Frank Laico: Recording Engineer, Columbia 30th Street Studios.

A break from the vinyl treadmill to a topic dear to the hearts of some, heroes of the recording studio, the engineers behind the sound of Modern Jazz.

Names we know, Van Gelder, DuNann, Plaut, and that wonderful engineer at Lansdowne Studios, Holland Park, Adrian Kerridge, who passed away in 2016, the same year as Rudy. Frank Laico was not a name I knew – the man behind the desk of Columbia recordings of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans and Gill Evans, to name but a few.  I may not have registered his name, but I registered his recordings. Time to make amends.

“Frank Laico spent 30+ years as one of the main staff engineers at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios in Manhattan. In that role he recorded many of the most famous artists of the day, recordings which have stood the test of time and become fundamental components of our musical vocabulary. …It is hard to imagine a world without Frank’s work”.

You can watch the two parts here – each is around an hour (hat-tip Diego S, who sent me the links), or you can dine-in with an LJC Takeaway, we deliver.

Anatomy of a Session Pt 1
Anatomy of a Session Pt 2

Rudy Van Gelder kept many of his recording techniques to himself, I read Roy DuNann was a little more accommodating. Columbia’s more famous Chief Engineer, Fred Plaut (Kind of Blue) retired in 1972, and died in 1985, before the era of online journalism and indeed the CD. Frank Laico was one of the few engineers from the golden era still talking, at the age of 90, and his revelations to an audience of audio engineers, is very informative.

Some of my “takeaways”, from two hours of interview, from an audiophile-hungry perspective:

CBS 30th Street Studios, originally an Armenian church, Columbia used it as a studio for 33 years.

Miking techniques: never too close or distant, typically about a foot away,

Bass in particular required careful height/ placement opposite the sound-holes (that’s a euphemism for f-holes, a term which may not pass today’s auto-moderation) to capture full bass sound.

Track capability in 1966: just Ampex 3 track recorder, with12‑input custom‑made Columbia console

Compression & limiting seldom used, except on vocals.

Reverb: a combination of the room (100x100x100 feet)  and an unused 12 x 15-foot concrete storage room in the basement pressed into service as a reverb chamber, as well as a little tape machine delay.

Developing the recorded drum sound with the drummers, and general drum miking techniques.

Frank  talks a lot about all the popular singers he recorded, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, good for him but less of interest to me, but hits pay-dirt with his recording the Miles Davis Great Second Quintet, in 1966. Seen here, studio instrument positioning for recording in Miles Smiles , October 25, 1966, the Downbeat readers 1967 choice for Album of the Year.

What is striking here is the deployment of just one mic for each instrument except the drums. Anthony Williams gets four: one for the bass drum, one for the snare drum, and two overhanging mikes – one on the hi-hat, the other to gather up all the sibilance of cymbals, and I guess some bleed from everything else. No wonder Williams presence is all pervasive, the tonal/dynamic range enormous to capture, just one more little secret. In Laico’s words:

I’d put a bag filled with sand inside the bass drum, primarily so that, when the drummer kicked that thing, it wouldn’t go all over the room on the wooden floor. It also kept the sound right there, because at 30th Street you could hear the bass drum all over the studio, and so the bag of sand made sure it wasn’t overbearing.”

On micing the piano, something which Van Gelder took a lot of criticism in the early days, Laico would negotiate with the pianist as to what they thought sounded best:

 “Normally I would have the lid open all the way and put the microphone about three-quarters of the way up there, a few feet from the keyboard, so I would have an open sound rather than a tight sound. For me, it sounded so much better, and at times I would have to convince the pianist about this. If he or she wanted a tight sound, I’d say, ‘OK, let’s start that way,’ and then after a while I’d say, ‘Now that you’ve heard it in this room, let me set the mic up a little bit differently so that you can hear that.’ Invariably, they liked the mic — often a Neumann 49 — off the keys better than the one inside (the cabinet)”.

Laico also identifies three of the mikes he used, for Ron Carter, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. It’s a delight to see him smile in recognition at the opening notes of “Footprints”.

By the time I began working with Miles ( 1956, recording Round Midnight), we had the U49, and he had not seen that microphone before. I said, ‘I’d like to try this for you. It’s got a nice full sound, whereas the 67s are very high‑pitched mics.’ He said, ‘OK, let’s go, we’ll listen.’ I was extremely nervous, but he was so agreeable, and after we tried the 49 he said, ‘I like that very much, it’s great,’ and that was my start with Miles Davis.

Laico would have been at the controls in 1959 recording Kind of Blue but for other commitments that day, and Fred Plaut stepped in and took on those duties. Kind of Blue also showcased the 30th St Studio’s signature “air” around the musicians, which Frank attributes to the natural ambience of the studios high ceiling hardwood floor and bare plastered walls, but also by a neat trick learned from guitarist Les Paul:

“The room itself had its own echo, which was very nice, but would be a different-sounding echo with every session that came in. With the chamber, we could regulate the echo by adjusting the volume of each instrument. Every mic had its own send, so we could set its level, and we could also regulate the return. Still, the sound of that return didn’t sustain itself. Then Les Paul told me about how [at his home studio in New Jersey] he smoothed things out nicely by running the sound from the echo chamber through a tape machine. When I tried that, it worked, warming things up and increasing the length of the decay, and afterward everybody in the business — including some engineers from England — showed up, wanting to know how we got that echo chamber sound.”

More echoes of Van Gelder, Laico persisted in monitoring in mono: “I still had a mono mentality even when we went to stereo, monitoring in mono so that I felt comfortable my stereo was as good as it could be.”. And the stereo was indeed good.

At the time of this interview, recorded somewhere in Seattle, Microsoft country, December 16, 2008, Frank was enjoying his 90th birthday.

Laico passed away, five years later, in 2013, and was joined three years later in 2016 by Rudy Van Gelder, 91. Celestial Studios were in business.

LJC’s Big Takeaway

This is where the beauty of Miles post-bop originates – the recording engineer: their microphone selection and placement, the positioning of the players together so they can see and hear each other and communicate verbally and musically.This bears little or no relation to the “stereo soundstage” we imagine listening to the record, which is an artefact created in post-production.

It is all a musician/acoustic-analogue creation, instruments moving air, captured through close micing vacuum-tube condenser microphones and delivered through an infinitely-resolvable medium, vinyl, to recreate a sense of musicians in your room. The YouTube shows just a brief  extract of Footprints, so I will fill the gap with the real thing.

Selection: “Footprints”, from Miles Smiles, Columbia US two-eye (1966)

.  .  .

Nice to add a few more pieces to the music production jigsaw, you hear it, and now you know a little more of the how it got there.

Postscript

Towards the end of the Laico interview is an animated discussion showing wave-forms being compressed or limited to bring clipping of peaks within the required audio-space, in order to blend the two back together. It’s the sort of thing audio engineers like to talk about, together with positioning of baffles. Not that I understood it, I’ve just arranged a few words in this paragraph to make it look like I do. Here are the screen grabs.

Not to be outdone, below is a screenshot of the actual waveforms you are listening to in Footprints, during ripping in Audacity. The thing I notice with Laico’s recording of Footprints is the absence of compression, rapid-fire fluctuations between virtual silence and extreme loudness, particularly on Miles trumpet work, pictured below at 4:45m.

This is usually associated with very fine quality “musicians in the room” playback, high dynamic and tonal range, fast response. I should say I am not an engineer, but Frank Laico was, a very fine engineer, I can definitely hear that. And he seemed to be against compression, the loudness business, which makes him doubly so.

Time to open a bottle and raise a glass to Frank Laico, a name I now recognise, better late than never. Often unmentioned on the credits (no mention of engineers on cover of Miles Smiles), no FDL stamp in the runout, Columbia used but gave little or no recognition to its engineers, yet the engineer was the underpinning of recording quality.

No engineer credited

 

The conundrum is that the quality of typical record home playback in 1966 was primitive compared with today’s audiophile gear,  it took fast-forward three decades before “consumers” could discern that quality in home playback.  The engineers heard directly the  musicians live in studio, and the playback of studio tapes.Frank chatted with Miles, Miles thought it sounded “great”. How it sounded on a record on a home radiogram with autochanger and heavy-weight tonearm, is anyone’s guess, but unlikely “musicians in the room”.

The 1966 home-listener’s ears were attuned to mono radio broadcast, and the debate whether to invest in one of those new-fangled stereograms like some of their up-scale friends had.  Yet here we are in 2019, able to carry out home-listening comparisons on fifty-year old vinyl, now with enormously revealing vinyl audio-systems, something unimaginable at the time. Truly, we live in the best of all times..

 

LJC

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Frank Laico: Recording Engineer, Columbia 30th Street Studios.

  1. Good article, LJC. Fun fact: the interviewer, Dan Mortensen, is the chair of the historical track for the Audio Engineering Society convention in New York. This interview inspired him to become an expert on the 30th Street studio, and I have assisted him in his research and presentations. He has also inspired me to give a presentation on Rudy Van Gelder this coming fall at the next AES convention, and I am very excited to have Maureen Sickler, Van Gelder’s assistant, and Michael Cuscuna involved.

    A few words about compression and limiting: I think it’s a common misconception that compression and limiting is “bad” or “a necessary evil”. Compression and limiting were invented to not only improve the signal-to-noise ratio of recordings, but also to actually make instruments sound more realistic. Without any compression, many instruments (as Laico points out, vocals especially) sound too dynamic and unnatural when recorded. But when it’s done “right”, compression and limiting at the mastering stage is essentially unnoticeable regarding dynamics and at the same time improves signal-to-noise ratio. In the video, Mortensen’s assistant seems to be suggesting that the old version of the song is better more or less because it’s not as loud (an audience member also seems to notice that the two takes of the song are not the same). For reasons that escape me, audiophiles are typically faithfully devoted to dynamics and seem to have this tendency to recoil when they hear the volume boosted like that. At the same time, a lot of inexperienced listeners hear something louder and are like, ‘oooh, ahhh’. But Bernie Grundman, who mastered the second recording, is a master mastering engineer and surely applied compression and limiting in a way that boosted the overall volume but did not take away from the dynamic feel of the recording.

  2. Not everybody back in the day craved a crap stereogram , some people were chasing the best sound possible with light weight arms ,large and warm speakers and glowing valves. I still have my speakers from the 60’s. I suggest you read some of the audio mags of the day about setting speakers in concrete and changing the curtains in the room ,not to mention speaker placement ( when not using concrete ). Some of us have tried to extract the best sound all along despite what record companies did with the product after people like Laico recorded it. That is why it is important that sites like yours continue the comparison/reviews that you do.,Keep up the great work.

  3. these things are not in my wheelhouse of hobbyist interest, but are tangentially fun to know, and i am always grateful for more knowledge of how to interpret what i hear.

  4. Fascinating subject, very much tied in to the reason I collect. Frank Laico is a prominent subject in the chapter devoted to Columbia studios in the book “Temples of Sound” by Jim Cogan and William Clark. Highly recommended.

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