We live in the golden age of audio production. Things that were once the exclusive domain of the commercial recording facility are now easily – even freely – obtained. A vast source of knowledge is readily available to anyone who takes the trouble to seek it out, and is often taught personally by well-known practitioners of the craft.
Even more amazing, we can now create, record, mix and master fully professional productions without ever leaving the comfort of our homes, all thanks to the humble DAWs that reside in our desktops, tablets and even – gasp – our phones. .
For us ancients, it was once the stuff of science fiction. We dreamed of such a future, but we were never really convinced that it would happen in our lifetime. Yet it is here, and we are graciously impressed by the countless musical miracles within our immediate reach.
And yet, looking back, we can’t help but feel a nostalgic sense of loss. At the risk of grumbling – and with tongue close to cheek – we’ve compiled a brief and incomplete list of the minor sacrifices that have been made on the way to the artistic freedoms we enjoy today. Maybe you’ve been around long enough to have a few potential entries, and we encourage you to join the discussion.
And when we’re done complaining about how easily these modern kids get by with their high-quality contraptions, we’ll head over to the retired producers’ house and let them make the loud racket they call music! Bah !
1. Everything was state of the art
Today’s musicians and engineers seem totally obsessed with the past. The DAW and its ability to host plugins has created a voracious appetite in its users for inexpensive virtual recreations of classic gear pretending (and often failing) to look like the real thing.
The fact is, however, that much of this old gear was supposed to be state of the art when it was released and designed to offer something new. Musicians and engineers of yore were always on the hunt for the next big thing and were presented with a steady stream of exciting products that promised to deliver just that. Most failed, but damn it was really exciting to try them!
2. Play a song to the end
Tell the truth: when was the last time you nailed an entire track in one take? Shit, when was the last time you even tried?
Modern DAWs offer so much power and flexibility when it comes to arranging and rearranging that they can potentially foster laziness and complacency. Why sing the chorus three or four times when you can just cut and paste the first one over the whole song? In fact, why bother to get it right even once when you can just call Melodyne and put the inconvenient thing in pitch and time?
So many shortcuts to perfection are, in fact, the fast track to sterile, lifeless music. If we can’t bother to play the chorus three times, why should the listener bother to listen beyond the second verse?
3. Music stores
Even as we write this, another mom n’ pop music gear store in our hometown has announced its imminent closure. Granted, he only carried the smallest selection of gear, but if you needed a cable, drum stick, or guitar string quickly, you could walk in and grab one without having to wait. let the big brown delivery truck rush to your door.
Yes, online merchants offer a huge selection and competitive prices that we couldn’t imagine decades ago, but there’s a lot to be said for the local music store. Without one, there’s no opportunity to try out a physical instrument or controller to see if it really meets your needs.
And nothing beats the music store as a place to hang out with other musicians – today’s anonymous alternatives are just too impersonal.
4. MIDI synchronization
What happened to MIDI timing? Some of our earliest computer compositions were created on an Atari 1040ST running C-Lab’s Creator (which would evolve into Logic over the next three decades). We had a Casio CZ-101, a Roland Alpha Juno, a Yamaha RX7 drum machine and a QX21 sequencer. And let us tell you: the MIDI synchronization on this platform was tight.
So why, 30 years later, are producers forced to jump through hoops to get a jitter-free MIDI signal? Sure, you can use third-party solutions like Innerclock’s Sync Gen II Pro, but why should you? A lot of research and development goes into creating recording software and interfaces with ultra-precise clock signals, so why shouldn’t we expect the same precision from MIDI?
5. Use our ears
One of the biggest differences between computer production and tracks recorded in the pre-DAW studio is that we can now see the music.
In the past, the only indicator of time was the ticking counter and the music itself. Musicians (or machines) dictated the tempo, and if you wanted to know where the stab was at bar 41, you had to count and – heaven forbid – listen. The music wasn’t represented as multicolored chunks, and we certainly couldn’t see our waveforms spread out on a screen.
As convenient as such visualization can be, it also allows us to mix and even compose with our eyes instead of our ears, still able to see what’s coming rather than experience it as the end listener would. It can facilitate obsessive fussiness and overwork that has absolutely nothing to do with the sound of a song.
6. Real mixing – in real time!
An old-school engineer we know well considers automation and recall the most important advancement in modern recording – and it’s hard to argue, especially if you’ve ever felt the abysmal angst of blowing a magical mix just as the song was nearing its end. Yet entire genres of music have sprung up around mixing as a live, transient performance that is of equal importance to the music recorded on the tracks.
There is something to be said for the real-time interaction between the engineer and the console. Again, it’s about hearing without seeing; and more than that, it’s about the fun and inspiration that can come from working without the safety net of total recall.
7. The smell of iron oxide in the morning
OK, cutting and slicing edits on precious reels of tape might have been a nerve-wracking process (especially if you were bringing a razor to someone else’s recording), but working with tape had some positive benefits as well, in particular this magnificent, saturated and slightly compressed sound when the levels slammed.
It was also easy to remove some really cool effects – like a backwards guitar track, or a slower speed, for spooky interludes. Yes, we can do that stuff in our computers, but it was so much more adventurous when we were using tape.
8. The “Holy shit!” postman
Anyone with even a modest pre-DAW project or home studio has witnessed the wide-eyed, slack expressions of visitors as they first applauded racks full of gear and a mixing console adorned with faders, of knobs and buttons – invariably followed by a stammering “do you really know what all those knobs and buttons do?” Heck, if you had any sense, you felt it yourself every day walking into your bedroom.
A hard drive full of zeros and ones hardly makes the same impression, no matter how elegantly arranged those zeros and ones are.
In the eyes of visitors and/or patrons, we were frightening wizards – masters of the mysterious and esoteric arts and keepers of the most precious secrets of audio recording and production. In answer to the previously quoted question, why yes, we actually knew what all those knobs and buttons did – and some even got paid to exercise that hard-earned knowledge.
Those who knew how to do it well were called upon time and time again by musicians who appreciated a good engineer who could get the most out of a performance. Back then, musicians could just focus on becoming better musicians, while engineers could focus on making sure their art was properly documented and beautifully framed.
It’s pretty obvious why this might make our list of things we don’t miss (watch out for that one soon…), but for those of us who were there, the limitations were as useful as they were. a barrier.
Today’s desktop computer producer is faced with a bewildering array of choices at every stage of the production process. In the pre-DAW era, most of us had to make do with a limited number of instruments, effects, channels, and tracks. Yet these limitations forced us to exercise our creativity, making the most of what we had.