We live in the digital age. Everywhere around us, technology is changing the way we work, play, and communicate. The computer has become a fixture in the home, and it's hard to imagine life without one. The need to create coupled with advancements in technology are allowing even the average hobbyist the chance to create and share quality music without going into considerable debt.
The Advancement of Technology
Analog multitrack recorders capable of recording twenty-four or more tracks can cost a lot of money. Even now, though they are less popular, it is easy to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on a good one. Their prohibitive cost meant that for a while, home studios were available only to rich, successful musicians. Digital technology has brought the cost down considerably. Digital tape machines such as the ADAT, while not cheap, were nowhere near as expensive as multitrack analog tape machines. When they were introduced in 1992, Alesis ADATs cost about $3,500. These modular tape machines started showing up in professional studios, and more and more home studios were being equipped with digital recorders.
Recording on Personal Computers
Software provides an interface for laying out tracks and editing them visually in ways that were impossible in the analog or digital tape world. Unlike a tape-based machine, on which you record at a specific point in the tape, digital audio can be placed anywhere. This is impossible to accomplish with analog tape unless you physically cut out a section of tape and splice it somewhere else.
Using computers in studios came with its own problems. Early personal computers were not able to handle the tremendous computing power that digital audio required. To those computers, digital audio was very complex to work with. The solution was to use add-on digital signal processing (DSP) cards inside the computer to help process the digital audio signal. One of the most successful products is Digidesign's Pro Tools.
Professional Pro Tools setups are still very expensive. It's easy to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on a nice Pro Tools rig. Pro Tools was one of the first proprietary systems available, a combination of software and hardware for recording music in a computer. Today, Pro Tools is the standard in recording studios around the world. Other systems are available, but none with the popularity and compatibility of Pro Tools.
How Technology Made the Home Studio Possible
The home studio has followed a path similar to that of professional recording studios. In 1979, TASCAM invented the Portastudio, a four-track recorder that used standard audiotapes. It was priced around $1,000, which was very inexpensive for a unit of its type. It caused a revolution and created the home studio market in one step. The unit was small and compact and could be taken anywhere. Four tracks could be recorded and mixed separately in the unit and later mixed down to a final stereo cassette. Musicians quickly began using the Portastudio for creating their own music and making demos. The Portastudio line by TASCAM is still around today in the form of standalone digital multitrack recorders.
Recording signals come in two forms: monophonic and stereophonic. A monophonic signal can be reproduced using only one speaker. Old radios with one speaker are monophonic. All of the modern music we listen to now is mixed for stereophonic sound, which uses two speakers: left and right.
In the digital world, the hard disk began showing up as part of standalone recorders in the 1990s, greatly increasing the quality of recorded sound. Because hard disks were able to hold more data, they became a viable solution to storing digital audio. Digital audio files are very large: each monophonic CD-quality track takes 5 megabytes (MB) of memory per minute. A typical ten-minute song consisting of eight tracks requires 400 MB of storage space. By today's standards that's not very much, but in the early 1990s most home computers shipped with hard drives of 500 MB, total! As the computer grew in popularity and power, it became feasible for a computer with a simple audio interface to handle the demands of digital audio without the need for additional DSP cards. Computer recording software such as Cubase, Digital Performer, Sonar and Logic answered the call by providing musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) and digital audio in one package. These programs exist to this day, alongside other popular recording programs like Nuendo, GarageBand, and Live. Computer recording software is immensely popular because it's easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and quite powerful for a system requiring just a home computer and an audio interface.
Your Home Studio
What does all this history mean for you and your home studio? Being able to layer track upon track is a critical part of the home studio experience, especially if you work alone. Many bands record albums one layer at a time for greater control.