produced them, they were all having fun – the 60s were a time of experimentation, both musical, technical and to a large extent, cultural. What I would like you all to take away from this article is not some magic formula that can be applied to everything, but rather, the unique way in which these songs appeal to us, the way they make us react and respond on an emotional level – I believe this alone is the key to making a great song, with gear, technique and everything else following closely in second place. 

CHEAT SHEET

Drums 

Small-sized kit. Glyn Jones technique (see above) or basic overhead – just above the drummer's head angled slightly towards the floor tom – and kick mic – about 1 foot from the beater. Gentle compression. Consider adding a bit of moon gel to the drum heads. Try valve microphones, equalisers, compressors coupled with tape

Bass

Fender Precission Bass – scoop some 100-250Hz out, apply gentle compression for consistency across the track. Consider also dampening the strings or filtering out the high frequencies and reamping it through amps of that era.

Electric Guitars

Single coil Fender guitars. Early Marhsall amps. Tube overdrive and/or fuzz pedals.  

OR 

Single coil Fender guitars. Small amounts of overdrive. Spring reverbs/ short tape delay lines. 

Vocals

All valve equipment. Ideal setup: Neumann U47 -> EMI/Chandler TG2 Pre -> Fairchild 660/670 -> Pultec Drawmer 1960s EQs

FX

Plate reverbs for vocals, strings, acoustic guitars, drums 

Spring reverbs for electric guitars 

Mix

Tape processing and/or the slightest hint of compression 

Hard panning 

 

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