When I started as a recording engineer in the 1990s, analogue audio was already on the verge of being replaced by digital technology and a Hamburg based programmer named Charlie Steinberg was just about to break through with his (later patented) Virtual Studio Technology (VST). The idea of putting everything that used to live in racks and machine rooms into the computer sounded like a great idea. We anticipated every single piece of development news, as we were fed up cutting tape, adjusting the machines, living with breaking external devices and not being able to quickly recall settings.
When Charlie started his business, he wanted to use computers for sequencing MIDI. Today, Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) also record audio, having taken over the recording studio industry. Except for a handful of places, driven by idealists, there is almost no professional facility in the world that doesn´t use some kind of a program to compose, record, mix and master what we hear on the radio or on Spotify. You rarely find tape machines any more, but you can find plugins emulating them and a revival of vintage gear is at full swing.
So, what happened and did it actually make anything better? Essentially, first of all sine waves became ones and zeroes and turned every device into a piece of software. In the beginning, though, the sound quality was average and the amount of processing was limited. When computers started handling audio recordings in the early 90s, they were essentially tape machines which didn´t sound good. But today that´s a very different story. Processors have become powerful enough to turn an average laptop into a fully fledged music production machine. Converters sound decent and gear has become much cheaper. I love the convenience of total recall, precise automation and the opportunity to add as many effects as I want. And I love that I can mix an album without spending a million dollars on a 96-channel mixing desk and reels!
But the question remains... did it really make things - especially productions - any better?
Let´s look at music production reality. A classic day in a studio still starts with coffee. But does it start in the studio at all? Budgets are lower and I know lots of engineers who are doing edits and rough mixes at home or on the train, rather than going to the studio and spending money on energy. Instead of switching on the console two hours ahead to let it warm up (unless you didn´t switch it off the day before), as we did in the past, you now switch on a computer and click the DAW icon on the screen. And there is a ton of DAWs out there to pick from - which makes compatibility an issue. Just like back in the days when you turned up with a two-inch 24 track tape and the guys in the other studio had a 16 track 1-inch facility. Or when your total recall data was stored on a floppy disk while another studio didn´t have a recallable desk at all...
But nowadays the possibilities are almost endless and, while dozens of manufacturers offer DAWs, you can find a plethora of plugins, effects and virtual instruments to play with... and the best thing is: it doesn´t cost a fortune. There is something affordable for everybody - whether you want to record rock music or become the next rising start in dubstep. And that´s one of the most significant differences between music recording in the 1980s and today: It has become something for everybody. While you could only record music as a professional (or with the help of rich parents!), back in the glorious old studio days, it has become a massive industry today. That´s a great thing, because many more people get the chance to decently record and publish their own art. Especially in a time where digital audio distribution has become the biggest market in music.
But it´s also a difficult thing, because the new digital world has made lots of studios redundant. I´ve seen three big companies die in my hometown of Hamburg over the last ten years - and we are talking legendary places. While a day in a big studio would easily cost the same as buying most of the latest DAWs of your choice, you can now build your own studio and record your own projects at home or at your rehearsal space for a fraction of the price of a ‘real’ production.
But is it the same? Well that´s a clear ‘no’. Everybody who ever attended a recording session in a real studio knows about the magic surrounding these places. A band setting up their gear in a live room to record, the engineer preparing microphones, soundchecks… now that´s a magical experience.. Everybody who worked on a big console using analogue outboard gear knows about the happy accidents that occur when something gets patched in the wrong way or when an automation path is not played spot on. Trying to mix with a mouse is not the same, although there are many people out there mastering the art of ‘mousing’, especially amongst the new generation of engineers. Some who have never touched a real fader can put out amazing pieces of art. It´s almost scary what you can do at home.
The new world is a great opportunity for creatives and musicians. Still, I see people coming back to studios because they realise that a real drummer in a great room will still beat every virtual musician. At the end of the day it´s all about attentiveness and attention to detail - as always.