On Fast Forward: How the rapid evolution of recording equipment altered the sound of the row
by Luke Maness
The early beginnings of sound recording emerged from the dust in the late 1800s. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and amazed the world by recording the sounds of voices and playing them back. In the beginning, the main market for this machine was to document business transactions, legal matters and courtroom activity. This also created a way for poems, important thoughts and dictated letters to be recorded and kept. But little did they know that when music was first recorded for entertainment, it would make the biggest impact on this new technology. It would create a whole new industry and change the way the world consumed music. Although it wasn’t until after World War II that the recording equipment really started to evolve, it paved the way for new musicians, producers, artists and executives to make a living. Soon Music Row was born, which created a sound that would bring the world to Nashville Tennessee’s doorstep.
“After the phonograph era, there was a brief era where wire recording or magnetic wire recording was the industry standard,” commented Joe Chambers, the director of the Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville. “But this didn’t last but about 15 to 20 years, because this technology was great for dictation but not so good for sound recording.” Though it was invented in 1928 by Austrian Fritz Pfleumer, magnetic tape was kept secret by the Germans until after World War II. Once released to the world, this technology revolutionized the recording industry and launched a new era that lasted well over a half a century as the primary means of recording, although it is still used and preferred by many producers and engineers in the music industry today. Magnetic tape has evolved over the years, but it has proved to be the backbone of the golden years of the recording age.
“One evening, Bing Crosby yelled at his neighbor who just happened to be Les Paul, ‘Come look at what I bought!’,” said Chambers. “It was a state-of-the-art Ampeg recorder. Immediately Les Paul saw the potential of multi-track recording, and he and Bing Crosby ordered an extra head from Ampeg, not telling them what they wanted it for and invented multi-track recording. They took a trip to the US Patent Office and secured a patent on their new invention, and over time more and more tracks were added until it became what it is today.” Although the digital age actually started in the ‘80s, 2-inch magnetic tape was the industry standard for recording albums and demos well into the ‘90s.
“In 1981, we were recording on analog 2-inch 16-track and 2-inch 24-track,” commented producer and music executive Robert de la Garza. Garza, who was a staff engineer at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, later worked at Starstruck Studios on Music Row for country superstar Reba McEntire. “A few years later, we received our first digital 32-track recorder, and soon after that DAT came into view. Many engineers missed the properties of analog, so we began recording the basic tracks to analog to capture the warmth and punch,” stated de la Garza. “In the mid 1990s, DAWs came into view and changed the landscape of recording and engineering to this day.” Most of us know DAWs, or digital audio workstations, through programs like Pro Tools and similar programs. This opened up a whole new avenue for artists and producers to record their music with much more ease.
Technology has changed to a degree that artists can now write their music, record it on their personal computer, upload music to a website they built on their own and sell their music digitally, as well as promote it online themselves. That is not the only promotional tool that artists of today have at their disposal. They can also record their own videos for the music they create and upload them to Youtube and Facebook to become an overnight success if their video goes viral. There are so many other promotional tools that many record labels have closed their doors or consolidated with larger labels in order to survive.
“Think about it. Prior to the digital revolution, if a band or artist wanted to get their name and recordings out to the public, they literally had to give them out one-by-one by hand or physically through the mail, or they had to be locked into a major label,” commented Wesley Bulla, Ph.D, professor of audio engineering at Belmont University. “Without major support, it was impossible to get a video on TV. Now any band can utilize the Internet, a web page and email—and literally develop a worldwide audience from their home base. The world of music has changed, and the music business has to keep up.”
As we all know, things have changed in so many ways. “You can track a record in the studio, and then you can take it home and finish it all the way through mixing. There are situations where people are just making entire records in their house,” explained Frank Liddell, one of Nashville’s legendary producers. “I think a lot of people I know that are comfortable working in their house on Pro Tools – if they have the budget, some of those guys love to go to big studios anyway. I do think that streaming – and before that, the illegal downloading – along with the lack of record sales impacted the studios in this town and across the country. I don’t think that people can make as great of a record at their house now as they could in a great studio.”
Despite advances in technology, there is still something to be said about the ability to adapt and using both cutting-edge digital technology and still employing older methods of recording. A return to analog tape has seen a comeback in recent years. “I just finished a record on Miranda Lambert, and that was recorded digitally,” explained Liddell. “But I’m also in the middle of working on a record with my wife Lee Ann Womack, and we’ve recorded that entire thing to 2-inch tape. It will stay on analog till it’s mixed, and I’ll mix down to digital for sure. It all depends on the project. It’s almost 2017, and I’m recording one record completely digitally and one record completely analog.”
Artistic and technological creativity has developed into an art of its own, giving music technology the upper hand in the world of music as we know it today. Music technology experts are constantly trying to develop new ways to channel artists’ music by creating state-of-the-art software and devices that improve on musical experiences. Whether you prefer analog or digital, musicians, songwriters and producers have the best of both worlds at their fingertips. So the next time you’re listening to your favorite song, listen a little more closely to the arrangement and the instrumentation. Read the credits and give recognition to the producers and engineers who dedicate their lives to learning new technology and contributing to the power of music.