Play and Record Hearing the Gear Revolution In Progress

Play and Record Hearing the Gear Revolution In Progress
Hanging out behind the soundboard at Lee's Palace in Toronto (as critics tend to do), I noticed a sign: "record your set on CD." The board tape is a longstanding tradition among bands: it's simple to pop a cassette into the tape deck and record your set. Now hard disc recording and CD burning is so commonplace that it's no problem even in a smoky, beer spilling crush of people. It's hard to imagine doing that even five years ago. It's just one tentacle from the wide reach of a revolution in audio recording whose origins are more than 50 years old.

There have been three revolutionary changes that have shaped the creative process of recording, and significantly broadened its availability. The first was the popularisation of the German developed magnetophone in the 1940s and ‘50s. The second was the invention and marketing of home-based recording systems during the 1970s. The third, ongoing revolution, involves the effect of digital technology in music making. Not only is it possible to buy home gear that is cheaper and more powerful than ever before, but this new generation of recording technology is very close to professional calibre. The ability to shape sounds and create new hybrids of music is easier than ever before. No matter what style of music you fancy, its practitioners (potentially you) are composing in a non-linear, highly mutable environment enabled by this new generation of gear. There is one constant: while more people have access to these powerful tools, the need for innovation and creativity in music remains.

One of the great contributors to the first recording revolution was Bing Crosby. One of the most popular recording artists of all time, he held a position of great economic power in the entertainment world in the late ‘40s. He was one of the first artists to insist on creative control over his work — in this case, his radio show. Legend has it that Crosby wanted to pre-record his broadcasts so he would have more time to work on his golf game. One of his production staff had seen a demonstration of seized Nazi magnetophones in Los Angeles in 1946. The signal-to-noise ratio was much higher with tape than with acetate discs, meaning that sounds could be recorded and reproduced with far less background noise. The recording process was at that point virtually unchanged since the turn of the century, with the notable exception of the invention of the microphone in the ‘20s, which suited Crosby's low-volume crooning style. And unlike direct acetate recording, it was possible to cut and splice bits of tape to create a finished product. Crosby noted that he could record more than 60 minutes of material, remove the dull bits, and edit down to an hour. He also discovered that he could use prolonged sections of laughter from different sources to punch up jokes that didn't go over well live and the laugh track was born. He endorsed the new technology by being an early, prominent investor in the Ampex Corporation and 3M, the original tape manufacturers.

The notion of recorded music not representing a "live" event was of paramount conceptual importance. This was the invention of editable, plastic music. The idea of music being re-arrangeable information gave rise to important developments in recording techniques that remain fundamental to this day. Multi-tracking, where tape is divided into separate strips that support individual passages of music, was pioneered in the early ‘50s and the idea of being able to reassemble bits of tape influenced culture both high and low, from William Burroughs to the Beatles. Neither of the two subsequent revolutions in audio have eclipsed the basic fact that music became plastic with the invention of tape. That it became possible, and desirable, to re-order and transform recorded sound.

While recording tape transformed the shape of music being made, the tape deck revolution fundamentally changed its geography, and the idea of a studio. As Peter Hudson, the owner of Toronto's Hallamusic recording studio, and designer of electronic gear, explains: "Engineers built their studio from the ground up, they built the board, or they took a commercial board, ripped it apart, and made it suitable to their own purposes. The same with equalisers and compressors; there were a few commercial processors available, but basically it was home-made. So every studio had its own individual sound. You couldn't walk into two studios and find identical gear." Of course, countless hobbyists had a go of it as well. "With a basic high school electronics background you can build your own mic pre-amps and compressors, and maintain the older stuff."


In the late ‘70s the TEAC corporation and its subsidiary TASCAM developed recording gear aimed for the home market, culminating in 1979 with the introduction of the PortaStudio, a portable four-track cassette recorder (see sidebar) that sold for $1100. It gave not just hobbyists, but absolute novices an easy-to-use creative tool. Recalls Hudson: "Twenty years ago, if you wanted to record, it was in a studio. Home recording was a novelty back then. When I got my first four-track reel-to-reel and mixing board in 1979 was a shocking thing to do. Recording in my rehearsal space was like, wow! Tascam came out with a four track and eight track recorder designed for the home market that was the beginning for home recording."

Regardless of the musical genre being produced by the Portastudio, its users were making their own set of rules about multi-tracking. The ability to construct a complex recording at home using the same four-track chicanery the Beatles had made famous was irresistible to Portastudio devotees. In fact, the original demonstration of the Portastudio used the master tape of Sgt. Pepper's broken down into its constituent tracks and faithfully reproduced to a roomful of amazed people. It introduced millions to the possibilities of shifting and shaping individual elements of music into a freaky whole.

Parallel to these developments in home recording electronics were developments in electronic sound generation. During the ‘80s, as synthesisers became digital, the convergent possibilities of personal computers controlling synthesisers and recording gear were explored. The establishment of MIDI (see sidebar) allowed synthesisers to communicate by a low-memory, universally understood programming language. It was now possible for computers to spit out vast amounts of data, automating extremely detailed synthesiser pieces without actually recording any audio to tape. In some ways, this allowed for a universal musical language: the note structures of any genre of music could be codified into information to be further edited. Anyone who knew how to use sequencing software had common ground aesthetically, regardless of their musical bent.

Working with MIDI and audio on a computer represents another shift in creative thinking for the musician. Whereas multi-tracking allowed one to combine diverse elements into a whole, tape remains very much a linear medium. A digital medium gives the musician instant access to any point in a song. It can reverse a piece of music. It can change the pitch of music without slowing or quickening its pace. It can cut and paste the same snippet wherever desired. It has "undo" capabilities. None of these is easily accomplished with tape, if they are possible at all. Digital multi-tracking introduced a whole new level in the plasticity of music.

By 1990, the processing power and storage capacities of the PC and the Mac made digital audio recording affordable at home. MIDI composition programs such as Studiovision, Cubase and Logic added two to four tracks of audio recording in sync with MIDI programming. At a certain point in the mid-‘90s digital audio recording became a stable (meaning not constantly crashing your computer) process for most home computers. Prices for powerful audio software fell to a level that didn't require a small business loan to acquire. And thus the third revolution was launched.

Ron Lopata is a keyboardist with Jacksoul and Shanghai Lily. He explains the advantages of the modern day home studio: "At home, you've basically got a computer or a Roland VS1680 (see sidebar), a machine that can do everything. [Either choice] costs you $3500, whereas in a studio one compressor costs you $3500. That's a big difference. So if you're doing demos, pre-production or writing tunes, that's all stuff you can do at home. When you get to the studio, instead of spending a month, you spend a week because you've done all your homework. If I need to get something released, it should have a certain [pro studio] level of quality. A $10,000 studio won't compare to a million dollar studio. The difference now is that you don't have to spend a month in the studio to make it sound good."

Although he owns a well-appointed studio featuring the traditional standard of two-inch analogue tape recording, Hudson questions the notion that a big studio is necessary to achieve releasable results. "At this point the equipment is pretty transparent and it's dependent on what goes in and comes out. The listening audience can't tell a difference and the delivery system at the end of the day (the compact disc and DVD audio standard) is still 16 bit 44.1Hz. You can go to a studio with a half-million dollar board, and the engineer's running it through a distortion box just to get a certain sound. Ultimately to be creative you have to use everything, it doesn't matter whether it says SSL, Neve or Radio Shack on it, it's whatever sounds good."

And that's the key to the current revolution: the worlds of pro-calibre and home recording gear, which began to diverge some 30 years ago are beginning to converge again. The home user has access to both high and low tech gear, from fancy software to gimmicky shareware, in order to truly access "everything" from the supremely grungy to the extraordinarily silky in any given mix. Au courant recording tricks, such as the vocoded sound on Cher's "Believe," are quickly rendered into "plug-ins" for the average computer. Most desktop systems are 24 bit quality, which means any files they create have to be "dithered" (reduced) to 16 bit to be cut to a CD. So, in fact, the recording capabilities of a budget price computer are of higher fidelity than what the final medium will be able to deliver. 24 bit recording is also possible with stand-alone digital recording units such as the Roland VS series and Yamaha's AW4416. As with the Portastudio, the mobility of these units, plus the file sharing capabilities inherent in the digital world, opens new creative worlds at a much smaller price.


Ed Wilson, sales manager for Saved by Technology since 1986, deals with clientele ranging from complete novices to heavy investors in state-of-the-art A/V technology. One of his most vivid stories concerns manic film composer and home musician Danny Elfman. "[He'll] typically get a job from a film company and routine everything on machines, present it to the producer in a very elaborate and succinct form. He can go in there with the simulation of an entire orchestra, pending approval, then they rent the soundstage and the orchestra for fewer days. And your score's all printed out [by the computer]. You've probably saved $100,000 off the budget because some guy did it on his home system, rather than having to recut things with an orchestra. So the technology is used right up to the final part, then real musicians are recorded, but even that may be recorded to ProTools and edited further."

Lopata explains his own method: "I've been writing stuff with Hayden [Neale, lead singer of Jacksoul]. I'll come up with a cool vibe at home, I'd put it onto a CD, he'd put it onto his VS840, as a stereo [two track] mix and lay down six tracks of vocals, come back to my place, I'd take out the music tracks and just put the vocals on my machine and then finish the track, totally in sync, no problem. You can duplicate, you can extend sections without actually playing them. Also it's changed for singers. Before, you had to sing a song front to back, now you can do one great chorus and drop it in wherever you want. I've heard that Barbra Streisand used to come in and do 20 takes to two-inch tape and an engineer would have to splice together a composite mix of her best lines. Nowadays, it's pasted together as you go, then auto-tuned (the ability to take a wrong note and extrapolate the correct pitch from it: impossible in the analogue world) until it sounds good."
Wilson sees desktop recording as a balance between creativity and self-discipline: "If you have a hard disc recorder you're not just the composer, you're an engineer, you're the producer, you're the mastering engineer. There used to be specialised people for each of those processes. The band didn't have to worry about whether they were recording their material correctly, that was all taken care of by the engineer. Nowadays, with the advent of inexpensive recording technology, you're wearing a number of different hats. Some young bands need the discipline to go to a studio with x amount of time and x amount of money to complete their project. But sometimes that stifles creativity when you don't have enough time to properly suss out your music. Most people I know, once they've got a home studio that's well equipped, they're reluctant to go out. I don't have to go anywhere!"

There are aesthetic drawbacks to hard-disc based systems. Whether using an all-in-one box or a computer, you're dealing with one box that does all the work, whereas in a traditional studio, separate boxes plug in to one another. This can affect how ideas are generated. Working solo, the average person with a soundcard and software will not experience the thrill of connecting box A to box B to see what will happen. To beat a cliché into the ground: it can be difficult to think outside the box. Another liability of working at home is the craftsmanship a good engineer can bring to your music is lost, not to mention a second set of ears.
Says Hudson: "People can crawl up their own butts and put in too many or too few hooks, or don't realise their song just isn't that good. If you're really great you can get so much out of it; if you're not, the most expensive boxes in the world won't help you." But these are not necessarily drawbacks, they are more like parameters of the medium in which you're working. Ultimately, you just have to trust your ears, says Wilson: "The most important thing to remember when recording yourself is to trust your ears. It's far more important than a piece of technology. It might take a couple of years to get to the point to trust your ears, but the closer you get to that, the better skills you have."

The great cyber-manual called the internet has become an integral part of the third revolution. The tape deck pioneers and the Portastudio generation were almost like folk artists, working in relative isolation developing their personal, untutored techniques. The net offers vast resources in the form of how-to sites, discussion groups, access to professional associations and publications (see links). Some of the expertise lost by not recording with a professional engineer is addressed by in-depth tutorials on proper mic technique, correct recording procedure and other tips. Thus the computer musician can experiment as much as they like in their own ways, while access to a recording encyclopaedia is on the same desktop.

They can then post their results after squishing their master file down to an MP3 file (see sidebar) on any number of globally accessible sites, including their custom designed home pages. As high-bandwidth internet access continues to improve, it is likely that a more audiophile format than MP3 will emerge to make the net a more viable environment for finished products. Certainly that must happen in order for the coming phenomenon of internet recording to take off. It will involve audio recording to a secure remote server, and the ability to network with musicians around the world. Check out www.rocketnetwork.com for a glimpse into this field.

The changes wrought by hard disc audio are beginning to affect hard disc video at the home level as well. The magic combination of low prices, great software and stable functioning are becoming a reality for digital home video. Computers with multi-gigabyte hard drives and 1Ghz+ speeds are enabling the whole A/V package for the home user. Web sites and enhanced CDs are but two examples of the possibilities of A/V art. While interviewing Matt Black of Coldcut a few months back, he commented on his inspiration to create "Vjamm" software that spontaneously manipulates video and audio. "You can do new types of multimedia right on the desktop with your posse. If making music yourself is good than surely making music and visuals yourself is better." Computer literate kids will be as conversant with complex video files as they are with audio files as they grow up, exploring the A/V convergence on their own home systems.

The ability for vast numbers of people to invent new forms of art is unprecedented in history. Of course, the potential is there for kids to be making countless *NSync knockoffs at home. But once these kids spend a few years living with these creative tools, either they'll subvert the hell out of music, or at least make really excellent *NSync knockoffs. Audiophile-fidelity home recordings, at affordable prices, with global distribution and educational resources at your fingertips, enables a wide diversity of people to make art that has never existed before. Let's not allow preconceived, mass marketed notions of how music "ought" to sound place imaginary limits on the incredible potential yet to be unlocked from these machines, and from your own muse.

LINKS

An essential link for any home musician: www.harmonycentral.com

Some links for home recording info:
www.about.homerecording.com

www.bownie.com/guide/studio

homerecording.com/index.html

A thorough explanation of MIDI: www.harmony-central.com/MIDI/Doc/intro.html

More about Bing Crosby, tech-nerd pioneer: www.tir.com/~rtw/bing.htm




HEAR GEAR HERE

Portastudio

The word Portastudio now denotes any portable recording system; it was the first four-track cassette recorder (able to record and play four separate tracks of music). The cassette was in ascendance as a budget audio format, and the ability to compose in a multi-track studio environment produced some great music in wildly different genres from punk (NoMeansNo) to hip-hop (Jungle Brothers), and techno (Derrick May, Juan Atkins). It remains the staple of many a bedroom or rehearsal space, having sold over one million units by TASCAM alone, not counting countless other brands.

MIDI

By 1983, there were many different makes of synthesisers, yet none could talk to each other. MIDI is a computer language that allows cross communication, like the roll in a player piano — a set of instructions is given to the sound module to play a certain way. MIDI remains a simple language, and has been integrated into computer sequencers and sound generation since the mid-‘80's. It is a language designed to synchronise different objects, and is still useful to synchronise digital and analogue recording systems.

Studiovision/Logic Audio/Cubase

Sequencing software programs from the late 80's designed as top-level MIDI compositional tools. Beginning in the early 90s, all three added desktop recording to their software. In particular, Logic and Cubase have become extremely powerful MIDI controllers and recording studios all in one; the software retails for between $600 and $900.


ADAT

An enormously useful digital recording system introduced by Alesis in 1992. It uses cheap Super VHS tape to record eight tracks of 16-bit, meaning 40 minutes of 24 tracks will cost $40 of Super VHS, whereas 30 minutes of two-inch tape would be $200. It is possible to chain these machines together to create up to 128 tracks, synched by computer software.

ProTools

Perhaps not a tool for most home musicians, but $25,000 will get you a monstrous computer and a ProTools system. Originally released in 1991, it is the primary recording device of many low to mid-budget studios, and is a fixture in all major studios. Although some say the software design is getting a bit old, it remains the most powerful and highest-fidelity hard disc computer music system. One can record, automate mixes, and master your music to the highest professional standards. Plug ins providing everything from reverb to auto tuners are furnished by top of the line outboard gear makers in software form. Its ability to take "live, acoustic" sources and process them as one would process purely electronically generated sounds is unrivalled. It is the professional music processing standard just as Photoshop is for image processing.

Roland VS1680

Considered by many to be the successor to the Portastudio. The VS1680 premiered in 1998, providing 16 track, 24-bit recording — more than enough for complex live recordings or effects-laden, automated mixes in your basement. It utilises a proprietary compression algorithm to enable hundreds of minutes of recording time on its internal hard drive. Its ability to slice and dice audio files is as good as a powerful computer, but unlike a computer it hardly ever crashes. To top it off, it supports a CD writer to master your own music right from the box. Extremely intuitive, multiple digital and analogue inputs/outputs, and fully loaded at $3500, this is the kind of box that people can assemble finished or near finished products on a budget.

MP3

The first format to widely distribute music not invented by the music/recording industry. As with VHS videotape, the sound quality is not audiophile, but its ease in transmission and copying make it a great format for its time, just as the cassette was seen to challenge the profitability of the music industry in the early ‘80s. File-swapping in this fashion acclimatises even the moderate music fan to audio file manipulation. MP3 may not be a file format that stands the test of time — different levels of internet access and different customer demands will ultimately dictate what that format will be — but it is the first widely shared format of its type.