Thinking back over the ’60’s and the equipment and gear that was available to most small town bands, and even a lot of middle sized or larger towns, it seems that what comes to mind primarily are guitars and drums. That’s natural since those were the main attractions for both the band and the audience. The front man or woman, although teenagers of course, was the center of attention for most of the show, but the lead guitarist and the drummer often had a solo and took the spotlight. There was a period when drummers became wildly popular for their exciting and quickly growing drum breaks and solos.
Keyboards and horns and basses often were more in the background. We have already discussed guitars, basses and amps to some degree here, and the intent was to cover drums, keyboards and the rest of the on-stage gear next. However something that was on the minds of most bands, right behind getting their songs down perfect and scoring gigs, was recording. Cutting a record, or recording a demo for a radio station or a talent agent or anyone or anything that might help get them a break or airplay. Some access to the big time, or at least the bigger time. A lot had to do with the motivation of the band members themselves. There were some guys who didn’t really care about breaking into the big time, or even making money from performing. For them it was more about getting chicks, impressing and meeting girls. Or it might have been the excitement of performing; being on stage – the center of attention of a crowd of adoring fans.
But for the bands who had dreams of becoming stars, surely almost all of them looked for some way to record their music with good enough quality that it could be used to get a recording contract with a record label or get regular airplay on the radio. Some had connections to established older people in the business, perhaps a radio personality or engineer, or if they were fortunate, someone who had a recording studio or worked in one. Quite a few of the groups on SouthernGarageBands.com were able to get recorded that way. A few more were able to get television time and that must have been thrilling to the extreme. Probably a very nervous event as well. But there were quite a few who recorded themselves with tape recorders. Probably a parent or the friend of a parent or relative who was a music or hi-fi enthusiast or hobbiest, owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
It is pretty easy to take a tape recorder and a microphone and set it up at a live performance or a practice session and just record everything and then dub the best songs to another tape. That is the most common existing recordings of ’60’s garage bands, and the sound that is the result of that recording technique has become associated with and usually referred to as the “garage band sound”. Some tape recorders were stereo and had two microphone inputs. Careful placement of the two mics would produce a better recording, with some degree of stereo sound. Of course the acoustics of the building where the band was playing had a huge impact on the overall sound of the recording.
Using that type of tape recorder (mono or stereo) did not allow multi-track recording or dubbing over or adding tracks. The entire band played together and had to get everything right. One mistake and it all had to be done again. There are people who are proponents of that kind of recording because they feel it gives the “live band” sound more truly and accurately. To them it’s more like being at the live performance. The problems being that recording a live performance that way means you can lose the whole show if anything goes wrong, such as equipment failure, or human error (failing to press the “Record” button, or a microphone getting knocked over or cables getting unplugged). And if the sound quality is not so good then the listener misses out on some part or parts that could be important. What if the vocals don’t come through, or the lead guitar parts can’t be heard. That kind of thing can ruin the experience completely
We will take any recording we can get though, especially it if is a rare or treasured performance or artist. Anything is better than nothing. So most of us tried to preserve our sound as best we could. There was a lot of trial and error and frustration when a particularly good moment was missed somehow. My first band got a few songs on tape at a live show. If I remember right, the guy who helped us with hauling equipment and ticket sales at the door, among other things, had or was able to get a reel to reel and recorded us one night. One of the band members got a copy and several years ago made a cassette tape recording of it and mailed it to me. I am very happy to have it. It is a way of hearing the guys again, being entertained by the performance and thinking back to those days when the music was so important. It still is.
This hasn’t turned out to be much of a gear “review” as a story about how some gear was used, but let me mention a thing or two about the tape recorders of the day. Reel-to-reel recorders were pretty good. Consumer grade ones used 1/4 inch wide tape, which allowed for wide frequency response. If good microphones were available this was the way to go to record garage bands in the ’60’s. Cassette decks became available in 1965 but were really not suitable for recording live music. They were mostly hand-held battery powered devices that did not reproduce music well at all. By the mid ’70’s however they had improved dramatically and pretty close to reel-to-reel quality.
There are still some reel-to-reel and cassettes out there that are waiting to be restored and played again. If you have any we would love to hear from you to possibly help you with copying them to disk or new tape and maybe put some songs on southerngaragebands.com