Professional recording studios mostly upgraded to computer controlled mixing consoles such as the Solid State Logic SL4000 (or similar consoles by Neve or other manufacturers), offering high end compressors and parametric EQs on each of their 32 or more channels. Computer controlled consoles also allowed to automate the mix, initially using VCA automation, and by offering motorized faders later on. The SL4000 started at 32 channels with a price tag of about $250,000, but recording studios could easily afford such expensive gear as the business was going really, really well, and recording budgets were quite high.
The use of 2” tape machines allowed to record 23 tracks of music (24 tracks minus one for the sync timecode), using two machines even allowed using up to 46 tracks. Such tape machines usually included high end noise reduction (the professional Dolby A, not the cheap Dolby B / C consumer version), and they were quite expensive – you had to pay about $100,000 for a good 2” tape recorder in fact.
When listening to 1980s music today, we often notice that it feels cold and cheap, which is the result of both style changes and technological advances of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But technology itself was not the problem, it was the way technology was being used.
In the 80s, everything new was embraced and experimented with – which is basically not a bad thing, but there was a lot of technology that seemed to be cool back at the time, while it really was only garbage. Just think of all of those cheap synth sounds and electronic drums that make lots of 80s songs sound so horrible. Most of the 1980s chart music was recorded and mixed on SL4000 consoles, which were also partly responsible for the 80s sound, thanks to their stereo bus compressor and their side chaining features on all channels. While the SL4000 is an awesome console that still has a cult following today, the way it was being used in the 1980s led to a highly sterile sound that doesn’t sound warm at all, which makes the music sound very different from most of the music recorded in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s there was a trend to produce “perfectly clean” records, but those records then often also lacked soul. From today’s perspective, a lot of 50s, 60s, and 70s records actually sound a lot better than most music from the 1980s.
Synthesizers, samplers, and MIDI became omnipresent in professional studios, and the Atari ST and the Apple Macintosh made MIDI popular in home studios too. The ST even had a built-in MIDI interface, which made it very popular among musicians. First sequencers were developed for the ST and Mac platforms, and those programs would later become the professional DAWs we all use today. Cubase and Logic were originally applications developed for the Atari ST platform in the mid and late 1980s, while Pro Tools was developed for the Apple Macintosh around the same time.
On the consumer side, vinyl remained the number one medium in the early 1980s, although the music cassette became a lot more important as new portable players became popular. Ghetto blasters (aka “boomboxes”) had been available since the mid 1970s, the Sony Walkman had been introduced in 1979, and radios featuring cassette players becoming standard in cars. All of this may also explain the growing popularity of the MC.
Music piracy remained popular too, and people continued the 1970s trend of copying LPs and recording songs from the radio.
The Compact Disc (aka “CD”) was introduced in 1982, and by the end of the 1980s both CDs and MCs had almost completely replaced vinyl records. The CD was much more robust than vinyl discs, it was much smaller, and it seemed to be a future-safe investment so that many people also started to replace their beloved vinyl collections by the new medium. This led to a boost of album sales, as people started to spend more and more money on music, which covered up the emerging quality problems of the industry.
By the end of the 1980s, the industry was making money like crazy selling a low quality product, and nobody was aware of the fact that the system was soon about to collapse.
But let’s start with a short review of all of the good or even great music that was released in that decade.