A short history of the multitrack recording studio

A Short History of the Multitrack Recording Studio (adapted from Wayne Wadham's Sound Advice -- a Musician's Guide to the Recording Studio): As I write this, the original 1961 version of Ben E. King's recording of "Stand By Me" is number one in the Billboard Hot 100. It is the theme of a hit movie, but this alone will never sell records. What will is a strong message: heart! Your favorite record of the 1950s or 1960s is both a landmark and a personal challenge. Listen to some of these "oldies" and hear how much was achieved without high-tech equipment. To make recordings that transcend the technology used to create them--recordings that the next generation of musicians will admire as you admire those of the past--is the real challenge.

There have been four separate stages in the development of music recordings studios, roughly aiigned with each decade since the 1950s. Until the late 1940s, music was recorded in two ways, both mono. Many recording sessions were done direct to disc, with one or more lacquer masters cut right in the studio. If the music was for a film soundtrack, it was recorded directly onto a 35mm optical soundtrack negative. Running at 18 inches per second, and with about 55 dB signal to noise ratio (abbreviated S/N, a parameter we'll define later), this method gave better overall sound quality than any disc of the time.

Tape recording, developed by the Germans during the Second World War, was used both in radio broadcasts and for the deciphering of intercepted code messages. The poor sound quality obtained on that early equipment, due largely to inferior tape, soon improved with the introduction of commercial recorders and new tapes by Telefunken in Europe and Ampex in the United States. These machines were mono, full track (one 1/4" wide track), running at 15 ips for music-quality performance. Lower speeds were usually reserved for voice recording. It was discovered early that you could overdub by playing back a previously recorded tape through a mixer, blending that with live mics, and sending the composite signal to a second recorder. In the history of record production, this simple step rivaled the invention of the wheel.

Obviously, the pretaped music lost a bit of sound quality and gained a bit of noise. Nevertheless, this technique did allow artists to add layers of new music. Such mono-to-mono copy-overdubbing was the standard in pop music production up until 1962. Until that time, pop and rock records were made to sound good on AM radio-in highly compressed mono. Not much attention was paid to true stereo in pop and rock until 1967, when the Beatles brought out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While stereo was entering its second decade for classical and jazz recording, these genres were played primarily on FM. Rock was usually confined to AM until the early 1970s.

Throughout the 1950s, record companies owned most of the better recording studios, renting unbooked hours to outside users for radio and TV commercial productions. There were very few independent studios of any real quality. For rock, the large, well-designed acoustic space did not matter as much as the engineer's ear for getting excitement into the mix.

Of the staff engineers at major labels, certainly Billy Porter of RCA stands out. His work on Elvis Presley's earliest hits is a marvel, both for its fine technical quality and many innovative techniques. In the jazz field, Rudy van Gelder engineered the Blue Note and Prestige sessions ofJohn Coltrane, Miles Davis, and other artists. The crisp and clean cymbal and horn sounds on these tapes challenge even the compact discs on which they are now being rereleased.

In 1955, hit guitarist Les Paul commissioned Ampex Corporation to build a custom recorder, with eight parallel tracks to be inscribed on special I"-wide tape. He and his wife, Mary Ford, had done many tape-to-tape records, layering six or more guitar and vocal parts, but they were displeased with the buildup of noise and distortion, not to mention the limited control inherent in the mixing process. The first Ampex 8-track was delivered the next year, and Les and Mary proceeded to make a string of Top 10 hits on it. He developed almost all the techniques and tricks that later became standard in multitrack sessions--headphone or cue mixing, sel-sync overdubbing, bouncing tracks, prelaying effects and delays, and special varispeed operations.

The late 1950s brought an acceptance of the 2-track recorder in rock sessions, but mostly as a convenience in producing mono records. Basic tracks could be laid down on one track, some instrumental overdubs (perhaps even horns or strings) on the second track (recorded while these musicians heard a headphone playback of track 1 via the record head, later called sel-sync), then both tracks mixed onto the first track of a second machine along with another live overdub. The vocals might then be added on the remaining track of machine 2 and a mono mix made on to a full-track recorder.

This process saves at least one tape generation on the basic tracks, gives better control over the level of each overdub, and does allow a remix of at least the vocals and completed tracks. The resulting 2-track tape makes pretty anificial stereo, as evidenced by hits as late as the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," in which all voices and the guitar solo are on one channel and eveDjthing else is on the other. As George Martin has pointed out, however, most records produced this way were not meant for stereo issue. The two tracks merely allowed better control over elements in the final mono mix. Record companies, in the wake of public demand for stereo, simply released anything they could find, no matter how artificial it sounded, and regardless of how much the artists objected.

Ampex introduced a stock model of its 1/2" 3-track machine in 1960. It offered sel-sync on all tracks and gained its first acceptance with producers of jingles, mainly because a narrator could be added on the third track, rather than on a subsequent pass on 1/4" requiring another generation loss of the music. The 3-track did enable some of the first quasi-natural stereo pop records, however, since the lead vocals could now be mixed into the center, with the music on left and right channels. On the other hand, some rock engineers really had no idea of how to use the medium. .There is even one story of a top engineer who used the third track only for acoustic or electric bass.

My own favorite early multitrack memory is an afternoon in 1964 at A&R studios, then on 47th Street next door to the original Manny's Music Shop. Another engineer burst into the control room where my group was working and declared, "It's here." Our own engineer (now a major producer) took us out to witness the unpacking of A&R's first 4-track Ampex. The entire staff was speechless, circling it as though a spacecraft had landed. Then our engineer, with genuine puzzlement, said, "What are we going to do withfour tracks?" Twenty years later I read an interview in which he discussed Ehe awful artistic limitations of working with 24 tracks!

That afternoon we were recording 2-track at what was perhaps the top independent studio in New York, a literally state-of-the-art setup. The cost was $30 per hour, including engineer, a very high price even in New York. The paperwork indicates that in four afternoon sessions over Ehe next week, we recorded three sides for United Artists. It took a total of 17 hours and cost about $600, with tape. In the mid-l960s $6,000 was a huge studio budget for a rock album. Just four years later, when 8-track became the pro format for rock, and when independent studios began springing up in every loft or converted olfice space, rentals rose to an unheard-of $60 per hour.

This pushed 1969 album studio budgets up to around $rlO,OOO with mixdownsan amount that might only be approved for established artists-which still did not include AFM or AFTRA musicians' and singers' payments. A decade later, the average studio bill jumped to well over $30,000, with a few privileged artists spending upwards ol $500,000 per album iust in studio costs. Yet in the same period of time- '69 to '79, retail album prices went from 9g6.98 to $8.98 list price, an increase of under 30%.

Until around 1968, it was fairly standard practice to do two completely separate mixes of singles and albums-one for radio play in mono, the other for home playback in stereo. This caused sales and promotional problems when the mono and stereo mixes of a particular tune had a different sound or feel. Since the mix can make or break a record, labels wanted only the "hit" mix-mono-to be played on the air. Meanwhile, FM rock stations, then developing their first legs, insisted on playing stereo whenever available. As a stopgap some stations installed primitive delays and reverbs to simulate stereo. Others actually bootlegged stereo tapes of hits out the back door of certain studios-unauthorized midnight mixes made by underpaid engineers.

CBS came up with a novel solution: Compatible Mixing. This was really nothing more complex than mixing to stereo tape while monitoring the process with both channels mixed to a mono signal. The finished mixes maintained their characteristic sound or punch whether played in mono or stereo. Often, simultaneous full-track and stereo machines ran to give a first-generation mono and stereo product. The process was discontinued in the early 1970s, when the major labels stopped pressing mono albums and singles.

By 1970, 16-track was gaining acceptance Eor rock production in the United States, though even the Beatles continued to use 8-track through most of Abbey Road and Let It Be in that same year. The Ampex MM-1000 16-track package cost almost $35,000 and required a much more elaborate console than was previously available. Split designs became the standard, the main bank of faders used for mic/line inputs feeding the recorder, the monitor section off to the right used to provide cue mixes and other submixes for reverb chambers, and so on. Although Ampex and Scully announced 24-track models to come, there was little rush to buy them because of the noise build-up inherent with so many separate recorhed signals.

The real demand for 24 tracks came from clients-artists and producers who wanted the control and versatility, even at the expense of more noise and cost. The Dolby A system provided just enough noise reduction to bring 16 tracks of Eape noise back down to the noise level of a good 2-track machine, but the first systems were expensive-almost $2,000 a track! Not many studios could afford it, and not many artists wanted to pay the extra in rentals. By 1370 top studios were charging more than $100 per hour.

Aside from refinements made in existing devices--quieter and more precise parametric equalizers, smoother compressors and better plate reverbs-few new tricks except mechanical flanging were added to the engineer's bag. First made popular on a single named "Itchycoo Park" by the Small Faces,flanging was accomplished by playing two copies of a finished tape back on two machines and mixing their outputs. One copy was started a •raction of a second before the other, and drag was manually applied to the playback machine's feed reel, slowing its speed just enough to bring the two copies into, and then past, exact alignment. The dramatic swishing underwater effect of the resulting comb filter began appearing on every record and really established the commercial demand for a whole range of effects that are now available in various digital units.

As more artists in pursuit of a signing found independent funding to make demos and even master tapes, privately owned studios sprang up everwhere during the late 1360s.

By 1972, when Caribou Ranch and other so-called aiternative-environment studios were established, many successful artists began working on master tapes during United States and foreign tours, on vacations, or wherever they happened to be. Recording vans could be brought to the Grand Canyon or Great Pyramid if necessary. The Band's first two albums were recorded in the basement of their pink ranch house. Meanwhile, major independent studios offered all the equipment and conveniences of the labels' own flagship rodms, including great engineers. To accommodate the traveling plans of major acts, some of the best engineers went freelance for the first time, billing their services as consultants to the budgets of whichever album was in progress.

Other engineers--such as Phil Ramone, Bill Szymczyk, and Geoff Emerickmoved on to production, allowing the house engineers wherever they were working to concentrate on what they knew best: their own equipment. Some artists used their own money to produce albums completely on the road, then asked for a reimbursement, or recoupment advance. Still other artists, flush with profits from hits and wary of the creative accounting practices of their labels, retained ownership of their master tapes, merely leasing them to the majors. Just as the film industry had converted •rom studio to independent production in the late 1950s, so the record industry left the nest ten to fiEteen years later.

The 1970s brought new formats and devices-both for studios and musicians. The Kepex and other noise gates were invented and used to great effect in albums such as Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow. After Roy Halee had used multiple reverbs to create the cavernous effects on various Simon & Garfunkel hits, such as "The Boxer," EMT finally brought out a true stereo plate reverb around 1970. The first delay lines came out in 1973, including the Cooper Time Cube, with around twenty milliseconds of Acoustic Delay (created via flexible tubing through which the input sound was sent from a small speaker to a microphone at the other end, with a preamp to bring the signal back up to line level).

Expanders, Aural Exciters, and the first generation of digital toys such as Eventide's first digital delays appeared on the scene by 1375. Next came EMT's now-famous Model 250 reverb, which (retailing at a mere $28,000) looked like a small red android and was later compared to R2D2. This was the first unit to allow programming of various digital spaces, and also developed enough heat (with hundreds of internal memory chips) to fry an egg on top! The biggest development of all--console automation--began with the APYAllison system in 1975. This system stored automation data on one or two tracks of the 2" tape. In 1978 Neve introduced its NECAM system, using floppy discs to store the data and identical SMPTE time code on the 2" tape and floppy to synchronize the whole operation. The other hot new device was B?X's system for interlocking sound and video playback. As you might guess, the BTX was developed for use in film scoring and jingle work, where perfect sync is mandatory. The idea of using Ehe system to interlock two multitrack tape machines came later, and with it the birth of 46-track, 69-track, and the other baroque formats used today. To my knowledge, the ultimate is still Arif Mardin's 1g84 production of the Italian group Scritti Politti, for which five 24-track machines were locked up during the mix.

Digital recording as a medium for pop and rock really did not happen until the mid-1980s, when compact discs made it possible to get all the added and expensive quality out to the public. However, 3M Corporation did bring out a 32-track digital machine--the legendary DDS-in 1377. With the 4-track mixdown machine and all the interconnects, the package ran a mere 9g180,000 (about $450,000 today, taking a decade of inflation into account). Only a few rock albums--notably Steely Dan's Gaucho and Ry Cooder's Bop Til You Drop-were recorded on this system because of the extreme cost and complications involved. Studio owners were still reeling with the almost--yearly cost of converting their operations from 4- to 8- to 16- to 24-track, adding $30,000 worth of Dolbys, and buying new consoles one moment and trading them in the next.

Digital, with all its obvious sonic advantages, was financially iust out of the question, and as a result, 3M sold only a few dozen of its systems in a five-year period, discontinuing the line in 1982. Sadiy, many engineers believe the DDS sounded better than any digital multitrack available today. Meanwhile, classical and jazz recording took to 2-track video-based digital systems like a duck to water. No overdubs--no punching in-limited editing, but what sound quality! The first Sony Analog-to-Digital converter cost under $2,000 and could store its output on almos• any VCR, although 3/4" gave the least dropout and error problems, and the tape cost about $25 an hour-less than 1/4" analog tape recorded at 15 ips.

If studio owners were dizzy with new equipment in 1980, they certainly had no idea what was in store by 1388. The most important new types have been the computer-monitored mixing consoles such as the Solid State Logic, digital reverbs, and dedicated effects systems (ranging from inexpensive models by Korg and Ibanez up to the Lexicon 224 XL, 480, and later models), synthesizers with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Inter•ace), drum machines and sequences, digital multieffects devices (such as the Yamaha SPX-90 with dozens of internal programs), and finally the Apple Macintosh computer, used by musicians to write and arrange music and by studio engineers to control the simultaneous operation of sequencers, samplers, consoies, and tape machines. One of the primary reasons the major studios formed SPARS (the Society of Professional Audio Recording Studios) in 1977 was to restore a reasonable pace to the rapid conversion from one professional recording standard to the next. The continuing costs of obsolescence, downtime for the installation of new equipmen•, and retraining of house engineers all add up to a bill that most studios can't pay. Only a few lucky ones have the name to attract round-the-clock bookings or cap•ure the prize sessions: lockout or block bookings for stars working on top-shelf maior-label budgets and Hollywood film-scoring projects.

Today many musicians are feeling the same pinch. Every new generation of synthesizer that comes out obsoletes the last--first Moogs and Arps, then Sequential Circuits, Korg, Roland, and Yamaha with FM tone generation. While the new toys are fun, few musicians have enough current work and/or income to merit the investment.

Wonderful as all these machines are, they have again made it very difficult to maintain professional status without raising studio rentals sky high. In fact, rates at the hoaest studios for rock and pop production, whether it be the synth-equipped Unique in New York or the spacious and beautiful rooms at Fantasy Sound in San Francisco, can approach $400 per hour if you are using 48-Erack digital with a host of SMPTE interlock video, synth, and computer-driven equipment. Everything but the studio itself may be added to your bill a la carte at its own hourly rate.

On the other end of the spectrum, many 24-track studios in Boston, Atlanta, and Detroit, and even lesser-known rooms in New York and Los Angeles, can be rented at under $50 an hour, often as low as $35 with block bookings. While this is great for recording artists and labels, in a way it is just not fair. The recording studio is the instrument without which hit records cannot be made, yet studio ownership is among the worst financial bets in the industry. (source)

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