The tech behind the music

In addition to developing software, I've also been recording music since my late teens. The idea of being able to create entire recorded songs from scratch, similar to the ones I heard on finished albums from my favourite bands, has always fascinated me. In the 18 years that I’ve spent getting better at this, new technology has also revolutionized the way it’s done. While many principles remain the same, we are able to do things with audio that we couldn’t even imagine when I started. This not only makes recording and mixing more efficient and accessible — it also opens up new creative possibilities. In this post, I want to concentrate on how the state of the art has evolved since the introduction of digital audio and virtualization of analogue gear.

In the beginning…

tascamI started with a four-track recorder system called the TASCAM 414, which was released around 1997. At the time, most consumer level computers still weren't considered fast enough to handle multitrack audio. The TASCAM used regular cassette tapes and had two sides, with a left and right signal on each side, giving you four mono tracks. If you filled up the four tracks and wanted more, you had to record on a separate cassette deck, and then record back onto the TASCAM. Obviously, if you had two four-track recorders, you could skip a step… but these things were around $500 a pop, so an amateur generally did what he could with just the one. This convoluted process gave you a whole two extra tracks to record onto! You also lost a bit of signal quality, and if you wanted to go back and change something from the first four tracks, you were out of luck (unless you had computer-like timing and could record over the exact same spot as your initial stereo mixdown).

Major studios had slightly more refined methods:

They were still time consuming (yes, the person in the video really is physically marking and cutting the magnetic tape and taping it back together). This was a standard editing procedure up until at least the early 1990s. My favourite example of this system is shown in Metallica’s “A Year and a Half in the Life Of: Part 1” documentary, where they are doing this on the drums for their 5th album (released in 1991).

Enter the digital age

My main DAW (digital audio workstation) software is Logic Pro. Pretty much anything I say about it should translate to any of the other major players, like Cubase or ProTools. One of its many features allows you to composit any number of audio tracks to one track, taking the best from each. If you were recording a vocalist, you might get them to sing the same part four times and then use pieces from each take to create one absolutely stellar performance. Here’s an example of using it to get the best out of several guitar takes: 

This idea of "comping" by simply highlighting sections of several tracks is considered the most basic of editing abilities. In most modern DAWs, you can now stretch and reposition pieces of audio, as well as even change the pitch of individual notes.

Editing is one aspect of putting together an audio composition, but the other area where technology has completely changed the game is the introduction of plugins.

Creating the right compressor "sound"

Let's talk about compressors. These are really important for creating professional sounding recordings. Their most basic function is to decrease the dynamic range of a signal. In other words, they make loud stuff quieter while leaving audio that is below a certain level alone. Here’s a great overview of the concepts:

They're especially important for ensuring that the vocals are heard over the instruments on a song. This is done using a variety of methods, and at some point, the differences will become the "sound" of the compressor.

One of the most popular compressors is the UA 1176 (pictured). If you want one, you can pick it up for around $2,000. UA 1176This will give you the awesomeness of a great compressor on a single track of audio (or you could route a bunch of audio tracks through one track and compress them together). If you wanted to put one on 10 separate tracks, you'd need $20,000 worth of compressors.

Or, you could pick up a plugin like this, which is a software model of the UA 1176. It costs $100 and can be put on as many tracks as you want. If you just want basic compression, any DAW comes standard with something that does most of what these other units do, for no extra cost. In fact, in many ways, this included compressor will do the job of compression even better. What you're paying for with an 1176 plugin is modelling of that specific unit, which carries out compression in its own unique way, usually adding a bit of noise and carrying out its task “imperfectly”. It turns out that our ears have grown to love some of these imperfections. I’d argue that a lot of the initial resistance to digital recording had to do with the fact that it was too clean and exact.

Anyone can do it

I'm fond of saying that pretty much anyone who wants to invest a few hundred dollars can have the same capabilities as a multi-million dollar recording studio 20 years ago. That's still a bit hyperbolic, but I hope the compressor example gives a taste of how much virtualization has changed the game for anyone looking to try their hand at audio engineering.

In the next blog post, I’ll dive deeper into just how much we’ve been able to virtualize, including guitar amps, microphones, the sound of a room, the experience of a good recording engineer, and yes, even musicians.