Timeline: How Tape Sparked A Wave Of Musical Experimentation

Mar 6, 2017

In the second half of the 20th century, technology evolved at an ever-increasing pace. The ability to capture a performance and manipulate recorded sound allowed musicians, artists and composers a freedom that they had never experienced before. It all started with the advent and adoption of magnetic tape.

Magnetic recording, or tape, was invented right at the turn of the century. Initially, the quality of the sound reproduction was questionable, but in the 1930s and early 40s, German engineers improved on this technology.

When Berlin fell at the end of World War II, magnetic tape went to market worldwide. For the next few decades tape recording and playback devices were much more expensive than the discs currently used by consumers.

Tape revolutionized the recording industry giving audio engineers flexibility that they could only dream of before: Tape can be cut, spliced, reconnected, edited, played backwards and two tapes can even be played simultaneously and recorded by another.

Gone are one-take performances, now you can post-produce the exact sound you’re looking for. Studios began to experiment with wider tape, allowing multiple “tracks” to be recorded at the same time for even greater flexibility.

Experiments in the world of popular music include the 1951 recording of How High the Moon featuring guitarist Les Paul. Using tape allowed him to perform all eight guitar parts in a process called “over dubbing."

In the 60s, artists and engineers began to see the recording studio as an instrument in and of itself, with the ability to create sounds that could never exist live. For instance, The Beatles used several tape loops for their song "Tomorrow Never Knows" on their 1966 LP Revolver and created a tapestry of sound on "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" on 1967's Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In the world of art music, composer Steve Reich’s experiment It’s Gonna Rain practically invented process music. Two duplicate recordings are played at different rates of speed creating an effect called “phase shifting”. In 1969, Alvin Lucier conducted an experiment called I am Sitting in a Room. He recorded the same audio in the same room over and over again until all that remains are the resonate frequencies of the room itself.

This is a photograph of a modern mixing console, allowing for multiple tracks to be recorded and controlled independently.
Credit U.S. Public Domain

As technology shifted from tape to digital recording, the basic essence of engineering remained.

Only now, there are no physical limitations on how sound can be manipulated. Whatever the artist imagines, can be heard.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.