Mind-warping synthesizers! The Walkman! Karaoke! Looking back at the ’70s innovations that shaped how people created and listened to music throughout the decade and beyond.
The history of music is inseparable from the history of technology. From the first primitive percussion instruments, catgut strings, and animal horns, to Thomas Edison’s phonograph and the jukebox, how we listen and create has evolved with the tools of the times.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the technological conditions were ripe for the birth of popular music as it’s often idealized today, with AM and FM radio going mainstream, vinyl records supplanting the earlier shellac format, and multi-track recording developments clearing the way for late-’60s studio experimentation. But in many ways, it was the 1970s marked the dawn of the modern era in music technology, applying and refining the developments of earlier decades while also laying the foundations of the techniques and styles that would follow. If it exists today, there’s a good chance it could be considered ’70s retro.
The first half of the decade could be seen as an extension of the ’60s, as previously invented gadgets—multi-track and cassette tapes, synths and vocoders, car stereos and wah-wah pedals—continued to be honed. Eventually, though, new technological advances set the stage for CDs, pocket-sized digital music players, and even entire genres, like hip-hop and techno, which would reverberate well into the 21st century.
Multi-track recording, which offers the ability to record multiple performances separately and at different times, reached new levels of complexity in the ’70s. As late as 1966, the Beatles recorded Revolver on a four-track machine; they didn’t use eight-track recording until 1968. By 1970, 16 tracks were starting to become standard, and 24-track machines arrived. Throughout the decade and into the ’80s, 24-tracks would be the rule, not the exception. New York studio the Record Plant went 24-track in 1970, reportedly becoming the first to employ a machine made by MCI, whose gear was later used by AC/DC, Queen, Led Zeppelin, and other ’70s giants.