The Unofficial History of Home Recording: Big Hits from Bedroom Studios

This story first appeared in Trust Me, I’m a Scientist, December 2, 2013.

For musicians of my generation, our first experiments with turning two cassette decks into a makeshift multi-track recording device—by dubbing the output of one deck into the input of the other while playing a new instrument—could seem a bit like sorcery.

Sure, the original Casio drumbeat is now almost inaudible, the new guitar is too loud and too dry, and the entire recording sags under the weight of each new track that is introduced. But that doesn’t matter much when you feel you have discovered a secret door to a whole new world.

Some musicians come out of an experience like this imagining how much better things will be when, one day, they can finally afford clean, fully-equipped studios and the engineers that come with them. Others prefer to keep the giddy innocence and uncertainty that comes along with their own personal multi-track recorder and the piles of cords and electronics on the bedroom floor.

Traditionally, home recording is thought of as the niche and studio recording the norm, and that is certainly true for most of the commercial recordings we hear today. Throughout history, however, those lines have crossed again and again.

Professional musicians have been using home-brewed tricks to max out available tape tracks since the 1940s, home recording was once a ubiquitous phenomenon in that same era, and albums that have been listened to in millions of bedrooms have been recorded in bedrooms themselves.

Early Spoken Word, Indie Bands, and Karaoke Stars

As early as 1930, the consumer technology companies of the day took to marketing products like the RCA “Radiola”, an electric phonograph with recording capabilities, and Radio Craft magazine welcomed a coming golden age of home recording:

Home recording is likely to take the country by storm, as soon as the public awakens to its possibilities. Parents would like to preserve the voices of their children—and children in turn will be anxious to preserve the voices of their parents and grandparents; so that the spoken word will remain after the little folks have grown up, or the old have gone.

A 1930 ad for the RCA Radiola

A 1930 ad for the RCA Radiola

While the Radiola retailed for a hefty $285 (just under $4,000 today, making it a tough sell to Depression-era America) the lower-cost Wilcox-Gay Recordio of the 1940s became one of the most popular models of portable record cutter.

The Recordio was able to record live sound via microphone or from a radio input. Users recorded prize fights and speeches from the air. They recorded conversations, family band performances, and drunken piano sing-alongs.

Wisconsin musician Phil Nohl has created a collection of over 2,000 of these early home recordings, including the work of an early karaoke enthusiast named Harry Moran. Using two record cutters, Moran would play a favorite recording, and simultaneously cut a new one of himself singing and/or playing guitar along to the song.

Believe it or not, Recordios can still be found in abundance on Ebay. After World War II, analog tape, brought home from a freshly defeated Nazi Germany, quickly became the preferred method of choice for recording. It offered improved sound quality and multi-tracking capability, but the recording technology wouldn’t be quite as cheap, ubiquitous, or as easy to use in-home again until the 1980s.

From Bing Crosby to Big Pink

Stationed in England in 1943, Army Lt. John T. Mullin wondered how the Germans were able to broadcast such brilliant classical music from their AM transmitters inside the Reich so late at night. Either Hitler was ordering round the clock orchestra performances, or the Germans had developed better recorders than the rest of the world.

After the war, Mullin and fellow officers found their culprit: The German AEG “Magnetophon”. Mullin was able to ship Magnetophon components home and create an even better recorder with them. By 1946, Mullin was giving demonstrations of his tape machine to NBC studios, the future founders of the Ampex tape company, and radio star Bing Crosby.

Crosby preferred the ease and flexibility of pre-recording his hit radio show, but concerns over sound quality made it unrealistic until Mullin’s machine came along. On October 1, 1947, America aired its first-ever magnetic tape broadcast, a recording of Crosby’s show with Mullin as its chief engineer. The Ampex company soon began making Mullin’s hybrid tape machines, and Crosby invested $50,000 of his own money to help them get started

By the mid-50s, 2 and 3-track recorders produced by Ampex were the music industry standard. But the new technology had yet to make its way back down to the home recording enthusiast in any kind of affordable or convenient way. Les Paul bought Ampex’s first ever 8-track tape recorder, nicknamed “The Octopus”, for $10,000 in 1957, and had it installed in his home studio. As with the Radiola of the 1930s, most amateur family bands didn’t have $10,000 for a tape machine lying around (nevermind a 7-foot tall 250-pound behemoth like The Octopus).

The home recordists of the day were people more like Paul: professional musicians curious about new ways of writing and recording music, who had the means to follow that curiosity wherever it might go.

In 1983, Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter for The Who, revealed himself to be a life-long home recording enthusiast when he released a collection of demos and rarities titled Scoop. As early as 1964, Townshend had been experimenting with tape machines such as the Vortexion, and later the Revox, using multiple machines and new mixing tools to create occasional multi-track demos for some of The Who’s most famous songs.

From Townshend’s liner notes to Scoop:

[This collection] emerges as being a fine example of how home recording produces moods and music, innocence and naivety that could be arrived at in no other way. Music that was never intended to be heard by a wide audience; notes and scribblings take on a new value assembled in this way. Away from sophisticated studio techniques and repeated soul destroying takes, the real joy I get from playing and writing comes through, and that joy is something I want to share.

Townshend on the song “Politician”:

Recorded on Revoxes at 15 ips stereo this has a sound that only I could get at the time. Influenced as I was by Tamla Motown, the rhythm is like HEATWAVE by Martha and the Vandellas, but the sound too is as fundamentally home grown as the Tamla sound; obviously not as good. Listen to some of the old Motown cuts I feel sure that the beauty of the sound come from the fact that a lot of love and listening went into operating very simple machinery to capture the performances. There is rarely mystery in recording, but even knowing how I got the weird sound on this cut doesn’t mean I could do it again today.

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