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The use of recording studios as a distinct musical instrument or compositional tool is an approach to music production sometimes described as "playing the studio". It developed as composers started exploiting the newfound potentials of multitrack recording. 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" would be significantly common in rock music. As of the 2010s, the idea remains ubiquitous in genres such as hip-hop, electronic music, and pop.
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. Popular recording conventions changed profoundly in the mid 1950s as new possibilities were opened by three-track tape, 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.
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 not only was a huge hit, but also became the first popular recording to use artificial reverb for artistic effect. 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."
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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. 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.[nb 1] Phil Spector, his American counterpart, 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". 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.[nb 2]
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.[nb 3] Wilson, who was mentored by Spector, was another early auteur of popular music; authors Jim Cogan and William Clark credit Wilson as the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument.[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". 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. 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.
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. 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.[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", 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. 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." Its lasting commercial success and critical impact are largely due to Martin and his engineers' creative use of studio equipment while originating new processes.[nb 6]
Brian Eno, who launched his career in the 1970s as synthesizer player for Roxy Music, is frequently referred to as one of popular music's most influential artists. Critic Jason Ankeny at AllMusic argues that Eno "forever altered the ways in which music is approached, composed, performed, and perceived, and everything from punk to techno to new age bears his unmistakable influence." His production style has proven influential in several general respects: "his recording techniques have helped change the way that modern musicians - particularly electronic musicians - view the studio. No longer is it just a passive medium through which they communicate their ideas but itself a new instrument with seemingly endless possibilities."[nb 7]