This article is a continuation of my Music Production History series. In this edition, I’ll be exploring music engineering in the 1950s.
If you’ve landed here first, you can check out the first edition Sound Engineering in the 1940s right here.
Why write a series of articles exploring the history of music production and music engineering? Well, history has a lot to teach us about our craft and you can get a better sense of where we are and where we’re going in the field.
It also provides clues to problems that have already been solved by our predecessors, as well as a boat load of inspiration.
We owe them a great deal, as well as to the engineers and scientists who pushed through the technological boundaries in support of the music engineering art form.
Music engineering in the 1950s
The 1950s marked perhaps one of the most significant eras in the evolution of music recording and production, with the introduction of multitrack recording by Les Paul in 1953.
I realise how obvious the idea of multitrack ‘sound on sound’ recording seems to us now, but this was a revolution in music engineering back in the day.
If you read the first post in this series about the dawn of music production in the 1940s, you will know that technology limited the capabilities of sound engineers at the time.
Instruments and voices had to be recorded simultaneously and arranged physically in the recording space, generally around a single microphone. Layering in post simply wasn’t practical. The concept of multitrack recording really was groundbreaking.
Like many revolutionary technologies, most people considered it a novelty at the time. This alone demonstrates how far music creation has come in the last few decades. The idea of multitracking (rather than live recording) just wasn’t on the minds of those in the music industry in the 1940s and early 1950s, as mindblowing as that may seem from today’s perspective.
The invention went on to change the face of music engineering forever, and these techniques live on in every recording studio around the world to this day.
Les Paul didn’t stop there, either. It’s worth mentioning another small invention of his: the humble electric guitar. If any other instrument has had a bigger affect on the music industry, I can’t think of it.
The predominant musical genres of the 1950s were:
- Rhythm & Blues
- Rock ‘n’ Roll
Prominent artists included:
As mentioned, the biggest technological impacts of the 1950s were Les Paul’s invention of the electric guitar and multitrack recording.
In 1945, Paul had built a home recording studio for the use of himself and his wife, singer Mary Ford. You may remember from the previous article that Bing Crosby was quite the evangelist for magnetic tape machines. Well, being a good friend of Paul, he gave him an Ampex Model 200A mono tape machine as a gift.
Being the keen engineer and savvy musician that he was, Paul didn’t waste any time and custom-built his own version of the Ampex featuring a second recording head.
He later expanded this into an 8-track version, and the rest really is music engineering history. This invention enabled Les Paul to overdub his own electric guitar performances on top of each other, creating a sound that no one had heard before.
There were a number of other advances that changed what was possible in music recording and production.
2-track stereophonic recordings were in wide use during the early 1950s, but Ampex then began to produce 3-track recorders. The introduction of this technology heavily influenced the development of pop music, enabling backing music to be recorded on two tracks and lead vocals on the third.
Engineer Tom Dowd was the first to utilise multitrack recording for pop music production at Atlantic Records, taking advantage of the technology.
The release of 33-rpm LP vinyl was also significant in that it enabled albums to be created. Recording mediums before this point simply weren’t capable of reproducing material of that length, and this introduction encouraged studio experimentation, particularly in the recording of jazz music.
Improvements in magnetic tape technology enabled a higher sound quality and the reproduction of more detailed musical nuances. Editing also became more practical, as multiple recording takes could now be spliced together. The recording process was changed forever, with musicians able to record passages at different stages and attempt more challenging feats.
High quality condenser microphones came onto the market, many of which are still sought after today. By the end of the decade, 4-track recorders began to be introduced, further increasing recording flexibility, as well as arrangement capabilities.
As magnetic tape became more and more practical, direct-to-disk recording was gradually replaced and multitrack recording techniques became a staple of commercial recordings. There was no going back!
Sound sources could be separated into discrete tracks on a single piece of magnetic tape, so instruments could now be balanced more accurately. In turn, this allowed arrangers to experiment with new instrumental combinations in the studio.
Rather than recording performers simultaneously, multiple layers could be recorded at different times and these tracks could be summed by bussing to a stereo output and bouncing down.
These changes represented a major shift in music production. Engineers now had the power to create a recording, rather than simply make a recording. In other words, they had much more flexibility to craft sounds in the studio, rather than simply capturing what they could already hear.
The studio became a creative environment where compositions could be manifested entirely through the production process. Activities such as writing, lyrics, arranging and rehearsal no longer needed to take place before the recording process.
Takes and whole tracks could be spliced together on tape, opening the door to a whole new realm of creative potential in music engineering.
Furthermore, the ability to close mic and record more detailed arrangements led to the construction of reverberation chambers and plates as spatial effects could now be created and controlled in post production. In addition, equalisers and other signal processors were also introduced to manipulate sound sources even further.
Check out this live performance of Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, as they demonstrate the capabilities of multitrack recording:
Here is Teo Macero in action in the studio:
Here is an example of the Sun Studio sound created by Sam Phillips, courtesy of Elvis Presley:
The inventions and musical evolutions of the 1950s really did change music engineering forever, and I, for one, am grateful of the hard work and pioneering experimentation from the artists and technicians throughout this decade.
In the next post in this series, I’ll take you into the 1960s and ‘the true birth of stereo’. Recorded music exploded in the ’60s and the recording studio evolved into the one we recognise today. Don’t miss it!