History of multitrack recording
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Although General Electric researcher Charles A. Hoxie invented the pallophotophone  (a machine that used 35mm film to optically record multiple tracks of sound) in ca. 1922, modern multitrack recording began in 1943 with the invention of stereo sound, which divided the recording head into two tracks.
Multitrack recording is a process where the tape is divided into multiple tracks parallel with each other. Because they are carried on the same medium, the tracks stay in perfect synchronisation. The first development in multitracking was stereo sound, which divided the recording head into two tracks. First developed by German audio engineers ca. 1943, 2-track recording was rapidly adopted for modern music in the 1950s because it enabled signals from two or more separate microphones to be recorded simultaneously, enabling stereophonic recordings to be made and edited conveniently. (The first stereo recordings, on disks, had been made in the 1930s, but were never issued commercially.) Stereo (either true, two-microphone stereo or multimixed) quickly became the norm for commercial classical recordings and radio broadcasts, although many pop music and jazz recordings continued to be issued in monophonic sound until the mid-1960s.
Much of the credit for the development of multitrack recording goes to guitarist, composer and technician Les Paul, who also helped design the famous electric guitar that bears his name. His experiments with tapes and recorders in the early 1950s led him to order the first custom-built eight-track recorder from Ampex, and his pioneering recordings with his then wife, singer Mary Ford, were the first to make use of the technique of multitracking to record separate elements of a musical piece asynchronously — that is, separate elements could be recorded at different times. Paul's technique enabled him to listen to the tracks he had already taped and record new parts in time alongside them.
Multitrack recording was immediately taken up in a limited way by Ampex, who soon produced a commercial 3-track recorder. These proved extremely useful for popular music, since they enabled backing music to be recorded on two tracks (either to allow the overdubbing of separate parts, or to create a full stereo backing track) while the third track was reserved for the lead vocalist. Three-track recorders remained in widespread commercial use until the mid-1960s and many famous pop recordings — including many of Phil Spector's so-called "Wall of Sound" productions and early Motown hits — were taped on Ampex 3-track recorders.
The next important development was 4-track recording. The advent of this improved system gave recording engineers and musicians vastly greater flexibility for recording and overdubbing, and 4-track was the studio standard for most of the later 1960s. Engineer Tom Dowd was among the first to utilize 4-track recording for popular music production while working for Atlantic Records during the 1950s. Many of the most famous recordings by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were recorded on 4-track, and the engineers at London's Abbey Road Studios became particularly adept at the technique called "reduction mixes" in the UK and "bouncing down" in the United States, in which multiple tracks were recorded onto one 4-track machine and then mixed together and transferred (bounced down) to one track of a second 4-track machine. In this way, it was possible to record literally dozens of separate tracks and combine them into finished recordings of great complexity.
All of the Beatles classic mid-1960s recordings, including the albums Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, were recorded in this way. There were limitations, however, because of the build-up of noise during the bouncing-down process, and the Abbey Road engineers are still justly famed for the ability to create dense multitrack recordings while keeping background noise to a minimum.
4-track tape also led to a related development, quadraphonic sound, in which each of the four tracks was used to simulate a complete 360-degree surround sound. A number of albums including Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells were released both in stereo and quadrophonic format in the 1970s, but 'quad' failed to gain wide commercial acceptance. Although it is now considered a gimmick, it was the direct precursor of the surround sound technology that has become standard in many modern home theater systems.
The combination of the ability to edit via tape splicing, and the ability to record multiple tracks, revolutionized studio recording. It became common studio recording practice to record on multiple tracks, and mix down afterward. The convenience of tape editing and multitrack recording led to the rapid adoption of magnetic tape as the primary technology for commercial musical recordings. Although 33⅓ rpm and 45 rpm vinyl records were the dominant consumer format, recordings were customarily made first on magnetic tape, then transferred to disc, with Bing Crosby leading the way in the adoption of this method in the United States.
Ampex's original 8-track recorder
The original Ampex 8-track recorder (not to be confused with 8-track tape endless-loop cartridge players), model 5258, was an internal Ampex project. It was based on an Ampex 1" data recorder transport with modified Ampex model 350 electronics. It stood over 7 feet (2.1 m) tall and weighed 250 pounds (110 kg). 8 tracks were chosen because that was the number of 0.070 inches (1.8 mm) recording tracks with 0.060 inches (1.5 mm) guard tracks that would fit on a 1 inch (25 mm) recording tape, the widest tape available at the time. These are the track widths used in all professional analog multitrack recorders except 24-track recorders
Multi-track recording differs from overdubbing and sound on sound because it records separate signals to individual tracks. Sound on sound which Les Paul invented adds a new performance to an existing recording by placing a second playback head in front of the erase head to play back the existing track before erasing it and re-recording a new track.
Multi-track recorders also differs from early stereo and three track recorders that were available at the time in that they can record individual tracks while preserving the other tracks. The original multi-channel recorders could only record all tracks at once.
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.
Other early multi-track recorders
Frank Zappa experimented in the early 1960s with a multi-track recorder built by recording engineer Paul Buff in his Pal Recording Studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California. However, recorders with four or more tracks were restricted mainly to American recording studios until the mid-to-late 1960s, 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 1960s 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 (replaced in 1965 by smaller, more durable Studer machines), 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.
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.
3M introduced the 1-inch eight-track version of their model M-23 recorder in 1966, probably the first mass-produced machine of this format. It remained in production until 1970 and was used by many top studios worldwide including Abbey Road Studios in London. Both Pete Townshend and John Lennon had 3M 8-track machines in their home project studios c. 1969-1970. Ampex began mass production of their competing 1-inch eight-track MM1000 in 1967. One of the first 8-track machines in Los Angeles was built by Scully Recording Instruments of Bridgeport, Connecticut and installed at American Recorders in late 1967. The debut album by Steppenwolf was recorded there and was released in January 1968.
Because The Beatles did not gain access to eight-track recorders until 1968, 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 Townsend in 1966.
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.
The first eight-track recorder in the UK was built by Scully and installed at London's Advision Studios in early 1968. Among the first eight-track recordings made there were the single Dogs by The Who and the album My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows by the band Tyrannosaurus Rex. Trident Studios obtained their first eight-track recorder soon afterward. It was during The Beatles' recording of their White Album sessions of late 1968 that EMI's Abbey Road Studios finally had eight-track recorders installed, until then the group went to Trident to record with eight-tracks. The Beatles used eight-track to record portions of the White Album, the single "Hey Jude" and the later Abbey Road.
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 1960s;
Large Format Professional Analog Recorders
In 1967 Ampex built its first prototype 16-track professional audio recorder at the request of Mirasound Studios in New York City. This machine used reels of 2-inch tape on a modified tape transport system originally built for video recording. In 1968 it introduced the 16-track production model MM-1000, the first commercially available 16-track machine. Machines of this size are difficult to move and costly to maintain. Prices were very high, typically $10,000 to $30,000 U.S. dollars. Crimson And Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells was released in November 1968 and was among the first 16-track recordings.
One of the first 16-track recorders was installed at CBS Studios in New York City where it was used to record the second album by Blood, Sweat & Tears released in December 1968. The Grateful Dead released their first 16-track recordings Aoxomoxoa in June 1969 and Live/Dead in November 1969. TTG Studios in Los Angeles built its own 16-track machine in 1968. This was used on Frank Zappa's album Hot Rats released in October 1969. Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane was released in November 1969. The back of the Jefferson Airplane album cover includes a picture of the 16-track MM-1000.
Advision and Trident were also among the first in the U.K. to install 16-track machines. Trident installed its first 16-track machine 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. Production of 16-track machines boomed and the number of studios worldwide using these machines exploded during 1970 and 1971. By the end of 1971 there were at least 21 studios in London using 16-track recorders in conjunction with Dolby noise reduction. Groups using Trident at this time also included Genesis and David Bowie as well as Queen who experimented with multitracking extensively most prominently on their albums Queen II and A Night at the Opera.
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 in professional studios, with recording tape reaching two and three inches (5.08 cm - 7.62 cm) wide. The so-called "golden age" of large format professional analog recorders would last into the 1990s when the technology was mostly replaced with digital tape machines, and later on, computer systems using hard disk drives instead of tape. Some music producers and musicians still prefer working with the sound of vintage analog recording equipment despite the additional costs and difficulties involved.
Large format analog multitrack machines can have up to 24 tracks on a tape two inches wide which is the widest analog tape that is generally 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. A few studios still operate large format analog recorders, though much of the time their use is only to copy sounds onto a modern digital format. Maintaining these machines has become increasingly difficult as new parts are rarely available. New tape is still available but prices have risen significantly in recent years.
Home Multitrack Systems
In 1972 TEAC marketed their consumer 4-channel quadraphonic tape recorders for use as home multitrack recorders. The result were the popular TEAC 2340 and 3340 models. Both used ¼ inch tape. The 2340 ran at either 3¾ or 7½ inches per second and used 7-inch reels while the 3340 ran at 7½ or 15 inches per second and used 10½ inch reels. The 2340 was priced at under U.S. $1,000 making it very popular for home use.
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 utilize 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).
By the early 1970s, Thomas Stockham of Sound Stream Digital, created the first practical use of pulse code modulation a.k.a. PCM digital recording, for high fidelity purposes. The first to be released were rereleased cleaned up versions of acoustic recordings made by the great tenor, Enrico Caruso. Early computer algorithms were used in the process of cleaning up these scratchy old 78 RPM records. The process could not be done in " real time " as the early computers were not very powerful or fast. All of the data had to be stored on linear digital tape. And then it had to be able to be played back, in real time. Though the actual ingest from the 78 RPM records to the digital tape was also done in real-time. It was only the computer processing to clean up the surface noise, pops and scratches that took the early computers of the day, quite some time to process.
By the late 1970s, 3M, introduced the first digital multi-track recorder. It utilized 1 inch wide tape and recorded 32 tracks. Unlike analog tape, edits could not be accomplished with a grease pencil, razor blades and splicing tape. So a secondary 4 track editing & mix down recorder was also created with an electronically controlled edit controller to make effective digital edits. This early system used a 16-bit digital "word". Unfortunately, the only converters of the day were 12 bit & 4 bit. So 2 were cascaded/daisychained to create the necessary 16-bit word for 96 DB of dynamic range. The signal was then sampled faster than any other digital recordings made up till that time at 50,000 times per second a.k.a. 50 kHz. It was known to be the best sounding of all the later digital multi-track recorders because their use of 50 kHz sampling did not become the industry standards later established as 44.1 kHz for CD's & 48 kHz for digital video. The accepted world standard was created by Sony along with Philips. Then, Sony created a 24 track digital recorder where the Mitsubishi Corporation created a different 32 track digital recorder. The Mitsubishi recorded their data differently and it could be edited, the old-fashioned analog way, with a razor blade and splicing tape. The Sony used 1/2 inch tape whereas the Mitsubishi used 1 inch wide tape. So the first recordings that were released produced on the 3M, 32 track digital recorder were still analog vinyl releases, since the CD had yet to be invented. These professional linear tape digital recorders established the "DASH" format meaning, " Digital Audio Stationary Head". By the time the other manufacturers released their digital multi-track recorders, the CD had already come into being. The sampling rate dictates the upper range of the frequency response,whereas the bit depth dictates the dynamic range and signal to noise ratios.
Starting in 1992, the ALESIS Corporation, who made digital drum machines and inexpensive analog audio mixers introduced the first multitrack, eight track, project studio, digital 8 track machine. It was christened the ADAT, after the earlier 2 track digital recorders of the time known as DAT (Digital Audio Tape) based upon a small spinning head, similar to a consumer video recorder. The ADAT machine recorded its data in an already well-established consumer format based upon VHS videotape recorder technology. 8 separate data tracks were recorded within the same bandwidth it took to record your favorite TV shows on your home video recorder. Numerous machines could be electronically locked together with a single cable. You could plug in enough 8 track machines together to create one giant 128 track machine. And like the professional studio recorders before it, a large full function remote control was also available. The following year, the TEAC/TASCAM Corporation, introduced their DA-88. Those used the smaller 8 mm video format tapes. Those recorded 4, duplexed pairs of data tracks and would require a "read before write" function for overdubbing purposes of adjacent tracks. A full size remote and remote metering was also made available. Later units introduced by both companies provided for higher bit depths such as 20 & 24 bit. These machines like the early home studio TEAC's before them, slashed the prices of professional digital multitrack recording. It changed the recording industry forever.
By the late 1990s, dedicated multitrack recorders of any kind started to fade into oblivion with the introduction of the Macintosh and Windows operating systems in the computers we use today. Some of the first companies jumping on board with this technology were New England Digital and Digidesign, from the US & Fairlight, from Australia.
Some of the leading providers of multitrackers was Tascam (hard drive or cassette based), Alesis (ADAT digital tape based), Roland/Boss (hard drive based), Fostex (hard drive based), Yamaha (hard drive based), and Korg.
A highly competitive market and rapidly falling costs for this equipment has made it common to find multitrack recording technology outside a typical recording studio.
The first software-based digital multi-track recorder, called Deck, was released in 1990. The core engine technology and much of the user interface was programmed and designed by Josh Rosen, Mats Myrberg and John Dalton from a small San Francisco based company. They formed the platform upon which Pro Tools was built in 1991. The same technology lay behind the 1992 release of Cubase Audio, the first version to offer audio support in addition to MIDI sequencing capabilities.
While hardware costs have fallen the power of the personal computer have increased, so that today, an average home computer is sufficiently powerful to serve as a complete multitrack recorder, using inexpensive hardware and software. Since 2012, the multitracking software GarageBand is offered as a free download for all of Apple's new computers or $4.99 for older models. This is a far cry from the days when multitrack recorders cost thousands of dollars and few people could afford them.
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