Creative Uses of Tape

By Duncan Harrison, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

In the first of a series of posts around creative uses of tape throughout audio past and present, we will look at the development of magnetic tape as a compositional tool in the 20th century.

Early beginnings and musique concrète

Music throughout the 20th century can largely be defined by an ongoing preoccupation with experimentation and attempts to redefine the boundaries of how music could be composed and appreciated.  Having been chiefly understood for centuries beforehand as the interpretation of notated scores by acoustic instruments, music underwent immense transformation in the course of just a few decades.  It is no coincidence that some of the most radical of these changes took place alongside the development of sound recording technology, and of all these innovations one of the most important is magnetic tape.

Various means of recording and reproducing sound existed prior to the invention of magnetic tape, with radio and phonograph record players – already commonplace household items – being explored within musical performance settings.  In other cases, newly emerging early electronic instruments such as the Theremin and Ondes Martenot introduced previously unheard sonic characteristics into the orchestral context.  Such developments were underpinned by an increasing sense that a great departure from centuries worth of musical practice and theory was beginning to come to the fore, with technology holding the key to its exploration.  For many composers, the common tools of pitch and harmony began to be replaced with an interest in texture, timbre and the qualities of non-musical sound, leading to the development in the 1940s of dedicated practices in collecting, manipulating and rearranging recorded sounds into new compositions.  Halim El-Dabh’s ‘Expression of Zaar’ is likely the first public presentation of such a work, having premiered in 1944 during an art gallery event in Cairo.  The piece was created when El-Dabh replayed a wire recording of a public exorcism ceremony through reverberation and echo effects, resulting in an ethereal and atmospheric series of intertwining tones barely recognizable from their original context.

Halim El-Dabh’s ‘Expression of Zaar’ (1944)

By the late 1940s these practices were solidified under the umbrella of musique concrète a term adopted by the composer Pierre Schaeffer who is widely attributed with having crystalized many of the techniques and theories of the form into the true beginning of a dedicated creative discipline.  The term intended to describe an approach to music making distinct from the traditional method of musical notation as interpreted by instruments.  Musique concrète proposed that recorded sound itself would be the chief material of the composer and the studio would become their instrument. 

Early musique concrète works by Pierre Schaeffer.

The introduction of magnetic tape as a music making tool

Magnetic tape recording had already existed at this time having been developed in Germany during the first half of the 1930s and further explored by many different nations for military purposes just prior to and throughout WWII.  Commercial machines would emerge in the late 1940s but were hampered by poor functionality, meaning that use of magnetic tape by composers of musique concrète did not begin in earnest until the early 1950s when the technology had been improved upon and optimized for modern uses.  Once these advancements took place, a great expansion of the role recording devices could play in composition began to occur.  The malleability of tape made it an ideal material for a musical practice concerned with the manipulation of audio; it could be run past the playback heads at different speeds or directions, radically altering the character of whatever sound was originally captured on the spool.  Tape could also be cut and reattached (a technique known as splicing) allowing the technician to arrange sounds – often from multiple sources – into new configurations or constantly repeating loops.  Multiple tape recorders could be employed to capture and layer these results into whole compositions or to create echo like effects as a single piece of sound on the tape would pass through multiple playback heads in sequence.  Additionally, where previous machines such as the wire recorder were cumbersome to operate or, in the case of shellac discs, could only be recorded onto once, magnetic tape provided a format which was simpler to operate and could be erased, allowing mistakes to be edited or reattempted and reels to be reused for different projects. 

This clip from the 1979 BBC documentary ‘The New Sound of Music’ demonstrates a number of ways in which magnetic tape was harnessed to create musique concrète.

Mainstream exposure: the 1960s and beyond

The 1950s saw the construction of many studio facilities dedicated to exploring musique concrète and concurrently developing electronic music technologies.  Mostly owned and operated within prestigious universities, this marked the gradual recognition of such forms as a serious institutional concern at the cutting edge of new music.  Rather than remaining confined to the world of academia however, the ideas developed in this field would gradually find utility in popular music throughout the 1960s and 1970s, exposing the sonic possibilities of magnetic tape to a wider and more diverse audience.

Tape recording had already made a huge impact on the popular music of this era as the development of multitrack recording and the ability to layer and overdub audio enabled musicians to hone the studio process into a more creative, polished artform.  The phenomenal success of the Beatles gave them unprecedented access to the most up to date recording technologies as well as the expertise to explore its potentials.  The group’s well documented introduction of contemporary art and musical influences into their songwriting resulted in a number of musique concrète techniques being used in some of their most iconic and well known material.  Infamous tales of studio experimentation in cutting, looping and rearranging tape are peppered throughout the Beatles’ discography and contribute toward a sound that remains instantly recognizable even now. 

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is just one of many Beatles songs to contain tape editing and musique concrète techniques. Try listening through headphones to hear the looping drums and layers of reversed instruments playing at different speeds.

Similar techniques were also explored by artists such as Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa who further introduced these influences into rock music, broadening the sonic possibilities of the genre.

Radio and television also had a huge part to play in spreading the influence of tape experimentation to a wider audience, perhaps most notably of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.  Founded in 1951 following demand from a number of in house staff with an interest in contemporary events in electronic and experimental music, the workshop was given a budget and facilities to undergo the creation of experimental audio works for BBC programming.  The group produced sounds for radio dramas and plays as well as music and sound effects for a number of television programs, including perhaps most famously the iconic Dr. Who theme as realized under the direction of Delia Derbyshire in 1963

Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills describe the making of the Dr. Who theme in the Radiophonic Workshop.

The Radiophonic Workshop continued in various formations until it’s official closure in 1998, though Daphne Oram, one of the key originators of the workshop, left the project before the end of its first year in order to pursue her own work.  Developing her ‘Oramics’ system throughout the late 1950’s and early 1960s, she produced a machine which generated and manipulated sounds from patterns and shapes physically painted onto glass panels and 35mm film strips, predating sequencer and synthesizer technology now common place in electronic music by many years. 

Daphne Oram’s ‘Oramics’ system.

The sound of the future today

The art of recorded music developed rapidly throughout the rest of the 20th century and by the 1970s the notion of treating the process as a way to use sound in a sculptural fashion as opposed to simply capturing representations of notated scores via acoustic sources became common place.  Whether it was due to the odd, alien sounds that it could be used to produce or simply its growing capacity for more sophisticated, advanced usage in standard recording, the tape recorder represented the sounds of the future.  Though the emergence of digital technologies saw the gradual move away from tape into a more familiar world of computer based recording and digital sampling, many aspects of the modern studio process still bear close resemblance to the earliest discoveries in magnetic tape recording.

Jim Morrison eerily predicts the future of music in 1969.

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