~ Or: Now you can obsess about audio perfection in the comfort of your own bedroom

Home recording was, once upon a time, an activity that was limited to either the ultra nerdy or the ultra wealthy.  Sometimes both.  Recording within the confines of the domicile?  Really?  Recording studios are for that kind of thing.  You need an engineer, a pristine recording space, a mixing console larger than your car, microphones that will cost you more than your car, someone who runs the studio, a producer, and a record label backing it all up with enough money to buy seven of your cars.

That was the was.  This is now.  And now is effectively the most awesome time to be in for this stuff!  The æffordability of both equipment and software is unparalleled compared to any other time in our current history.  This level of accessibility opens the door to bedroom producers everywhere to take a crack at music creation that once existed only in the lofty halls of full fledged recording facilities.

You -could- argue that Prince had his own home recording studio because, in a sense, he did.  But Paisley Park is its own thing and we’re going to set that one aside for now.

Today?  We’re talking home recording for regular folks like us.

Come with me on my own journey œff the beaten path of what it was like to go from simple note entry to Digital Sample Tracking and finally into the world of Digital Audio recording.

SID Chip Composing

As a youngster, I cut my teeth – proverbially, obvi – on primitive sound chips in the computer systems that were available.  The Atari 2600.  The TI 99/4A.  But most especially: The Commodore 64.

The Commodore 64 is equipped with a sound chip that provides a whopping THREE SIMULTANEOUS CHANNELS of music.  What exactly does that mean?  It means that it can play three notes at the same time.  And that’s it.

I’m going to gloss over some of the techniques that were used on those systems to make the music sound much greater than that of just the 3 channel limit, but that was the environment when I first started dabbling with music making.  It wasn’t home recording by any stretch, though.  It was entering notes into a system and then sounds were generated to match those notes from the scale.  While the piano lessons I had been taking indicated that I should be able to play as many notes as my fingers can handle all at once, there was something very appealing about the limitation of just 3 channels, and my 8-year-old self started dabbling in writing.

I use the term dabbling loosely.  I’m not Jordan Rudess by any stretch of the word and there isn’t a single prodigious musical bone in my body; just below-average writing skills as a youngster.  But it was the literal start to everything that was to come to pass.

Worth noting: The Nintendo Entertainment System that we all know and love had a similar musical limitation in its main structure, except it added one extra channel for noise that could be manipulated into percussive sounds.  Or explosions.  Compositional utilities were inaccessible at the time, though, so it was to the Commodore that I credit that beginning.

Sample Tracking R Us

Home recording was not yet to be anything that could be recognized by the time the early 90s rolled around for even the nerdiest of youngsters.  We were still in the proverbial dark ages but there were a LOT of excessively creative people in that era who came up with new and exciting ways to create music outside of the scope of full studios.  Which is where we are going next in the annals of memory lane.

Thank you, Commodore Amiga, you genius machine you

Let’s stop and talk for a moment about the Commodore Amiga.  A machine I’ve never possessed, but important nonetheless.  The Commodore Amiga brought with it an incredible means of writing music that didn’t exist easily earlier.  It could take a very low quality recorded sample sound and play it back by using software called a “Tracker” to trigger the note.  For example: you have a single piano note.  It is sampled from either a real piano or a synthesizer of some form.  You record that note in C.  When you trigger a C note from the tracker, it will play that C note back to you.  The quality of sound was not pristine by any stretch, but it was a digital sample of something real, not an on-board sound chip like the Commodore 64 or Nintendo Entertainment System.

Now imagine four available channels of this.  Interchangeable!  You could use channel one for a full drum beat triggering kick and snare and crash sounds.  You could use a second channel for bass notes!  Harmonies and melodies in channels 3 and 4!  Because these were digital samples, the possibilities were ENDLESS.

Original pieces of music like “Beyond Music” by an individual who goes by the alias of “Captain”!  Decent covers of existing songs like this example of Axel F! Wild and crazy songs like Run the Gauntlet!

Backing up just a moment

Going back to Beyond Music for a second: imagine being a kid and growing up on 3 channels of Commodore 64 SID chip and suddenly hearing THIS.   In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I write this.  It’s been a number of years since I went back and pulled up some old memories and it still pulls on the nostalgia strings significantly. My brain was destroyed in all of the best possible ways and it paved the way for what would end up being a solid ten years trying to write music in this format of tracking.

Of which virtually nothing is left.  Thankfully.

I’m not being modest.  The vast majority of anything I made was awful.  It got better as the years went on though!

It took me a great many years to start to get my writing legs and by the time it started to take shape, the next stage hit.  Digital Audio recording.

I never looked back.

Enter: The Digital Audio Workstation

This was it.  This was the moment.  The moment that the average computer could bring software accessible to General People, utilize the technology of relatively inexpensive audio interfaces, and actually record real things onto a computer.  We had arrived!  Except it was still moderately in the throes of the dark ages and there were some significant disadvantages of what was available in that era.  Let’s elaborate on that for a bit, shall we?

Appetite for Destruction

In the late 90s, it still wasn’t quite as easy to use as it is now.  For example, using effects like equalizers and compressors on a recorded audio track was called “destructive.”  What this meant was once you applied the effect, there was no going back. It was permanently altered.

This was challenging in the late 90s because hard disk space was at a premium and that premium didn’t purchase that much space compared to what we get per dollar now.  In order to make certain that an original recording of, say, an acoustic guitar was preserved, a backup copy needed to be made before applying effects.  That copy took up a LOT of available space.  Today, that same acoustic guitar takes up the same exact amount of space but the available space per dollar is exponentially larger.  200 megabytes was considered to be an excessive amount of space. This notion was eventually replaced by the era of 2 gigabytes of space being available.  Fast forward to the accessibility of 2 TERAbytes and you can see how the last 20 years have changed in mind-bending ways.

Back to destructive editing, though.

The process of processing an audio process was quite the process in and of itself.  You needed to be darn sure you knew what you wanted before you pulled the trigger on that modification.

Thankfully, that era didn’t last long!

The Original Audio Preservation Society

Ok, that’s not what this is called, but it makes me laugh in the moment and here we are.  Digital audio workstations figured out how to apply effects to audio WITHOUT permanently altering the files.  Pretty cool, huh?  Get the sound you want without causing death to the original material.  Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?  By the early 2000s, this was common practice.  We finally had the dream of being able to treat an original audio signal in the same way that would be done in a real studio.  Audio signal exists.  It is then passed through effects like compression and equalization.  It comes out the other end altered and printed to disk.  The original is preserved!

Don’t like the edit?  Great!  Go back, adjust knobs and slide faders, play it back again.  Still don’t like it?  Keep tweaking!

Do like is done in every recording studio around the world!  Find your settings and go to town!  Except instead of printing to tape, you’re printing to disk!  Instead of needing a razor blade and glue, you have a mouse and a clicker!

We are FINALLY in the modern age!

Where are we now?

Every single home recording music project I have worked on since the early 2000’s has existed in this environment.  Record.  Edit.  Mix down.  Upload somewhere.

Not everyone was doing this at home in the early 2000’s.  The accessibility was there but it hadn’t quite caught on.  We didn’t have Billie Eilish and her groundbreaking album yet.  Nine Inch Nails? Sure!  Every home recordist knew Trent Reznor did an entire album by himself.

But just like in the era of when tracker software went from a mere four channels to sixteen channels to eventually INFINITE channels, accessibility brought the world of home recording to anyone and everyone who was interested.  Small investment, big reward. Oversaturation.

Virtual instruments exist that emulate all of your favorite synthesizers.  Roland, Korg, Yamaha, Oberheim, all the greats.  Emulated, installed, and accessible by anyone.  Affordable too!  At least compared to their original hardware counterparts.

The software is easier than ever to use.  Some of it comes bundled with audio interfaces.  Some of it comes bundled with your computer!  Pro Tools, Cubase, Garage Band, Logic, Studio One, Reaper, Audacity, Audition, Luna, and the list of DAWs goes on and on. Full verisons, lite versions, student discounts.  Thousands of earth dollars to zero earth dollars.

Which is where we are right now.  Home recording software and hardware is no longer a limitation.  Only the imagination.

Want to record a rock version of an old video game song with your pandemic head beard intact?  Done.

Want to write and record a custom Clubhouse reset in a short amount of time and have it production ready?  Bam!

Feel like covering an entire song by yourself from scratch?  NOTHING STOPPING YOU!

The musical world is now your oyster.  All you need to do is crack the thing open.

The end, but actually the beginning

So yeah, that brings us to the end of that specific story.  Except it’s really only the beginning when all is said and done.  Because each new day is a new musical adventure and each new musical adventure is a new home recording project.  Using tools that were not easily found a bit more than 20 years ago.

Isn’t it WILD where we’re at right now? All of this can be done AT HOME.  In the comfort of our own pajamas.  Without a production engineer asking us to change clothes.

It’s worth noting that the full recording facility is still a very important part of our musical culture.  Much of the music we are listening to today is the product of collaborative efforts between artists, producers, engineers, and labels.  Adele isn’t recording in her basement.  Katy Perry isn’t recording vocals out in a shed in the back yard.  Pandemic albums aside, recording studios are still a necessary part of this ecosystem.

It’s just nice to know that there is room for the home recording music slinger to try and æffect an auditory æffettuoso in that world without being too far out of place.  The Tascam 4 track recorder may be a thing of the past but the spirit that reaped what it could sow still thrives and creates today.

Start a project today.  Email me if you need a boost or any advice.  I gotchu.

Until next week.

-= george =-



Are we having fun yet?

About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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