We all think of the effects of the digital revolution on music being only on the consumer side: iPods, iTunes, file sharing, CD burning, questionable sounding MP3s, etc. But well before technology revolutionized how music was distributed, it created an even larger revolution in how music was made, specifically in the making of the records that have been such an important part of our common culture. Traditionally, the recording process was not for the faint of heart – or light of budget:
2000 lb analog recording console
Timecode-linked tape machines
Tape stock @ $500 per 16 mins
150K worth of microphones
On-site technical engineer to make sure everything works properly at least some of the time
Super freaked-out artist who knows exactly how much this is costing and how little time is left before the budget runs out and is therefore understandably not at the top of their game..
CHECK! CHECK! CHECK!
Even though we all pine for them, making music in the “good ole days” was no walk in the park. The process of making a record was expensive and therefore very rushed, and artists were under intense pressure to perform. “Red light syndrome” – a paralyzing performance anxiety resulting in debilitating stress when it actually came time to record – was (and is) a very real thing and there was limited time for artists to experiment in the studio, especially if you were new to the game.
The logistics of actually making a presentable recording were so complex that major studios (and the record companies that were by far their largest clients) had a virtual monopoly on record making. With the advent of digital recording, the project studio (any studio which was created to facilitate the work of a single artist or group) all of a sudden became attainable for smaller or even aspiring artists. The same digital transformation that influenced the music landscape so heavily in terms of distribution revolutionized the recording landscape a good ten years before Napster.
Digital audio had already been around for quite a while, but the ability to record it in full resolution on a digital audio workstation which ran on your Macintosh computer was a complete creative game-changer. Not only was this type of recording equipment a fraction of the cost and size, it had capabilities for editing and manipulation which the analog realm simply could not match. The power to make records with many of the tools previously only available to “pros” became available to many more artists and these tools became instruments themselves and became part of the art—Auto-Tune is the easiest example of this (it became a verb) but there are many others. Sonic effects, which used to be only achievable with a $10,000 box could now be done with a $500 plugin.
This is not to say that before the consumer Digital Audio Workstation or VCR-based recorders came along that there was no DIY music. Genres such as Electronic, Hip Hop and Dance saw the drum machine (think 808), samplers and midi keyboards come together and create the beginnings of the DIY music movement. But it was still pretty hard to make a rock and roll record without a studio. Computer audio recording brought the ability to record complete takes with acoustic instruments alongside a band or backing track. Artists like Nine Inch Nails were now able to more easily setup their own unique recording environments (the scene of the Manson murders was probably a bit more than just unique…) and instead of studio availability driving creativity, recording logistics took a backseat to the creative process.
This democratization of process has created a richer field of artists and given creative power to musicians of all stripes. We can see how this access to recording technology early in the creative process has given artists more options and enabled a wider creative voice by putting all kinds of sonic tools in the hands of the artists themselves. The wonderful Bon Iver would have had a much harder time weaving sonic fx with acoustic instruments so effectively 20 years ago. Just trying out new ideas before the inexpensive DAW would have involved conversations about budgets and trade-offs.
Artists have been on the leading edge of these technologies and have rewarded us with their collective efforts. Innovators like Flying Lotus have pushed the envelope and created beautiful art which sounds like nothing before, all with technology under complete control of the artist.
Now that the masses have access to these tools and all the ensuing possibilities, there needs to be more attention paid to the basic question of support. Now that the creation of recorded music has become democratized, are there ways for those who rise to the top to actually make a living?
Not nearly enough, but we are working on it…
BYGMusic Founder and CEO