The Concise History  of the Home Studio
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The Concise History
of the Home Studio

How we used to do it, how we do it today

By Rich the TweakMeister

 

 

pic or a pioneer 1020L reel to reel

 

tweak sezHey, this is not the definitive history of home recording but a quick timeline to give you the gist of what happened before you got here.  This is the timeline you have to know to make sense of developments in the area of home recording, so you understand how recording gear evolved and can see where the pieces you see in the store today fit in.  A little history also helps you appreciate the power of what we have today and how inexpensive it is to get started.

 

PreHistory

It was the tape recorder that really got it all started.  Finally one could plug in a microphone, record a musical performance, and play it back through an amplifier.  Professional multi-track recorders came about in the 60s in reel to reel format, but you weren't going to find them in many homes.  Music recording was done in professional studios, and making music of high sound quality often meant getting signed by a record label.  What we did find in musicians homes were 2 track reel to reel recorders that could record one take at a low quality.  But AM radio blared the studio recordings of Elvis, Motown, then the Beatles and British and American bands the fervor to make ones own music went mainstream.  Bands grew out of garages everywhere and every member of them dreamt of oneday recording in a studio.  That set the ground for the home studio revolution.

1970s

MultiTrack Reel to Reels come into reality

The Tascam Portastudio is introduced using cassettes and an integrated mixer

Guitars, pedals and amps are selling like mad and everyone wants to record their band

Analog mono synths take to the stage and studio

 

The first home studios appeared in the 70s.  Finally technology advanced to the point where one could do sound on sound recordings on reel to reel and eventually to recording 4 discrete tracks at different times.  The Teac 4 track reel machines, like the A-3340s (introduced in 1971) and the A-40-4 were popular and indeed beautiful machines, to which could be added the Teac 2-A mixer and a Stereo or two track reel to reel for Mixdown..  In the early days of home recording, the combo made a "dream system".  Add a powerful amp and passive speakers and you were set.  You needed a lot of money, at least $10,000 for one of these home rigs, just to get started.  

 

Tascam 40-4 recorder and Model 3 8 in 4 out Mixer (1977)

Around 1976 Teac became Tascam and the Model 80-8 8 track reel-to-reel recorded was launched using a 1/2" tape format, for $3,500, along with the Model 1 and Model 3 8 channel mixers and then a year later, a 24 channel 8 bus mixer

The Reel to reel approach remained the dream system for home studio all the way through the late 80s. Thanks to many refinements in the recorders and the wider tape track and faster speeds, the quality stayed well above cassette multi trackers.  Professional studios still have high end analog multi track recorders and their sound is sometimes preferred over digital solutions.

  • A Classic end of the 70's studio might have the following gear:
  • A Tascam 80-8 reel to reel
  • A Reel to reel Mixdown machine
  • Analog Mixer with preamps
  • A big 100 watt per channel amp
  • An analog delay and analog reverb
  • A MiniMoog and various amps
  • A noise reduction Unit to clean up tape hiss
  • A collection of Guitar pedals

 

The "Dream" system of '78 Tascam 80-8

 

1980s

Cassette 4 track recorders flourish

Rack mount effects boxes appear

MIDI is introduced (1983)

Mixers designed for recording at home appear

Compact disk players take over the market

The first sequencers using computers are released (1984)

The first analog multi timbral synths appear

Digital synths (Dx7, etc) start to appear.

Drum Machines (Linn, Roland TR808 and 909) hit big and define many new types of music

DAT arrives and digital recording becomes reality

The first affordable samplers and sampling drum machines appear (1987)

The first sample playback synthesizers appear (1989)

 

Having a 4 track in the early 80's was a dream many guitarists shared.  After the debut of the PortaStudio, manufacturers were quick to jump on the bandwagon and it redefined the musical instrument industry.  These stores, which previously only carried pianos, guitars and amps and maybe drums where suddenly crammed with home studio gear--recorders, reel to reel, pedals, digital delays, cables, midi drum machines and then keyboards, interfaces and sync boxes, and if they had enough room a corner devoted to mixers.  Then when the early computers came in to the scene in 1984, we see the first formulations of computer-based studios that we have today.

The level of excitement was contagious and precious few people understood the gear that was being introduced nearly every week. Hey, there were no internet forums yet!  Knowledge was hard to find and trade magazines, like Electronic Musician, started to flourish.

You could now, at last get more than guitars, bass, drums and vocals on your 4 track, but, thanks to the first multi timbral synthesizers, you could add a sequenced composition a synthesized instruments and play your guitar and sing over that.  But at first, these sequencers were very crude, with no graphics, though some, like Dr. T's Keyboard Controlled Sequencer for the Commodore 64 were quite artful and powerful. 

Affordable samplers and more powerful graphic oriented sequencers began to appear around 1987, and this technology began to change the fabric of popular music we heard on the radio.  Sampling gave rise to hip hop, well-orchestrated pop tunes, and a revolution in the way drums could be tracked in music.  The drum machine inspired classic 80s dance, club, workout music could be sequenced and mixed at home, then mixed down to 16 bit DAT digital recorders. 

TweakLab 1987

The TweakLab in 1987 with a brand new Atari ST, Akai X7000 digital sampler, Yamaha MT44 multi-track

The mid eighties saw the rise of the great polyphonic analog and digital synthesizers.  These includes the Juno 106, the Super Jupiter, Sequential's Prophet 5 and SixTrak, and of course the famous Yamaha DX7, a true digital synth.  In the late 80's synths became refined with 4 megabyte sample roms inside.  Indeed, these were the first "romplers" which included Korg's M1, Roland D50 and D-series synths and the first Emu Proteus. 

 

Perhaps the dream home studio of the late 80s would look like this:

  • Multi-track recorder synced to a large computer based MIDI system
  • Akai MPC 60 or drum machine
  • Emagic's Notator Atari
  • DAT recorder
  • 8-16 track analog mixer
  • Akai S900 sampler
  • DX7 and a few modules
  • Compressor
  • Digital Reverb and Delay
  • A computer for recording sequences synced to the multi track.

 

As we end the 80's Performer version 3 (now Digital Performer) is released on the Mac and Atari platforms

1990s

 

ADAT 8 track digital decks arrive

MIDI Guitar arrives and fails

With Windows 3.1 Audio multi track recording becomes possible

The First MIDI and Audio Sequencers come out

MIDI Modules flourish

The Computer based home studio flourishes when Windows 95 is released

Audio plugins are introduced and take off

The Virtual mixer appears in sequencers

Early software synthesizers arrive

Soundfonts and software samplers emerge.

Multi timbral synths go from 32 to 64 voices

The first CDR recorders appear

Tweakheadz Lab is born (1996)

Digital mixers become popular in high end home studios

MP3.com allows musicians to upload their work for free and actually pays musicians

Audio interfaces emerge to replace soundcards

Some studios start going mixerless

Synthesizers based on modeling arrive--the virtual analog synths are born

 

As we turned to the 90's all the basic hardware pieces are in place in the home studio.  Through the 90s, the hardware got better, computers got better, and near the end of the decade software exploded and started to encroach upon hardware functions.

Alesis came through with ADAT recorders.  These were digital 8 track multi track recorders that recorded on to special VHS type videotapes.  It was possible to sync up several of these decks to a master controller, which allowed a high end home studio to go beyond 16 track reel to reels, with a cleaner, digital sound that did not need noise reduction. 

The biggest flop of the early 90s has to be MIDI guitar, which were everywhere in the stores, but not making the grade on many records.  MIDI itself was now getting refined and it was possible to make huge MIDI systems with 64 MIDI ports (or 1,024 MIDI channels, all controllable by a single computer.  MIDI synths and samplers became much more powerful.  Samplers like the Emu ESi 32 were introduced under $1500 that had 32 voices and could hold 32 megabytes of samples, an astonishing development at first.  The sound development industry took off with custom sample libraries for the samplers on the market.  Synths also got huge.  This was the heyday of the Kurzweil and Yamaha synth workstations that tried to combine sampling with sample playback synthesis and an onboard sequencer.  By the end of the decade, synths were a  highly competitive product class, with the introduction of Korg's Trinity and Roland's inexpensive JV30, 50, 60, 80 and the huge variety of emu Proteus 2000 modules rising to the height of their glory. 

Mixers dropped in price and increased features.  Mackie emerged as a leader with its popular CR1604, and later the VLZ pro series, which were specifically designed to give home studios on a budget better quality preamps and lower noise. 

Perhaps the biggest splash was in computer software and hardware, which made tremendous transformations.  PCs could barely do more than a track or two of audio till Windows 95 came out and it really did not get up to serious speed till Windows 98.  In this era plugins were introduced which started the idea that one could actually use the computer as a recorder and a mixer.  As this gleam became a priority for developers, the first affordable PCI audio interfaces came out, replacing the sound card, and allowing the recording of up to 8 tracks at once.  As CPU clock cycles got faster and drives got faster it all fell together.  As software recording packages added plugins and methods to automate volume, pan and virtual sends to plugins, it became possible to mix in the box.  Most home studios didn't have a good enough computer to handle the task and we still used Mixers to bounce back to the computer or still recorded onto DAT.  But as we rounded the bend to the next decade, it was clear that the DAW was now a major focal point of the home studio.  In this context we have the explosion of websites for musicians on the internet, the ability to upload your own MP3 files for immediate worldwide distribution that was practically free of charge.

As we ended the 90's, the dream studio of the day might have looked like this:

  • A strong desktop computer
  • Large audio interface with 8x8 or 16x16 analog i/o.
  • An 8 bus mixer, controlling the ins and outs of the audio interface
  • Effects rack with delay, reverb, compressors, and perhaps a finalizer
  • A high quality synth and a rack of synth modules
  • A large digital sampler and SCSI storage with a library of CD roms
  • A full featured recording software package, like Logic, Cubase, Sonar, etc.
  • A DAT recorder for mixdowns

 

 

2000s

Software Samplers arrive and take over the hardware sampler market

Computer technology allows more processes to be handled by a computer with multi-core technology

Studio-central is born (Sept 2002)

24bit/96khz recording becomes available in low cost interfaces

Control Surfaces arrive

Soundless keyboard controllers take off

Firewire becomes a popular format for audio interfaces

The control surface/ audio interface/digital mixer/midi interface is combines in one box

Apple bundles a software studio for free in its computers (GarageBand)

Guitar amps incorporate digital models of other amps

Universal Audio releases plugins that faithfully recreate famous effects processors, EQ, compressors.

It becomes generally acknowledged that, for the money spent, software sounds better than hardware.  Hardware mixers become unnecessary for professional production.    

Mac OS X rises against decades of Microsoft's dominance.  Yet the latter releases Windows 7 to fight back (2009)

The recording studio can be fit inside a notebook computer; high quality handheld recorders emerge; multi track recorders get smaller.

 

 

 

 

We rounded the bend to year 2000 with all the gear in place needed for a home studio that would still hold up today.  Computer became more widely accepted even by pro studios as the common method for doing recordings and the quality of products increased as prices fell, allowing more people into the arena.  As of 2006, even average desktop computers can handle more audio tracks than one could conceivably need for a pop song, with plenty of power in reserve.  But any excess CPU power was quickly gobbled up by software samplers and digital models of old analog gear.  Soft samplers, like Kontakt and Tascam's Giga line now can load several gigabytes of samples into memory for instant playback, a feat that would have taken a roomful of samplers in the early 90s, with a sound quality as good as the studio they were made in.  Soft Synths, Like Atmosphere, combine samples to make massively huge textures in one plugin that used to take a giant MIDI studio with multiple synths layered through a mixer.  On the processor front, Universal Audio and other companies develop plugins designed to rival every nuance of old classic compressors, limiters and FX boxes.  Convolution reverb plugins emerge that use a sampled impulse file to configure reverberant virtual "rooms" within the software environment that can be tweaked and modified to taste with a few mouse clicks.

The Modern ADAT

The power of the DAW and sequencing software becomes so powerful that more and more people have gone mixerless.  The software mixer is more powerful, has an unlimited number of channels in most applications, and a huge selection of processors for tracking, mixing and mastering, when fully equipped.  The control surface emerged in the 2000s and its not going away, giving the studio operator a tactlie surface resembling a mixer that can control the software mixer.  Products emerged in this decade like the Tascam FW1884 which combines a large audio interface with a control surface and MIDI interface, which in one box contains much of the hardware you need for a great sounding home studio. 

MIDI keyboards no longer need to have sounds as the DAW and softsynths can take care of that.  As a result we have the wide proliferation of low cost keyboard controllers.  Firewire, with its ease of connection and stable data streams, becomes a popular option for connecting audio interfaces, which now have more i/o than ever before at a constantly shrinking price.  As a result, less and less gear is needed for a home studio.  You can now have a home studio as powerful as a room sized 90s home studio in a small closet.

As we head into the later half of the decade, the laptop computer a rising in power and capability.  The latest Apple laptops are going to make a big splash, as they can be compared to the power of the G5 desktops of only a few years ago.  As computers get smaller, video screens get bigger and its now reality to spread you work out on one or more high definition 1080p monitors.  Synth modules, effects racks, mixers and cables are disappearing.

We end the first decade of the new millennium with the awkward acknowledgement that the computer is the center of not only audio production but of media production in general.  It no longer takes a lot of money and gear to get in the game.  The tools of production, for the first time ever, can be taken for granted. The home studio has progressed from having perhaps a 16 channel mixer and a a few rack effects to having a virtual console of unlimited channels with unlimited inserts, sends, busses going to a full library of effects processors not even Abbey Road could afford.

 

A modern "dream" home studio for 2009 might incorporate the following:

  • Keyboard controller
  • Control Surface
  • A powerful DAW at the center of everything, fully networked and connected to the world of music and musicians.
  • An audio interface with the i/o, preamps and digital connections you need for whatever hardware you want to use.
  • Add on mic preamps and converters for high end sound
  • Powered studio monitors
  • A huge arsenal of software synths and samplers, including online large sample libraries
  • A state of the art software recorder like Logic, Digital Performer, Pro Tools LE or M-powered, Cubase or Sonar
  • Modeled plugin processors like the UAD2
    Select hardware of high quality or of vintage. 

 

 

Tweak's home studio (11-2008)

 

 

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