Music the web 2.0 way

We all heard about how the music business is on its knees due to illegal downloading of copyrighted music on the internet. Yes, the MP3 revolutionized the way people consume and listen to music. Yes, the decade 2000-2010 was the one that saw widespread access to all sorts of music, everywhere in the world. Thats not news by now is it?

What is really new and fresh but maybe not unexpected, and not as widely known, is how the internet is revolutionizing music creation. For those of you not familiar with how music is created and recorded, allow me to take you through a brief journey through music technology and its evolution from the 80s to the current decade. For those of you familiar with digital recording, please skip ahead, or stick with me for a laugh or two.

Music recording for dummies

So, how does one record music anyway? Well you don’t just throw a couple microphones at a band, ask them to play the song, and record it to tape. Well you could, but it would not be “record quality” as we know it. Usually each of the musicians play their parts separately, listening to a guide track recorded with the whole band live. Drums are recorded first, then guitars or the bass, depends on the genre and the producer, and finally vocals.

Recording in the 80s

Ahhh the 80s. In all its flashy green and bold pink glory. Those were the days. I only lived my childhood in them, so all I’m saying here is from my own research, and none from my experience  – well except for the green and pink stuff… I wore that (doh!) .

During the 80s, what you played, was what went into the tape. Wait, did I just say TAPE???. Hell yeah, fucking tapes. Large tape reels that you placed into a machine the size of the desk your computer is sitting over. Digital music making was still in its infancy, and the best thing we had were MIDI sequencers, where you could have a crappy synthesizer play the parts you composed with a bunch of fizzy sounds produced with Frequency Modulation (FM).

What does that mean? If you screwed any little tiny bit of your playing, you would have to play the whole thing again. Or at least a big part of it. It also meant that the machines that handled up to 24 simultaneous tracks (parts/instruments)  costed a very huge sum of money.

All mixing – the process of making individual tracks fit together and form a real song, adjusting volume, pan (Left or Right), EQ, among other things – was done manually in a mixing desk. All effects, such as delay (echoing), reverb (ambiance. the difference between singing out in the open an in your bathroom), compression,  etc, were applied using rack units, with each of them also costing a premium.

So basically, recording gear was expensive as hell, the recording process was lengthy and tiring to boot, mixing required very fast hands  and lots of money on effects units and mixing desks. All that made recording completely out of reach to the general public, or average garage band Joe.

The 90s – Digital audio takes off

Well, over came the 90s, and with them, some technological evolutions. First of all, wavetable synthesizers, the technology still in use by the likes of Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Alesis, etc, came up in the 90s, allowing synthesizers to reproduce more faithfully the sound of other instruments. It was the era of synth pop, made famous by the likes of A-HA, Madonna, Michael Jackson, among others.  Many records dropped the use of real, acoustic drums,  bass and other instruments, and used synthesizers to replace them. It was A LOT cheaper. Recording drums can be a tedious, lengthy and expensive process.

It was also the decade that saw the advent of the dreaded multi-effects units. Those digital processor backed units were capable of doing several different effects (delay, reverb, compression, chorus, etc),  all in one cost-effective, space saving box. Can you hear the mixing costs dropping? Tcha-ching!

Also on the 90s, there was the advent of the small, affordable mixers. The leader of the pack who came up with these products was Mackie, and by making mixers affordable, it made live sound cheaper, but also the mixing process cheaper.  The small mixers packed  less than their “studio” counterparts, bearing usually between 8 and 24 channels, as opposed to hundreds of channels in a “standard” studio mixer. Overall, it made one more part of the equation accessible by mortals.

Last but not least, the two most important technology advances of the decade in recording, the PortaStudio (ok ok, 4-track recorder), and the ADAT recorder. Also the most important one  in playback and distribution:  the CD.

The PortaStudio was a device pioneered by TASCAM, but copied by several other manufacturers, that allowed you to record up to 4 distinct tracks to a regular cassette tape. It was at the heart of any musician’s “demo recording” rig. It had an embedded 4 channel mixer, and microphone and line inputs, allowing one to record anything from synths to vocals to even drums. The sound quality wasn’t GREAT, but it allowed one to record instruments separately, making one-man productions feasible.

The ADAT recorder was a device the size of a video cassete player, that used video-cassete sized tapes to record up to 8 tracks digitally. They could be easily edited by a method called “Punch-in Punch-out” where you overwrite only part of a track when recording. Those recorders could also be synced with other units, allowing for an endless amount of tracks to be recorded and played back simultaneously. ADATs were at the heart of the Project Studios – studios that offered budget prices to record your band with near pro quality. Very useful for unsigned bands and more polished demos.

The CD is something very familiar to us all, but it was the CD recorder advent in the late 90s, that made quality recording distribution possible. Demo “tapes” didn’t need to be tapes anymore, they could be demo CDs – 44khz – 16bit pristine quality audio.  You could record to ADAT, mix in a Mackie mixer with multi-fx units, and then burn it to a CD.

Quite a lot for a decade eh?

A New Millenium – The digital audio workstation and the infamous ProTools

As much as the ADATs made recording cheaper, it was still out of the league of garage bands and regular musicians. Studio time was now a lot cheaper, due to the birth of project studios, but it was still costly for most.

Still during the 90s, computers benefited from the widespread adoption of Sound Cards. In case you don’t know, it’s the sound card in your computer (although nowadays it’s unlikely to be a real “card”, just yet another processor in your motherboard) that reproduces anything you hear from your computer.

The sound card made possible not only to listen to sound from your PC, but also to record it. It was just a matter of time before software was built to record and playback multiple tracks. Companies known for their MIDI Sequencers, such as Cakewalk and Steinberg, started upgrading their software to work not only with MIDI, but also audio. Soon, most major sequencers supported multi-track audio recording and playback, and thus the DAW – Digital Audio Workstation – was born. Hardware was created to support it, along with software that exploited the hardware, and the most well known platform of that sort is ProTools.

The major changes to the recording process using a DAW were in the editing field. It was now possible to edit parts visually, copy them, repeat them, anything you can do in a word processor was now possible with audio. But that’s only one side of the story.

What DAWs also did was enabling the average musician to use their home computer to record demos, without the need to buy ANY extra gear. No more PortaStudios. No more ADATs. No more MIXERS! All DAWs had built-in mixers to adjust the levels of the parts being played, and as long as you didn’t need to do any processing of the sound outside of the computer, any regular sound card would do. All of a sudden, the cost of recording demos was brought to practically ZERO. You could record with a computer mic, and still get passable sound.

I myself have gone through quite some DAW evolution. My first setup was Cakewalk 8, my trusty SoundBlaster AWE 32, its internal synthesizer for drums and bass, and my guitar through my trusty mini-Marshall MS-4 inside a shoebox, miced up with a computer microphone. Did it sound professional? Not at all. But still I could get my song ideas down and show to my band mates.

I later on upgraded my sound card to a Guillemot MAXI Studio ISIS (8 in, 8 out), bought a Spirit Folio F1 Mixer (the ISIS didn’t have microphone preamps, so I bought the mixer to use the MIC pres), and a couple of pro-level CAD and Shure microphones. The results were impressive, and could compete with studio recordings done in the 80s and early 90s.  I did a couple recordings, and with under $1000 USD I had a recording setup that rivaled top studios.

Then there was the advent of software instruments and guitar amp modelling, but the ISIS didn’t make it through the upgrade from Winblowz 98 to 2000 and then XP. I didn’t record a lot of drums back then, so I went with a simple Sound Blaster Live sound card, where I plugged in my mixer output. I used Cakewalk SONAR, then moved to Cubase SX, Amplitube and ReValver for my guitars, Sonic Implants BlueJay soundfont for drums, and a free sound font I found on the net for bass. My Synths were powered by the Native Instruments software synths, the B4 being my pride and joy.

Nowadays there’s not much change to this. I’ve changed the SB Live for an M-Audio Fast Track due to me dropping the desktop for a laptop, and bought a Fractal Audio Axe-FX to get rid of the “modeler” sound the other software gave me for guitars, bought a real bass, changed the drum soundfont for EZDrummer, but all in all it’s all the same.  Microphones got cheaper, and sound cards now have built-in mic pres, so you don’t even need a mixer anymore.

90s and 2000s – The MP3 and broadband internet

This is the last part of the background info. I promise it is!  I’m glad you made it this far. So back in the 90s most people used internet on dial up. And on dial up, the very BEST transfer rate you could get was 5k/s. At that rate, a regular 5 minute sound file, in WAV format, would take around 4 hours to transfer to someone else. Actually, you wouldn’t do that, because it was just a total pain in the back.

What made sound file sharing possible, was the MP3 format. MP3 “compression” (more on this later) turned 40mb WAV files into 5MB ones, with no noticeable loss in quality. MP3 relies on a psychoaural model, which roughly discards the information in the wave that our ears and brain don’t process.

So a 5mb file was much better, you could send a song to someone on dial up in about 30 minutes.

The advent and widespread adoption of broadband, made possible that songs could be sent in under 5 minutes, meaning they could be streamed – listened to while the download was still active. You can now listen to pretty much any band you like on myspace, or youtube. You can listen to hi-quality mp3 from new artists at Soundclick.

So what? What does all this babble have to do with web 2.0?

Even with all the technology improvements, you were still limited to collaborating with other musicians that lived near you, or at least, that were in the same physical space as you were (maybe on a phone call, but you wouldn’t hear anything properly).

Well, now that:

  1. Recording is cheap
  2. Sending files is effortless
  3. Music can be streamed

the technical factors for collaborating with other musicians online are all in place. The stars are aligned, the moon is eclipsed, and it is time. The only thing missing was software. Until recently.

I present you  3 internet-based offerings for colaboration with other musicians online, that have been developed only in the late 2000s.

eJamming – A platform for jamming with other people online, in real-time! eJamming allows you to jam to up to 3 other people in real time, with minimum latency (provided you’re in an acceptable distance from each other and have all the bandwidth necessary).  You log in, create or join a session, and jam away. With someone from Alaska. Or China. Or Africa. Endless possibilities in real-time, brought to you by technology.

Indaba MusicA web-based platform for music recording and creation in a collaborative fashion. Basically you log in, join or create a session, and contribute a new instrument part, or a new idea, or lyrics, whatever to a song. Or have other people do that to one of your songs. Again, endless, worldwide possibilities. Indaba is mainly used by hip-hop and electronic music musicians, but there’s also room for all other genres. The other day I took part on a session where Mark Miller – from Talas fame, played with Billy Sheehan (Mr Big) – recorded the drum parts!

KompozSame as indaba, although with a more rock and metal – oriented community.

It’s such a good time to live in if you’re a musician. You can collaborate, create and expand your horizons without even leaving your own home. I’m totally addicted to those tools and to collaboration.

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