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How recording technology changed music production

Back in the Golden Age Of Popular Music, it was not yet possible to record an album offering acceptable sound quality at home. Albums recorded in smaller studios sounded horrible most of the time, which means that most artists had to book one of the bigger studios, or one that was run by some renowned or famous engineer.

Music production in the early days

The most successful artists were able to book their studio for a bunch of weeks or even months, while many less known artists only had enough budget to get about 3 or 4 weeks.

Metallica even spent an entire year in the studio working on their highly successful fifth album (Metallica, the so-called Black Album, released in 1991), and most successful artists spent at least one or even several months in the studio when recording a high-profile album.

Amateur bands that were not supported by any record company could usually only chose between a few weeks in a really bad amateur studio or a couple of days in a big professional one. Both options usually led to low-end results, and in the end, it was all just a big waste of money.

It was almost impossible to record a good sounding album as an amateur artist back then — and this also allowed record companies to act as a filter, as only artists supported by a bigger label were able to release an album that would kick ass.

And even many professional artists were not able to record a great sounding record, simply because the required recording technology was either not available, or not affordable.

NONETHELESS, SOME OF THOSE RECORDS BECAME CLASSICS, AND SOME OF THEM STILL SELL BETTER NOWADAYS THAN MOST OF TODAY’S CHART POP ALBUMS, WHICH AGAIN PROVES THAT SOUND QUALITY ALONE SEEMS NOT TO BE THE NUMBER ONE SALES ARGUMENT.

Analog recording, using tape machines

The recording technology was analog, and the number of tape tracks and mixing console channels increased with each and every decade.

Generally it was a simple mono or stereo tape in the 1950s (although Les Paul had already developed an 8-track recorder back then), followed by 4, 8 or 16 tracks in the 60s, and finally 16 or 24 tracks in the 70s.

Big tape machines offering 24 tracks on 2-inch tape became standard in bigger studios in the 1970s, those allowed to record 23 audio tracks while one track was often used to sync the machines — either with a computer controlled mixing console, and/or with additional tape recorders or synths later on.

In the late 1970s and in the 1980s, top acts could either afford recording using one (23 tracks) or two (46 tracks) tape machines. In 1982 American rock band Toto synchronized three tape machines, resulting in a 3 x 23 = 69 track set up — a quite uncommon practice used by only a very small number of artists. The resulting album Toto IV became one of the most successful albums of the 1980s by the way, featuring the hit singles Rosanna and Africa, and selling more than 12 million units worldwide (which is still less than some of today’s top albums by the way, if you remember the numbers from the previous chapters).

Some artists doing experimental stuff needed 46 tracks, but the most common solution was to record an album using only 23 tracks (or 24, if no sync was required).

Digital recording, using computers and DAWs

In the 1990s, the first computer-based recording systems that really worked became popular, usually offering 8 or more additional tracks. In the studio, those computers were then synchronized with tape recorders and mixing consoles.

In the 2000s such systems became more affordable, and professional DAWs running on common computer hardware finally allowed to exponentially increase the number of recordable tracks, as CPUs became much faster while hard drives not only became faster but also offered a lot more capacity.

Today any high-end PC can easily handle more tracks than the biggest analog recording studios in the 20th century, and a $1,000 PC can emulate studio hardware that still cost $1,000,000 about 20 years ago. That’s quite a crazy evolution by the way.

If you take into account all of the available virtual instruments and plug-ins (EQs, compressors, and so on), then many of today’s amateur musicians have bigger setups at home than the largest studios ever had during the Golden Age Of Popular Music.

This does not mean that those virtual effects will offer the same quality than high-end tube equipment of course, but you’ll be able to place those effects on each and every channel and bus, while even the biggest high-end studios only had limited outboard gear.

If you take a look at the Top 500 of the Greatest Albums Of All Times, then you’ll notice that most of them have been recorded using 23 tracks or less, however. The rest mostly used 46 tracks, and very few used more than that.

It’s highly probable that your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, that’s your recording software) is topping this, no matter how cheap it was.

Is digital recording actually better than a analog recording?

SO IN THEORY, THIS WOULD MEAN THAT NOWADAYS EVERY SINGLE AMATEUR SHOULD BE ABLE TO PRODUCE BETTER RECORDS THAN PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS IN THE GOLDEN AGE.

But this is not the case, it’s even quite the opposite — even today’s greatest stars don’t manage to match the overall quality of those old records, despite the fact that they have a hundred times more options and features than any previous generation of artists at home, in the project studio, or in a fully featured pro studio.

EVERYONE NOW HAS ACCESS TO BETTER RECORDING TECHNOLOGY THAN THE MASTERS OF THE PAST, NEVERTHELESS MOST OF TODAY’S RECORDS SUCK.

So what’s wrong with today’s music production techniques?

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