Until Thomas Edison successfully recorded and played back sound in 1878, the only way to hear music was to have someone play it, or play it oneself. Edison’s invention, the phonograph, gave rise to a new music industry, but it also signaled the beginning of a massive conceptual shift in how people think about music: for the first time in history, people heard music without someone performing it in their presence.
Throughout the ensuing half-century, technological advances significantly improved the fidelity of the recording process. However, the concept of why musicians record remained largely unchanged. The recording studio acted as an aural portrait studio; bands arrived, performed their polished material—usually what they already performed at concerts—and departed with a kind of sonic photograph of the event.
In time, however, a few restlessly creative musicians recognized that the act of recording offered creative possibilities that went beyond those of capturing a single performance. Notably, guitarist and inventor Les Paul dreamed of sound-on-sound, a way to record himself on top of an existing recording of himself. By layering recordings, he believed he could create the sound of a group performance without anyone else in the room. When Paul’s ideas were realized in the form of multitrack magnetic tape recorders, the concept of recorded music experienced yet another seismic shift.
This lesson explores several of the recording mediums used throughout the early 20th century. Along the way, students learn how sound waves travel, how the human brain converts those waves to recognizable sound and how inventors learned to capture them on wax, magnetic tape, and finally as digital information. From there, this lesson then investigates the creative impulses and scientific developments that turned multitrack recording from a dream to a reality. Students also get hands-on experience using the Soundbreaking Mixing Board TechTool, which allows them to be sound engineers, playing with the mix of a multitrack studio.
How did multitrack recording technologies enable musicians to create a form of music that could only be realized in the studio?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- A history of recording technology, including the machines, the recording formats (cylinders, vinyl records, digital files) and their inventors
- How sound waves travel through air
- How the human ear and brain turn sound waves into sound
- The science of phonographic recording
- The science of magnetic tape
- What analog recording is and what it means to convert sound to digital information
- What multitracking is as a recording practice and how it redefined the possibilities of audio recording
- Be able to (skills):
- Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
- Consider the ways in which technology can be integrated into the human creative process
- Trace musical expression to the specific historical and social context from which it emerged
Recording Before Magnetic Tape - Video
Les Paul & Sound-on-Sound - Video
Pink Floyd and the Dark Side of the Moon - Video
The Eurythmics and the Home Studio - Video
Pro Tools and the Digital Audio Workstation - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
- Do any of you or your friends have GarageBand© or other music recording software on your computer, tablet or phone?
- What kind of music do people make with it?
- What does a program such as GarageBand© allow you to do that a simpler recording device such as a voice memo or cassette tape does not? (Students may list a number of things, but they should mention the ability to layer tracks and record new sounds over previously recorded sounds without erasing them.)
- Is there anyone that can share an experience of layering audio tracks and explain to the class what you did?
- Other than layering tracks, what are some of the other operations a program like GarageBand© offers? (Students many answer that GarageBand© is a “Digital Audio Workstation" [DAW] that allows unlimited layering of sounds. It also features built in drum accompaniment, a library of synthesizers and full palette of effects processing options. If no one mentions it, inform students that current DAWs offer a consumer version of nearly everything a professional recording studio would have charged $150/hr to access until the 1990s.)
- Inform your students that the first successful playback of recorded sound was from Thomas Edison’s Phonograph in 1878. Ask your students:
- Before there were sound recordings, where do you think you would hear music? (Possible answers: only when someone played it. This might include concerts, on the street, in the home, and at any event at which someone might wish to employ musicians.)
- What are some of the places you hear music now? (Students might mention a number of places, such as at live concerts, on TV, from their phones, at the grocery store, as part of every advertising campaign, or even through the headphones of the person next to you on the bus.)
- When you hear music now, is it usually someone performing or from a recording? (Most students will likely say they hear recorded music.)
- How is Duke Ellington’s band arranged in this clip? What do you hear him saying to the band? (Students might observe that they are arranged around the recording device. Like a sports coach, Ellington is encouraging his musicians to get a good take this time through the material.)
- What are the limitations to the method of recording you see in this clip? (Encourage students to recognize that the single microphone requires the musicians to arrange themselves in a bizarre fashion and also that the recording discs were not re-usable, so a false start or imperfect take would result in a complete re-recording and waste of a disc.)
- How do you think musicians prepared for these recording sessions? (Students should recognize that artists would necessarily prepare in advance. Under such conditions, a musician would want to arrive to the recording session with all of the elements of music preconceived and practiced. In this sense, the recording is akin to sitting for a photograph, it simply captures the music played in the room.)
- What are the differences between the Duke Ellington recording session in the first clip and Les Paul and Mary Ford in the second? (Possible answers: Ellington uses many musicians to create a full sound, Paul and Ford are able to create a full recording by layering themselves. Paul and Ford are able to stop and start while Ellington’s band must play from start to finish; Ellington’s band must play all at once, Paul and Ford are able to layer themselves on top of previously completed recordings; Ellington’s recording is being cut into a record as he plays and cannot be changed after, Paul and Ford can use the tape repeatedly.)
- Considering the way you have seen recording presented in these two Soundbreaking clips, why do you think Jeff Beck’s mother suggested that Paul and Ford’s music was “fooling” people? (Encourage your students to consider listener’s expectations of recorded music at this time. If students return to the idea of the photograph of a recording, the alterations Paul and Ford are able to make after that initial photograph recording is made bend expectations of time and finality. Paul and Ford use this new technology as an instrument to create recorded music that they could not perform live as a duo.)
- Who invented the phonograph? How did it capture sound? (Students should recall that Edison invented the phonograph by etching the vibrations onto a surface.)
- What is magnetic tape?
- Looking at the diagram of magnetic tape on the handout, how does the medium of tape make multitracking possible? (Students should recall that magnetic tape could be divided into small sections, each of which holds a track of the recording.)
- Experiment with engaging the mute buttons on different tracks, what happens?
- Slide the faders up and down, what possibilities do you notice? How does the sound of the music change?
- Can you change the way the overall recording sounds and feels just by using the tools presented here? How?
- What is on each track of the recording here? What can you do with the buttons and sliders?
- In what ways does the mixing board reflect the possibilities of multitrack tape? (Students might observe that each channel on the mixing board represents a track of the tape.)
- How do you think recording musicians could take advantage of these possibilities? Thinking back to Duke Ellington’s recording session, what might he have done differently with a 16-track record
- How do the members of Pink Floyd suggest that multitracking allowed them create an album that expressed their feelings about "life, human emotion, and how the world impinges upon us”? What did it let them accomplish that they could not have by playing live? (Possible answers: It allowed them to work deliberately, recording, listening and reflecting, and then adding, subtracting, or making changes. They could return to a recording later with a new idea, or record a single instrument and then build a song around it, piece by piece; because they were no longer bound to playing as a band, they could write music based on sounds they imagined rather the roles formerly defined by each musician’s instrument.)
- What does Roger Waters suggest he likes about multitrack recording in this clip? (Students might recall Waters’ enjoyed the ability to listen back and make creative decisions about editing, recording more etc.)
- What art form does Roger Waters liken multitrack recording to? In what ways do you think this analogy applies? (Students should recall that Waters makes an analogy to painting, a great contrast to the idea of early recording as a sonic photograph; rather than a flash bulb and a final product, Waters sees a canvas and endless options.)
- In what ways does Roger Waters see multitracking as having potential pitfalls? (Students may answer that multitracking enables musicians to do to much and put off creative decisions until later.)
- Who do you think owned Ampex 350 machines? Where do you think you might have found an Ampex 350 in 1966? Why?
- Who is the Teac 80-8 being marketed to?
- Which of these two machines looks easier to move? How might the size and weight of a machine effect who uses it and where?
- How do you think being able to bring a machine into the home or office might affect the way a musician makes music?
- What are the similarities between the recording processes described by Roger Waters and Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox? (Students might answer that they’re still using multitracking as a way to compose layer by layer.)
- How are the studios you see in each clip different? Where is the Eurythmics studio located? How do you think the Teac 80-8 figured into the size of their set up? Would they have been able to use the Ampex 350? (Encourage students to recognize how much smaller the Eurythmics studio is and how the size and reduced costs of the space allowed them to experiment. Though they could have used an Ampex 350, its size would have made getting it up to the attic quite difficult.)
- How many people does Lennox suggest were involved in the Eurhythmics sessions? In what ways do you think having so few outside people involved in recording influenced the Eurythmics’ creative decisions? (Students might recall that they suggested they worked slowly and without concern for the opinions of anyone but themselves.)
- Do you think there was a cost difference in the two studios? (Encourage students to contrast the prices of the multitrack recorders and then imagine that they represent the overall costs in general.)
- How might the differences in size, location and cost change each group’s approach to recording? Do you think it would be better to record in a professional setting, or at home?
- In what ways does a microphone function like the human ear?
- How does digital sound conversion differ from analog?
- What language does Bon Iver use to express what he sees as the possibilities enabled by the Digital Audio Workstation? (Students might recall that Bon Iver describes it as “infinite” and “limitless.”)
- What is Pro Tools enabling Bon Iver to do as a composer that he wouldn’t have been able to do in the era of tape? In what ways does the digital nature of Bon Iver’s set up permit this? (Students might answer that Bon Iver has almost infinite storage space on his hard drive unlike tape which runs out. The tracks on analog tape were made by dividing its width and were limited by dimensions of the tape, and with tape Bon Iver would have to rewind or fast-forward, but Pro Tools allows a large, visually-oriented display in which Iver should be able to located any moment within the music. To edit, Iver clicks an image and takes an action.)
- Thinking back to Roger Waters’ comments in the previous clip, how might software such as Pro Tools increase the possibility of the “pitfalls” he mentioned? (Students might recall that Roger Waters mentioned that there were too many choices, no clear idea how or when to say “it’s done,” the impulse to say, “we’ll fix that later,” etc.)
To summarize the idea of multitrack recording, discuss these hypothetical recording situations with your students:
- In Clip 1 we saw Duke Ellington in the 1940s with his 20+ piece orchestra around a single microphone that recorded directly to disc. What are some of the possible tools Ellington would be able to use if he recorded his large ensemble today? (Students might answer that today, Ellington could record a big band with one person performing every instrument. Also, he could use different microphones for the individual sections and even individual instruments. He could set his band up in the formation they use live because the volume of the individual instruments could be changed later. Ellington could also choose to record one or a few instruments at a time and then layer the tracks.)
- What are some of the differences between Bon Iver’s layering of sounds with that of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s layering? (Students should recall that Paul and Ford used tape, therefore they had to rewind and record again on a separate track, whereas Bon Iver is taking advantage of the digital era’s tapeless hard disk recording.)
- Experiencing the layers: The Les Paul sound-on-sound method
- Nearly all phones and tablets have a voice memo option. This is a simple, one-track recording device. The following steps replicate the earliest phases in which sound-on-sound recording was attempted.
- Step One: Using a voice memo feature, have a student record the statement, “1-2-3-4, Today is [date], we are recording.”
- Step Two: Now have a second student open voice memo. Student two will now record him/herself reciting the same sentence along with the playback of the first recording.
- Step Three: Have a third student record a voice memo with the playback of student two’s recording. Continue this process as many times as you wish.
- Discuss with your students:
- How is their method like Les Paul’s early experiments with sound-on-sound? In what ways is it different? (Students might observe that conceptually, it’s the same. Modern technology allows the recording to occur on hard disk rather than the shellac discs Paul used. Paul however didn’t have the option of stopping and starting the record mode; when he made a mistake, he had wasted a disc.)
- Using this method, what can you change about the recording after it has been made? (Students should answer that they can’t change anything. All planning is done before the recording. It is not possible to hear the recording and then make a change later.)
- The Visual Multitrack
- Break your students into groups of four and give each group two blank sheets of paper.
- First give each group 5 minutes to collectively decide on a image and then draw it as a group.
- Now, on a separate sheet, within each group, have Student 1 draw a partial picture and then pass the image to Student 2 who draws a bit more. Continue this process until each student has added a track to the image. Then give the students 2 minutes to discuss the image, erase anything they’d like and then make changes.
- Finally, discuss as a class the good and bad of each approach. How did having to work as a group to make an image collectively in one attempt feel? How did it compare to the ability to work individually and make changes? Is one way better than another? Having done this exercise, do you now agree with Roger Waters’ analogy of multitracking as similar to painting? If not, how would you describe multitracking?
Photo Credits: © Jill Furmanovsky/ rockarchive, Richard Stanley ©Ron Geesin