Technology and the Audio Engineer Part I

Audio engineering is an art form that is typically appreciated only by audiophiles and those who engineer or produce music for a living. Behind every engineer is the technology that helped create the sounds we hear. Ask the average person to name a recording engineer and they will most likely have no reply. Ask them to name any of the equipment used to make a recording and they will be equally dumbfounded. Although the names may not be known by those outside the music industry, the impact they have had on music production throughout the decades is immeasurable.

The expertise and ingenuity of the audio engineer has brought many artists to the forefront of the industry. In many cases, those accomplishments were backed by advancements in recording technology. The Beatles, for example, were known for many amazing creative and technical feats in the recording studio. The vision of George Martin and the genius of the Fab Four had to be realized in physical form by engineers who found ways to make that vision a reality. They stretched the boundaries of what was possible, by embracing new technology, and made history in the process.


1900-1940's: Vinyl Discs and cutting lathes rule into the late 40's

During this era technology was fairly limited. Even though there were major technological developments, their use in the recording studio was limited by the marketplace. Vinyl disc sales had not quite grown big enough to support large recording budgets and thus support radical change in the design of recording studios. As you will see in the coming decades, this outlook would change dramatically.

All records, during this period, were largely made the same way with the same recording techniques and recording technology. The audio engineer, sporting a white lab coat, was not generally considered part of creative process. The audio engineer was primarily there to just capture performances. Artists, composers and arrangers were largely responsible for the success or failure of their production. At this point in history, the limitations of cutting lathe technology did not allow the audio engineer enough latitude to enhance the artist's performance by any great measure.


1950's: Analog tape machines replace cutting lathes in the recording studio.

Analog recording technology was developed in the late 40's but its true impact was not felt until the 50's. The physical limitations of vinyl were coming to a head. Performances captured on cutting lathes for vinyl production were limited by the time available on a disc side, the amount of low frequency content, and the dynamics of the performance. Any of these basic issues, out of balance, could easily render a beautiful performance destroyed.

Analog tape changed these parameters dramatically. At worst, performances that were too long, bass heavy or with excessive dynamics might require editing or suffer from some distortion or tape compression. Multiple performances or takes could be easily edited together to make one better performance. Performances that would not fit on one side of a record could be easily split between Side A and Side B or edited in length to fit on one side of a vinyl disc. The transfer engineer, now known as mastering, was born.


1960's: Multitrack recording technology and the release of stereo recordings.

The 1960's saw the full realization of stereo technology that was created in the 50's. The recording technology that emerged from the 60's would change the way recordings were made forever. While consumers were enjoying stereo on vinyl discs, recording engineers were working with multitrack recording. Multitrack recording allowed individual instruments to be recorded on separate tracks. Once separated they could be processed individually when mixed into stereo for the commercial release. The Mix engineer's position was born.

Sel-Sync multitrack recording (selective synchronization) allowed the audio engineer to rerecord individual performances synchronously with other tracks on the same tape machine. This would allow the vocalist to rerecord their part if the band captured a perfect take but the vocal performance was not up to the same standard. With careful forethought, It would also be possible for additional parts to be layered. Harmonies, doubles and additional instruments could be added to a performance to enhance or sweeten the sound of the recording. The term "overdubbing" was now part of audio engineer's vocabulary.

This was a truly revolutionary change in the production process. The ability to separate and layer performances would grow exponentially in the coming years. It would expand the time artists spent in the recording studio dramatically. The early albums of the 60's might take a few days to complete. By the end of the 60's those same records would take weeks or even months to complete.



Technology and the Audio Engineer Part I

Technology and the Audio Engineer Part II

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