For the Record
By way of introduction to better coverage of recording studios and the technology within them, we look at the current state of the recording art and report from London's recent APRS studio show.
If APRS 85, this country's premier recording exhibition, proved anything, it was that the distinction between creating music and recording it is becoming increasingly blurred. Designers on both sides of the fence are contributing to the shift - but is it at the request of their customers?
It's not often you'll find advertising hyperbole within E&MM's pages, but part of a recent Yamaha ad which appeared in the lead-up to London's APRS recording show provides a particularly apposite quotation for our current subject: 'As music and technology become synonymous with one another, the roles of artist and engineer become increasingly fused. The old idea of the recording studio gives way to the concept of the totally integrated production environment. Here the line between instrument and processor becomes indistinct, and to remain competitive, a studio needs to offer an array of musical instruments as standard equipment'.
This year's APRS, held on June 12-14 at the Kensington Exhibition Centre, has been the most successful to date, with the reported total of 4782 visitors being more than 1000 up on last year. And among the 120+ exhibitors were the likes of Roland, Syco, Turnkey and Yamaha, musical instrument purveyors all, and with the last-mentioned exhibiting under their own name for the first time.
Some of the reasons those companies chose to exhibit their musical wares at the recording show lie within that piece of advertising copy. For once, the marketing men are speaking more than the odd word or two of truth. So just why are the barriers between studio engineering and playing music narrowing? That, sadly, is a lot more difficult to answer than it is to ask. But a few clear trends are emerging from the technological revolution modern music is presently going through, and as the UK's leading music technology magazine, we feel they need pointing out and, to some extent, explaining.
It's fairly obvious that if the onrush of technology is breaking down barriers between various sorts of equipment, then that breakdown must be matched by a similar change in people's roles. In 1985, we find that the traditional stereotype of the good-time muso who gave his all on stage (and a bit more off-stage when the occasion demanded), and left what little technical decisions there were to be dealt with by a trusted roadie, studio engineer or PA hand, is now an almost extinct species. Nowadays, he's given way to a variety of alternative breeds.
First, there's the devout 'I'm a notes man, I worry about the sounds later' keyboardsman, whose first instrument is the piano, who probably had a classical upbringing, and who may well be prone to frequent self-justification at the cost of the other breeds. Secondly, there's the programmer, who will happily admit to his musical shortcomings in the security of his intimacy with the most outrageously technical equipment the industry can devise, and his ability to create music and sounds beyond the reach of others by virtue of that intimacy. Then there's the studio musician, who may have characteristics attributable to either of the previous categories but, regardless of these, would never consider leaving the confines of his dimly-lit sanctuary in favour of a live environment, on the grounds that his achievements are dependent on equipment (and methods of using it) that are incapable of surviving the transition.
Obviously, this blurring of what were once distinct areas of record sleeve credits means that it's no longer practical to consider a lot of modern-day musical equipment in any one light.
Is the Fairlight merely a complex studio computer instrument, or a professional gigging keyboard as well? Sure, its natural habitat was never intended to be anything other than a recording studio - but that hasn't stopped the likes of Thomas Dolby and Duran Duran packing theirs up in flightcases and hogging them halfway round the world on extensive, ambitious concert tours.
And the blurring of distinctions doesn't stop at musical instruments. It now extends to machinery that was once thought to be the exclusive territory of the sound engineer, like outboard effects units. How? Well, principally through musicians, engineers and designers realising that if you have a network of bits of machinery that are designed to work together, that network will be more versatile, more useful, and less difficult to use than a similar system employing devices that have a decidedly antagonistic attitude towards each other.
Innovations in the field of communication between music machines have come and gone in the past, unnoticed either by the musicians' community, or by the (previously) equally inward-looking studio fraternity. Now, the wonderful world of MIDI has extended its sphere of influence beyond musical instruments, and gained a firm foothold in the recording studio.
That may sound simplistic, but by and large, it's been the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that's been responsible for uniting the musical and recording worlds. And although it may take a more advanced form of computer technology to unite the two professions utterly, MIDI is playing a vital role today - as Yamaha's ad copywriters seem well aware.
Of course, it was the arrival of TEAC's prophetic Portastudio that first gave musicians the means to record their own music outside the confines of a commercial studio (they'd had the desire to do it for years), but since then, the main impetus behind home studio progress has been MIDI.
It's now common practice for an artist to do much of what was once considered to be studio work before he's even so much as set foot in a professional, multitrack studio. Working with a dedicated music system at home not only saves studio time on composition, it also saves it on performance. Nowadays, musicians can walk into a recording studio and dedicate perfect rhythm and melody tracks to tape, without having to worry about endless retakes due to inept musicianship on the part of drummer, bass or synth player.
But the story doesn't end there, either, because the musician isn't the only one in a position to benefit from MIDI. The studio engineer also stands to gain in terms of both time and convenience which, in turn, means that engineers as a breed are inevitably going to want a say in more musical, rather than technical, decisions.
Imagine the (very real) possibility of recording a sync track on tape - instead of the drums and sequences - which permits the alteration of any part at any time up until the quarter-inch master is made. This is a lot more straightforward - not to mention effective-than recording a whole load of instrumental parts for possible use 'if they work out'.
Using the MIDI bus to change patches on a suitably-equipped DDL or reverb unit in sympathy with changing patches on a polysynth can make for a much more economical use of tape tracks, and save literally hours of treating 'dry' sounds during the final mixing session. Or is that a live performance aid...?
Mind you, MIDI is by no means the only area of development that's changing previously existing studio practice. The SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) synchronisation code is justifiably gaining in popularity. It not only permits synchronisation of equipment to tape (and also to videotape, as that was its original purpose), but provides a clock that allows any point of a recording to be identified without further reference to the start, permitting simple, instant drop-ins. Admittedly, the advantages of such a comprehensive system are greater in the context of a film soundtrack three hours in length than in that of a three-minute single, but the code does offer a multitude of possibilities, both in the aural medium alone and in promo video work.
And so to product specifics, and the APRS show mentioned at the start. Roland and Yamaha, major forces as musical instrument manufacturers, have been increasing their strength in the recording field in recent months - and not just in the home recording sector. Yamaha were the first company to give a 19" rack-mounting unit MIDI compatibility, with the D1500 MIDI Digital Delay that arrived towards the end of last year, and this particular path is being taken up by other manufacturers; there seems little doubt it'll become a widespread development. The trailblazing D1500 allows any of its 16 delay programs to be selected over MIDI using MIDI patch changes. Other Yamaha products are less domestically-oriented, like the highly-rated (and highly-priced) REV1 digital reverb, and the matching YDD2600 digital delay. A budget version of the REV1, the REV7, made its debut at APRS. It includes 30 onboard ROM reverb effects, and a further 60 effects which can be user-programmed. As with the D1500, any of these effects patches can be selected by MIDI patch-change commands, and in fact, the only disappointing thing about the REV7 is that it won't be available in the shops until September. Guess we'll just have to wait until then.
Roland, who first introduced programmable effects patches with their SDE1000 and SDE3000 digital delays, now have their own MIDI-compatible units in the shape of the SDE2500 digital delay and the SRV2000 digital reverb. The former implements a flexible patch assignment system whereby any onboard effects patch can be assigned to any incoming MIDI patch number. Thus although the SDE2500 has 64 patches, these can be assigned to any of the possible 128 MIDI patch positions. The MIDI patch change system has traditionally been rather inflexible, but Roland's system frees you from the restrictions imposed by different manufacturers using different methods of counting patch numbers.
So the musical instrument designers are turning their hands to studio equipment, and doing so with some success. But what of the traditional studio hardware manufacturers? Are they doing their bit to merge the performing and recording functions into one?
Well, the answer is yes. Remember that the studio world had begun embracing computer technology (in the form of automated mixing consoles such as those made by SSL and Neve) long before anyone had even set eyes on a Fairlight in the UK, so it isn't exactly in the habit of shying away from new technology.
Nor does it seem to be afraid of letting musicians in on the act of recording and producing, as APRS proved. There was a wide range of 'musical' studio products on offer, from Rebis' RA226 digital sampler (maximum 32-second sampling time at 12kHz bandwidth) to AMS' sensational AudioFile, a Winchester disk-based multi-track sampling and playback system. It's still a prototype at the moment, but before long, AMS should be offering a unique 'hybrid' system that bridges the gap between traditional multitrack tape recording (analogue or digital) and multitrack sequencing offered by the likes of Fairlight and Synclavier.
But AudioFile or no AudioFile, there's still only one means of transferring digitally-encoded data from one technological marvel to another directly: good old analogue. MIDI can do it for all manner of programming data, and there's nothing stopping you using a high-density storage medium (like a floppy or hard disk) as an intermediate stage in the transfer. But so far, there's no communications system clever enough to transmit a digitally-encoded audio signal from one Fairlight to another with any accuracy, let alone from Fairlight to Emulator II or Synclavier. Which explains why many studios currently keep a library of sounds on quarter-inch tape for transfer to, and subsequent use in, devices such as the AMS delay. If an industry standard could be agreed - in the same way as the MIDI standard was (eventually) settled upon - it would be possible to transfer samples in their digitally-encoded state from one machine to another with no deterioration in quality other than that inherent in using machines of varying bit resolutions.
Such a system would also let you transmit this information down the telephone line - currently possible with the analogue transfer of information, but not without incurring the 300Hz-34kHz bandwidth restrictions of the network, not to mention the system's inherent noise. Those problems overcome, it would theoretically be possible to ring Fairlight Instruments in Australia, quote your American Express number, and receive their design team's latest sounds almost instantly. It could come true earlier than you think...
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