When River House/Columbia Nashville released Luke Combs’ “The Kind of Love We Make” on June 17, the single used fierce lead vocals, two-part harmonies, and about 10 different instruments, all apparent in their own digital audio lane. own. .
The performance shows how far the country recording industry has come in 100 years. On June 30, 1922, a pair of fiddlers — Henry Gilliland and CA “Eck” Robertson – held what is widely considered to be the first country recording session at Victor Studios in New York.
They had no chance of overdubbing a bad note here or there, correcting bad pitch, or amplifying any of the fiddlers later. They had to capture the entire three-minute performance in one sitting or start all over again, playing into a bell-shaped audio horn, the vibrations of sound being translated through a needle that cut a groove in a wax disc . And they had to position themselves properly in the room without anyone knowing what kind of quality they were getting until the performance was over.
“If you were recording a band, the loud instruments would be in the back and the softer instruments would be in the front,” says the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum curator of recorded sound collections. Alan Stocker. “They would have a platform set up in front of this really big horn, and some of them were 10 feet tall.”
Recordings from this era “also sound pretty poor,” Stoker admits.
Nonetheless, Gilliland and Robertson made history, showing up unannounced at Victor Studios on June 29 near the start of a visit with Gilliland’s friend, attorney Martin W. Littleton, a former congressman. who probably had ties to Victor’s leaders. The fiddlers had recently played for a reunion of Confederate veterans in Richmond, Va. (Gilliland was himself a former Confederate soldier, as was Robertson’s father.)
Much of the actual session is shrouded in mystery, according to Hall of Fame and museum historian/editor Patrick Huber. It’s unclear which fiddler plays the lead role, it’s unclear if they were wearing out-of-place Confederate uniforms or cowboy duds, and there’s also some vagueness as to the release of the first two recordings: “Arkansaw Traveler” and the other side of the coin, Robertson’s version of “Sallie Gooden” (a track referenced in John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”), which Robertson recorded on July 1 with a pianist.
“It came out in April 1923, and we don’t know why Victor waited so long to release this pairing,” says Huber. “Usually companies release records about two to three months after they’ve been cut.”
The whiny fiddles and crackling sound quality of “Arkansaw Traveler” beat the first country vocal recording, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” to market in just a few months, but it was the first of its kind. a series of developments that have advanced the country’s recorded sound. These shifts include:
– The introduction of electrical recording in the mid-1920s, which improved sound quality and evened out the speed of recordings. He introduced microphones into the process and made it easier to pick up certain frequencies and sounds, like the sibilant letter “s”.
— Multitrack recording emerged in the aftermath of World War II, when the Germans figured out how to use magnetic tape to preserve sound and, in turn, broadcast propaganda. An American adapted the technology to sound recording, which led to splicing tape and other means of fixing parts of a performance.
— Les Paul learned to layer guitar harmonies with the advent of adhesive tapean adaptation that was successfully applied to vocals by artists such as his wife, Mary Ford, who performed the 1951 country hit “Mockin’ Bird Hill”, and Patti Page, who dubbed her own vocals on “Tennessee Waltz “.
— Normalized equalization was introduced around 1955, reinforcing label adherence to specific RPMs. As a result, the recordings better represented the bass, which had previously been quite elusive. “Really what they do is they decrease the amount of bass coming in and increase it when it goes out,” Stoker explains. “This would prevent the needle from jumping into the adjacent groove.”
– The use of headphones became more common in the late 1960s and 1970s. The late engineer Jim Williamson believed he was the first to use them in Nashville, to facilitate orchestral overdubs on the 1964 album Hank Williams With Strings. But even he wasn’t sure of this precedent, which – by eliminating the need for a loudspeaker – allows musicians to perform in a booth without the other music seeping into their track.
– The digitization of music, from the 1980s, brought more clarity to the recording, although it also made the sound hard for some developed ears. It was even easier to collect more takes for a recording and to “steal” bits from a performance – to take a guitar line, for example, from the last chorus and insert it into the intro.
— The infusion of DIY programming systems, such as ProTools or GarageBand, made it cheap and easy to record at home or in other informal places. (Cole Swindell’s first hit, “Chillin’ It,” cost less than $1,000 to make.) This hurt traditional recording studios, but it also allowed creatives to explore a wider variety of sounds with the proliferation of plug-in audio programs. .
So, a century later, the rudimentary-sounding recording process that an old-time fiddler couple first adapted to country has morphed into a mega-corporation full of artists, producers and engineers who can work with greater independence than could have been the case. was conceived in 1922. Combs, whose Sony recordings are now owned by the same company that captured the first country session, cut and charted his early recordings before meeting a major label.
“People can record their own hit record in their basement if they want, or in the garage, and they don’t have to go through the gatekeepers that people like Robertson and Gilliland had to do when the houses of Records tightly controlled who recorded, what they recorded, and whether it was released,” notes Huber. “These are significant changes.