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Looking Back On Three Decades of Home Recording


It was getting towards the end of 1983, not long before I turned twenty. I had just started learning to play keys on my dad’s cheap organ, and I was discovering a new world of music, and a new identity of being a musician.

I didn’t want to play dad’s organ for the rest of my life, and started exploring what was available. I fell in love with professional music stores, and my idea of how much musical instruments cost took a quantum leap.

Polyphonic synthesizers were becoming affordable, drum machines were becoming quite usable and (as we thought at the time) more realistic MIDI was about to be invented, some great effects units were coming out, and home multi-track recording was in reach of the average person for the first time.

Image by zzellers.

Portastudios in the 80s

I read lots, practiced hard, and saved my dollars. In that first year I had bought a little Yamaha CS01 monophonic synth (with a breath controller) to keep me happy while I kept saving, then a Korg Poly 61 synth, a keyboard stand, and a Roland Cube 60 keyboard amp. To feed my mind, I bought some books on music theory, a compilation by George Martin (producer for the Beatles) called “Making Music”, and a three-part box set of booklets by Roland called “The Synthesizer” which covered electronic music, modular synthesis and multi-track recording.

I started seeing Tascam Portastudios in the music stores. Jed, my favorite music salesman, talked to me about them endlessly, but my initial thought was that I wasn’t a good enough musician to want to record myself. But over time, I began to realize that it had nothing to do with me being an amazing musician - it had to do with the amazing possibilities of creating music.

I was sold. I saved all of the money I got for my twenty-first birthday, and went to visit Jed. I bought a Yamaha MT44 four-track recorder that used normal cassette tapes.

I had enjoyed creating new sounds on the Korg analog synth (with only six voices of polyphony, which was common at the time), which involved lots of imagination and button tapping. Now I experimented with making combinations of sounds which worked well together, building songs by adding chords, counter-melodies, and different voices, and persevered with numerous takes until I recorded each part perfectly.

Four-track recorders had, well, just four tracks. But you could record up to ten parts by bouncing. I’d try to record a foundation for the music by recording three tracks (normally rhythm and bass parts, and maybe some piano), and then while I was recording the next part on track 4, I’d mix in the other previous three tracks, so the whole lot was on track 4. Although that led to some compromises - not being able to pan those four parts separately, and difficulties in getting the levels right - it would free up the first three tracks to record more parts.

By bouncing the new tracks 1 and 2 onto 3 while recording another part, I’d end up with seven tracks. Then I could bounce the new track 1 with a new one onto 2, and then record the final track onto track 1. That would give me ten different parts on four tracks. I’d always record the most important track last so that I could pan it independently, and so it didn’t degrade in quality with the bouncing.

Art is often defined by the restrictions of its media, and there were a lot of restrictions in recording music back then. But I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot about music. At first I didn’t have a microphone, and recorded vocal parts by plugging my headphones into the mic jack and screaming through an earpiece. Eventually I added Korg drum machines (kit and Latin), a Roland Juno 6 synth, an Alesis digital delay, a Yamaha CP-70B electric grand piano, a couple of Ovation guitars, and a second Yamaha MT44. I played more music for the recorder than a crowd, but loved every minute of it, and matured as a musician.

Sequencers in the 90s

I got married, had kids, moved a two-hour train ride from my job, and hit my thirties. I woke up to realize I was in a musical rut and had lost touch with my creativity. When I looked around and smelled the roses, I realized there was a completely different musical landscape. I bought lots of magazines and recommenced my musical education.

Musical instruments were now multi-timbral and lived in modules. MIDI had evolved into General MIDI (and GS and XG). And computers had been discovered by normal people and musicians, and were more than powerful enough to record long strings of MIDI codes (but not quite there with recording audio). Expensive sequencing software littered the shelves of most music stores.

I now had three kids and was on a tighter budget, but was keen to buy some new music equipment. When we were expecting our fourth child, we sold our car and bought a Kombi, and there was some money left over. I settled for an E-series Roland keyboard, the cheapest sequencing software in the shop for our Mac Portable (remember them?), and some sort of MIDI to serial adapter.

The first thing that I noticed was that setting up the computer for recording music was more difficult than I expected. I was a computer consultant and trainer at the time, and wasn’t used to problems setting up software. Eventually in the Mac’s control panel (was it called “Settings” back then?) I found something that looked like a patch routing program, and I was able to connect the correct MIDI input with the sequencing software. I suppose anything can be hard the first time you do it.

Once I had everything working, I was in a brand new world. Although my keyboard wasn’t programmable, the sounds were light years ahead of what I had in the 80s. Instead of 6-note polyphony, I had 32. The cheap Roland keyboard didn’t implement the full General MIDI specification, so I didn’t get the full 16 tracks to record, but it was so much better than the ten parts bounced around four tracks that I was used to. I was in heaven. I also found that by sequencing my drum parts, I could have more freedom and creativity than when programming drum machines.

Well, that’s how my MIDI sequencing journey began. Eventually I got hold of a Yamaha XG sound module which was controlled by my little Toshiba Libretto laptop. Both would sit on top of a Roland RD500 piano as I pounded the keys until I was scared they would fall off. I plugged the lot into a powerful Roland KC-500 powered keyboard amp, and the sound was heavenly.

One of my favorite software programs at the time was PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box. I could type in a chord chart, pick the right style, make a few decisions about patterns, fills and repeats, and I’d have the foundation of a song. I found it a great tool for song-writing and live playing. I played regularly in a church band, and could easily program parts for the musicians we were lacking - most important of which was a drummer. And after playing or mouse-clicking the melody, I could print out sheet music for the players we did have.

A more professional package I used was MusicMaster by Datasonics. It had the features every good sequencer should have, and was a pleasure to use. Over that decade I learned to love and understand MIDI and sequencing, and couldn’t imagine a better way to record music.

Digital Audio Workstations in the 2000s

Now here we are near the end of the “noughties”. During this decade my family has grown to six kids and two grandkids, and I balance my time between a full time job and a business. My two oldest kids are now adults, and arguably better musicians than I am. Music still plays an important part in my life, but not as big a role as it used to. That is something I hope will change.

The term “Digital Audio Workstation” was used long before this decade, but due to the ever-increasing power of computers, DAWs have come into their own as the main way of making music. While MIDI retains an important place in our studios, our Macs and PCs now have no trouble dealing with multiple tracks of straight audio, and digital effects can now be applied live, rather than needing to be pre-processed.

I haven’t yet fully embraced the new paradigm, and still find it easier to manipulate music using a MIDI sequencer. I’ve held on to my Yamaha MU-128 sound module (which I also use as a great guitar effects module), and the other year added a PLG150-AP piano card which I love, and one acoustic-playing friend says is the realest sound he’s heard. When recording direct to my hard drive, I’ve used Audacity and Ardour, and dabbled with many other programs.

But my kids have taken to the new regime as ducks to water. They were quite young when they started creating music with Apple’s GarageBand and the FruityLoops demo program. At school and home they have become familiar with programs like Logic and Pro Tools. They didn’t experience recording in the other decades, and have nothing to compare it to. As far as they know, this is the only way to record music. But who knows what they will be reminiscing about in thirty years!

As lifes goes round and settles down again in the next years, I look forward to recording music with my kids and on my own, exploring new sounds, samples, soundfonts and plugins, and buying some new gear. And I look forward to seeing what new technologies and software programs come out in the next three decades. But when it comes down to it, music is music, and making music that expresses who we really are is what’s important. The changing technology just gives us new tools to play and record it with.

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