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DIRECT TO DISC RECORDED

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Direct-to-disc recording

Instrument: Recording

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BIOGRAPHICAL PROFILE

Direct-to-disc recording refers to sound recording methods that bypass the use of magnetic tape recording and record audio directly onto analog disc masters.

Professional analog sound recording

Most sound recordings for records before the 1950s were made by cutting directly to a master disc. Recording via magnetic tape became the industry standard around the time of the creation of the LP format in 1948, and these two technological advances are often seen as being joined, although 78 rpm records cut from tape masters continued to be manufactured for another decade.

In the late 1970s, a small number of albums recorded direct-to-disc began to appear again on the market and were marketed as “audiophile” editions, promising superior sound quality compared with recordings made using the more common multi-track tape recording methods.

To make a direct-to-disc recording, musicians would typically play one 15-minute “live” set in a recording studio per LP side using professional audio equipment. The recording was made without multitrack recording and without overdubs. The performance was carefully engineered and mixed live in stereophonic sound. During the performance, the analog disc cutting head engages the master lacquer used for pressing LP records and is not stopped until the entire side is complete.

Such a direct-to-disc recording was often simultaneously recorded onto a two-track master tape for subsequent pressing in the traditional manner. Although such tapes were often made to preserve the recordings in case the direct-to-disc process failed or the master disc became damaged before the final product could be produced, direct-to-disc albums were almost never re-issued as standard albums made from tape masters.

Advantages

Technically, direct-to-disc recording is believed to result in a more accurate, less noisy recording through the elimination of up to four generations of master tapes, overdubs, and mix downs from multi-tracked masters. The method bypasses problems inherent in recording tape: tape hiss, wow and flutter.

From the musicians’ point of view, the advantages of direct-to-disc recording are a greater immediacy and interaction among the players.

Disadvantages

Although the spontaneity of performance is preserved, no overdubbing or editing is possible. It becomes more challenging for the musicians, engineers and producers, whose performances will be captured “warts and all.” In the event of aborted sides, expensive lacquers are wasted and cannot be used again. According to Robert Auld of the Audio Engineering Society: “It was a notoriously difficult way to record; the musicians and all concerned had to record a complete LP side without any serious musical or technical mistakes.”

Some artists maintain that musical instruments may drift out of tune: It is not possible to keep instruments in tune for the length of the LP side.

Albums and public reception

Promoters of direct-to-disc recording in the 1970s believed consumers would be willing to pay more for high quality pressings. But many of these records ended up being sold at double the price of normal albums resulting in poor sales.

Because of the limited number of copies that could be made, the format was shunned by established artists and mainly used by obscure or unknown artists. Most of the work could be classed as vanity records and were not well promoted. Music genres included jazz, acoustic folk, classical (small ensembles or soloists), and alternative rock groups with a non-commercial sound.

Another turn-off for consumers was the short playing time. To reduce the risk of a technical glitch in the disc cutting process, sides were rarely more than 15 minutes long and could be as short as 10 minutes. When this inconvenience was combined with the records’ high sales prices, they were regarded as poor quantity for the money.

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