The Beatles and multitrack recording

Photograph of a street sign for Abbey Road


Although multitrack recorders were developed as early as the 1940s they were not widely adopted across the recording industry for some time after that. In fact, by the time the Beatles started their professional recording career in 1962, two-track recording was still the industry norm. By the early 1960s EMI's Abbey Road studio was equipped with four-track machines, but four-track recording was regarded as unnecessary for pop recordings and the Beatles themselves did not use the method until 1964 (Ryan and Kehew 2006, 351). Despite this slow start however the 1960s became a time of rapid change in recording, with significant shifts in the technology used in recording studios, and the Beatles were at the forefront of these developments.

Technological innovation is often driven by the artistic desires of artists as well as by the vision of engineers, and the quest for new sounds by musicians and producers has often led to sophisticated technological developments. The relationship between the Beatles and their production team was such that advancement in the way in which records were made was constantly being sought. New techniques and sonic effects emerged through their recording sessions, such as Artificial Double Tracking (or ADT) for vocals which was invented by Abbey Road's studio manager Ken Townshend.

Often it was the Beatles' artistic demands that led technological innovation. For instance, the recording of 'Strawberry Fields' took the form of two takes with distinctive arrangements. In the first take the band were accompanied by Paul McCartney's new Mellotron, a keyboard which generates sound by playing back pre-recorded tapes of instrumental samples. The second take included a brass and string arrangement written by producer George Martin. John Lennon suggested that the final record would work best with a splice between the first and second takes for each half of the song. Unfortunately, the two takes were in different keys, so the studio team had to improvise a way of joining the two by slowing the second take to the correct pitch and gradually decreasing the speed of the first before the edit point at one minute into the song (Cunningham, 1996: 148).

The work that Martin and his team carried out with the Beatles became highly influential on the ways in which records were made, and the band's immense popularity meant their innovative use of studio technology became heard all over the world and set new benchmarks in record production. In fact the example of the Beatles illustrates how the recording studio became an important compositional tool within popular music. No longer was it the case that bands merely provided studio performances of already written and arranged compositions. Rather, the studio itself was being used to create the essential fabric of the music. As the world famous record producer Brian Eno said in 1979:

"you're working directly with sound, and there's no transmission loss between you and the sound - you handle it. The composer is in the identical position to the painter - he's working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change." (Eno in Cox and Warner, 2004: 129)