Technology that Changed Music — the Digital Studio

How much does it cost to record a hit record in 2019? You might be surprised to find out that the answer is not much. Take Grammy-winning music producer Oak Felder, who helped create a string of recent hits by artists such as Nicki Minaj, Alessia Cara and Demi Lovato.

The equipment used on some of these tracks consists of a consumer-grade Apple laptop ($1499), an external sound card ($650), music recording software ($199), and a few software plugins ($600) — a combined cost of less than $3,000.

Dials, buttons and sliders

In the past, the charts were dominated by experienced producers with a track record of producing hits like Phil Spector, Mickie Most and Trevor Horn. So what changed? The move away from recording and editing on magnetic tape towards fully digital music production in the mid-90s was crucial. Digitization radically reduced the amount of equipment needed to record a song and fundamentally changed the way that music producers work.

Point & mix

Everything changed when digital recording became mainstream in the 1990s. Digital music had a long history prior to this period. The technical foundation, Digital Pulse-Code Modulation, was invented by Bell Labs in the 1930s and the first commercial digital recording was released in 1971. So if digital recording had been technically possible for two decades, why did studios not go digital sooner?

Too much of a good thing?

It was now much easier than before to precisely edit and merge audio samples with original recordings. This was showcased spectacularly by Beck’s 1996 album Odelay. Recorded with ProTools, it was a dramatic collage of live recordings and samples which vividly demonstrated the power and creativity that digital editing could unleash. The album made extensive use of vintage analog synthesizers, drum machines, and looped guitar phrases that seemed to form a bridge between rock and the emerging electronic music genre.

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