Moving Faster than the Imagination: The Evolution of Sound Recording

Essential Question

How did multitrack recording technologies enable musicians to create a form of music that could only be realized in the studio?


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.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. 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
  2. Be able to:
    • 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