Today I made a digital recording of a record I've had since the '60's-- the sound track of "West Side Story" from 1961. I wanted to have the music available on my computer. Amazing in what great shape the vinyl is in, considering that it's something I played a million times as a kid. I did a little bit of cleaning up with audio restoration tools, and I'm very happy with it. But that's not the point of this post.
Besides the score being great, possibly still the best stage musical ever written, it's such a joy to hear the old school NATURAL sound used in the sound track. Take a listen. This is "Prologue," the opening piece. Symphonic jazz, which was a pretty wild concept at the time. It's still fresh, amazing, beautiful, American music at its best:
"Prologue" from "West Side Story"
Besides the superb music, take note of the sound. No artificially huge reverberation like in modern films, but there's still plenty of depth. The horns and percussion are definitely way back there, but they're clearly still in a reasonably sized studio. The clarity, the intimacy and power of this sound is, imho, so far superior to the pumped up gigantic sound which is the modern cliche in film work.
There are some oddities in the stereo. These were the very early days of stereo, and engineers were prone to doing some things that can sound peculiar to us now. This is Columbia Masterworks featuring what they called "360 Sound." They achieved what they wanted with a very wide stereo field. You'll hear instruments way far to the right and left, perhaps more than we would care to hear now.
The strings are on the right!-- A bit odd, and percussion is really spread out, like when several xylophones are playing, some are left, others right - well, it does give a big, wide sound.
AND note starting at 1:41 when there's a section led by the woodwinds. They are So close and dry, and way out of proportion with the rest of the orchestra. I think that works Great. They weren't trying to record the orchestra the way it would sound in a concert hall - an emulation so many follow in their virtual orchestra recordings - instead, they're concerned about making an effective recording. I admire that so much. So the woodwinds are in the lead for that passage - great, bring them up front and center, and then they move back again when they need to blend.
So this is a combination of things - Extra wide stereo mixing. Selective focus that keeps changing throughout the piece in order to shape it into an exciting recording. I repeat - they were making a recording, and doing everything they knew how to make it sound great.
But most important to me is my original point - that even with the sophisticated mixing techniques used in this, they kept the ambience natural, so much smaller than is done nowadays. And to me, hearing that in action again is a great breath of fresh air.
It's a combination of the "unnatural" (since they were producing a record, and not caring about recreating the experience of hearing a concert) with the natural sound of the studio. It's great. I can hardly wait for fashion to change and for the kids in Hollywood to rediscover the more natural sound that was used for many decades before the Super Huge style caught on. And that will happen. All fashions are cyclical. Just give it time.