If you look around a sound studio today, you will find a multitude of devices controlled by microchips – ranging from guitar tuners to synthesizers. Music is recorded and edited digitally using computers and saved to hard disks instead of audio tapes. Hard disk recording has become the norm in the music industry today.
“Music production as we know it today only really began with the advent of multi-track recording technology.”
But how did that all start? Sound recordings already existed at the end of the nineteenth century when sound was recorded directly to cylinders or wax discs. It was not until magnetic sound recorders appeared in the 1950s that a finished recording could be built up from several ‘takes’. At that time it was already possible to use a musical recording as a playback, mixing vocals in with it during playback whilst also re-recording the mix using another tape recorder.
Music production as we know it today only really began with the advent of multi-track recording technology. As tape recording technology became more sophisticated, several recordings could be made on one tape in parallel. The possibility to delete individual tracks, even in sections, and to tape them again was revolutionary.
Yesterday – The 1960s
“The Beatles not only had a profound impact on the development of rock and pop music, but on recording technology as well.”
Thanks to this development, it became possible to create precise, polished recordings by re-recording individual parts until the performance is perfect. This technology has the further advantage that not all musicians need to be present at the same time and tapes can be sent from one studio to another for further editing. The mixing console has separate controllers for each track for reverb, echo, and other effects, as well as sound filters and pan controls, which can be used to place individual instruments or voices anywhere in the stereo image.
The Beatles not only had a profound impact on the development of rock and pop music, but on the industry’s recording technology as well. Their progress was steadily driven forward under the direction of their producer George Martin. Their first hits including “She Loves You” were recorded on 2-track machines, whereas later hits such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” used 4-track technology.
“The White Album” featuring hits including “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was the band’s first 8-track production in 1968. Most of the recordings were made in the Abbey Road Studio in London and it was only at the insistence of the Beatles that an 8-track machine was put into operation there. Whilst this was ready to be tested, it was never connected.
Exploring new spheres with phasing and flanging
“He experimented in the studio with every technical option available.”
One artist who also exerted a tremendous influence on the technological advances in music production was Jimi Hendrix. He revolutionized guitar playing from 1966 onwards with his hits “Hey, Joe” and “Purple Haze”. Besides his virtuoso guitar playing, his typical sound was especially important. He experimented in the studio with every technical option available to create this sound, just as the Beatles had done before him, achieving reverse tape effects by inserting a tape backwards and re-recording the sound on the multi-track machine.
His spherical sounds were created by phasing and flanging effects, which were made by putting a finger on the flange of the tape reel to slow down the machine, or by using effects devices that were developed specifically for Hendrix. “Octaver”, “phaser”, “fuzz”, “wah-wah” are effects pedals used by nearly all electronic guitarists today as “stompboxes”. The album “Electric Ladyland” was his crowning achievement, containing songs such as “All Along the Watchtower” and “Voodoo Chile”.
Shortly before his death in 1970, Jimi Hendrix built his “Electric Lady Studio” in New York, which is still there today. All the sound effects mentioned can be generated almost identically today using computer software. The Italian manufacturer IK Multimedia provides a software solution that can be used to recreate the sound of Jimi’s guitar amp and effects rig with a guitar connected to a computer.
Next week in the second part of our series: Electronics in the music of the 1970s and how it made musicians like Kraftwerk, David Bowie, and Ry Cooder icons of the day.