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Talking with Morris Apelbaum of Montreal’s Silent Sound Studio

Talking with Morris Apelbaum of Montreal’s Silent Sound Studio

Morris Apelbaum has been involved in recording Montreal (and other) music for decades. I think I first saw his name on a record sleeve when I was about 13, on the debut single by local punks The Asexuals (on OG Records. Still sounds good 20 years later!) His basement Silent Sound Studio on Clark St. in the Plateau was one of those places where so much local music was recorded, you couldn’t possibly list all the bands that passed through it.

(See a partial list at www.silentsound.com .) Though bands of widely varying styles and renown recorded, mixed or mastered records there, it was always known as one of those few studios that bands of limited means could afford— more because of the good will of the owner than because of it being inherently low-budget, as the high-quality recordings made there prove.

Morris wound down operations at the original locale about a year and a half ago. He’s since moved to a new locale, where he focuses on mastering (many Fish Piss readers have likely heard his mastering skills at work, which is evident on the last godspeed album among many others.) I hope to one day spend enough time with the man to capture the whole story of that original, legendary studio space, or at least document some of the more interesting episodes it had seen— but for now, we limited our chat to the history of recording and records in general.
FP: So, Morris, did you ever play much music yourself?
Morris Apelbaum: No. Some people have tried to teach me a few things before, though.
FP: So what’s the story behind Silent Sound? Three sentences or less— just kidding.
MA: Uh… it was something I enjoyed doing, so I did it.
FP: How old were you when you started recording?
MA: I did my first music recording when I was 18 or 19—in the Dark Ages. It was mono, at Radio McGill, on big old mono Ampeg machines. Tube, I believe, though some may have been solid state. On ⁄ inch mono, which was the radio standard at the time. And a humongous McCurdy console with rotary pots, which predated faders. They were large black knobs about 3 inches in diameter with an arrow to show you where you were. If you wanted to do a master fade, you had to use your arm, lean across and pull them all down.
FP: Was that equipment there for a while before you got there?
MA: I think so. This would have been the late 60s. Radio McGill was sort of the best place for, um, illegal activities at the time. So it was a nice place to hang out. I started doing some radio shows, and was a DJ.
FP: Was it only broadcasting to the campus at the time?
MA: Yes. A bit later a local FM station, I think it was CFQR, would do a four-hour production broadcast of Radio McGill on Sunday nights. So we’d spend the week putting together a four-hour show onto reel-to-reel.
FP: Do you have any nostalgia about that old equipment, perhaps in a perverse way?
MA: Uh… well, I wouldn’t say that it couldn’t be user-friendly, or used altogether, because I was used to it. I still have some equipment from that era, because it has certain sound qualities that are very useful for certain types of projects. I’ve always liked having a range of equipment, each of them have its own voice. You mix and match to get what’s best for the project.
FP: Today with computer sound editing software, people claim to have all the advantages, every different sound from the past available on presets on one unit, but I keep thinking it’s just yet another tool being added, not replacing…
MA: Well, I don’t think anybody in their right mind can claim it has all the quality of the past. It just has the massive convenience of the future. It’s very much like the CD vs. LP debate: LPs clearly sound better.
FP: I think they do, though somebody was telling me that the next-generation CDs finally capture the missing highs and lows that were always present on vinyl.
MA: Well, the high-definition digital audio starts to come close to being almost like analogue, but…. it’s still not there. But people don’t care. The interest isn’t in quality, it’s in convenience.
FP: But then again, if anything, almost since the beginnings, since the ‘teens or even before then, from the 1880s to 1900, records were advertised as “NOW, the NEW, IMPROVED record, HIGHER definition” and so on… It seems to be a constant…
MA: Well, newer and better is the disease of the 20th century, whether it’s detergent or sound quality. That’s been an ongoing theme of the century, if anything it’s spiraling faster and faster. And at a certain point, I would think people would stop caring— you know, how many new and improved detergents can you get interested in? But we’re trained to be very good consumers.
FP: Well like Edison said—or proved, I’m not sure if he said it—“necessity is the mother of invention, but Marketing is the mother of necessity.”
MA: But CDs were the first step away from quality.
FP: You find?
MA: Yes. Because it wasn’t a better sound quality. It was more convenient; it lasted longer, and…
FP: Well, supposedly. In hindsight, well, I have older records than I have CDs, and I can play my scratched records more easily than my scratched CDs…
MA: Yeah, that’s the Achilles heel of digital, is that it’s either perfect or it ceases to exist. Whereas with analog, you can fuss with it. Nonetheless, even though those records sound good, they no longer sound the way they’re supposed to, because with 99.9% of turntables, after you’ve played records even just ten times, there’s been a real degradation of sound quality, both in left-right balance, stereo image and in frequency response. And that’s just the mechanical physics of the process— which doesn’t occur with CDs. They have a certain stability, as long as they’re functioning, that vinyl never had. Unless you have a $4000 turntable, tangential tracking and zero tracking weight and all that stuff. And even then, it’s a mechanical system, and mechanical systems do degrade with time.
FP: Although they do have that cultural permanence, as with film, eventually somebody can hold a candle or flashlight up and figure out how to project a film against a wall and manage to see it, say in two hundred years…
MA: That’s right.
FP: … even if there’s no digital, optical, CD player around by then…
MA: Well it’s not going to take 200 years for that, because there’s already a major issue with virtually all libraries and archives, where the technology is moving so fast that what they archived 20 years ago they no longer have the hardware to access. So, libraries that stored things on 5-1/4-inch floppies are screwed. The sheet of paper, the printed page, is still the king of storage, because assuming it’s of reasonable quality and low-acid content, stored in a reasonable environment, it will last well over 1000 years, and we have the physical proof of that. Whereas, the real problem with new media isn’t the medium, it’s the hardware technology, and the rate of change within hardware technology. It’s now getting harder to get a disquette drive for a computer, and this was the standard storage, how many years ago?
FP: They came out at the end of the eighties, I think. But it seems like the advantage of digital, as we were saying, is that the storage media has no inherent degradation, given the way it’s read— theoretically.
MA: …theoretically, that’s right—but the advantage of analogue media, as we can see from records from 100 years ago or films from that time, is that there’s an inherent ability to withstand abuse. If you trash a record you can wash it. If the left-right balance has been damaged by bad turntables, you can adjust the balance. If the high end is gone, you can add high-end. There’s a whole industry of restoration of analogue media, whether books or paintings or films or music. But in the digital world, once it’s been damaged, there’s very little in the way of restoration that can be done for it, as far as I know. Now possibly if there’s a demand, there may be an industry that develops around it, in the same way that there’s this micro-industry that’s based on restoring hard drives. And dissecting them, in what’s considered to be forensic work in criminal cases and that sort of thing. Maybe that will happen with audio files, but not so far…
FP: I always wondered whether there may eventually be more convergence of digital and analogue— say, for example, a digital editing station for film, with a kind of printer that, when you’re done, can actually print, say, a super-8 or 16mm print of the work. And instead of having to go through the whole chemical process of making film, you can combine the two and have the advantages of both.
MA: Most high-end digital video workstations will output to analogue.
FP: I guess that’s partly for backup purposes, and because something like 98% of theaters still show film, not digital projection.
MA: Although it’s blurring—there’s a lot more work on films done in digital and then transferred to analogue.
FP: Can you imagine a similar thing happening with sound recording eventually? Something like, say, the option of cutting vinyl or metal master plates, something like the old acetates they used to cut, after a combined digital/ analogue recording session?
MA: I don’t really see a demand developing for it. At this point I’m still relatively in the Luddite camp, and I see technology overload happening. I don’t think all the new technology that’s being developed and sold and trumpeted is really going to become a standard. I don’t think people are ready to trade in their CD players.
FP: Well, there’s still hundreds of millions of them out there.
MA: Yeah. It’s going to become at most a small, specialized market of high-end fanatics, who have always existed. The people who bought $25 000 turntables may go out and buy $20 000 high-definition DVD-audio players. But even within a studio environment, and on the professional side of it, the standards aren’t rising with the technology. The standards are dropping.
FP: That makes me think of something an animation teacher friend of mine was saying about his students, that they were starting out so spoiled from the beginning with the digital tools they have that they can’t be bothered to learn the fundamentals. With audio recording, that could mean they aren’t learning the fundamentals of sound, how to hear and know what’s wrong with a sound, how to make a sound better at the levels of the physics of it…
MA: They’re not being exposed to the reality of the potential of sound. The idea is that there’s a physical reality that you seek to reproduce, enhance, modify, distort, whatever. But there’s less and less exposure to that. People just click on the button and it plays, and that’s the norm. And our perception is culturally and historically educated.
Our perceptual abilities vary with our environment. And so the people who are learning with the system that exists now, who’ve never heard high-end analogue playback, have a certain norm. That norm is the current digital technology. And even if they hear, let’s say, a real violin, a nice instrument in a nice hall, what they hear it as, is the digital reproduction, because that’s their work and learning environment. And the next generation is growing up even more limited in their hearing abilities, because they listen to music on their computers.
FP: Aside from computer speakers being pretty bad, I guess there’s also pretty severe compression with MP3s.
MA: Well, they have so-called high-end MP3s but they’re virtually the same size as CD files, so no one uses them.
FP: Getting back to the trajectory of all this, to the beginning of digital technology, the late 70s, producers known for very high production were quite excited when given prototypes of digital recorders. Do you think that some of that was pinned to a hope in a parallel improvement of analogue?
MA: No, I mean, we were all just flabbergasted in the lack of tape noise, and the ease of use. I got my first digital 2-track quite a long time ago, and it was a relatively primitive, PCM 601. It was the best of the PCM series because it actually had two converters [since all sound is inherently analogue, all digital media require converters to translate analogue to digital. –Ed.] There was a converter for each track, whereas the other generations of PCMs had only one converter that switched back and forth between tracks (they did this to save money). This caused a imperceptible time delay (which nevertheless could possibly be sensed) between left and right. So when I do restoration of masters made on that equipment I have to time-align the channels on the computer to restore them.
But the main thing was that there was suddenly no tape noise. It removed a layer of technology from the recording chain, and that layer of technology was inherently bad for the audio. So there was sort of this balance, because you no longer had to use noise reduction units, and no longer had to over-compensate high end and under-compensate low end because of the analogue issues. LP manufacturing is one of the most horrible transfer mediums imaginable, it just adds to the work. There are probably fourteen points in the chain where your project could get fucked up, and often did. Digital took a whole set of headaches away, so the initial response was just great. Certainly for someone like me with a small studio at the time, all of a sudden, at least one of the issues that separated the small studios from the big studios was removed. And although they were expensive, they were relatively inexpensive because of the other equipment you no longer needed to buy. Just the unit itself, when I got my 601 it was about $2400. That was a lot of money in the early 80s, but if you wanted a top-of-the-line, ⁄-inch stereo analogue recorder, you were looking at about $15 000. So that was a major funding difference. It was also one-twentieth the size.
FP: What was the medium for it?
MA: Videotape. You had a relatively small outboard unit, two rack spaces high [each rack is about 3.5 inches], and your VCR. If you used a high-end Beta VCR, they would often come with a PCM switch in the back which bypassed some of the video circuit boards. So you had two machines, one of which you could use to watch movies when you weren’t recording. And you could also hook up a monitor while recording and see a visual display of the seven tracks of audio. It was either 14 or 16 bit, and so there were digital track images so that you could see exactly when it would go to digital black [i.e. silence], because, of course, you couldn’t hear that. It was very convenient, sounded reasonable, and for most people in the business, it sounded better than what they had, though not as good as what some people had.
FP: As far as convincing the public by the mid-80s that they should replace all their vinyl with CDs, do you think that was classic “big-lie” marketing?
MA: Well, that’s just a combination of convenience for the consumer and profits for the record company. Profitability went through the roof. Record companies had a huge vested interest in pushing CDs. They were much cheaper to produce, even back then, when the costs were enormous because there was no jacket. The jacket in vinyl was a large part of the manufacturing involved. Back then, often even a simple jacket, if you were doing small runs, was costing $1.50 apiece. And if you were a big name with a full-colour gatefold, a jacket would cost $3.00.
FP: So the jewel case with the little booklet was automatically cheaper, I guess, since they made zillions of jewel cases.
MA: Probably they were 1% of the cost, even at the beginning when costs are high because of startup. So they had this product that they could charge at least twice as much money for, that cost less to manufacture, and that cost probably less than half to store and perhaps one-tenth to ship—and then you’re talking a major shift in profitability for the record companies. I mean, just in terms of shipping, an LP is half a pound— that’s equal to a stack of CDs. When you’re shipping them around the continent, it adds up. At the time, vinyl was selling for $7.99, and was costing them $2.50, $3 to make, whereas for the same cost, they could sell CDs for $19.99—and be proud of themselves because they were advancing technology. And on the consumer side, people didn’t have to get off their ass to turn the record over.
FP: I heard, or more like, legend had it that the president of Sony wanted to be able to hear all of Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies (I forget which) without having to get up, which is why the initial limit of CDs at was set at 74 minutes. Likewise, when Colombia was planning the LP, they settled on about 20 minutes per side because they figured 90% of symphonies would fit on two sides of a record.
MA: I’ve heard those same stories. I don’t know whether they’re true, but they’re fully believable. You know, there’s lots of classical 78s that are very uptempo, and it’s because if they didn’t play it faster, it wouldn’t fit on the record. Toscanini was notorious for that.
FP: Some people would say that the problems with the record industry today began from the CDs, from the mid-80s on, when the back catalogues became the money-engines of the industry, to the detriment of development of new talent or keeping up with new trends…
MA: Well, to a certain extent the digital transition was just the icing on the cake. Otherwise that started certainly in the 60s, because as the record companies became more and more financially successful, they had less and less to do with music. Historically, through to at least the early 60s, a large part of the industry was still owned and operated by lovers of music. And starting in the 60s, as the industry, I guess, matured (as the management-school types would say), there was a transition to manager types, and accountants, and lawyers. And it became an industry like all others. By the 70s, it was few and far between where there was a record company owned and operated by somebody who actually loved music. It was even rarer that there was somebody who even liked or was at all interested in music. And by the mid-to-late 70s, when I was running a chain of record stores—A&A, I ran the Quebec operation for a few years—I got to meet everybody, because we were a big account at the time.
FP: That was a big chain—every shopping centre had one. They had a couple of flagship stores downtown.
MA: The one where there is now a Mourelatos on Ste. Catherine and Guy, that’s where I spent about five years of my life. So it was a fairly big national chain— I certainly met all the big Canadian record people. Most of the Americans and some of the Europeans would come through, and it was kiss-ass time— they were being nice to the big account. In all that time there was only two people that I met from the level of general manager/ vice president to presidents and CEOs and such who were interested in music, and only one who loved music— that was Nesuhi Ertegun.
FP: Was he related to Ahmet Ertegun?
MA: Yeah, they were brothers, they started Atlantic together. The history, or the rumour, is that after their father passed away—their father was Turkish ambassador to the United States, so they grew up in Washington, DC, were major jazz lovers with a huge collection of jazz records— after their dad passed away, supposedly they sold off their jazz collection, and with the money started Atlantic Records.
When I met Nesuhi in the late 70s, he was the only one among those who would visit me in the flagship store, where we would actually talk about music. At the time, he was still producing, still going into the studio. Ahmet ran Atlantic back then, and Nesuhi ran everything outside the United States. He had a big office in Rockefeller Center. One time when I was down there, I stopped in at the office just to drop off some records, and his assistant, who must’ve been paid a fortune because she remembered writing to me once three years before—people like that made good money in New York then, even if they were just a secretary—called him, and we ended up spending forty-five minutes talking in his office. And this was a New York big shot, but he really loved music.
FP: Was he at all interested in the stuff coming out of New York back then, the No Wave, Patti Smith, the fairly rich scene that was around back then, was it within his range of interest at all?
MA: Yeah, he was familiar with it, it wasn’t really anything he’d listen to at home or in the office, it wasn’t the kind of stuff he’d produce. I think the last time I saw him in New York, he was producing George Benson—pretty shlocky stuff, you know. But he was interested in making it not so shlocky. Very nice guy, and extremely knowledgeable. But very few record company people are knowledgeable, or care about music. A&A belonged to CBS at the time, so I certainly met all the people there at CBS Canada, which was a subsidiary of CBS/ Colombia, and these people had no interest in music.
FP: I can assume that it’s these business people now that are continuously pushing for more mergers, even though there are now only five majors left—
MA: Yes.
FP: I think it’s BMG now that’s looking to buy EMI.
MA: That’s the last of the intact, old-time record companies.
FP: That’s right, they had the Beatles and everything.
MA: Yeah, so that process of stupidity, it started well before CDs and continues to today, and that’s the major problem, is the businessmen.
FP: In my own limited experience— which starts in the early 80s, in the punk and hardcore scenes— I’ve always had friends putting out music in some way, you know, two or three man operations working out of a bedroom or what have you. Were there many small operations in the 60s and 70s, say, for folk or for this or that marginal style?
MA: Well, it was always more difficult to have a label back then, because your costs were enormous. One of the hopeful things about today is you can start a label in your bedroom, and you can burn your own CDs and go sell them. You couldn’t make your own vinyl. I mean, there were a couple of people who did, and there were transcription machines from the 40s and 50s, where you used to be able to go into a booth [like a photo booth] at Coney Island and record a record. Some individuals would buy these machines second-hand and be able to press small runs of 10-inch records (which were the standard for those machines. The quality on these were actually quite good.) But starting a label back then was—well, I tried, and I certainly didn’t succeed.
FP: Did any small labels in Montreal in the 60s manage to survive more than a few years?
MA: In the pop area, some did.
FP: I guess Aquarius is one [Donald K. Donald’s label, launched April Wine, Sass Jordan, somehow still puts out horrible commercial pap.] But bands like the Haunted or the Rabble, that you might consider to be somewhat underground…
MA: They were signed to the equivalent of what could be called local majors. There was a francophone market which warranted outposts of the big labels. It was possible to put a record out with them; you just had to sell enough units to make it worthwhile. If you wanted to put out an album, you had to come up with a few thousand dollars, just for the manufacturing costs. And a few thousand dollars 30 years ago was quite a bit of money.
FP: What about 45s?
MA: 45s were much cheaper to manufacture—you were looking at about a thousand dollars. They didn’t do much in the way of career advancement, as they were singles.
FP: Today, a lot of bands will press their own CD or even get a single made and sell them at a table at all their shows. Did people do that then, press a single for sales at shows…
MA: There were some people who did that, but in my personal experience that started in the mid-80s. At the time there were only one or two places you could go to get [as little as] a thousand singles pressed, and a thousand singles are a lot of singles to give away. And it was a much more cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive process. You were dealing with large companies. My first pressings were done with RCA in Smith Falls, Ontario. You had to prepare your master, and you had to master it, and do a proper lacquer, do the graphics for the labels, get the films made for the printing of them. It wasn’t easy.
FP: Yet looking back at the history of music, so much of the more innovative music came out on smaller labels first, who managed to put stuff out despite such difficulties. Even today, if you look at where some of the majors are apparently scrambling, trying to sign some of the more experimental or so-called post-rock bands or buy out some labels— but they weren’t the ones innovating any of this. They don’t have the structure to develop really new things.
MA: Well, up until perhaps the early 80s, the majors did do some innovation and did sign some new talent and did develop. They never did as much as small labels, and that’s inherent to human beings. But starting in the 80s, their level of development and innovation went to zero, at the same time that their way of judging who to buy became 100% financial, and had no music component anymore. Until then, when a small label was bought, it was because somebody liked the music, and they were successful, or they fit in with what they wanted to do. After that, it shifted to “how many units can they sell?”
FP: All financial projections, I guess—“if we add our distribution clout to this small label’s catalogue, how many more markets will be reached, what’s the number at the end…“
MA: “How much money can we make?” And so the art side, if you will, is moot.
There was also a real paradigm shift in the size and financial success of record companies, so when record companies go from million-dollar businesses to multi-billion dollar businesses, there’s a whole different way of operating: the corporate culture, stockholders, all sorts of things. There was a time when record companies did rock and roll to subsidize their classical output, because classical never made money. But that’s what they were proud of; they could say they made “legitimate” music. But now, they no longer have an interest in being legit, there’s no standard, either of musicality, quality, sound quality, anything. It’s a question of dollars and cents, major dollars and cents. The Rolling Stones do a tour and generate a quarter of a billion dollars—that’s probably more than the whole industry generated in 1972. And that’s just one bunch of old farts who toured for six months. So there’s been a whole radical shift—which, you know, has parallels in other industries, other parts of the culture, of society.