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Producing music with computers – Part 4

The recording studios of the 1980s were filled with programmed sounds and computer generated sequences that conquered the international world of music. Their success was made possible by studio equipment become increasingly cheaper whilst also more productive – especially synthesizers, drum machines and MIDI. The influence of these sounds continued to grow thanks to the introduction of computer technology into the studios.

Sound of a generation: techno

From DJ to established musician, producer and label owner

As a subgenre of electronic music techno established itself in the 90s as an influence on pop music and as an independent dance music in the clubs – in particular at the Love Parade festivals whose number of visitors rose from around 150 at the beginning to over a million in the following years.

Until 2012 the Love Parade was the event for techno fans. (Wikipedia: Arne Müseler / arne-mueseler.de - CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
Until 2012 the Love Parade was the event for techno fans. (Wikipedia: Arne Müseler / arne-mueseler.de – CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

As the popularity of the event grew so did the influence of DJs such as Dr. Motte and Sven Väth on the development of music. They often became established musicians, producers or label owners.

Music with instruments without buttons

Software was already highly developed and no longer limited to 16 track MIDI

In the 90s the 24 track analogue tape recorders were still the standard, digital alternatives were very expensive and uncommon. As a result, many musicians brought their MIDI pre-productions to the studio. As described in the third part of this series, MIDI data only uses control commands, which require little memory and processing power. The use of synchronized tape recorders and computers is often referred to as hybrid technology.

Some musicians were already recording vocals and instruments with microphones attached in the rehearsal room. One track from the semi-professional 8 or 16 track tape recorders would be marked with the signal to sync with the MIDI instruments. The software of the day “Emagic Notator“, “Steinberg Pro 24” or “MOTU Digital Performer” was highly developed and no longer limited to 16 track MIDI. With “Notator” you could “write” notes with the computer mouse and cut, copy and paste, like with a word processing program.

Notator on Atari computers.
Notator on Atari computers.

Electronic instruments now all came with a MIDI connection, and as not every musician wanted to be surrounded by lots of keyboards, instruments without a keyboard came onto the market. The so called expanders could be controlled by a master keyboard or directly by a computer. Memory chips became cheaper and samplers such as Akai and Emu could hold ever larger libraries of digitalized conventional instruments. Sample players like the “Emu Proteus” didn’t have a recording function and were equipped with ROM memory chips. The sounds were available at the click of a button and didn’t have to be loaded from floppy discs anymore.

Snap! – Dance music from a computer

Semi-professional tape machines were replaced by digital ADAT 8 track recorders

With their maiden track “The Power”, Snap! landed an international hit in 1990. The advanced sampling technology enabled the German dance group to use samples from old Hip Hop songs in their own production. However, they had not made sure that the samples they used were licensed and therefore had to record the track again in the USA.

The hit single "The Power" from Snap!
The hit single “The Power” from Snap!

Semi-professional tape machines were increasingly replaced by digital ADAT 8 track recorders, which had been available since 1992. This equipment recorded digital signals via helical scanning onto S-VHS cassettes. It was relatively inexpensive and suitable for home recording.

Enigma – monastic chanting from a sampler

Rising to the top in Germany with a sampled choir

Technological developments made it possible that a single musician could produce the sound of an entire band or orchestra. Michael Crtu had great success in this vein in the 90s with his project “Enigma“.

Enigma had great success with trance sounds.
Enigma had great success with trance sounds.

The debut single “Sadeness Part 1” incorporated sampled Gregorian chanting and became an absolute hit. Making it to number 1 in the charts not only in Germany, but in many other countries too such as France and Great Britain.

Analogue vs. digital: conversion to the converter 

The big advantage of digital technology is that numbers can be copied and manipulated without loss

The introduction of computer technology into studios meant that digital technology ousted many traditional processes. A tape recorder records audio signals via an analogue process. Theoretically, there are a limitless number of gradations when magnetizing the tape. However, before a computer can records sounds they have to be converted into binary numerical values using an analogue-digital converter.

There is a set number of possible values, although there are still “gradations” which are electronically “smoothed” to create a natural impression for the listener. The big advantage of digital technology is that numbers can be copied and manipulated without loss. Tape hiss and the loss of higher frequencies through multiple copying were consigned to the past.

Goodbye C64, Hello PC

It was only when hard drives became standard computer equipment that hard disk recording became a relevant topic

Nowadays, you can carry hundreds of music track around on your iPod or smartphone. The sequencer software of the 90s was able to record audio from the beginning of the decade, however, due to the slow processors, small RAM and storage media of the time audio data was still hard to record.

It would still be some time before the hard drive became standard. (Wikipedia: Jeff Kubina - CC BY-SA 2.0)
It would still be some time before the hard drive became standard. (Wikipedia: Jeff Kubina – CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was only once the C64 and Atari had been replaced by PC and Mac and hard disks became standard computer equipment that hard disk recording really became a topic.

Pro Tools becomes the worldwide studio standard

High performance recording system thanks to a combination of software and hardware in an expansion card format

Digidesign are one of the original pioneers of hard disk recording. In order to create a high performance recording system, they brought an expansion card combining software and hardware onto the market. The electronics of the expansion card relieved the CPU of the computer.

 

The first version came onto the market in 1991 and allowed the simultaneous recording of only four tracks. The first version suitable for professional use came out in 1995. At first it was purely an audio program that replaced the tape recorder during microphone recording. It was only in later versions that MIDI function were integrated. Today Pro Tools is a worldwide studio standard.

Old Madonna in new apparel

Two Emmys for dance and trance music thanks to William Orbit

Successful since the 80s with countless hits, the “Queen of Pop” kept surprising with new transformations. After trying musicals with “Evita”, the 1998 album “Ray of Light” meant a turn to dance and trance.

In 1998 Madonna became "electronic". (Wikipedia: Pascal Mannaerts - CC BY-SA 3.0) (Wikipedia: Pascal Mannaerts - CC BY-SA 3.0)
In 1998 Madonna became “electronic”. (Wikipedia: Pascal Mannaerts – CC BY-SA 3.0) (Wikipedia: Pascal Mannaerts – CC BY-SA 3.0)

The album was produced with the help of British electronic musician William Orbit and recognized with two Grammys. The title track later became the official promotional song for the Microsoft Windows XP operating system.

Next week in the fifth part of our series: the final fare well to tape recorders, striking vocal tuning and the new sound of the 2000s.

The previous parts of the series can be viewed here:

Part three: The 80s: The age of synth-pop and the first home computer.

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 / chrisweger (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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