Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

Midcentury Musical Innovators

It would have been fun to have been in the room when this natural garage tinkerer stumbled on to what has since become the standard of multi-track recording. 

One of the pleasures of a writing project on how sound has been used and misused has been the discovery of some unlikely heroes who promoted key audio innovations.  Here’s five.

Bing, a Mic, and a Tape Recorder.  In his day, Bing Crosby was a mega-star with hugely popular recordings and radio shows.  In the 1930s his relaxed approach to singing in front of a microphone redefined what a public performance can be. In the older form of vaudeville, the energy of the performer did most of the ‘selling.’  In radio, the microphone made those over-the-top performances unnecessary.

Crosby eventually grew tired of the time constraints of live radio. So it was natural to seek a way to make recordings of shows and re-edit some others. The problem was that, in this period, powerful radio executives thought it was unacceptable for their networks to foist recordings on an unsuspecting public.  They expected their stars to show up in their living rooms in real time. Bing eventually broke the “no recorded programs” taboo, gaining more time to do other things in life, like playing golf.  The solution came in the form of the Ampex Corporation’s development of tape recorders modeled on pioneering work done by the Germans during World War II. Tape was a far superior medium for recording than “cutting” records directly to heavy shellac masters. In addition, it was possible to easily edit the quarter-inch PVC tape to delete mistakes or add additional material. He liked tape so much he bought shares in the company and gave away recorders to friends. The networks eventually succumbed.

Les Paul and Mary Ford ‘invent’ Modern Recording

Guitarist Les Paul received one of Bing’s tape machines.  At the time Paul was beginning to use a recently improved Gibson electric guitar: one of a new breed of solid-bodied instruments with two “pickups” that amplified the sound of the strings electronically rather than through the acoustic body. Because of a technical mistake he made while learning to use the recorder, Paul discovered that he could record sound over an existing track. It was then just a small additional step to record parts of one song on different tracks that played back together, often with a slight delay.  It would have been fun to have been in the room at the time when this natural garage tinkerer stumbled on to what has since become standard in the industry: multi-track recording.  We may no longer use tape for all recordings; computer audio files do more or less the same thing. But we still count on the ability to “build up” a recording in a studio from many separate tracks.

Adding rhythm and bass tracks in a multitrack recording of his own previously recorded melody line turned Les Paul into a one-man band, with no set of innovations coming together so clearly than in “How High the Moon,” released in 1951. Mary Ford’s slightly delayed voice melded with the multi-tracked guitar to produce a groundbreaking hit that wore out jukeboxes across the nation.

A Surprising Audio Pioneer.  Anyone visiting the Sony Studios in Culver City will find what is perhaps the most honored room for recording music in the United States, the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage.  It is surely an honor to have her name associated with the space, which was the location where most of the spare-no-expense MGM scores of the 50s were recorded, not to mention music for more recent films as well. The largest session ever done on the historic stage used an 80-piece orchestra with a 100-person choir (Empire of the Sun). 

       MGM-Sony-Streisand Scoring Stage in Los Angeles

The official reason for the honor was to give credit to the singer who regularly used the space to record sound tracks for Funny Girl and many of her 49 Gold Albums. There’s also a less official backstory as well. When Streisand was finishing her version of A Star is Born in 1976, she wanted to use the still-new Dolby surround format for the film.  But that meant pushing for better playback equipment in theaters scheduled to show the release. Many of them were still barely able to reproduce stereo sound. Using her considerable clout, Streisand demanded that bigger theaters improve their audio systems.

Please don’t cut me in two with that flashlight.  One classic piece of Hollywood lore is how the fabled sound designer Ben Burtt created the iconic effects of “lightsabers” slashing through the air. The distinctly electronic noise from the Star Wars series is now burned into our cinematic memories. The sabers were the preferred weapons of the future, but also a throwback to the swashbuckler films of the 1930s and 40s. Every action film needed a master dualist who could slice his way to dominance against villains who were as unlikable as Lord Vader.

Burtt came up with a blend that included sounds of an old movie projector motor he remembered from his days at USC, in addition to a nasty interference hum discovered when his microphone got too close to an old television set. Back then, a household filled with radios and televisions was an endless source of spurious electric interference that could rival Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory. That intrusive hum picked up by the microphone gave off a noise of bleeding electrons not so different from what someone might hear standing near a high-voltage substation. But a lightsaber was not fixed in place. Its sound needed to change when it sliced through the air. Burtt found that if he took what he recorded from his two sources and played them back, he could then wave another mic around and near the speaker, creating a Doppler effect where the pitch slightly raises and lowers as the mic moved by.  It’s indeed movie magic when a given sound turns a flashlight into an iconic movie weapon that has taken on a life of its own.

For more on recording and film sound see, available from Amazon.com and as an open-access file on this site.

The Overstated Value of Rhetorical Consistency

Photo: Moira Clunie
                          Photo: Moira Clunie

We are many selves. If you have the urge to fish around in the detritus of an individual’s rhetoric to catch them in ostensible inconsistencies, you are probably on a fool’s errand.

Comments about the questionable “authenticity” of the candidates are flying around the national press like Frisbees in a local park.  Everyone from political junkies at Politico.com to the ubiquitous panels of experts cycled in and out of the cable news channels insist on judging the large flock of presidential aspirants by gauging the distance between their current positions and shakey media reconstructions of what they once believed.  Somehow it gives us solace to find that a candidate has changed their tune.  It reminds us that that they are political animals, supposedly a lesser form of the species.

In actual fact we would spend our time more productively critiquing their current positions. Changes in attitude, especially regarding public policy questions, are hardly surprising. It’s shortsighted to think an individual wouldn’t adapt to the norms of the community they want to influence. In addition, past votes or positions on legislation often include a range of complicating factors, as when a bad amendment is attached to a good bill.

Of course candidates lie and pander. But consistency is the most overworked trope of political analysis. The implication of intellectual dishonesty is overplayed, a surrogate for the more difficult but useful act of critiquing specific policy positions.

It’s also something of a folly to declare the actions of another “inauthentic,” for a whole host of reasons.

First, we are players of multiple roles, many of which cannot be known to those outside the politician’s close friends. Past statements on immigration policy from the Republican field follow them around like lost dogs. Most recapitulations of these statements miss reestablishing the settings in which the original statements were made, as well as the incremental alternatives that were politically viable at the time.  For her part, candidate Hillary Clinton is frequently judged as not to be trusted because of prior statements that seem out of sync with the leftward shift of her views in the current campaign. Bernie Sanders is partly responsible for this change. But there have also been huge twists and turns of her career. Could it have been otherwise for a former Arkansas attorney, First Lady, Senator from the varied and vast state of New York, and former American Secretary of State? Opponents can feast on varied positions required by the many roles she has played and the constituents and stakeholders she has served.

The implication of intellectual dishonesty is overplayed, a surrogate for the more difficult but useful act of critiquing specific positions.

In addition to not acknowledging changing political views, a second problem is that we actually have very little understanding of even a well- known individual’s psychological biography. The forces that have shaped their judgments may be staked out in a dense landscape that biographers want to explore. But in searching for the first causes of specific beliefs and u-turns, we have launched ourselves into ambitious inference-making on a grand scale.

Stepping beyond the political for a moment, witness the early harsh judgments of mega-entertainer Bing Crosby after the publication of his estranged son’s book, Going My Own Way (1983). This was Bing as a cold and indifferent father. Years later these perceptions were partly undone by Gary Giddins’ well-researched celebration of Crosby’s solid talent and quiet generosity. (Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, 2001). It lead to a full-blown renaissance of all things Bing and elevated him to the first tier of American jazz originals. The point is, the Bings of both books are still with us, and more or less valid within their distinctly different contexts.

We all acquire new facets of self that change what it means to be us.  Broad features of character and personality tend to endure, but they are not static.  Imagine the jerk who sat behind you in 7th grade homeroom. You can have some assurance that he has probably evolved and rejoined the human race.

Quick judgments of hypocrisy are mostly facile and dishonest in their misplaced certainty.  By all means hold this current crop of presidential aspirants to their statements.  But if you have the urge to fish around in the detritus of an individual’s rhetorical history to catch them in ostensible inconsistencies, you are probably on a fool’s errand.

Comments: woodward @tcnj.edu

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