Multitrack recording  

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Multitrack recording ('multitracking' or just 'tracking' for short) is a method of sound recording that allows for the separate recording of multiple sound sources to create a cohesive whole. This is the most common method of recording popular music. In the 2000s, multitracking software for computers such as Pro Tools became widely used.


The history of multitrack recording begins with Bing Crosby's gift of a commercially-produced reel-to-reel tape recorder to an inventive guitarist named Les Paul.

There were earlier precedents (such as Sidney Bechet's 1941 song, "Sheik of Araby"), but the person credited with the invention of magnetic audiotape Multitrack recording was guitarist, composer and inventor Les Paul, who also contributed to the famous Gibson Les Paul model electric guitar for Gibson Guitar Corporation in the early 1950s.

Paul had been experimenting with overdubbing in the late 1940s and in 1947, Capitol Records released a record featuring Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar. These recordings were made with wax discs; Paul would record a track onto a disc, and then record himself playing another part with the first.

Paul's invention of multitrack recording was made possible by a gift from his friend Bing Crosby – an Ampex Model 200, the world's first commercially-produced reel-to-reel tape recorder. These machines were based on modified German Magnetophon recorders which had been acquired by audio engineer Jack Mullin while he was serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the closing days of World War II. Mullin had studied and modified the recorders, hoping to sell the system to the Hollywood movie studios as a new means of recording movie soundtracks.

After hearing a demonstration of Mullin's tape recorders in June 1947, Crosby became a major backer of the new technology — he hired Mullin as his chief engineer and immediately invested US$50,000 in the electronics firm Ampex so that the company could develop a commercial version of Mullin's machines. Crosby became the first performer in the world to pre-record radio broadcasts and master his commercial music recordings on tape.

In 1948 Crosby gave Paul one of the first production units of the new Ampex Model 200 reel-to-reel tape recorder. Within hours, Paul had the idea of modifying the machine by the addition of extra recording and playback heads which could allow him to simultaneously record a new track whilst monitoring the playback of previously recorded tracks.

Development of new equipment

Paul's multitrack experiments progressed rapidly and in 1953 he commissioned Ampex to build the world's first eight-track reel to reel tape recorder, at his own expense. Contrary to popular belief, however, the idea was not Paul's, but Ampex Special Products manager Ross Snyder's. (This is not to be confused with an 8-track cartridge machine, introduced in 1965, which played in stereo.)

Ampex released the first commercial multitrack recorders in 1955, naming the process "Sel-Sync" (Selective Synchronous Recording). Coinciding the advent of full frequency range recording (FFRR), stereo and the high-fidelity microgroove vinyl LP format, multitrack recorders soon became indispensable to vocalists like Crosby and Nat "King" Cole.

The earliest multitrack recorders were analog magnetic tape machines with two or three tracks. Elvis Presley was first recorded on multitrack during 1957, as RCA's engineers were testing their new machines. Buddy Holly's last studio session in 1958 employed three-track, resulting in his only stereo releases not to include overdubs. The new three-track system allowed the lead vocal to be recorded on a dedicated track, while the remaining two tracks could be used to record the backing tracks in full stereo, and this system was also used extensively by producer Phil Spector in the early Sixties for his famous "Wall of Sound" recordings.

In 1958, Atlantic Records led the world, becoming the first record company to install an eight-track recorder in its recording studio. (It was installed by engineer Tom Dowd.) Frank Zappa experimented with a five-track recorder built by engineer Paul Buff in his Rancho Cucamonga, studio, Studio Z, in the early 1960s, prior to his work with The Mothers of Invention. However, recorders with four or more tracks were restricted mainly to American recording studios until the mid-to-late Sixties, mainly because of import restrictions and the high cost of the technology. In England, pioneering independent producer Joe Meek produced all of his innovative early Sixties recordings using monophonic recorders. EMI house producer George Martin was considered an innovator for his use of two-track as a means to making better mono records, carefully balancing vocals and instruments; Abbey Road Studios installed Telefunken four-track machines in 1959 and 1960, but The Beatles would not have access to them until late 1963, and all recordings prior to their first world hit single I Want to Hold Your Hand (1964) were made on two-track machines.

The term "Sound On Sound" is used by Les Paul to describe the process of multitrack recording.

Impact on popular music

The artistic potential of the multitrack recorder came to the attention of the public in the 1960s, when artists such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys began to multitrack extensively, and from then on virtually all popular music was recorded in this manner. The technology developed very rapidly during these years. At the start of their careers, the Beatles and Beach Boys each recorded live to mono, two-track (the Beatles), or three-track (the Beach Boys); by 1965 they used multitracking to create pop music of unprecedented complexity.

The Beach Boys' acclaimed 1966 LP Pet Sounds relied on multitrack recorders for its innovative production. Brian Wilson pretaped all the instrumental backing tracks with a large ensemble, recording the performances live, direct to a four-track recorder. These four-track backing tapes were then 'dubbed down' to one track of an eight-track tape. Six of the remaining seven tracks were then used to individually record the vocals of each member of The Beach Boys, and the eighth track was reserved for any final 'sweetening' overdubs of instruments or voices.

The U.K. division of Decca Records was among the first to install a professional eight-track recorder at its London recording studio in 1967. This equipment was used to record Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues which was released in December 1967 on Deram Records.

Because the Beatles did not gain access to eight-track recorders until later on, their groundbreaking Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP (1967) was created using pairs of four-track machines; the group also used vari-speed (also called pitch shift) to achieve unique sounds, and they were the first group in the world to use an important offshoot of multitrack recording, the Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) system invented by Abbey Road staff engineer Ken Townshend in 1966. The Beatles used eight-track to record portions of the White Album, the single "Hey Jude" and the later Abbey Road. It was during the White Album sessions of 1968 that EMI's Abbey Road Studios finally had eight-track recorders installed, and up until then, the group had to go elsewhere to record with eight-tracks.

Other artists began experimenting with multitrack's possibilities also, with the Music Machine (of "Talk Talk" fame) recording on a custom-built ten-track setup, and Pink Floyd collaborating with former Beatles recording engineer Norman "Hurricane" Smith, who produced their first albums.

In 1968 Ampex built the first prototype sixteen-track recorder at the request of Mirasound Studios in New York City. Not long after it this it introduced the production model MM-1000, the first commercially available 16-track recording machine. One of these machines was installed at CBS Studios in New York City where it was used to record songs for the second album by Blood, Sweat & Tears released in early 1969. 1968's "Crimson And Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells was among the first sixteen-track recordings to be released (mixed to stereo and mono); another was Frank Zappa's 1969 album Hot Rats, recorded at various studios in Los Angeles. (A 1987 remix of the opening track, "Peaches En Regalia", became the first compact disc single, years later.) Another early 16 track recording was Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane also from 1969. The back of the Jefferson Airplane album cover includes a picture of the MM-1000.

The first 16-track machine in the U.K. was probably the one installed at Trident Studios, London in late 1969. After The Flood a song from the Van Der Graaf Generator album The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other was recorded at this studio on 16 tracks in December 1969. Other groups using the same studio at this time included Genesis and David Bowie as well as Queen who experimented with multi tracking extensively most prominently on their albums Queen II and A Night at the Opera.

Other western countries also lagged well behind the USA – in Australia, the largest local recording label, Festival Records, did not install a four-track recorder until late 1966; the first eight-track recorders did not appear there until the late Sixties; Australia's first sixteen-track recorder was installed at Armstrong's Studios in Melbourne in 1971; Festival installed Australia's first 24-track recorder at its Sydney studio in 1974.

During the 1970s, sixteen, twenty-four, and thirty-two tracks became common, with recording tape reaching two and three inches (5.08cm - 7.62cm) wide. In 1973 TEAC converted their consumer quadraphonic tape recorders for use as home multitrack recorders. The result were the popular TEAC 2340 and 3340 models. Both were four-track machines that used ¼ inch tape. The 2340 ran at either 3¾ or 7½ inches per second and used seven inch reels while the 3340 ran at 7½ or 15 inches per second and used 10½ inch reels. They cost under U.S. $1,000.

The advent of the compact audio cassette (developed in 1963) ultimately led to affordable, portable four-track machines such as the Tascam Portastudio which debuted in 1979. Cassette-based machines could not provide the same audio quality as reel-to-reel machines, but served as a useful tool for professional and semi-pro musicians in making song demos. Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album Nebraska was made this way, with Springsteen choosing the album's earlier demo versions over the later studio recordings.

The familiar tape cassette was designed to accommodate four channels of audio – in a commercially recorded cassette these four tracks would normally constitute the stereo channels (each consisting of two tracks) for both 'sides' of the cassette – in a four-track cassette recorder all four tracks of a cassette are utilized together, often with the tape running at twice the normal speed (3¾ instead of 1⅞ inches per second) for increased fidelity. A separate signal can be recorded on to each of four tracks. (As such, the four-track machine does not utilise the two separate sides of the cassette in the conventional sense; if the cassette is inserted the other way round, all four tracks play in reverse.) As with professional machines, two or more tracks can be bounced down to one. When recording is complete, the volume level of each track is optimized, effects are added where desired, each track is separately 'panned' to the desired point in the stereo field and the resulting stereo signal is mixed down to a separate stereo machine (such as a conventional cassette recorder).

Today, multitrack recorders can be analog or digital, and are available with many more tracks. Analog multitracks can have up to 24 tracks on a tape two inches wide which is the widest analog tape available. Prototype machines, by MCI in 1978, using 3" tape for 32 tracks never went into production, though Otari made a 32 track 2" MX-80. Digital multitracks can have an almost unlimited number of simultaneous tracks and can record to and play back from a number of media and formats including digital tape, hard disk, and optical disc. The lower cost has made it easier to find multitrack recording technology outside a typical recording studio. For example, Apple Computer's GarageBand is included in all of the company's new computers, and is used by amateurs as a cost-efficient way to downmix music and podcasts.

Starting around 1995, another revolution in multitracking began, with the arrival of cheap digital multitrack recorders, which recorded sound to a computer hard drive, a digital tape format (such as ADAT), or in some cases Minidiscs. The prices of these machines steadily dropped over time. Meanwhile, the power of the personal computer increased, so that today, an average home computer is sufficiently powerful to serve as a complete multitrack recorder, using inexpensive hardware and software (under US $1,000). This is a far cry from the days when multitrack recorders cost thousands of dollars and few people could afford them.

Some of the leading providers of multitrackers are Tascam (hard drive or cassette based), Alesis (ADAT digital tape based), Roland/Boss Corporation (hard drive based), Fostex (hard drive based), Yamaha (hard drive based), and Korg.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Multitrack recording" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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