Technology and the Audio Engineer Part II

The job of the audio engineer was taking on a greater role in the recording studio. As recording technology was getting more complicated, so too was the role of the engineer. The engineer, once seen as a technician only, was taking on a much more creative role in the music production process.

1970's: Expanded track counts lead to larger recording consoles and studios.

What happened in the 70's was an explosion of technological development that saw track counts rise and recording consoles get larger. Parametric equalizers and compressors were stock features of professional recording consoles. New microphones, compressors and equalizers were entering the studio for external processing. Companies like Lexicon and EMT brought digital reverb and effects processing into recording studios with the EMT 250 and the Lexicon 224. The creation of digital effects processing would become a major part of the mixing process.

New recording studios, like the world famous Power Station, were being built with isolation booths for better separation of instruments in the multitrack recording environment. Studios were being designed to record specific styles of music. The audio engineer, once an employee of the recording studio, would start to become a commodity for artists and producers. Seeing the benefit of having a great engineer, artists would start to hire the best engineers to work with them away from their home studio. The freelance engineer would become a force in the recording industry.

1980's: The compact disc, midi, synthesis and digital recording.

The 80's saw a largely unwelcome guest enter the recording industry. The introduction of the compact disc in 1980 changed the way people listened to music and brought digital technology into the recording studio. The CD was a huge success on the consumer level and ushered in a huge influx of money into the recording industry as record companies reaped the profits of reselling every previously released vinyl album in compact disc form.

Most of the recording community thought it an abomination compared to the much warmer and pleasing vinyl disc. While digital technology took away the clicks, pops and skipping of the vinyl disc it also brought a cold clinical sound that was hard to swallow by professionals. Those that embraced digital technology were served well in the long-run though. Digital offered many advantages over analog, including increased dynamic range, no tape hiss and the ability to make exact copies of tracks without loss of quality.

The 80's also saw midi sequencers enter the studio, allowing performances to be captured and edited until perfected. The influx of synthesizers, drum machines and samplers would usher in a whole new style of recording studio that would embrace synthetically generated sound over real acoustic instruments. Smaller recording spaces and larger control rooms would accommodate a new breed of client for recording studios, the programmer, the DJ and the electronic musician.

Digital multitrack tape machines called DASH machines entered the recording studio as an alternative to analog tape machines. Although initially realized in 2 track format, these DASH machines would eventually accommodate up to 48 tracks of digital recording on 1/2 inch tape. The built-in self synchronizing technology would allow for 96 tracks of recording capability by simply locking 2 machines together. It became evident that the much slower and limited 24 track analog tape machine was beginning a steady decline from which it would never recover.

1990's: The non destructive recording and editing capabilities of computers

The 90's saw an explosion of radical change in digital recording. The recording industry would peak in the mid to late 90's and then start a radical fall heading into the 2000's. Computers would become a powerful force in the industry and eventually supplant all the major recording console and tape machine manufacturers as the driving force of the recording industry.

The relatively cheap technology and radically enhanced editing and mixing capabilities of Pro Tools systems would allow many producers and artists to take their work into their home studios. Many commercial recording studios would close their doors forever as a result. Recording studios would also take a hit from the record companies that were lowering their recording budgets due a decrease in CD sales. The growth of the internet and the creation of file sharing websites like Napster would see piracy reach a new level never seen before in the music industry.

A recording industry that once ruled with huge recording consoles and expensive tape machines suddenly had to change to a new model. This model would prove difficult to achieve as many of the big recording studios could not survive a dwindling client base and lower recording budgets. The ones that did survive now serve the high profile recording artists that have the budgets to accommodate.

2000's The explosion of new software and diversification of recording technology.

The first decade of the 21st century saw a technological explosion that has rocked all media industries including the recording industry. Increased processor speeds and hard drive capacities have made home recording a viable option for everyone. For very little money, anyone could compose, record, edit and mix their own music.

The result of these rapid changes in computer technology is evident in the diversity and number of new recording software applications. Recording software design was targeting very specific markets like DJs and beat writers. Thus, filling a void left by programs primarily designed for engineers and musicians. Keeping up with this rapid growth has been a difficult task for the audio engineer.

Hardware technology, once designed, would never change its signal-flow unless modified by the chief technical engineer of the studio. A recording console once learned, was learned forever. Software though, is very different matter. While the merits of software updates to fix design flaws is great, it also makes it more difficult for the new user to learn. Each update to a software program adds new features for the long-term user but also creates a steeper learning curve for someone new to the program. For this reason, a simple interface design is critical to a software's success.

Moving Forward

The rapid development of recording software has challenged the traditional way of making records. The ability to create music inexpensively changed the way audio engineers have gone about their work. The audio engineer of today will find themselves in many non traditional recording situations. As a result, audio engineers have been forced to be more creative in their approach to recording in an attempt to maintain a professional quality recording.

Recording in these non-traditional situations requires a lot of professional recording studio experience. There are very, very few home recordings that merit a professional quality standard. The reason is simple, unless you have had a great deal of experience working in professional situations, you will have no clue what is required to create that sound. An experienced engineer working at home would create a significantly better product than the inexperienced engineer in a pro studio.

Many today, aspire to become an audio engineer but few understand all that is involved. Having spent many years teaching students the art of engineering, I have come to realize the depth and enormity of information about recording audio. As you can see, an incredible amount of technology has been developed for just this purpose. Each development trying to improve on and solve the problems facing every audio engineer on a daily basis.

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