Recording studio as an instrument

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A Studer four-track tape recorder used at EMI Studios from 1965 to the 1970s Studer J37 4-track tape recorder (1964-1972), Abbey Road Studios.jpg
A Studer four-track tape recorder used at EMI Studios from 1965 to the 1970s

In music production, the recording studio is often treated as a musical instrument when it plays a significant role in the composition of music. Sometimes called "playing the studio", the approach is typically embodied by artists or producers who place less emphasis on simply capturing live performances in studio and instead favor the creative use of studio technology in completing finished works. [1] Techniques include the incorporation of non-musical sounds, overdubbing, tape edits, sound synthesis, audio signal processing, and combining segmented performances (takes) into a unified whole.


Composers have been exploiting the potentials of multitrack recording since the technology was made available to them. Before the late 1940s, musical recordings were typically created with the idea of presenting a faithful rendition of a real-life performance. Following the advent of three-track tape in the mid 1950s, recording spaces became more accustomed for in-studio composition. By the late 1960s, in-studio composition had become standard practice, and remained so into the 2010s. Despite the widespread changes that have led to more compact recording set-ups, individual components such as digital audio workstations are still referred to as "the studio".


There is no single instance in which the studio suddenly became recognized as an instrument, and even at present [2018] it may not have wide recognition as such. Nevertheless, there is a historical precedent of the studio—broadly defined—consciously being used to perform music.

—Adam Bell, Dawn of the DAW: The Studio As Musical Instrument [2]

"Playing the studio" is critical shorthand for in-studio composition. [3] Definitions of the specific criterion of a "musical instrument" vary, [4] and it is unclear whether the "studio as instrument" concept extends to using multi-track recording simply to facilitate the basic music writing process. [5] According to academic Adam Bell, some proposed definitions may be consistent with music produced in a recording studio, but not with music that relies heavily on digital audio workstations (DAW). [4] Various music educators alluded to "using the studio as a musical instrument" in books published as early as the late 1960s. [6]

Rock historian Doyle Greene defines "studio as compositional tool" as a process in which music is produced around studio constructions rather than the more traditional method of capturing a live performance as is. [1] Techniques include the incorporation of non-musical sounds, overdubbing, tape edits, sound synthesis, audio signal processing, and combining segmented performances (takes) into a unified whole. [1] Despite the widespread changes that have led to more compact recording set-ups, individual components such as DAWs are still referred to as "the studio". [7]

Evolution of recording processes

Phil Spector (center) at Gold Star Studios, where he developed his Wall of Sound methods, 1965 MFQ with Phil Spector.jpg
Phil Spector (center) at Gold Star Studios, where he developed his Wall of Sound methods, 1965

Composers have been exploiting the potentials of multitrack recording since the technology was made available to them. [8] Before the late 1940s, musical recordings were typically created with the idea of presenting a faithful rendition of a real-life performance. [9] Writing in 1937, the American composer John Cage called for the development of "centers of experimental music" places where "the new materials, oscillators, turntables, generators, means for amplifying small sounds, film phonographs, etc." would allow composers to "work using twentieth-century means for making music." [10]

In the early 1950s, electronic equipment was expensive to own, and for most people, was only accessible through large organizations or institutions. However, virtually every young composer was interested in the potential of tape-based recording. [11] According to Brian Eno, "the move to tape was very important", because unlike gramophone records, tape was "malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren't. It's very hard to do anything interesting with a disc". [9] In the mid 1950s, popular recording conventions changed profoundly with the advent of three-track tape, [12] and by the early 1960s, it was common for producers, songwriters, and engineers to freely experiment with musical form, orchestration, unnatural reverb, and other sound effects. Some of the best known examples are Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and Joe Meek's use of homemade electronic sound effects for acts like the Tornados. [13]

In-studio composition became standard practice by the late 1960s and early 1970s, and remained so into the 2010s. During the 1970s, the "studio as instrument" concept shifted from the studio's recording space to the studio's control room, where electronic instruments could be plugged directly into the mixing console. [14] As of the 2010s, the "studio as instrument" idea remains ubiquitous in genres such as pop, hip-hop, and electronic music. [15]

Notable artists and works



Martin working with the Beatles, 1964 Beatles and George Martin in studio 1966.JPG
Martin working with the Beatles, 1964
According to author David Howard, Martin's work on the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", from Revolver, and Spector's production of "River Deep – Mountain High" from the same year were the two recordings that ensured that the studio "was now its own instrument". [31] Citing composer and producer Virgil Moorefield's book The Producer as Composer, author Jay Hodgson highlights Revolver as representing a "dramatic turning point" in recording history through its dedication to studio exploration over the "performability" of the songs, as this and subsequent Beatles albums reshaped listeners' preconceptions of a pop recording. [32] According to Julien, the follow-up LP Sgt. Pepper represents the "epitome of the transformation of the recording studio into a compositional tool", marking the moment when "popular music entered the era of phonographic composition." [33] Composer and musicologist Michael Hannan attributes the album's impact to Martin and his engineers, in response to the Beatles' demands, making increasingly creative use of studio equipment and originating new processes. [34]
Like Revolver, "Good Vibrations", which Wilson produced for the Beach Boys in 1966, was a prime proponent in revolutionizing rock from live concert performances into studio productions that could only exist on record. [35] For the first time, Wilson limited himself to recording short interchangeable fragments (or "modules") rather than a complete song. Through the method of tape splicing, each fragment could then be assembled into a linear sequence – as Wilson explored on subsequent recordings from this period – allowing any number of larger structures and divergent moods to be produced at a later time. [36] [nb 4] Musicologist Charlie Gillett called "Good Vibrations" "one of the first records to flaunt studio production as a quality in its own right, rather than as a means of presenting a performance", [37] while rock critic Gene Sculatti called it the "ultimate in-studio production trip", adding that its influence was apparent in songs such as "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper. [38]


Brian Eno at a live remix in 2012 Brian Eno live remix at Punkt 2012 (cropped).jpg
Brian Eno at a live remix in 2012

While those of the ilk of Brian Wilson used the studio as an instrument by orchestrating everyone that worked within it, the turn to technology in the cases of Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Brian Eno signify a conceptual shift in which an alternative approach that might make using the studio as an instrument cheaper, easier, more convenient, or more creative, was increasingly sought after. Compared to the 1960s, using the studio as an instrument became less about working the system as it were, and working the systems. [14]

My Bloody Valentine performing in 2008 MBV 2008.jpg
My Bloody Valentine performing in 2008

See also


  1. For example, Spector would often duplicate a part played by an acoustic piano with an electric piano and a harpsichord. [22] Session guitarist Barney Kessel notes: "Musically, it was terribly simple, but the way he recorded and miked it, they’d diffuse it so that you couldn't pick out any one instrument. Techniques like distortion and echo were not new, but Phil came along and took these to make sounds that had not been used in the past. I thought it was ingenious." [22]
  2. Leiber and Stoller considered Spector's methods to be very distinct from what they were doing, stating: "Phil was the first one to use multiple drum kits, three pianos and so on. We went for much more clarity in terms of instrumental colors, and he deliberately blended everything into a kind of mulch. He definitely had a different point of view." [23]
  3. Academic Bill Martin writes that the advancing technology of multitrack recording and mixing boards were more influential to experimental rock than electronic instruments such as the synthesizer, allowing the Beatles and the Beach Boys to become the first crop of non-classically trained musicians to create extended and complex compositions. [26]
  4. Academic Marshall Heiser saw the resultant style of jumpcuts as a "striking characteristic", and that they "must be acknowledged as compositional statements in themselves, giving the music a sonic signature every bit as noticeable as the performances themselves. There was no way this music could be 'real.' Wilson was therefore echoing the techniques of musique concrète and seemed to be breaking the audio 'fourth wall'—if there can said to be such a thing." [36]

Related Research Articles

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Art rock is a subgenre of rock music that generally reflects a challenging or avant-garde approach to rock, or which makes use of modernist, experimental, or unconventional elements. Art rock aspires to elevate rock from entertainment to an artistic statement, opting for a more experimental and conceptual outlook on music. Influences may be drawn from genres such as experimental rock, avant-garde music, classical music, and jazz.

Record producer Individual who oversees and manages the recording of an artists music

A record producer or music producer oversees and manages the sound recording and production of a band or performer's music, which may range from recording one song to recording a lengthy concept album. A producer has many, varying roles during the recording process. They may gather musical ideas for the project, collaborate with the artists to select cover tunes or original songs by the artist/group, work with artists and help them to improve their songs, lyrics or arrangements.

<i>Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band</i> 1967 studio album by the Beatles

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the eighth studio album by the English rock band the Beatles. Released on 26 May 1967 in the United Kingdom and 2 June 1967 in the United States, it spent 27 weeks at number one on the UK Albums Chart and 15 weeks at number one on the Billboard Top LPs chart in the US. It was lauded by critics for its innovations in production, songwriting and graphic design, for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and high art, and for reflecting the interests of contemporary youth and the counterculture. It won four Grammy Awards in 1968, including Album of the Year, the first rock LP to receive this honour.

<i>Revolver</i> (Beatles album) 1966 studio album by the Beatles

Revolver is the seventh studio album by the English rock band the Beatles. It was released on 5 August 1966, accompanied by the double A-side single "Eleanor Rigby" / "Yellow Submarine". The album was the Beatles' final recording project before their retirement as live performers and marked the group's most overt use of studio technology to date, building on the advances of their late 1965 release Rubber Soul. It has since become regarded as one of the greatest and most innovative albums in popular music, with recognition centred on its range of musical styles, diverse sounds, and lyrical content.

<i>Pet Sounds</i> 1966 studio album by the Beach Boys

Pet Sounds is the eleventh studio album by the American rock band the Beach Boys, released May 16, 1966 on Capitol Records. It initially met with a lukewarm critical and commercial response in the United States, peaking at number 10 on Billboard Top LPs chart, lower than the band's preceding albums. In the United Kingdom, the album was hailed by critics and peaked at number 2 in the UK Top 40 Albums Chart, remaining among the top ten positions for six months. Promoted as "the most progressive pop album ever", Pet Sounds attracted recognition for its ambitious recording and sophisticated music. It is widely considered to be among the most influential albums in the history of music.

Tape loop Audio recording technique

In music, tape loops are loops of magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound when played on a tape recorder. Originating in the 1940s with the work of Pierre Schaeffer, they were used among contemporary composers of 1950s and 1960s, such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who used them to create phase patterns, rhythms, textures, and timbres. Popular music authors of 1960s and 1970s, particularly in psychedelic, progressive and ambient genres, used tape loops to accompany their music with innovative sound effects. In the 1980s, analog audio and tape loops with it gave way to digital audio and application of computers to generate and process sound.

Wall of Sound Music production effect developed by Phil Spector

The Wall of Sound is a music production formula developed by American record producer Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios, in the 1960s, with assistance from engineer Larry Levine and the conglomerate of session musicians later known as "the Wrecking Crew". The intention was to exploit the possibilities of studio recording to create an unusually dense orchestral aesthetic that came across well through radios and jukeboxes of the era. Spector explained in 1964: "I was looking for a sound, a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record. It was a case of augmenting, augmenting. It all fitted together like a jigsaw."

Good Vibrations The Beach Boys song

"Good Vibrations" is a song by the American rock band the Beach Boys, composed by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Mike Love. Released on October 10, 1966, the single was an immediate critical and commercial hit, topping record charts in several countries including the US and UK. Characterized by its complex soundscapes, episodic structure and subversions of pop music formula, it was the costliest single ever recorded at the time of its release. "Good Vibrations" later became widely acclaimed as one of the finest and most important works of the rock era.

Tomorrow Never Knows original song written and composed by Lennon-McCartney

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles, written primarily by John Lennon and credited to Lennon–McCartney. It was released in August 1966 as the final track on their album Revolver, although it was the first song recorded for the LP. The song marked a radical departure for the Beatles, as the band fully embraced the potential of the recording studio without consideration for reproducing the results in concert.

Carnival of Light The Beatles song

"Carnival of Light" is an unreleased avant-garde recording by the English rock band the Beatles. It was commissioned for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, an event held at the Roundhouse in London on 28 January and 4 February 1967. Recorded during a session for "Penny Lane", "Carnival of Light" is nearly 14 minutes long and contains distorted, echo-laden sounds of percussion, keyboards, guitar and vocals. Its creation was initiated by Paul McCartney's interest in the London avant-garde scene and through his connection with the designers Binder, Edwards & Vaughan.

Baroque pop fusion genre that combines rock music with particular elements of classical music

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Recording practices of the Beatles

The studio practices of the Beatles evolved during the 1960s, and in some cases, influenced the way popular music was recorded. Some of the effects they employed were sampling, artificial double tracking (ADT) and the elaborate use of multitrack recording machines. They also used classical instruments on their recordings and guitar feedback. The group's attitude toward the recording process was summed up by Paul McCartney: "We would say, 'Try it. Just try it for us. If it sounds crappy, OK, we'll lose it. But it might just sound good.' We were always pushing ahead: Louder, further, longer, more, different."

History of multitrack recording

Multitrack recording of sound is the process in which sound and other electro-acoustic signals are captured on a recording medium such as magnetic tape, which is divided into two or more audio tracks that run parallel with each other. Because they are carried on the same medium, the tracks stay in perfect synchronisation, while allowing multiple sound sources to be recorded asynchronously. The first system for creating stereophonic sound was demonstrated by Clément Ader in Paris in 1881. The pallophotophone, invented by Charles A. Hoxie and first demonstrated in 1922, recorded optically on 35 mm film, and some versions used a format of as many as twelve tracks in parallel on each strip. The tracks were recorded one at a time in separate passes and were not intended for later mixdown or stereophony; as with later half-track and quarter-track monophonic tape recording, the multiple tracks simply multiplied the maximum recording time possible, greatly reducing cost and bulk. British EMI engineer Alan Blumlein patented systems for recording stereophonic sound and surround sound on disc and film in 1933. The history of modern multitrack audio recording using magnetic tape began in 1943 with the invention of stereo tape recording, which divided the recording head into two tracks.

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Experimental rock, also called avant-rock, is a subgenre of rock music which pushes the boundaries of common composition and performance technique or which experiments with the basic elements of the genre. Artists aim to liberate and innovate, with some of the genre's distinguishing characteristics being improvisational performances, avant-garde influences, odd instrumentation, opaque lyrics, unorthodox structures and rhythms, and an underlying rejection of commercial aspirations.

Experimental pop is pop music that cannot be categorized within traditional musical boundaries or which attempts to push elements of existing popular forms into new areas. It may incorporate experimental techniques such as musique concrète, aleatoric music, or eclecticism into pop contexts. Often, the compositional process involves the use of electronic production effects to manipulate sounds and arrangements, and the composer may draw the listener's attention specifically with both timbre and tonality, though not always simultaneously.

"This Could Be the Night" is a song recorded by the American band Modern Folk Quartet (MFQ) in late 1965 or early 1966. The lyrics describe a couple on the verge of conquering their inhibitions. Written in tribute to Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, the song is one of three that were credited jointly to Harry Nilsson and Phil Spector, although Nilsson submitted that he was the sole writer on a 1966 copyright form.

Musicianship of Brian Wilson Brian Wilsons songwriting and recording background and techniques

The songwriting of American musician Brian Wilson, co-founder and multi-tasking leader of the Beach Boys, is widely considered to be among the most innovative and significant of the late 20th century. His combined arranging, producing, and songwriting skills also made him a major innovator in the field of music production. In a 1966 article that asks "Do the Beach Boys rely too much on sound genius Brian?" brother and bandmate Carl Wilson said that while every member of the group contributed ideas, Brian was most responsible for their music. Dennis Wilson said: "Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band. We're his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We're nothing. He's everything."



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Further reading