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  • Sounding the Multitrack Imagination
  • Ken Cormier (bio)

There is some debate as to who, exactly, invented the first multitrack tape recorder, but it is well known that the concept for “sound-on-sound” recording originated with Les Paul’s studio experiments of the mid-1940s.1 Paul, a popular radio host and hillbilly guitarist who had struck up a successful collaboration with Bing Crosby, among others, was generally disappointed with the sound quality elicited by the recording techniques of his day. Ensembles, large and small, were routinely recorded with a single microphone placed at a distance to capture the entire group, making it impossible to get a high-fidelity recording of the various parts that were played. Paul argued that greater fidelity could be achieved by making a crisp, close recording of each instrument and then combining those sounds into a synchronized and balanced whole. Bing Crosby encouraged Paul to work on his idea by helping to establish a personal recording studio, a kind of laboratory for sound. In the studio, Paul discovered that by using two acetate disc cutters, he could record a piece of music on one machine and then play along with it to create a kind of one-person ensemble:

That’s how it all started. You record on a disc, and you play the disc back and record on the second machine with what you laid down on the first recording. Play along with it, and you now have the two together on the second record.

(Lawrence 2008, 20)

Since Paul could position the microphone close to both his instrument and the disc player, each part that he recorded sounded distinct and clear. Around this same time, the first magnetic tape recorders were captured by Allied troops in Germany during the latter stages of World War II, and Paul obtained one through a personal connection. He practiced his methodology with the newer magnetic tape technology, and he was able not only to make extremely high-fidelity recordings of the multiple parts he played, but also to perform audio tricks, such as varying the tape speeds to create higher and [End Page 371] lower pitches, or playing a fraction of a second behind a previously recorded part to create a delay or echo (Landers).

In 1949 Paul caught the attention of a wide listening audience with his recording of an eight-part guitar instrumental entitled “Lover.” Paul played all of the parts himself. The song, with its artificially sped-up melody lines and deftly percussive strumming, is a virtuoso performance as well as a groundbreaking production. The varied pitches create a kind of disorienting delirium, while the clarity and closeness of each recorded part make for a focus and brilliance to which listeners were not yet accustomed. A year later, with the release of his album The New Sound, Les Paul’s ability to multiply himself into a one-man ensemble earned him a reputation as a wizard of sound (Lawrence 2008, 20-21). The album’s cover depicts Paul with multiple arms, playing at least seven guitars while he smiles and dances; there is an undeniably Cubist aspect to the image, a comical nod to the layers and repetitions of Braque’s “Woman with a Guitar” or Picasso’s “Le guitarist.” Through the unlikely medium of popular music, Paul had found a way to demonstrate the plurality of the individual, to refract himself into multiple pitches, to engage in marvelous musical repetitions with slight, almost imperceptible variations. In the popular press he became known as a “one-man gang,” and an iconic photo collage of the time features a group of seven guitar-wielding Les Pauls, each playing his part in a crowded studio space.

Paul not only realized his original vision, but he also made a much more important discovery: how to multiply, refract, bend, and accelerate his audible self. His sound-on-sound technique not only changed the course of popular music, but it also pushed the ontological implications of sound recording to new heights. According to Katherine Hayles, human beings have been compelled periodically to redefine their conception of “presence” in the face of new technologies that challenge their most basic assumptions...


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pp. 371-384
Launched on MUSE
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