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.