Producing music with computers – Part 2

While the Beatles initially recorded their hits using 2-track machines in the ’60s, switching to 8-track recorders towards the end of the decade, the number of tracks on multi-track tape recorders increased from 1970 onwards to 16, and later to 24. More and more channels were also added to mixing consoles and often an assistant was needed to help with mixing because the sound engineer didn’t have enough hands. It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that electronic support became available through computer-controlled mixing systems.


Electronics in pop music – The 1970s

Nowadays, fat Moog bass sounds and spherical filter sweeps are part and parcel of the standard repertoire.

Electronics were not just on the rise in recording technology, but in musical instruments too. While initial experiments with electronic music in the 1950s were still regarded as elitist “new music”, more and more rock musicians became involved with the technology during the 1970s as it became increasingly affordable and easier to use. By the end of the 1960s, a synthesizer still consisted of multiple “cabinets” with innumerable cables. Then in 1971 came the unveiling of the Minimoog: a compact keyboard instrument with a clearly arranged control panel.

A Moog analog modular synthesizer and, in the background, an ARP
A Moog analog modular synthesizer and, in the background, an ARP (Wikipedia: Maximilian Schönherr / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Synthesizers generated sounds using oscillators and shaped them using envelopes and modulation. Attempts were often made to imitate instruments like the trumpet, violin, or piano, though they seldom succeeded. It wasn’t until independent sounds were programmed that this caught on. Nowadays, fat Moog bass sounds and spherical filter sweeps are part and parcel of a keyboard player’s standard repertoire.

Who’s next? – The Who

The Who are among the pioneers when it comes to using synthesizers in rock music. In 1971, the album “Who’s Next” featured the track “Baba O’Riley”, better known by its chorus line “It’s only teenage wasteland”. The intro begins with a 41 second synthesizer loop and the distinctive Who guitar doesn’t come in until after the first verse.


Kraftwerk – We Are The Robots

The sheer precision of the music gave it a cool and distinctive style.

From 1973, the German band Kraftwerk gave up using conventional instruments and started producing music using nothing more than electronics. They produced their modern rhythms using programmable drum machines, which bore the significant words “Computer controlled”. The drum computer was synchronized with a sequencer, which played the programmed sequence of notes automatically; the sounds came from a synthesizer with a trigger input.

The all-German album “Autobahn” was a huge success and featured the humorously monotone and catchy chorus “Wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der Autobahn” (We’re driving, driving, driving on the autobahn”). The sheer precision of the music gave it a machine-like character with a cool and distinctive style. “Die Roboter” (“The Robots”) appeared on the album “Die Mensch-Maschine” (“The Man-Machine”). The vocals on this track were also technically alienated, using a vocoder to generate the “robot voice”. Kraftwerk’s music still continues to influence musicians all over the world today – from Depeche Mode to Coldplay.


David Bowie in Berlin “by the Wall”

He created a totally revolutionary drum sound.

Following his glam rock success as “Ziggy Stardust”, British musician David Bowie developed a radically new style. He loved the music of Kraftwerk and other German bands and traveled to Berlin to produce a number of albums. One of these was “Heroes” featuring a title track, which Bowie also recorded in German.

Electronic musician Brian Eno was involved in these recordings and produced haunting sounds on his synthesizer, particularly on the album “Low”. Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti used a harmonizer for the first time, a device that could “manipulate the fabric of time”. He created a totally revolutionary drum sound using all the available delay and modulation effects.

Bits and bytes – The first digital recordings

The first digitally produced pop album was “Bop Till You Drop”, released in 1979.

Much of the studio equipment that is standard today was invented during this period, for instance, digital echo devices and reverberators, which gradually replaced the echo chambers and mechanical plate reverberators used until then. Thanks to powerful CPUs, these effects can nowadays be generated virtually on the computer at the same time as the hard disk recording. At the end of the 1970s, the first digital multi-track recorders emerged on the market.

Ry Cooder (Wikipedia: Dani Canto / CC-BY-SA)
Ry Cooder (Wikipedia: Dani Canto / CC-BY-SA)

The first digitally produced pop album was Ry Cooder’s “Bop Till You Drop”, released in 1979. It was recorded on the 3M 32-track digital recorder, which stored the digital information on magnetic tape. Ry Cooder is a master of the slide guitar and played as a session musician with a host of bands, notably the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The album was released on vinyl due to the fact that the CD had not yet been invented. It wasn’t until the launch of the CD in 1982 that digital recordings could also be played digitally at home.

Next week in part 3 of our series: The 1980s – The age of synthpop and home recording.

You can find part 1 of our series here: How the introduction of multi-track technology changed the way in which music was produced and helped musicians like the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix forge their distinctive sound.

Teaser Photo: Flickr / Lord Jim (CC BY 2.0)

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