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Producing music with computers – Part 3

In the 70s, the technical resources for music production were becoming ever smaller and more and more expensive, while simultaneously having an increasingly large influence on the bands and their music. A lot of studio equipment was labeled “computer controlled” with the first musicians beginning to produce music completely electronically. The ability to use synthesizers, harmonizers etc. meant that these musicians were able to produce synthetic, mysterious sounds – something which would be perfected over the following decade.

The German influence on Donna S. and Axel F.

His electronic sounds landed him with one of the largest soundtrack hits in film history

By the end of the 70s, Munich-born Harold Faltermeyer was already involved in hits across the world, as the right-hand man of the producer, Giorgio Moroder. These hits include, among others, the tracks “Love to Love you baby”, “I feel love” and “Bad girls”, the last of which launched US-singer Donna Summer’s star status in the world of disco music. In the 80s, Harold Faltermeyer continued his career in the USA. He composed, arranged and programmed sounds and computerized sequences that had an influence like no other on synthpop from this decade. The sound of Moog and Roland synthesizers or of drum machines such as the “LinnDrum” became a key component in the latest pop music.

Donna Summer — the Queen of Disco from the 70s and 80s.
Donna Summer — the Queen of Disco from the 70s and 80s.

Faltermeyer’s electronic sounds in the instrumental piece “Axel F”, from the Eddie Murphy film “Beverley Hills Cop”, landed him one of the biggest soundtrack hits in film history and in 1986 he received his first Grammy for the film’s soundtrack. His second Grammy followed in the next year for “Top Gun anthem” from the aviation film “Top Gun”, starring Tom Cruise.

The sampled sounds of the drum machine often replaced the drummer.
The sampled sounds of the drum machine often replaced the drummer.

Depeche Mode — the center of the synthesizer boom

The number of synth pop bands grew thanks to the affordable synthesizers on the market

For many rock fans, the electronic pop music by Depeche Mode, a band from England founded in 1980, was initially too cool and “intellectual”. As a result, the band’s success was initially limited and primarily in Europe and Australia. This changed suddenly with the release of the single “People Are People” in 1984. As a consequence of this track, the band steadily climbed the ladder of success and now count internationally as one of the top acts.

Depeche Mode — in this millennium now more a top group than ever before. (Flickr: nontelodiromai - CC BY 2.0)
Depeche Mode — in this millennium now more a top group than ever before. (Flickr: nontelodiromai – CC BY 2.0)

During the 80s, the companies Roland, Korg and Yamaha introduced synthesizers to the market that were more and more affordable, which, among other things, led to a sharp increase in the number of synthpop bands. Eurythmics, Alphaville, OMD, Soft Cell, New Order, Yazoo and Ultravox can be counted as the most popular acts alongside Depeche Mode. Their hits, such as “Sweet dreams are made of this” or “Big in Japan” by the first two bands in this list, are still often broadcast on the radio.

A digital standard united the world of music

MIDI does not play sounds but transmits control commands

While MIDI was understood in the world of fashion as a certain skirt length, from 1983 onwards musicians would understand the term as an abbreviation of “Musical Instrument Digital Interface“. An industry standard was created that still applies today to connect electronic music equipment digitally. MIDI does not play sounds but transmits control commands to instruments which then produce the sounds. This means that multiple instruments can be played at the same time via a keyboard.

On a modern MIDI instrument, almost all of the switches and controls can be controlled remotely. This also applies to effects devices, mixing consoles and much more studio equipment. The synchronization of drum computers and synthesizer sequences also functions via MIDI. The ability to record, edit and save MIDI data on a computer is a major advantage.

Sampling: “Real” sounds on floppy disk

In principle, “sampling” could also refer to computers that specialize in music

Depeche Mode was one of the first bands to use a sampler. While synthesizers can only try to imitate instruments such as the piano or violin as closely as possible, samplers use digital recordings of the “real” instruments that can then be played, usually via a keyboard. This “audio data” takes up a lot of memory and the first sampler could therefore only record a few seconds of sound, which was then stored on floppy disks.

Fairlight CMI with the editing option on the monitor. (Flickr: j bizzie - CC BY 2.0)
Fairlight CMI with the editing option on the monitor. (Flickr: j bizzie – CC BY 2.0)

Later models were equipped with built-in hard drives. In principle, “sampling” could also refer to computers that specialize in music and feature a monochrome LED display instead of a monitor, on which numbers, letters and symbols are represented. In the 80s, sampled sounds were also saved on drum machines. Falling prices in the electronics sector contributed to the rapid spread of sampling equipment. For example, a Fairlight CMI Series I cost almost USD 1 million but only a few years later, instruments from EMU and Akai cost just a few thousand dollars.

Do it yourself — home recording

Up to 16 tracks could be recorded and played back on a home computer

It became ever easier for young, musical people to produce demo tapes themselves. For many musicians, using a tape or cassette recorder to take a simple, live recording no longer sufficed. The “Tascam Portastudio“, a four-track compact cassette recording device therefore enjoyed great popularity. Reel-to-reel tape recorders with four or eight tracks allowed music tracks to be recorded and edited individually, as in professional studios, and the first home computer was also influenced by the these studios. Apple computers were particularly widespread in the USA and the Commodore 64 and the Atari, both of which were already equipped with MIDI connections ex works, were prevalent in Europe.

The Teac Tascam Portastudio — pocket money priced multi-track recording. (Wikipedia: Lucius Kwok - CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Teac Tascam Portastudio — pocket money priced multi-track recording. (Wikipedia: Lucius Kwok – CC BY-SA 2.0)

In addition, the first MIDI sequencer program from Steinberg and Emagic captured the market. The data needed less memory because MIDI only uses control commands, which meant that up to 16 tracks could be recorded and played back on a home computer. The programs functioned as a virtual tape recorder for MIDI-data; however the performance of the computers was not yet enough to support digital recording via a microphone. Throughout the 1980s, recordings were predominantly made on tape recorders, however 24 and 32-track recording was also common in professional studios. To be able to play multiple tracks that have been previously recorded on a synthetic sampler together precisely, a time code track was used. Time code originated in film scores and could “understand” the connected instruments via an interface. This process was successful before the creation of MIDI. However this standard was what first allowed devices from different manufacturers to be coupled together without any problems.

True metal without “static noise”

The first metal album that was completely recorded digitally was “Fighting the World”

In 1982 the Compact Disc was born in 1982 and, little by little, its market share continued to grow. Subsequently, the arrival of the CD player finally allowed private households to welcome digital equipment into their homes. Music lovers all over the world could now enjoy music that had been produced digitally without the “static noise” that was caused by record players and cassette players.

Manowar — a breakthrough with their digitally produced album. (Wikipedia: Rockman, www.rockman.no - CC BY 3.0)
Manowar — a breakthrough with their digitally produced album. (Wikipedia: Rockman, www.rockman.no – CC BY 3.0)

Digital technology and “handmade” heavy metal music — a contradiction no more. “Fighting the World” by the US true metal band Manowar was released in 1987 and was the first metal album to be fully digitally recorded. This was the fifth album from Manowar and helped the band to breakthrough the global market.

Next week in part four of our series: the 1990s, techno and the triumph of hard disk recorders.

Here are the previous parts of the series:

Part two: The top bands of the 1970s and how technological progress affected the development of rock and pop music.

Part one: 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 (Daniel Oines – CC BY 2.0)

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