Multi Track History

Multi Track History

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History and development of the Multitrack Recorder

Multitrack recorders were originally developed in the early 1950s in Germany. The initial principle of multitracks was to divide a tape in two parts and record different sounds onto each and play them back concurrently. The fact that both tracks would be on the same tape would mean they would be synchronised exactly. In classical music recordings of the 1950s, the early two track machines were first used and recorded in stereo. Two different mics would be used and these signals would be recorded simultaneously. Pop and jazz recordings however, remained in mono until the mid sixties. The first three track recorder is attributed to Les Paul who developed the system with his wife, singer Mary Ford. Ampex were soon to realise the possibilities of such a machine and bought the device from Paul. Ampex quickly released a refined version of the three track which was in common use until the birth of 4-track in the mid 1960s. Many Motown hits and, maybe most famously, Phil Spector’s ‘Wall Of Sound’ were recorded on three track machines.

When 4-track was born, a new world of recording and bouncing possibilities was opened up to the recording industry. Most Beatles and Rolling Stones albums were recorded in 4-track and Abbey Road became world renowned in the art of 4-track recording. Their engineers seemed to be able to create vast recordings, which required numerous bounces, whilst keeping unwanted bounce noise to a minimum. 4-track also paved the way for innovations in sound such as Quadraphonic. This system used each track as a means of creating a 360° mix. Albums like Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ were recorded in Quadraphonic (as well as Stereo) but the system never really took off. It did however have a significant part to play in the development of surround sound.

By 1970 the 16-track recorder was emerging in the rock scene of the United States though the Beatles stuck with the 8-track to record their final albums. Split bank designs became popular offering a main bank of faders used for the mic/line inputs, a separate bank controlling monitor levels and cue mixes and a final section used for other submixes and reverb chambers. The typical price for a 16-track recorder was around $35,000 however the problem of noise build up with numerous tracks still existed (this is the main reason for the lack of interest in 24-track machines at the time).

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The fact that magnetic tape could be inaudibly cut and pasted, coupled with the ability to recorded multiple tracks on one tape, transformed the music industry. A new culture developed in which one would record onto multiple tracks and then mix down afterwards. For the following thirty years, tape became the dominant format for sound recording which was then bounced to vinyl record, audio cassette or, by the mid eighties, compact disk.

One of the drawbacks in working with magnetic tape was that the magnetic particles on the tape would cause it to hiss. In the late 1960s, the ‘hiss’ problem lead to some studios and manufacturers experimenting with ‘direct to disk’ technology. This method of sound recording involved feeding the signal from the microphone straight to the disc cutter, bypassing the tape machine altogether. Although these new endeavours highlighted the magnitude of the ‘hiss’ problem, such technology never took off.

Developments in solid-state electronics throughout the 1970s sparked further experimentation with noise reduction. The most commercially successful attempts were developed by Dolby Laboratories. By working with various forms of multiband volume compression and expansion, Dolby’s first noise reduction product was named the Dolby A system. They were very successful at increasing the signal to noise ratio and hence virtually eliminating tape hiss. A Dolby A system on a 16-track would cut the tape noise to the equivalent of a good 2-track machine but was extremely expensive. Although Dolby A was only used in a professional contexts, it’s successors Dolby B and C became popular in the consumer market also, becoming almost universal on compact audios cassettes.

The 1980s saw the first real, digital audio began to emerge and provided the first real competition for analogue tape. Digital recording was a much more exact science facilitating easy editing, reproduction and storage solutions. The emergence of digital audio coincided with the development of the audio compact disc which is the most common medium in the commercial audio industry to date. Due to its precise nature, there is a growing culture of running a signal through analogue equipment to give it ‘warmth’.

Towards the end of the 1980s, computer based sequencing and studio controlling exploded onto the scene. Computers were used to monitor, synchronise or detect virtually every device in the studio itself. These systems are the direct predecessors to systems such as Pro Tools and Logic used in studios today.

Automation was also an important development in the history of multitrack recorders. The first system to be developed was the APY Allison in 1975. This system stored automation data on two tracks of the tape. Similar systems such as Neve’s NECAM system used a combination of 2 tracks from tape and a floppy disk to store automation data.


Jo Meek and his innovations in Multitracking

Meek’s first venture into multitrack recording consisted of sound-on-sound composite recordings with his then producer Michael Barclay. These recordings were built by laying one track on to tape and then simply recording another over the top of it. At the time this was a pioneering recording technique. Further experimentation would follow. During his time at Landsdowne Studios Meek was said to have experimented with using two tape machines to produce ‘flange’ (an effect generally thought to have been developed in the mid-60s.)

When multitracking, Meek would use two or more tape machines. These were initially a Lyrec TR16 (two track) and an EMI TR51 (mono 1-track). When recording a band Meek would often record the rhythm track and then record vocals when bouncing to the master in order to save having an extra bouncing stage. The reason for this was that each bouncing stage would add a certain amount of noise to the master. If he wanted to create an orchestral track would often get a few players, never more than four string players, and before sending the signal to tape he would delay the recording and then feed it back into the channel and this reflection would sound more like eight strings. In order to ‘beef-up’ the kick drum on Meek’s track ‘Have I The Right’, he played the track and recorded people stomping on the floor in time to the bass drum.

The worldwide success of ‘Telstar’ provided Joe Meek with a substantial income with which he upgraded his TR51 to an EMI BTR2. This slightly altered Meeks recording method. He would now record the rhythm track onto a full ¼ inch mono track on the BTR2 as the full track offered a superior recording quality. This would then be transferred to the Lyrec where he would erase one half of the track for the vocals to be recorded onto. Once the vocals were on the Lyrec they would be bounced back to the BTR2 adding a third track (usually a solo or lead instrument) during the bounce. He continued to purchase one and two track recorders to improve bouncing options.


Meek’s Miking Techniques

Throughout the 1950s recording practice was not to close mic instruments but instead to have the mics a prescribed distance away from the sound source. Separation of musicians consisted of spacing them far apart rather than using any physical objects to place between them. This is why 50s recordings have a distinct muddy ‘room’ sound to them. Meek was obsessed with close miking and the separation of musicians during the recording stage. He would place mics so close they were sometimes inside the instruments themselves. This was considered radical and essentially ‘wrong’ by fellow engineers of the period but this has now become common practice. Rather than relying on the haphazard ambience of the recording space, Meek would apply echo to certain tracks via an echo chamber. This was simply a highly reflective space where the signal would be sent and then re-recorded back to tape. When recording at home, Meek would often use a stairwell or bathroom as make shift echo chamber. The amount of echo was simply controlled by the level of input sent to the chamber. Meek also developed other devices to generate reverb including a make shift spring reverb made from a broken fan heater.

As I said in the previous paragraph, Meek was fanatical about the separation of instruments and would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid any spill. He liked to have as much control as possible over each individual part of the mix. In order to isolate the Bass when recording Meek would often close mic the Bass speaker and place a blanket over both mic and speaker. Again this was another of his techniques employed in the later 60s and beyond.


The development of Beatles recording technology

As I have explained previously, the Beatles evolved through a period of unprecedented change in the music and recording industry. Their first studio recording was ‘Love Me Do’ which consisted of basically recording a live performance in-studio. The session was captured on a two-track system using one rhythm track and then overlaying the vocals on the second track. The Beatles first venture into 4-track recording was on the single ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ in October 1963. This recording consisted of one track for rhythm, one for vocals and the remaining two for any soloing instruments. This dramatically improved the quality and diversity of the recordings as if one of the vocalists or soloists wasn’t happy with a take it could be rerecorded without the whole band having to play. Even though four tracks was a luxury at the time, bouncing was still necessary causing a noticeable amount of tape hiss.

Double-tracking became a characteristic of many Beatles recordings, especially on the vocals. This involved the lead vocals being recorded twice on separate tracks creating a fuller sounds. The subtle differences between the two tracks is pleasing to the ear however it involved a consuming process for the vocalist who had to make both takes as identical as possible. On the album ‘Meet The Beatles’ (pictured above) six out of the twenty tracks on the album utilise double-tracking. The Beatles released an album which consisted of excerpts from two live performances at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964/65. As the US standard was still three tracks, these recordings were different in character to standard Beatles recordings with the band recorded in stereo on two tracks and the vocals going on the third track.

The Beatles continued their development with the album ‘Beatles for Sale’. This album contained a number of firsts for the band. In the track ‘Every Little Thing’ a timpani was used for the first time; ‘Eight Days a Week’ was one of the first pop songs to open with a fade-in; ‘Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby’ introduced STEED (single tape echo and echo delay) to the Beatles listeners which made George’s vocals sound like he was singing in a tin can. The Beatles were constantly pushing their creative boundaries by adding new instruments and in the track ‘I Feel Fine’ John opened the track with amp feedback after he had seen Jimi Hendrix do something similar in concert.

1965 saw the start of a significant shift in the Beatles moving away from touring and spending more time in the studio. This prolonged exposure to the studio saw the Beatles and George Martin develop new recording techniques. They would rehearse while the tape was running to and then record over this material. Their songs were also now recorded in very few takes, taping the rhythm track first and then overdubbing any other instruments they wished to add. On the album ‘Help’, a wah pedal was used for the first time on the track ‘I Need You’. Wah was originally developed as a tool for organs to emulate the sound of a muted trumpet. ‘Yesterday’ saw the start of a long relationship with string ensembles. Paul requested that the quartet on ‘Yesterday’ used no vibrato so that they sound had a more ‘pure’ quality to it. The recording process for this track involved Paul singing and playing guitar simultaneously on the first track, then overdubbing the strings and then Paul rerecording the vocals.

‘Rubber Soul’ (pictured) was released at the end of 1965 and contained the track which is the focus of this project, ‘Nowhere Man’. This is the point in the Beatles recording development which we will be basing our session on. Rhythm track (Drums, Bass and Acoustic Guitar) recorded and bounced down to one track; The vocals then recorded on track 2, backing vocals on track 3, and any overdubbing on track four. Trying to emulate the Beatles sound of the 60s will involve more than just using an ADAT machine in this way. Choice of microphones is very important. Compared to recordings of today, the 60s seem to have a smaller dynamic range. The high to mid frequencies tend to dominate which was taken into account in our mic selection. It will also be hard to emulate the sound of recording onto analogue tape but we will try and accomplish this using various forms of signal processing.


Developments in Beatles Recording techniques after ‘Rubber Soul’ and examples of creative use of audio equipment and signal processing

Further points of interest on the album ‘Rubber Soul’ were the inclusion of a Sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’, largely as a result of George’s growing infatuation with Indian music, and a piano recorded at half speed and then sped up on ‘In My Life’ as George Martin struggled to play the part at tempo. Geoff Emerick’s involvement with the band began with the album ‘Revolver’. This young engineer was full of new innovative ideas for recording which the band loved. On ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ John’s voice was recorded through a Leslie rotary loudspeaker, used in organs, to give them a whirling effect. Artificial double-tracking (ADT) became common practice recording two tracks simultaneously using two different tape machines as it saved a great deal of time and effort. ADT worked by using two machines, one with a variable oscillator to alter the tape speed, and a recorded signal would be sent from the playback of machine A, fed to the varispeed machine B, and then back to A where the two signals were combined. Although the vocal track is exactly the same for both parts of the doubled track, the use of two tape machines slightly offsets the playback signal leading to a full sounding vocal take. Sometimes the doubled vocal was sent out through a speaker cabinet and then recorded back to tape to give the vocals a slightly different colour. Looping and reversing tapes was also extensively exploited on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

New approaches to miking and recording Instruments began to creep into the Beatles recording repertoire. On ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the string players used were horrified at how close they were miked. There was a similar reaction from the brass players on ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ as the mics were placed in the bells of the instruments and then run through a limiter. On a few tracks the guitar part was written out backwards, played as written, and then reversed to sound as it was originally intended. On the single ‘Paperback Writer’ Paul’s bass underwent a sonic reinvention by using a loudspeaker as a microphone placed in front of the bass speaker so that the vibrating
diaphragm of the ‘mic’ created the signal which was sent to the desk.

On the album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ was recorded at a slower speed and then sped up to make Paul’s voice sound like a youngster thinking about getting old. For this album, Paul’s bass used a direct out straight into the desk which dramatically improved its clarity and tonally qualities. This is one of the first times a bass was recorded in such a way. As a whole, the album itself was very much a groundbreaker. There was little silence between songs as they run into each other and even after the final song has ended, there is technically no silence at the end of the album as it ends with an extremely high pitched dog whistle and incoherent gibberish.

The final Beatles recordings were the spectacular culmination of their predecessors in the ability to seemingly incorporate any sound into any song. In ‘Revolution 9’ masses of effects were used; reversed violins and mellotron, choirs, even the phrase ‘number nine’ sampled from a Royal Academy of Music examination tape. In session, they would now record all rehearsals and choose the best take to use as the basis for a new song. The now familiar distorted guitar sound on ‘Revolution’ was generated by the signal overloading a record console creating a distinctive fuzz. On ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ the drums were recorded down a highly reflective corridor with the mics far away from the kit giving the track a high frequency, detached feel. One of the Beatles first and few encounters with 8-track recorders was ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ recorded with Eric Clapton.

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