From Analog Tape To Solid State Drive
From Analog Tape To Solid State Drive
Never before in history was it as easy and affordable to record and produce music. With the cost of professional DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) having dropped dramatically over the last decade, it has inspired countless musicians to express their creativity and allowed them the possibility to make music without the need of a costly physical recording studio.
The Golden Era
Back in the golden era of recording studios when everything was analog, the circumstances in which you could achieve professional recording results were clear. You needed a recording studio with a good analog mixing console, an engineer, a tape machine, a tape op and good musicians, as countless retakes and editing would only increase the cost of the studio hire. All the above came with a hefty price tag and that’s not even mentioning microphones, outboard gear, and so on.
Today, pretty much anyone with a PC, a decent audio interface and a DAW, such as Logic, Cubase or Protools, can achieve great results. But there was a time at the beginning of the digital era where things weren’t quite as clear cut. Although many studios embraced the digital age and the promise of new possibilities, it would take many more years for it to essentially replace the tape machine and other analog equipment.
First Move To Digital
The first technology to ‘have a go’ at replacing our old beloved analog tape machines was the digital tape, essentially a reel-to-reel, spinning a digital tape (see image). The revolutionary thing was that you could record up to 32 channels, whereas most analog options only gave you 16 or 24 channels. The downside was arguably the sound quality. It only recorded in 16bit and there was no option to edit the audio in any way. On top of that it was an expensive piece of kit that not all recording studios could afford. For most musicians the trusted 4 track tape recorder was still the only way to get their ideas down for eternity (or until the magnetism of the tape has worn off, whichever came first).
The Rise Of The Home Studio
The next chapter of digital recording was dictated by the Alexis Digital Audio Tape or ADAT. The ADAT tape was nothing other than a generic Super VHS tape (for those of you old enough to remember) and it allowed you to record 8 channels at 16bit and up to 48Khz. The revolutionary thing about ADAT was that you could synchronise up to 16 ADAT machines together with sample accurate timing, giving you a total of 128 tracks!
This was a breakthrough for music production and the ADAT contributed greatly to the rise of project and home studios in the 1990s. Now that decent recording equipment was much more affordable, home studios were booming.
Moving towards PC
Before it became the norm to run a DAW as a piece of software on your personal computer (software DAW), the so called ‘integrated DAW’ which appeared on the market in the 70’s gave you a standalone solution. It consisted of a mixing console, a control surface, audio converters and a hard drive all in one device. The problems was that integrated DAWs faced many limitations at that time, such as the high price of storage and the vastly slower processing and disk speeds.
With the rise of the PC things started to change. Already in 1984 Digidesign (today Avid) released ‘Sound Designer’ for Mac. This was one of the very first software DAWs which later evolved into ProTools. However, the CPU performance of PCs in those days didn’t allow work on bigger projects with many tracks or effects.
Up until the 90s computers in studios were mostly used as midi sequencers but were far from having the power or storage capacity to handle multitrack audio recording.
The Blue Screen Of Death
The available operating systems such as Windows 95 or Mac OS 7 were less than reliable and the terrifying ‘blue screen of death’ was an almost daily occurrence when pushing the capabilities of your PC to it’s limits.
Emagic’s Logic (or Notator as it was called when it was a midi sequencer, see image) was one of the most popular software DAWs in the mid 90s when it introduced audio capabilities into its software.
For a while it seemed that the hardware manufacturers had some catching up to do as software offered possibilities which were limited by slow CPUs and hard drives. Also in terms of audio playback there were great limitations, especially once you started using software plugins.
I recall a situation where I had to mix a song which had around 24 tracks. In order to be able to play all these channels simultaneously I had to go round to my mate’s house and we synchronised 2 computers via midi to spread the processing power over 2 machines. We then still had to bounce lots of tracks and effects rather than running them in real time in order to make it all work. Over time, as computer processors have become much more powerful it opened up new possibilities and creativity is no longer stifled by error messages. I clearly remember my amazement when I first managed to recorded 8 microphone channels simultaneously without glitches, something that even the cheapest laptop can do today.
Today we take flawless hardware performance for granted. With Solid State hard drives and super fast CPUs there’s hardly any limit to what can be done with a decent PC or laptop. Even with an ‘off the shelf’ iMac you can run full orchestral productions with plugins and usually don’t have to worry about having any glitches. DAWs cost a fraction of what we used to pay for them only 10 years ago and now offer a staggering, sometimes overwhelming amount of plugins, audio instruments, samples & loops.
There are and always will be heated discussions about digital vs analog in recording studios. Regardless of where you stand in this debate, the common and most important factors in both approaches are still the same: Capturing a good performance and elevating it with a great mix. Technology has come such a long way since the first recording studios, and it’s up to us to now embrace what we now have at our fingertips to create music.analog tape, computer recording, daw, digital recording, hard drive