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A Listener's Guide

Tapeheads and Sound Effects Geeks


The introduction of stereo recording gave a whole new life to what had been an insignificant niche in the business. Suddenly, the ability to have a locomotive or jet plane roar in one side of your living room and out the other attracted a new, and apparently, much larger audience. Smaller, pioneering labels such as Audio Fidelity, Cook Laboratories, and Vanguard filled a considerable share of their catalogs with sound effects records. Even Riverside, one of the best jazz labels ever, put out records of the sound of drag strip and stock car racing.

But the more interesting aspect is how sound effects recording, often combined with refinement in tape editing techniques, inspired a number of artists to devise strikingly new acoustical creations. Here are some of the most noteworthy audio auteurs.

Jim Fassett
Fassett and his supporting team of CBS Radio sound engineers probably deserve the gold medal in this event. They created three albums in which they dissected thousands of field recordings of birds and other animals, categorized them into a system of notes and tones, then reassembled them through multi-tracking and splicing. The result, as the title of one album, "A Symphony of Birds" (Columbia), suggests a symphony orchestra of recorded songs, controlled according to Fassett's scale, with the melody, harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint provided by countless splices and multi-track dubs. It's like building the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks: even if you can't see the artistry, you have to marvel at the incredible painstaking effort that went into it.

Johan Dalgas Frisch
Dalgas Frisch was an avid collector of bird calls and songs, a recorded thousands of hours of field recordings, many of them the first of their kind. Unlike Jim Fassett, though, he merely mixed bird calls over canned recordings of standards such as "Tico Tico" and "The Blue Danube." It's obvious he put a lot of care into his work, but what you end with is a series of orchestral arrangements with accompanying bird calls, not necessarily a cohesive creation.

Andre Popp and Pierre Fantosme
Posing as "Elsa Popping and her Pixie Landers," Popp and Pierre Fantosme melded Les Paul's splicing and multi-tracking techniques with the musical comedy of Spike Jones and spun them into a milf frenzy on Delirium in Hi-Fi (Columbia). The liner notes only hint at the hours of tedious work that went into this album, and don't even begin to suggest the bizarre musical insanity that makes this one of the 10 Basic Space Age Pop Albums. Take, for example, how they they "turned voices inside out":
Given a certain sentence, it was recorded, then played back backwards. The singer then memorized the words backwards (you try it!!) and then sang the words which were recorded; then finally, the tape was reversed, and the singing part spliced into the musical passage at the right place. The effect is devastating and electrifying. Imagine a voice with no attack to it--one which sings the words on the intake of breath, a voice that seems to come from nowhere at all. It is a disembodied voice--the voice that surely a Martian must possess.

Michel Magne
Magne cut an album released in the U.S. by Columbia under the title, Tropical Fantasy, that's unlike anything else in space age pop. Any one thing, that is--for it might well be described as the album that "Martin Denny and Andre Popp (providing Pierre Fantosme was along for the ride) never made. Included with the usual kitbag full of percussion are bird calls, shrieks, car horns, and mice squeaks, as well as tape-manipulated piano, conversation, and a voice (Magne's?) saying, "Ch" and "Sh." Eck this it out!

Bernie Green
The creator of Musically Mad! for RCA and Mad! Magazine, Green debuted "Animated Tape" (i.e., tape manipulations) on Futura, one of the best in RCA's Stereo Action series. For "Kiss of Fire," he wrote out a solo passage for trumpeter Tony Greenwald. Instead of having Greenwald simply play the solo, he recorded him playing separate notes, then spliced the solo together from these samples, according to precise tape length measurements--seven inches for a quarter note, twenty-eight inches per bar. The resulting manufactured solo included 778 splices for less than 20 seconds of music.

Jean Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley
Around 1961, Perrey began experimenting with recorded sounds, from stamping presses to buzzing bees, modifying them through filters and playback speeds to produce almost unidentifiable new sounds, which he catalogued according to various musical parameters. He then cut these sounds into notes according to the length of tape (an eighth note per inch, say) and spliced them into new musical assemblages. He produced "Flight of the Bumble Bee," for example, from modified recordings of real bees. As he recalled for Incredibly Strange Music, Vol. 1:
It took a titantic amount of labor: 46 hours of cutting and gluing itsy-bitsy pieces of magnetic tape (1.03 centimeters long) for the final result--2 minutes of music ... At that time only 4-track tape recorders existed, so to complete this pieces Carroll [Bratman, a New York City musical contractor] obtained for me a Scully 4-track machine: I recorded the melody on one track, and the accompaniment on the remaining three. What a job!
Several years later, Perrey met Gershon Kingsley, an arranger for Vanguard Records, and after Kingsley sold the label on the idea, they cut and spliced together the ground-breaking The In Sound From Way Out!. Kingsley produced sounds on the Moog while Perrey recorded them. Then the pair spliced together a serious of original tunes on Perrey's 3-track Ampex recorder. The album was a phenomenon at the time, and as is sometimes the case in this culture, advertising pulled popular taste along. Most of the cuts were used in commercials or product tie-ins, and one tune, "Baroque Hoedown," can still be heard at Disneyland.

Dean Elliott
Elliott, who spent most of his time working in the trenches of the studios, got Capitol Records to provide an outlet for his tinkering instincts on several occasions. The best-known of these was Zounds, What Sounds, for which Elliott mixed sounds like a cement mixer in with his orchestrations--very much like Jack Fascinato did, but much more audaciously. On Heartstrings, Elliott played with tape speeds to stretch notes recorded by a string orchestra to super-human sustenati. Unfortunately, the string arrangements and the tunes themselves are too unremarkable to make this album anything more than a novelty.

Jack Fascinato and Ken Snyder
Capitol producer Fascinato took a break from his Tennessee Ernie Ford records to create Music from a Surplus Store, which combines a wide array of odd sounds (oil cans, floor waxers, electric motors, furniture casters, hand saws) with original compositions with titles like "Oily Boyd." The result is a classic of space age pop: fun, well-engineered, and musically enjoyable.

Bob Thompson
Thompson, considered Esquivel's peer in the stereo-sonic arranging biz, collaborated with conductor Paul Baron and the Orchestra dei Concerti di Roma on this album of original Thompson compositions assembled around the usual battery of sound effects--jet plane take-off, trains, rocket launches--all oriented around the theme of transportation and movement. The best cut from this collection is "Early-Bird, Whirly-Bird," which probably deserves to be compiled alongside Fascinato's "Oily Boyd," insuring a good time will be had by all.

Bob Prescott
A veteran sound effects man from radio (when sound effects men had to have extraordinary ingenuity and about eight sets of hands to pull off what they now do with electronics and sound editing software), Bob Prescott created the classic early stereo album, Cartoons in Stereo, for Audio Fidelity Records. Most of the cuts on this album run under a minute and amount to sonic one-liners, perfect for your next "impress your exotica friends" stereo compilation. Personally, I prefer The Sound of Musical Pictures (Kapp Medallion), a collaboration between Prescott and arranger Ralph Hermann. Prescott provides atmospheric sound effects to accompany Hermann's interpretations of descriptive music pieces. In Albert Ketelbey's "In a Persian Marketplace," you hear the murmur of crowds, camel grunts, jingling coins, and a faky Arab voice crying out, "Baksheesh! Baksheesh!" It's so blatantly stereotypical you've gotta love it.

Earle Doud
Doud's Sounds Funny LP on Epic plows much the same ground as Prescott's album, but with longer bits and fewer total yucks per minute. One bit opens with the sound of a ringing phone. "Joe's Hilltop Diner," a male voice answers. A huge noise interrupts, as if an earthquake or landslide hits. The phone then rings again. "Joe's Valley Diner," the voice answers.

Mel Henke
On Dynamic Adventures in Sound (Warner Brothers), Henke, a veteran composer of commercials for radio and television, depicts a series of adventures, blending exaggerated, Esquivel-ian arrangements of familiar tunes such as "The William Tell Overture" with sound effects. For a jazzy take on "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" (Adventure on the Lake), Henke adds the sound of a coffee urn strainer being slapped around a scrub bucket to simulate the oars splashing in water. The highlight is "Adventure on the Highway," featuring Henke's own ad composition, "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet."

Ray Martin
Within a year of Dynamic Adventures in Sound, Martin produced a similar album for London's Phase Four label: The Sound of Sight. Martin's narratives are even more literal than Henke's. On the opening number, "Westorama," the audio "camera" pans from a lonesome cowboy's campfire (coyote howling in the distance) to a hoedown (boot stomps, spoons and washboards) to sneak attack of robbers (gunshots, horses) to a pioneer homestead (hammering, livestock) to an Indian raid (tom-toms, war whoops) to the cavalry charge (bugle call, horses), and, finally, back again to the campfire. The music is absolutely stereotypical--a celebration of the stereotypes, in fact. Martin's "Cartoony," for example, is a note/sound-perfect tribute to the cartoon music of Carl Stallings and Scott Bradley.

Hugh Heller
Heller, whose firm, Heller-Ferguson, provided many of the ads heard on mainstream pop radio in the 1960s, was the mastermind behind Singers, Talkers, Players, Swingers And Doers, probably the oddest record ever released by Enoch Light's Command label. Heller led a group of actors (including McLean Stevenson, later of "M*A*S*H") and session singers into a studio and had them act and sing a series of comic sketches he'd written. Then he hired Robert Moog to construct a "helectronic" studio laboratory where they mixed in an assortment of realistic and surrealistic sound effects, some rounding out the sketches, some creating odd acoustic non sequiturs.

Wes Harrison
Unlike all the above, Wes Harrison used nothing but his own body to produce a fantastic array of sound effects, then mixed them with a laid-back country sense of humor in his live act. You Won't Believe Your Ears (Philips) from the early 1960s collects a number of sketches from his act. You'll hear what must have made Wes a hit with the happy campers when he started honing his act as a summer camp counselor.

Spike Jones
This list--hell, this whole site--would not complete without recognizing the enormous influence of the musical madness of Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Unlike most of the others on this list, Spike Jones blended sound effects and music without the aid of tape manipulation or electronics.


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