A Short History Of Multitrack Recording (Everything You Need To Know)

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  • How was magnetic tape recording discovered?
  • When did multitracking become the norm?
  • Discover the history of multitrack recording.
  • Also consider checking out our article on The Basics Of Tape/Magnetic Recording

Image: Harmony Central

“Gentlemen, we are in the presence of an invention being born—an entirely new graphic art springing from the heart of physics, of physiology, of mechanics. Each trace of speech that I submit today analyzes the voice: its tonality, its intensity, its timbre. I believe a synthesis is also possible through which the tracing of the words is transformed into a series of signs by mechanical means, and I propose to attempt it. I see the book of nature opened before the gaze of all men, and, however small I may be, I dare hope to be permitted to read it.” – Scott de Martinville

We’ll take a journey today, one whose foundation was laid by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a French librarian who invented the phonautograph in the late 1850s. While he may have died in obscurity, his invention became the point of departure for humans to pursue sophisticated mediums of recording sounds.

Our endgame is multitrack recording (MTR), what we call multitracking or simply tracking in today’s parlance.

The history of multitracking is a treasure trove of anecdotes that bear witness to the love and labor of entertainers, entrepreneurs, and audio technicians. Might I say, MTR is not the ‘gamechanger’ in the chronology of sound recording, it is the genesis.

Multitrack recording allows recording engineers to record each instrument or vocal take separately. Separate tracks, in turn, give the mixing engineer more scope to sculpt the tone and balance the levels of each individual track. Perhaps more importantly, it makes it possible to re-do a bad take.

Whether you are a history nerd or a recording guru, join me as I pay homage to the genealogy of multitracking and the geniuses who pioneered it.

The Origins of Music Recording: Late 19th Century

It was 1877. Thomas Edison added yet another patent to his incessant list of inventions- the phonograph. It was a simple contraption that involved a diaphragm, a metal stylus, and a cylindrical drum wrapped in a tin foil sheet with a handle to rotate it laterally.

Although the invention is undoubtedly a breakthrough, it was hardly auspicious for recording or playing music. Yes, there existed some far-fetched possibility to use it as a telephone repeater. It was iffy and nowhere near ready to be of any use for recording or playing back anything audible.

So, it sat inanely without any real purpose for the ensuing decade. The idea was propelled further by Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Tainter in their quest to improve the quality of recordings for the telephone.

Thomas Edison with his phonograph.

After a series of experiments, they succeeded in making much-needed refinements to the recording process, resulting in the wax cylinder phonograph. Contiguous but unrelated to these events, a German-American by the name of Emile Berliner was quietly experimenting with sound recording using very different means to achieve what Edison had. In 1887, he claimed his first patent for the vertical-cut flat disc record – the gramophone record.

These records were substantially louder, cheaper, and easier to produce compared to anything on the horizon. Emile Berliner would soon go on to establish the United States Gramophone Company in 1894. His invention ultimately evolved into the 7-inch gramophone – the first commercially available and viable apparatus for recording music and sound.

This was the ‘acoustic era’ – an age of mechanical recording technologies that were to persist until the large conical horns were replaced with electrical microphones that would usher in the second wave – the ‘electronic recording era’.

The Build Up to Multitracking: 1923-1945

By the 1920s, the broadcasting industry was booming and thousands of people were lining up to buy radio receivers. 60% of America owned radios in 1930. They were spoilt for choice with the option to tune into 600+ radio stations.

What they lacked, however, is stable, loud, and convenient audio recording technology. The acoustic era just wasn’t cutting it. People were still shouting into a recording horn and it was near impossible to record “s” sounds (sibilance) onto an acoustic disc.

The engineers at Western Electric (a then-subsidiary of AT&T), revisited Edison’s designs to find a way to move forward. They tirelessly worked on the idea of ‘electrical recording’ to create mics and amplifiers. Soon, they introduced electromechanical recording technology.

This was an expensive but significant leap forward in sound quality. Sadly, this was mostly to the benefit of consumers, who now had better records and record players. It did very little for the audio broadcasting and recording industry.

In the meantime, Edward W. Kellogg and Chest W. Rice invented the ‘loudspeaker (or electro-acoustic transducer). It’s one of the most notable achievements of the time – an actual game-changer. In fact, the design has more or less survived to this day without any substantial changes.

(We look closer at how a speaker is designed in Bi-Amping Speakers (A Fully Illustrated Guide))

The advent of electrical microphones (like the 387 model by Western Electric) introduced the world to new and unprecedented heights of fidelity. The electronic amps leveled the playing field for guitars and bass players, who previously had struggled to compete with brass and wind instruments.

Back and forth refinements continued through this ‘electrical age’, the most notable of which was the use of sound-on-film to record audio in the movie industry. However, multitrack recording still did not exist for a few more decades.

How Was Music Recorded Before Multitracking?

Before multitracking, a band, ensemble, or orchestra would gather in a sound studio to perform a music piece. The recording artist would record them simultaneously as they performed into a horn in the studio room.

The drummer could not duck out for a quick smoke while the lead guitarist gave “another take” because of a few odd phrases in the guitar solo. The whole band – singer, instrumentalists, et al – would have to start over. Correcting errors was the most obvious pain, but there was no significant motive for the industry to pursue anything beyond improvements to the existing phonograph technology.

An early recording setup, using a horn to carry the sound into the recording room.

You can read more about this in Acoustic Recording – an essay/article from the archives of the Library of Congress.

The History of Multitracking: The 1940s

The aforementioned process was a second-rate listening experience. It would feel like you were hearing an echo of the ensemble rather than an actual recording, especially if you are used to the high-fidelity sounds of today. Ironically, the contiguous developments in the military arms race ushered the world closer to more lifelike sounds. The hippies will have to reconcile with that fact.

The second World War had sparked a science race. Everyone was eager to dominate the battlefield with superior technological advances in weaponry and communication systems. As luck would have it, Nazi Germany was the first to find a significant breakthrough that relates to multitracking.

German scientists figured out how to imprint a tape with synchronized magnetic data. The bulk of the glory goes to Fritz Pfleumer, a German-Austrian engineer, who figured out a way to coat paper with iron oxide, thus inventing the magnetic tape that could be used to store data.

The Germans could now create long segments of (relatively) high-fidelity sounds, some as long as fifteen minutes in length. However, they were not exactly interested in recording music…

Instead, the invention became the backbone of the Nazi radio network – the medium through which they would broadcast round-the-clock propaganda. Nathan Morley’s book Radio Hitler: Nazi Airwaves in the Second World War speaks about this in more detail.

It was a closely guarded secret, strictly confined to German use. The Allies eventually figured something didn’t ‘sound’ right when they realized it was almost impossible to distinguish between the pre-recorded and live broadcast audio quality.

The reaction from the allies went from clueless to craven to covetous. True to the WWII zeitgeist, they deployed multiple teams to scope out and steal the technology.

The “Signal Corps”

At the end of WWII, Jack Thomas Mullin, an electrical engineer by trade, was serving in the American Signal Corps to solve radio interference issues in Britain. Hitler was dead and the Axis powers had surrendered to the Allied forces.

Mullin was assigned to a team to raid, confiscate, and decipher German electronic equipment all over Europe. Much to his chagrin, he only chanced upon second-rate DC-bias tape recorders used by German soldiers. It was hardly anything to write home about.

After a tip-off from a British army officer, his team raided a castle in Bad Nauheim, the hub of Radio Frankfurt during the war. Here, Mullin recovered the AEG Manetophon tape recorders.

Mullin knew he had struck gold.

Ironically, the German soldiers didn’t have the slightest clue about how big a deal it was. The Nazis had not even bothered to classify it, which is what made it so hard to find in the first place.

The American troops would soon be heading back home. Mullin attained two unmodified Magnetophons and took all the requisite permissions to bring them back as war souvenirs. He dismantled them and shipped them to San Francisco.

Image: radiomuseum.org

Upon returning home, he worked on refinements for three months, refitting them with American electronics. He wanted to improve them and impress the Hollywood studios and by 1947, he started pitching them to the audio & film industry.

Today, the AEG Magnetophon K4 sp sits in the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis, Minnesota, USA. Jack T. Mullin’s life and contributions to sound recording are brilliantly depicted in the documentary SoundMan: WWII to MP3.

(For a rundown on how to use a tape machine, check out The Basics Of Magnetic Tape Recording.)

Bada Bing: Crosby Enters the Building

Bing Crosby might be the reason why humans dreamt up the term “mega-superstar”. He ranks among the greatest artists of the 20th century and has a widespread influence in music and pop culture.

In the 1940s, Crosby was not just a star, he was a national institution. His 15-minute radio broadcasts were all the rage everywhere. He was earning top billing on full-length films and had commercial sponsors and massive contracts.

This Crosby fella was a man of immense charisma, drive, and monetary clout. More importantly, he was a keen and insatiable entrepreneur.

Shoshana Klebanoff, the author of Bing Crosby: American National Biography, says “Crosby became one of the richest men in the history of show business”. He had investments in real estate, mines, oil wells, cattle ranches, racehorses, music publishing, baseball teams, and television. He made a fabulous fortune from the Minute Maid Orange Juice Corporation, in which he was a principal stockholder.”

As you may imagine, he was a busy man. While no one doubts that Crosby wanted to revolutionize the recording industry, rumor has it that he wanted to pre-record his shows so that he could golf more often.

You can’t blame him. The performances and regimentation of the then-broadcasting industry were grueling. He was hankering for a way to change the recording methods and lacquer discs. Then Murdo Mackenzie told him about Jack T. Mullin at the most opportune time.

Crosby hired Mullin to work for him and record his shows on the ‘German machine’ so that they could be edited later for broadcasting. After working with Mullin for a while, Crosby invested a staggering $50,000 in Ampex to improve and develop more machines.

The 1940s – The Meat and Potatoes of Multitracking

In the 1940s, magnetic tape had arrived and multitrack technology, however nascent, was available for those arduous enough to employ it.

The groundwork for the first multitrack recorder was laid by Lester Willian Polsfuss, better known as Les Paul. Les Paul was an ardent musician/technician and a remarkably inquisitive person. He was only a teen when he upcycled a Cadillac flywheel and turned it into a disc-cutter with some discarded audio parts from his father’s automobile repair shop.

Les Paul was well-acquainted with Bing Crosby, with whom he recorded the big-band hit It’s Been a Long, Long Time and many other songs. Upon Crosby’s advice, Paul created his own recording space to experiment with techniques and sound.

In the late 1940s, he wanted to find a way to play multiple guitar parts by himself to figure out harmonies and embellishments. He took an old deck tape, modified the heads, then threw in an extra head plus a defeat switch.

In doing so, he created a DIY sound-on-sound recording device that could nullify the erase function of tape recorders. However, there were some flaws in the design. Each additional pass on the tape introduced more noise and distortion. Plus, there was the looming risk of ruining the entire recording with one awkward pass.

Les Paul was consumed by the prospect of aligning the tape heads to self-sync. After a failed pitch to Westrex, he set a meeting with the top brass at Ampex. Ampex promised to turn his pipe dream into a prototype. They assigned their entire team of seven engineers to the task.

The multitracking system, at that point, was not efficient. The audio was riddled with noise and distortion. Once the recording had 15+ layers, the hum and the noise introduced by each layer would compound into a racquet. The overstressed frequency response then leads to distortion.

(Make sure you read Live Recording Vs Overdubbing (Pros & Cons) for a full explanation of these two recording methods.)

Unleash the Kraken Octopus

Bing Crosby gave Les Paul the Ampex 200A Model – a reel-to-reel deck that would become the hub of many of his multitrack recordings. One of these was Lover (When You’re Near Me). Les Paul played 8 electric guitar tracks on the song, his first attempt at multitracking.

However, these were done with the ol’ acetate discs, not magnetic tape. Oh, and it took five hundred disks to get the job done. Les Paul worked with Ross Snyder from Ampex, who helped him achieve his dream of a reliable multitracking device.

It was 1955, Ampex created the first eight-track recorder – Sel Sync. It was a 1″ 8-track recorder that was sold to Les Paul for a whopping $10,000 – enough money to buy a swanky condo in those days.

Image: Harmony Central

Les Paul named it the ‘Octopus’, but it was better known as Sel-Sync™   – an abbreviation of selective synchronous recording.  The 8-track machine achieved synced tracks by using tape-record heads as play-back heads. The “Octopus” may not sound as bloodcurdling as the Kraken, but it still revolutionized the recording world.

Fatefully, it received no attention back then. Ampex trademarked the name but didn’t bother with a patent because a) the idea was easy to replicate and b) they didn’t think it would have any demand outside a small group of mavericks like Les Paul.

Lespaulremembered.com has a more accurate recollection in Les Paul and the Multi-Track Recorder. It outlines the events with photographs of the machines used, including the 8-channel mixing console (the “Monster”) that Rein Narma built for Les.

Multitracking in the 50s and 60s: Beach Boys to Beatlemania

Rock ‘n’ Roll was on the rise in America in the 1950s. Everyone from Elvis to Buddy Holly to Frank Zappa was using magnetic tape machines for multitracking. On the other hand, the Brits were still waiting in a breadline, so to speak.

The post-war import restrictions and the prohibitive cost of components made it difficult for the technology to venture beyond America. European studios were still at it on their outmoded two-track machines.

In 1959, Abbey Road Studios in London upgraded to a 4-track Telefunken tape machine. The bulky Telefunken was too big to fit in the control room, so Abbey Road replaced it with a 1-inch 4-track J37 Studer machine in 1960.

Finally, in 1963, The Beatles recorded I Want to Hold Your Hand on a 4-track recorder at EMI Studios. With The Beach Boys using 4-track technology on the other side of the ocean, the whole world noticed the technological advancement.

Incidentally, Philips launched the compact cassette in the same year. The Musicasette (or cassette tape as some of us know it) replaced reel-to-reel recorders in the consumer market, thus exiling their use among ‘audiophiles’ who savored reel-to-reel fidelity.

Multitracking In The 60s And 70s: The 1-inch 8-track And 16-track

By 1970, multitrack recording had shifted to the 1-inch eight-track.  Pro audio recorders gradually evolved from 8 to 16 to 24 tracks. In 1966, Ampex made the 2-inch 16-track MM-1000, first as a prototype for Mirasound Studios (NYC) and then as a commercial pro-audio product that retailed between $10,000 – $15,000.

The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Zappa were all using the 16-track train in the late 60s. Concurrently, London-based studios such as Trident and Advision were recording artists such as The Beatles, Queen, Genesis, and David Bowie on 16-track recorders.

Double Tracking & ADT

Double tracking differs from multi-tracking but should be considered as an important offshoot of the technology. It refers to using overdubs to add layers, as opposed to multi-tracking which is used to record one part to go with another track.

(Check out Live Recording Vs Overdubbing for more about overdubbing.)

Ken Townsend (Image: abbeyroad.com)

Double tracking is at the heart of many panned guitar parts, ‘big’ vocals, and chorused effects.

Automatic or artifical double tracking is a type of double tracking that duplicates the recorded take and varies the tape speed slightly. This means you can effectively record two takes at once. Its origin can be traced to Ken Townsend, the recording engineer at London’s Abbey Road Studios. In 1966, Townsend was approached by John Lennon, who was frustrated by the process of double-tracking during their Abbey Road Sessions. Ken figured out a way to create a delayed copy of the vocals (or any audio signal) using tape delay. The copy was then combined with the original audio signal.

This take on double tracking came to be known as Artificial Double Tracking (ADT). ADT is an important offshoot in the evolution of multitracking. You can learn more about the process in the following video:

You can check out the Waves Reel ADT plugin, which digitally replicates the original process used by Townsend and the Beatles.

To Be Continued…

The story of multitracking doesn’t end here, but we have covered most of the important developments during the analog era. The studio recording practices that were developing in the 1960s became perfected in the 1970s, and many of the best albums from this era sound rich and polished. In terms of multitracking, it was easier and easier for bands to create more densely layered recordings with stronger dynamics thanks to the advances in technology. Eventually, digital multitracking took over, and the technology became accessible to anyone with a computer (or phone!).

The invention of digital recording and the impact it has had is not just the next chapter in this story, it’s a complete story in its own right. We are still living in the digital era today, and there’s no sign of that changing. There’s also a misconception that the analog era is “over”. While this may be true in the sense that it is no longer the norm, tape has never gone away and there’s no reason for it to either.

Final Thoughts and References

To keep the history on multitracking brief, I’ve taken the liberty to compress the chronology, streamline the events, and oversimplify some of the technical jargon and explanations. For this, I hope I haven’t stepped on the toes of any purist.

While some of the anecdotes may not tie directly into the history of multitracking, I’ve included them because they are still relevant to the theme. I have, nevertheless, woven it with a conscientious romanticism that all historical recounting deserves.

In doing so, I am contrite if I have staged any inaccuracies for the sake of storytelling. For a more factual and detailed foray into the subject, I recommend the following for further reading: