Recording Studio As Musical Instrument
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Recording Studio As Musical Instrument
A Studer four-track tape recorder used at EMI Studios from 1965 to the 1970s

The use of recording studios as a compositional tool is a process in which music is produced around studio constructions,[1] also referred to as "playing the studio".[2] The concept is typically referenced to artists or producers who reject the more traditional method of capturing a live performance as is.[1] Techniques include overdubbing, tape edits, non-musical sounds, electronic effects, and combining segmented performances into one whole.[1]

Composers have been exploiting the potentials of multitrack recording since the technology was made available to them.[3] 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, and by the early 1970s, the "additive approach to recording" had become a common standard.[4]

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".[5] As of the 2010s, the "studio as instrument" idea remains ubiquitous in genres such as hip-hop, electronic music, and pop.[6]


Phil Spector (center) at Gold Star Studios, where he developed his Wall of Sound methods, 1966

There is no consensus as to how to define the criterion of a musical instrument.[7] It is also unclear whether the "studio as instrument" concept extends to using multi-track recording simply to facilitate the music writing process.[8]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] 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.[7] He added, "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."[9]

Before the late 1940s, musical recordings were typically created with the idea of presenting a faithful rendition of a real-life performance. Initially, the practice of "studio as compositional tool" was evident mainly in the realms of pop music, as only a minuscule number of classical composers took to this form of music-making.[4] Popular recording conventions changed profoundly in the mid 1950s as new possibilities were opened by three-track tape,[4] 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.[10] Music educators have written about or alluded to the "studio as instrument" concept since the late 1960s.[11]



Pioneers from the 1940s include Bill Putnam, Les Paul, and Tom Dowd, who each contributed to the development of common recording practices like reverb, tape delay, and overdubbing. Putnam was one of the first to recognize echo and reverb as elements to enhance a recording, rather than as natural byproducts of the recording space. He engineered the Harmonicats' 1947 novelty song "Peg o' My Heart", which was a significant chart hit and became the first popular recording to use artificial reverb for artistic effect.[6] Although Les Paul was not the first to use overdubs, he popularized the technique in the 1950s.[12]

Around the same time, French composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were developing musique concrete, a method of composition in which pieces of tape are rearranged and spliced together, and thus originated sampling. Meanwhile in England, Daphne Oram experimented heavily with electronic instruments during her tenure as a balancing engineer for the BBC. Written in 1949, Still Point is a 30-minute piece that combined pre-recorded acoustic orchestration with live electronic manipulation--one of the first ever to do so. However, Ophram's tape experiments were mostly unheard at the time. In 1957, she said recorded sounds were "a sort of modern magic. We think there's something in it. Some musicians believe it may become an art form in its own right."[6]


English producer Joe Meek is considered one of the most influential engineers of all time, being one of the first to exploit the use of recording studios as instruments, and one of the first producers to assert an individual identity as an artist.[13] He got his start in 1955 at IBC Studio in London. One of Meek's signature techniques was to overload a signal with dynamic range compression, which was unorthodox at the time. Several of his "radical" techniques (such as close-miking instruments) later became part of normal recording practice.[6][nb 1] Discussing Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Adam Bell describes the songwriting duo's productions for the Coasters as "an excellent example of their pioneering practices in the emerging field of production," citing an account from Stoller in which he recalls "cutting esses off words, sticking the tape back together so you didn't notice. And sometimes if the first refrain on a take was good and the second one lousy, we'd tape another recording of the first one and stick it in place of the second one."[14]

Phil Spector, sometimes regarded as Joe Meek's American counterpart,[15] is also considered "important as the first star producer of popular music and its first 'auteur' ... Spector changed pop music from a performing art ... to an art which could sometimes exist only in the recording studio".[16] His original production formula (dubbed the "Wall of Sound") called for large ensembles (including some instruments not generally used for ensemble playing, such as electric and acoustic guitars), with multiple instruments doubling and even tripling many of the parts to create a fuller, richer sound.[17][nb 2] The Wall of Sound was an evolution of Spector's mid-1950s work with Leiber and Stoller at a time they sought a fuller sound by the use of excessive instrumentation.[19] 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."[19]

Mid-late 1960s

A colour image of a large room with a piano in the middle
Abbey Road Studio Two, where most Beatles tracks were recorded

The Beatles' producer George Martin and the Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson are generally credited with helping to popularize the idea of the recording studio as a musical instrument which could then be used to aid the process of composition, and music producers after the mid 1960s increasingly drew from their work.[20][nb 3] Wilson, who was mentored by Spector,[22] was another early auteur of popular music;[20] authors Jim Cogan and William Clark credit Wilson as the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument.[22][nb 4] According to author David Howard, Martin's work on the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", from the band's 1966 album 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".[24] Author Mark Brend writes that, with Revolver, the Beatles advanced on Meek's approach, and employed the studio as "an environment for wide-ranging sonic research" that included experimentation with tape loops, reversed and speed-manipulated tape sounds, and backwards-recorded lead guitar parts.[25] 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.[26]

Like Revolver, "Good Vibrations", which Wilson produced for the Beach Boys in 1966, was another prime proponent in revolutionizing rock from live concert performances into studio productions that could only exist on record.[27] 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.[28][nb 5] 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",[29] 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 the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.[30] According to author Olivier Julien, 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."[31] Its lasting commercial success and critical impact are largely due to Martin and his engineers' creative use of studio equipment while originating new processes.[32][nb 6]


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.[34] Adam Bell credits Eno with popularizing the concept of the studio as instrument, particularly that it "did not require previous experience, and in some ways, a lack of know-how might even be advantageous to creativity."[34] He goes on to note:

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.[34]

Bell wrote that "such an approach was typified" by Kraftwerk, whose members proclaimed "we play the studio".[34]

See also



  1. ^ His employers often antagonized him over his methods, and to escape this, he developed a home studio in 1960.[6]
  2. ^ For example, Spector would often duplicate a part played by an acoustic piano with an electric piano and a harpsichord.[18] 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."[18]
  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.[21]
  4. ^ In 1967, he believed "Spector started the whole thing. He was the first one to use the studio. ... I heard that song ["Be My Baby"] three and a half years ago and I knew that it was between him and me. I knew exactly where he was at and now I've gone beyond him."[23]
  5. ^ 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."[28]
  6. ^ Julien writes that the Beatles' "gradual integration of arranging and recording into one and the same process" began as early as 1963, but developed in earnest during the sessions for Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966) and "ultimately blossomed" during the Sgt. Pepper sessions.[33]


  1. ^ a b c d Greene 2016, p. 179.
  2. ^ Seymour, Corey (June 5, 2015). "Love & Mercy Does Justice to the Brilliance of Brian Wilson". Vogue.
  3. ^ Eno 2004, p. 127.
  4. ^ a b c Eno 2004, pp. 128-129.
  5. ^ Bell 2018, p. 34.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "A Brief History of The Studio As An Instrument: Part 1 - Early Reflections". October 25, 2016.
  7. ^ a b Bell 2018, pp. 34-35.
  8. ^ Bell 2018, p. 38.
  9. ^ Bell 2018, p. 37.
  10. ^ Blake 2009, p. 45.
  11. ^ Bell 2018, p. xvi.
  12. ^ Bell 2018, p. 12, 39.
  13. ^ Patrick, Jonathan (March 8, 2013). "Joe Meek's pop masterpiece I Hear a New World gets the chance to haunt a whole new generation of audiophile geeks". Tiny Mix Tapes.
  14. ^ Bell 2018, p. 39.
  15. ^ Gritten, David (October 1, 2016). "Joe Meek and the tragic demise of the maverick who revolutionised British pop". The Telegraph.
  16. ^ Bannister 2007, p. 38.
  17. ^ Zak 2001, p. 77.
  18. ^ a b Ribowsky 1989, pp. 185-186.
  19. ^ a b Moorefield 2010, p. 10.
  20. ^ a b Edmondson 2013, p. 890.
  21. ^ Martin 2015, p. 75.
  22. ^ a b Cogan & Clark 2003, pp. 32-33.
  23. ^ Siegel 2013, p. 95.
  24. ^ Howard 2004, pp. 2-3.
  25. ^ Brend 2005, pp. 55-56.
  26. ^ Hodgson 2010, pp. viii-ix.
  27. ^ Ashby 2004, p. 282.
  28. ^ a b Heiser, Marshall (November 2012). "SMiLE: Brian Wilson's Musical Mosaic". The Journal on the Art of Record Production (7).
  29. ^ Gillett 1984, p. 329.
  30. ^ Sculatti, Gene (September 1968). "Villains and Heroes: In Defense of the Beach Boys". Jazz & Pop. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  31. ^ Julien 2008, pp. 166-167.
  32. ^ Hannan 2008, p. 46.
  33. ^ Julien 2008, p. 162.
  34. ^ a b c d Bell 2018, p. 49.


Further reading

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