The Benefits (And Disadvantages) of Modern Recording Technology

By in Audio Post, Music Creation, Pro Mixing

It’s no secret that modern technology has helped aspiring musicians, producers, recording engineers and others to more readily produce content. When I was coming up as a young musician, it was the tail end of the multimillion dollar studio. You had these large mixing consoles that would cost half a million dollars. Two-inch tape machines were expensive to buy — and, more importantly, the tape was really expensive. For someone coming up in school, tape would be a big factor on how much you could record. You would record over the same tape over and over again to make it work.

But by the time I got into working professionally, on video games and films, tape was gone.  It was a lot cheaper, for starters, to work digitally. Previously, systems could do four tracks, while digital offered nearly limitless tracks. There was no question that you would be working digitally.

It was just a huge leap forward — creatively as well. I remember the first time that I sat down with Pro Tools and ran some sounds in reverse, which is much easier digitally than playing a tape deck in reverse and then recording that sound. At the time, simple things like that that we now take for granted were amazing. It really opened up the ability to experiment with all sorts of sounds. I would spend endless time in the studio running every combination of Pro Tools effects — you could really develop your tonal palette just through experimentation, and it didn’t cost you any money, once you had all the equipment because you weren’t burning through tape or anything like that.

The challenge today, both professionally and creatively, is limiting yourself and not just layering tons and tons of tracks where you just make a big muddy mess of everything. And that’s tough to teach. If you have one track that’s really brilliant, maybe that’s enough to have a really great song. If you have 50 mediocre tracks, it’s still going to sound mediocre. It doesn’t just get better because you make more tracks. I try to do that with students now; I tell them, you have to have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. Just throwing more stuff at it isn’t the way to get to something really great.

Having some degree of intimacy in performances and how you’re capturing them is more important than the tools you use to record them. Now, of course, in the modern world, you have this laptop that’s just as powerful as a huge Pro Tools rig would have been 15 years ago. You can run a ton of plugins at the same time, whereas previously you might have to limit, say, reverb to a number of tracks so that it wouldn’t overload the CPU. It used to be a way that you would bump up against the limitations of computers and programs like Pro Tools. Now, everything’s so powerful that you can just get away with it, even if it’s not optimal for the sound you’re looking for.

Perhaps the overload of technology we now have at our fingertips is a reason why there’s been a bit of a move in the overall music world toward getting things across in a more simplistic way. From the return of folk instruments like banjos and ukuleles to the popularity of modular synths in electronic music, analog is the style du jour. Part of that is that the way in which you interact with these instruments is much more intuitive. Maybe we just went a little crazy with what we had available to us — you could have 100 tracks of stuff playing, but that doesn’t make the songs more compelling. How we get to the completed product isn’t as important as the story itself. Whether working with digital products, analog or both, you have to balance what you can do with that intangible human element of storytelling to really make it work.

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Assistant Director - Music Technology Program at Foothill College