If you remember the 1970s, you probably recall a time when audio equipment mattered. In fact, many of us still call our iTunes systems "stereos." I grew up in the 1960s, when 45s ruled. By the late 1960s, with the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and rise of FM radio, albums were more engaging because I was older and they sounded better. With an LP, you didn't have to watch the small record spin, preparing to pull the needle off at the end. All you needed was an inexpensive phonograph that could handle the 33 1/3 speed. Mine was built into a hard-shell Samsonite-style suitcase.
Once we heard how stereo sounded coming through two small speakers, we began hanging out with buddies whose dads had expensive gear at home for after-school play. Then in high school in the early '70s, component systems became the rage and were generally affordable if you had an after-school job. You saved for speakers, an integrated receiver and a turntable. Audio stores often put together components for reasonably priced packages. Now that I think back, those packages were ingenious, since I never could have afforded one otherwise. (I had Advent speakers, a Pioneer receiver and a Garrard turntable.)
Bigger stereo freaks added on TEAC reel-to-reel tape players with oversized reels. They looked cool and sounded great, especially when you hit the play button and the machinery kicked in. It was like turning over the ignition of a sports car. Of course, once component systems caught on, better albums weren't far behind. There were different levels of stereo and quadraphonic. In fact, the entire CTI label's line was produced for play on higher-end systems. The more you spent on stereo equipment, the saying went, the more you could hear.
But the fidelity fetish wasn't limited to high school and college kids. Record labels and labs were constantly trying to figure out new ways to make music sound punchier, crisper and more dynamic. I suppose the hope was that they'd discover a process that other labels would license or buy from them. One little-known experiment to improve the sonics of recorded music in the late 1970s was known as "direct-to-disc."
Let me see if I can simplify this: When albums were mass-produced after 1948, the music was typically captured on magnetic tape. Tape was convenient for a range of cost-efficient reasons and became the standard until the digital age. But in the 1970s, some felt that tape had a number of downsides. For one, tape cheated the system—you could splice out errors and splice in better sections of songs, compromising the recording's purity. Some also felt that tape was annoying—there was hiss, wow, flutter and other built-in distortions. I know what you're thinking: much of this could be heard only by guys who wore short-sleeved white shirts and pocket protectors, and their dogs.
But for a moment, work with me. The point is, some labels decided to try a process that by-passed tape entirely, allowing artists to record directly to disc. This meant that instead of tape, artists recorded a set of songs that was cut directly into a master lacquer disc in the studio. In other words, bye-bye tape. The album you heard was made just the way 78s were cut back in the 1930s and 1940s—with the information passing through a microphone and into the grooves of a disc via a stylus. Then the resulting master was used to make a disc that would stamp out copies.
What was the result? Direct-to-disc recordings sounded more sonically accurate and vivid, since a generation wasn't lost in the recording process. Naturally the artists who recorded this way had to be superb. Flubs, clams and other artist errors couldn't be spliced out or fiddled with. Recordings sounded more exciting, since the listener was hearing not only the material unadulterated but also the drama of the date, since the studio's safety net was removed. There was an all-natural, you-are-there feel to what you were hearing.
And that was the problem. The only ones who could handle this bareback recording approach were the dinosaurs of the business who had done so before and were often the very best studio musicians. For example, bands that recorded direct-to-disc albums included those by the Harry James, Les Brown and Glenn Miller orchestras. But there also were jazz and R&B artitst who recorded them as well, such as Paul Smith, Ray Brown and Louie Bellson (pros, all) and Thelma Houston.
Listening again to these recordings, I can tell you that the results weren't the most spectacular efforts of these artists, though the recordings themselves sound great. And you do listen for small errors or the subtle sounds of the session and music-making. Ultimately, what you hear is how expert the musicians were, since they were recording directly onto disc. You either got it right or you went home. From this perspective, these recordings are of value. In effect, these were recordings by musicians with guns to their heads—the way live TV used to be aired. But if you think the allure of making art live is passé, ask yourself if you tuned in to The Sound of Music on TV last December and why.
A special thanks to JazzWax readers Tom Fine, Jimi Mentis and James Neal.
JazzWax tracks: The problem with these recordings is that most are still available only on vinyl. You'll find Les Brown Goes Direct to Disc here and The Glenn Miller Orchestra: The Legendary Direct to Disc Sessions as a download here. You'll find the Harry James direct-to-disc sessions (1976 and 1979) here at Sheffield Lab with audio samples. Paul Smith's Intensive Care (1978) can be found here. And Thelma Houston's album, I've Got the Music in Me (1975) is here or here (download).
JazzWax clips: Here's Les Brown on a direct-to-disc recording of Tickle Toe...
Here's Harry James going direct with Sweet Georgia Brown...
Here's Paul Smith, Ray Brown and Louie Bellson...
And here's Thelma Houston...