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The Evolution of Home Recording
By Brian Marine - 03/21/2002 - 01:14 PM EST

To begin, let me say that first and foremost … I’m a songwriter. Even though I’ve never actually had a song published (or even had one performed by anyone but me), and even though it’s really only a “serious hobby”, I’ve spent a large portion of the free time in my life writing, arranging and recording my own songs. I do it because I love the process; I really enjoy creating something from nothing, and writing songs that I can call my own.

Since there are many people on Jodi’s wonderful Muse’s Muse web site that are experts at the songwriting process and business, my column will focus on the recording end of things. This is an area that can be somewhat neglected by some, and misunderstood by others. But it is a very important one. Why? Because as an old saying I used to hear years ago when I worked as a recording engineer went, “You’re only as good as your last tape copy”. Meaning that if someone invested thousands and thousands of dollars in state-of the-art recording studio time and used the best engineers, and hired world class musicians to play, and hired the best producers & arrangers … if they did all of that, and the final tape copy that was sent to the record label executive had hiss & dropouts; well then it was all for nothing. The same thing applies to you today; regardless of what equipment you have or want to buy to record your songs with, it’s the final product (CD, MP3 file, etc.) that counts … and these days, that can be very important to your success.

The days of the piano/vocal demo are over

I remember about ten years ago picking up a book on the craft of songwriting and at one point some so-called expert saying “Don’t bother spending a lot of time and money producing or arranging your demos … a good song is a good song; the publisher or A&R person can hear that from a basic demo guitar or piano/vocal demo”. As we all know, the days of the guitar or piano/vocal demo on a cassette are over. For me, they were never actually even an option. As far back as I can remember, when I wrote a song, I heard an arrangement or production in my head, and I have always strived (and often struggled) with getting that sound in my head “down on tape".

A songwriter's problem has always been that you either had to spend lots of money on studio time (that most struggling musicians and songwriters never had), or you would have to invest in equipment to record your songs at home. And in the past thirty years or so, those home recording options have gone from being really limited and somewhat primitive, to amazingly sophisticated and affordable. Let’s look at a brief history of home recording.

In the beginning, there were only two

I consider 1963 to be the beginning of the home recording era, because it was that year that both the Beatles and the Beach Boys first released records, and revolutionized music forever. Kids who had spent their free time trading baseball cards and who didn’t know the difference between song hook and fish hook began playing guitars and starting bands. And since our idols (Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson) wrote their own songs, we all wanted too as well.

But back then, other than portable cassette recorders, there wasn’t much in the way of “home recording gear”. There were two track reel-to-reel tape decks from companies like Ampex, Revox and Tandberg. But these were pretty darn expensive, and the best one could hope for was a machine with “sound-on-sound” which allowed you to record a track on one side and then “bounce” it over to the other track while recording something else. And of course, it wasn’t long before tape hiss & loss of high frequencies due to bouncing tracks turned your recording into a mushy mess.

Then in the early ‘70s Teac came out with the 3340s, a 4-track reel-to-reel tape machine that allowed you to record and overdub 4 separate tracks of music on ¼ inch tape. To anyone who had been used to bouncing 2 tracks from machine to machine, or just settling for a live stereo cassette recording of their music, this was a God-send. Heck, if the Beatles could record “Sergeant Pepper” on a 4-track, that was good enough for me. And for many years it was.

Eight is enough (or is it?)

But, after a while, 4 just wasn’t enough … we wanted more tracks. So in the Eighties, Tascam (the “pro” division of Teac) developed an 8-track machine which used ½ inch tape, followed by a 16-track machine made by Fostex that required 1 inch tape. These were all good machines (albeit expensive), and many smaller commercial studios used the. But the main problem for the poor songwriter was that, in order to get the best sound quality, they really needed to run at 15 ips, and the tape that had to be used became very expensive. Then, in the late Eighties, Tascam figured out a way to put 8 tracks on a standard chrome cassette! Ah ha … now they were really on to something! Cassettes were cheap, and you could buy them almost anywhere. These machines were reasonably priced and the quality was pretty good thanks to the Dolby and dbx noise reduction systems they used to eliminate tape hiss.

Eventually multi-track cassette recorders were developed by Tascam and Fostex that also included built-in mixers. These were the first “all-in-one” studio boxes for home recording. As the prices of these products continued to drop, and as they became easier to use, more and more people were recording their music at home than ever before.

The digital revolution arrives

Then in the early Nineties, another product revolutionized the home recording studio; the Alesis ADAT. This was the world’s first affordable digital tape recorder and allowed for 8 tracks to be recorded digitally on to a VHS video tape. Digital recording eliminated the main problems inherent in analog tape; mainly tape noise and loss of high frequency response. Another cool feature was that you could record tracks on your ADAT, and then bring or send the tape to another musician, and they could record parts on their ADAT as well. These features helped make the ADAT the single largest selling item in pro audio history.

But this new “digital revolution” also introduced new concerns and technical issues such as “dithering”, “sample rate conversion” and “bit depth”. So the trade-off began … our recordings were going to get better, but the complications were going to increase as well. Also, earlier digital recordings seemed to lack the “warmth” that their analog predecessors had, so many of us found ourselves looking for old tube equipment to add that “analog sound” back to the digital recordings.

Also in the early Nineties, as personal computers became faster and cheaper (and were finding their way into more and more of our homes), manufacturers were developing high quality audio sound cards and multi-track recording & editing software which would allow us to use our PC or Mac for more than just word processing and spreadsheets; they became Digital Audio Workstations (or DAW’s). Companies like Midiman, Cakewalk, and Steinberg created products that only cost a few hundred dollars, but that would allow me to make a better quality 24-track recording in my bedroom than I was able to make in a top NYC recording studio using $500,000 worth of equipment only 15 years earlier!

And of course, in the mid-Nineties, the World Wide Web became a new way for songwriters and artists to have their music heard by an audience they previously could never have dreamed of, and so even more people began investing in the home recording products so they could create their own CDs and MP3 files for sale or distribution on their web sites.

Today there is an incredible array of amazing digital audio product choices for home recording. But choosing which ones to invest in, and then using those products properly, can be a somewhat daunting and complicated process. So in future columns I will explore many of these areas and offer some information and advice that I hope will help narrow the choices and make the process a little easier. Because as far as the home studio goes … “it looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”!


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