The Eight Track Recorder. . .  And More

The Inventor

Les Paul and The Multi-Track Recorder

There's no doubt that the impetus for multi-tracking came from Les Paul.  Lacking a means to play harmony parts and duets with himself, he modified a tape deck with an extra head and a switch to defeat the erase function and began recording sound-on-sound as early as 1949.  

Using the earlier mono recorder and playing along with a track while recording over it entailed starting from scratch if a mistake was made on any subsequent take.  There were no safety nets, and one couldn't "fix it in the mix," as became customary later.  Although that involved greater risk and thus required intense concentration and technical expertise, it also made for more creative tension.  Dad himself later admitted that he missed that.

The 8-track concept came along while I was visiting Dad from Chicago in 1953.  Dad took me to the studio where he and Mary were filming the "Listerine Show."  Dad explains, " I was taking a rest and looking up at the sky.  My manager asked what I was dreaming about.  I said that recording using sound-on-sound was crazy.  There's a better way: Stack the heads on top of the other — 1 through 8 — and align them so we could do self-sync with all the heads in-line.  When I told my manager, 'I think it will change the world,' he told me I should do something about it."

The Ampex 8-track recorder employed Sel-Sync (selective synchronization), which streamlined the process of multiple recordings by allowing Dad to record the different parts in synchronization.  But this method of recording, while it offered protection against losing prior tracks, lacked one key element that distinguished the earlier multiple recordings like "How High the Moon," namely the tension of having to get it right the first time, which made for a more spontaneous performance.

Les talks about multitrack and sound-on-sound recordings - AES Oral History

A Les Paul Quote


“I never walk over to a recording machine until I know what I’m going to do.  I don’t expect the machine to create a hit, because it only records what I have to say.  This means I know what I’m going to do in the song’s intro, I know the tempo I’m going to play it in, I know what I have to say, and I know I have to say it in so many minutes and so many seconds.  I know how the song is going to start out, and how it’s going to end.  I know where it has to build up. I know the microphones I’m going to use, and I know the arrangement, and the instrumentation.  And, with me, it’s from beginning to end.  I invented multitracking, so I know that you can record parts separately and punch things in, but I don’t do that.  My thinking is that a song has to have one feeling, and when you punch in, you’ve got one feeling over here, another feeling in the middle, and something different near the end.  When you piece it together, that’s what comes out—pieces.  The feeling doesn’t flow.  Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t punch in if you missed a note.  I’m just saying that, generally speaking, a song sounds better and more alive as a continuous performance of how you’re feeling.” —December 2005


“Modern recording equipment is much more complicated than it needs to be.  One of the first things I learned in the multitrack business is that the machine can run away from you.  It can run you, instead of you running the machine.” —December 1977