As a group that rose to prominence in the early 1960s and are still touring to this day, The Rolling Stones have seen how technology has affected the music industry first hand. Indeed, like many of their contemporaries such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Who, The Stones began their recording career relying on the three or four-track studio set up of the day. With so few tracks to record on, The Stones were forced to rely on the skills of the studio engineers, the most talented of whom were able to capture the raw energy of the group’s garage R&B sound using only two overhead microphones to capture the drums and mixing everything in mono.
But, by 1967, developments in studio recording allowed The Stones to take more control of the production process, leading to the idea of creating a mobile studio that would allow the group to lay down tracks without being restricted by the 9-5 limitations of the studio environment. By this time, The Stones were working with an eight-track recording unit, and, in the 1970s, upgraded to a 16-track, which was offered a whole new world of sonic possibles. As Keith Richards recalled in a TV interview in the 1990s, “I realised that ever since I’ve been recording, I’ve been at the front of the recording thing. Even when it was two-track, four-track; I’ve been seeing it develop throughout my career.”
But with the possibilities heralded by new technology, there came the worry that the quality of the music would suffer. Stones guitarist Keith Richards was especially wary of this. “I always think of as ‘are we in toy town or are we in the hardware department, and when is it just a toy like a synthesiser became in the ’80?s. It was like: ‘God doesn’t anybody play anything anymore except that thing.”
For Richards, new studio technologies raised another problem: might they be exploited to the point that quality becomes secondary? “Technology comes on so fast,” Richards continued, “That there’s inevitably gonna be people who jump on it as a cheap way out of, like, having somebody else doing something – without really knowing what it can do and whether you actually got a better sound than you got before. You know, quite honestly, analogue sound is better than digital, but digital has its place in editing, you know.” Fearing that he was getting too technical, Richards stripped back all the jargon to reveal the heart of his argument: “technology’s great,” he began, “but is it a tool or a toy?”.