My journey into the world of music recording and mixing began in the mid-1980s. I was a teenager in a rock band with some of my buddies (and we were really bad). We had a gig lined up at a community center and our lead singer – who had the fanciest boombox among the four of us – decided to punch the record+play buttons before our set. This opened up a whole new world! We loved poring through every second of those tapes after our shows, highlighting the (few) high points of a performance, but mostly laughing at all the mistakes and bloopers. I still have dozens of those early cassette tapes in a box in the garage. I wonder what horrors they contain.
Near the end of the 80s, I got better as a musician. And I also got my hands on a four-track cassette recorder for the first time.
This magical little device could record four independent tracks. For example, you could record a drum beat on track one, rewind the tape and record a guitar track on track two (while listening to the drum track), record a bass on track three, and so forth.
Of course, most musicians wanted more than four tracks, and you could accomplish this by ‘bouncing’ multiple tracks to a new track. For instance, in the example above, you could merge (bounce) the drums, guitar, and bass onto track four and then erase tracks 1-3, freeing those tracks up for backup vocals, keyboards, horns, etc. You could do this an infinite number of times, with the (pretty considerable) caveats that a) performances on a bounced track were forever merged (again, in the example above, you couldn’t go back and, say, re-record the drums without wiping out the other parts of the track) and b) every time tracks were bounced, there would be a degradation of quality, given that tape is an analog storage medium with a finite shelf life.
Multi-track Recording Goes Digital
In the early 1990s, affordable multimedia personal computers became a reality (check out this YouTube video for an excellent overview of the software and hardware of this time period, particularly with regards to PC audio). These computers offered photo-realistic graphics and high-fidelity sound, and became a consumer staple following the release of Windows 95.
At the same time, sound card manufacturers like Creative Labs were creating what were called “full-duplex” sound cards. Early sound cards and computer audio chips could only process audio in one direction; in other words, you could either play audio or record audio, but you couldn’t do both simultaneously. Obviously this is not optimal for multi-track recording where you likely need to hear recording(s) and perform alongside them at the same time.
Advances in audio software soon followed. I purchased my first “premier” audio sound card, the Gravis UltraSound, in the mid-1990s. The UltraSound came packaged with a software program called Midisoft Recording Session, and this is where my love of writing and recording music went from hobby to lifelong obsession (in fact, if I’m honest with myself, I probably enjoy the technology part of music technology more than actually creating music). With Recording Session and my MIDI-enabled Casio CTK keyboard, I could write a song featuring a virtually unlimited number of instrumental tracks in MIDI format.
As much fun as this was, Recording Session did not support waveform audio (e.g., ‘WAV’), meaning that compositions were completely digital, and were limited to the instruments available on whatever sound card you hard. You could not record a live instrument like a vocal or a guitar. And by today’s standards, the sound quality and realism of the virtual instruments stored on sound cards during this time left much to be desired.
In 2003, a company called Syntrillium Software released Cool Edit Pro, a Windows audio application. Despite the slightly goofy product name, Cool Edit Pro (CEP) was a game-changer for home studio enthusiasts. CEP supported up to 64 tracks of WAV audio, and included non-destructive (source recording is not altered) audio effects including reverb, delay, equalizers, chorus, flanger, and distortion. Incidentally, Adobe purchased Cool Edit Pro from Syntrillium Software in 2003 and renamed Cool Edit Pro to Adobe Audition. To this day, Adobe Audition continues to be a staple of the Adobe Creative Cloud set of applications.
Using Recording Session and Cool Edit Pro in tandem, I could finally kinda/sorta enjoy the benefits of both digital and analog performance tracks. To get my MIDI tracks into Cool Edit Pro, I would arm an audio track in Cool Edit Pro, click play in Recording Session, and capture the audio. Still I was waiting for the Holy Grail of (Windows) PC audio – an affordable, easy-to-use, digital audio workstation (DAW) that incorporated both audio and MIDI.
And then, in 2006, everything changed.
I bought my first Mac.
(Stay tuned for Part 2!)