A brief and useful (but by no means comprehensive) look at some key developments along the path to modern desktop recording
January 11, 2017, by Bruce A. Miller
Once upon a time, there was no recorded music.
To hear music you needed to go to a live performance. Eventually sheet music was printed and available to buy. If you liked the song, you bought the sheet music … if you were lucky enough to have an instrument and could play you could actually hear the song.
The piano (or other musical instrument) was an important part of home entertainment.
In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison developed the idea of moving a piece of tin foil under a needle that was attached to something like a stretched out balloon. When he spoke into the piece of balloon, the attached needle vibrated and those vibrations were stored in the sheet of tin that he moved under the needle. He invented the Phonograph and in 1887 formed the first record label, selling records that were cylinders with sound scratched along the outside, played on a hand-cranked device.
Emile Berliner (who had a hand in the invention of the microphone) patented a flat disk system that was better than the tube, called the Gramophone. His system eventually incorporated a spinning flat disk with sound scratched in a spiral played back on systems with needles connected to stretched-balloon type membranes that were themselves connected to large open flaring horns (like a tuba) to help the sound waves radiate out in a single direction with extra resonance from the horn itself. The system was crank-wound, and elaborate springs and gears would then spin the disc at a constant speed.
Eventually, sound was being captured by microphones and stored magnetically on steel wire magnetic recorders, which used spools of wire that would follow a path from a “supply” spool to a “take up” spool, passing a record head that stored the magnetic sounds onto the wire and a play head that could read the magnetic signals back from the wire. This was accomplished using electro-magnetic transducers rather than early technologies that utilized physical transfer of sound energy.
Steel wire recorders were developed using technology that was first proposed in the late 1870s, and were used at times to send secret messages (for example, in a shipment of piano wire).
In the 1950s, oxide-based magnetic tape replace steel wire as the material to store magnetic signals onto. Tape used magnetically sensitive particles glued to a wide piece of plastic, which allowed for more focused and controllable recording and eventually the ability to record multiple bands (tracks) rather than a single sound.
Magnetic tape recorders utilized many of the same features as steel wire recorders, including supply reel, take-up reel, record head, playback head, and tape path.
Magnetic tape can be saturated, which means that if the tape is overloaded it will compress the sound. Magnetic tape has a “hiss” on playback. Different methods used to reduce the noise include dbx and Dolby, which crank up the hiss while recording and then drop it back down when playing back (reducing the tape hiss along with the “cranked” hiss). “Single-ended noise reduction” devices do not change the recorded sound, but rather will gate the high frequencies on playback.
Les Paul (yes, the Les Paul) created a magnetic tape recorder with a sync head (a record head with limited playback abilities). This was the invention of sound on sound recording. Previously, if you were listening back to something that was playing back and recorded something new, the new would not be at the same physical point along the tape because the playback head and the record head were in two different physical locations. The sync head meant that you could listen back to sound and record new sounds at exactly the same point along the tape.
Suddenly, we have multi-track recording, allowing people to record up to eight different tracks individually and listen to the tracks on newly developed equipment called mixers that controlled the volume of the tracks both going into and out of the machine, and also mixed those sounds together at those controlled volumes.
Suddenly, you could re-perform one part on one instrument rather than be forced to re-perform the entire song with all the musicians. You could even erase and replace small parts of individual tracks rather than have to re-do everything, as long as the sounds were separated enough when you recorded them that each track contained only the sound of one instrument. Replacing small parts involved going into and out of record at specific times, which was called punching in and punching out.
Isolating the instruments, even if it was just using a separate microphone for everyone rather than a single common microphone, had other benefits. By raising or lowering the volume of the microphones it was possible to either enhance or in some cases create dynamic interaction between the instruments.
Tom Dowd used this possibility to further the expressive nature of the music he was recording and mixing, and was the first modern recording engineer.
Engineers used to be only technicians who told musicians and producers what they could not do in order to make sure that records had usable grooves that would allow a needle to properly play without skipping or jumping. There were no moving mics, no riding levels while recording, nothing but documenting whatever happened to happen in the room with the microphones in it.
When a producer was forced to use Tom Dowd because his usual engineer was booked, he was able to make more expressive music as a result of having an engineer that would manipulate the equipment as required by the music, rather than change the music to fit the equipment limitations. This was the beginning of Tom using technology to enhance the creativity of the music he was working on.
He isolated instruments for better control later. He pioneered the fader console, with devices to control sound such as EQs to change tone or limiters to control volume built into the console channels. He was a musician as well as a tech, so everything he did served the music. He was also a nuclear physicist involved in the development of the atomic bomb when he was young (in fact since the work he did was top secret and could not be discussed in schools or industry he did not pursue a physics career after the army as planned but went back into music).
Tom built relationships with the people he worked with, overcoming the typical expectation that an engineer was just a technician without creativity. He was able to do this in different musical styles, and he became instrumental in very important music with pivotal artists throughout the years.
Tom Dowd brought out the best out of the people, the songs, and the sounds.
Overdubbing means adding new parts to pre-recorded ones. This meant that it was no longer necessary for all musicians to play at the same time. A band could record one day and the singer could record the next day. Since the singer was now on a separate track, the singer could continue to re-perform the song and re-record the track until they were satisfied with their performance.
Now that recordings were an artificial combination of sounds rather than capturing a natural music occurrence, you had to mix the sounds together to simulate either a natural sound environment or even to create a new sound environment. Normal dynamics that would take place between people performing music together had to be simulated, because now the people were performing at different times, or even in different locations.
Once music was stored on tape, people started to edit, which means to cut it up and move whole sections or individual parts around. Mono tapes were edited long before multi-tracks, but with multi-track recording it became possible for new tracks to be either newly recorded or flown (played from another tape machine) from other performances.
Things moved on fairly the same for a while, recording and overdubbing microphones and sound generating instruments onto individual tracks of magnetic tape recorders and then mixing those tracks through the separate channels of a mixing board into a cohesive combined sound.
Then came digital.
Digital tape recorders (DTRs) first looked and operated like analog magnetic tape recorders, with a supply reel, tape path, take-up reel, etc. Since DTRs recorded digital information onto the tape rather than actual magnetic signals it was only a matter of time before computer technology allowed you to record without the tape, directly to a computer hard drive.
Pro Tools was the first vitual digital tape recorder (meaning it was tapeless) that existed completely within a computer. Early Pro Tools was very limited in quality and capabilities, but with the introduction of non-destructive editing, music production was changed forever.
Now music could be edited with a click of a mouse instead of a flick of a razor blade. And you now have undo. That’s right, undo in an industry that had always involved permanent decisions with physical tape and razors rather than backed up computer files.
Once digital audio was in a computer rather than a tape machine, it was easy to start to manipulate it. Moving, quantizing, replacing and harmonizing sounds became as easy as clicking on a button. Auto-Tune (a program that fixes out-of-tune vocals) is responsible for many of the “in tune” vocals heard today. Before harmonizers and Auto-Tune, you actually had to be able to sing in order to be a singer. Now you only need to look and dance well and the music part can be fixed automatically. Click.
Original Pro Tools systems cost tens of thousands of dollars. These days you can get much more powerful systems that actually work well in home computers for hundreds.
Now everyone with a home computer is an artist/musician/producer/engineer. The age of the “prosumer” is here.
Bruce A. Miller is an acclaimed recording engineer who operates an independent recording studio and the BAM Audio School website.