Advances in Recording Technology: Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper

I really love listening to isolated music tracks. You can most certainly learn a lot as a musician and/or studio engineer by doing so, plus it’s simply great fun for the average music lover.

I’ve no idea how the hell the creator of the example video I’m about to present got his hands on copies of what seem to be the original “Sgt. Pepper” studio tapes, but it’s extremely well done. It’s also a very interesting glimpse into the past, when 4-track tape was the norm for commercial music recordings.

But first, to set the stage, let’s have a look at the progression of recording technologies since that time…

In the beginning, God created Analog multi-track tape recorders…
Just kidding, it was actually Ross Snyder and Les Paul, way back in 1955.

An example of a vintage Analog reel-to-reel 4-track studio recorder:

Sony TC 854-4
Sony TC 854-4 – Circa 1969 – $1,695
Half-Inch Tape Reel
Media: Half-Inch Tape: Approximate Size = Frizbee!

Recording Engineers often used a technique called “bouncing tracks”. For the layman, this is basically merging two or more tracks together in order to free up those already occupied, which could then be re-used to add additional instruments or vocals to a song. There was really no choice in the matter, since they usually had only 4 tracks to work with. Analog reel-to-reel recorders similar to the one above actually started with only 2 tracks, and later evolved into 4, 8, 16, and 24-track versions.

As you’ll see and hear in the upcoming video, bouncing tracks is precisely what was done during the recording of “Sgt. Pepper”, widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time. It was in the Billboard albums chart for 175 non-consecutive weeks through 1987, and was certified 11x Platinum in the USA alone (over 11,000,000 copies sold). Most bands don’t sell that many records in their entire career, let alone a single album.

In my opinion, Analog remains the highest-fidelity sound format in existence, even in today’s digital world. It’s no mystery why nearly all professional guitarists still use tube amplifiers (also called vacuum valve, as the lingo goes). The sound they produce is smoother, warmer and cleaner than any solid-state amplifier can ever come close to matching.

Marshall JCM 2000 TSL 100
Marshall JCM 2000 TSL 100 – Tube Guitar Amplifier Head

Moving on through the years, into Digital…

I had previously owned a Sony MDM-X4 4-track digital recorder which used MiniDiscs as its storage media, a long-obsolete technology that you’ve likely never heard of.

It also provided the function of bouncing tracks, for the same purpose previously described. Purchased in 1997 at a price of $500 (with today’s inflation rate, about $720) it was still a huge amount of money for a multi-track recorder at the time, at least for me. Still, that was less than one third the price of the Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder above, while providing much more function.

Multi-track recorder - Sony MDM-X4 Minidisc
Sony MDM-X4 – Circa 1997 – $500
Sony MiniDisc
Media: Sony MiniDisc: Approximate Size = 2.75 x 2.65″

An example of today’s Digital recording technologies…

Presently, I utilize a Tascam DP32-SD digital recorder, which uses SD (Secure Digital) Cards as storage media. Yep, the same ones you use in your smartphones and various other devices.

It goes for around $500, and is capable of recording up to 32 tracks on a single card. That’s eight times the number of tracks of the recorders above. It’s also capable of recording up to 8 tracks simultaneously, and its other functionality would require a separate post just to list.

Keep in mind, this is in my modest home studio, not a professional recording facility where recorders like the Sony reel-to-reel above were used in the past.

Tascam DP-32SD recorder and Presonus HP4 headphone amp
Tascam DP32-SD – Circa 2017 – $500
SD Card (Secure Digital Card)
Media: SD (Secure Digital) Card: Approximate Size = 1.25 x 0.95″


I then export the recorder tracks to my PC and use modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software to produce the final song product. There are many available, but my personal preference is REAPER, which costs just $60 for a non-commercial license. By doing so, I can now add an unlimited number of tracks to a mix!

reaper 3d perspective

WOW, isn’t it completely amazing just how far all of this has come?

There are a ton of interesting isolated music track videos available on YouTube. To check some of them out, click here to perform a search for “isolated vocals” as an example. While you’re there, substitute other types of tracks which may interest you in place of “vocals”, such as “guitar”, “bass”, etc… I’m sure you’ll find many that will provide a highly enjoyable and educational listening experience.

So, without further ado, here’s the “Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper” video. I especially like when the 2nd track (in blue) becomes active, which contains the bounced lead guitar and horn tracks:

Very cool. Hope you’ve enjoyed this little trek through recording history!

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