The evolution of gear and the engineer

Although modern equipment continues to help simplify the role of the recording professional, there will always be challenges to overcome, as David Bowles explains.

Recording in 2016 is much easier than in 1976, not to mention 1936. What used to cost studios and record labels hundreds of thousands of pounds is now within reach of individual audio engineers. While other parts of the signal chain have been made simpler (digital interfaces, laptop recording and post-production), there are some issues to consider.

Let’s start with a recording rig during the ‘golden age’ of recording: the 1930s. A cutting machine for 78RPM wax masters was heavy, fragile and had to be positioned level for it to work correctly. Music compositions had to be adapted to fit the 10in and 12in discs, even if this meant inserting additional cadences when the timing ran past one side. A second cutter was often needed for using studio time more efficiently. If recorded outside a record company’s studio, ‘finished’ wax masters had to be transported in cool conditions, otherwise the grooves would degrade. Once the mothers and stampers were created, grooved portions of the wax block were shaved off so the wax could be used again and again. However, this meant there was no ‘original master’, only a third-generation copy.

A decade later, reels of tape offered much more recording time and vast improvements in bandwidth and signal quality alike. These machines were less heavy, but more difficult to maintain and operate correctly. Analogue tape was mass-produced, master tapes could be archived and copied – but stray magnetic fields could degrade or erase that information. Unlike the wax master era, tape recording machines decreased in price; both the machines and tape improved greatly throughout years of use.

Consider that line amplifiers, EQ units and mixing desks were designed and assembled in studios of major labels. Off-the-shelf components were developed in response to the demand of smaller studios (and labels) in the 1950s. Within a few years, it was possible to choose from several types of mic pres, compressors and EQ units. These were expensive, but several models are still used – and emulated – today.

Fast-forward to 2016, and high-end audio equipment has increased in quality and decreased in cost since its introduction in the late 1970s. There are high-end digital audio interfaces with high channel counts, which output multiple recording formats simultaneously for recording in parallel. Even medium-end interfaces offer sufficient quality to make good recordings. Laptops are faster and cooler every year, storage costs have decreased, and the adoption of SSD technology has meant greatly increased disc performance. Finally, rank-and-file ancillary gear has also increased in quality: cables, shock mounts, mic stands and even road cases for all that gear!

At the same time, low-end gear has also increased in quality and scope of use. When the first ‘prosumer’ digital recording devices were introduced, their quality was clearly lower than that of high-end studios. Today’s low-end market not only has interfaces for laptops, but the iPad and microphones for smartphones as well. These represent a paradigm shift in home recording similar to the creation of the Hi-Fi market (in conjunction with the introduction of the LP) in 1948.

Persisting practises

What has remained the same is the process of recording itself. One of my mentors stated – often – that “the advent of digital audio has not changed the laws of sound propagation!” Theory and practise – some of which was developed in the 1930s – remain as important as ever, and need to be applied to actual recordings, not just learned as a book chapter in a classroom course. That magic combination of performance, acoustic space and signal chain is just as difficult to capture as ever, whether recording in stereo, surround or 3D audio (even with today’s fad of ‘retro mono’ LPs).

In a way, making a good recording is more challenging with today’s increased resolution of DXD and DSD recordings. This increased resolution magnifies both the positive and negative aspects of recordings. We hear more of the acoustic space and performer, but also more room tone, mains hum, buzzing light fixtures and street noises. In addition, we’re competing with the past – sometimes a “great recording of the century”, and sometimes a self-produced release which just happened to get everything right.

The original mastering engineer was responsible for cutting an LP master in real time from an analogue tape. This required a high amount of skill, but in the end it was that one task he/she was responsible for. Today’s mastering engineer has to wear many hats: adapt dynamic and frequency range and/or imaging (sometimes for ?each track of a recording), and prepare masters for physical, download and streaming formats.

Recording, mix and mastering engineers alike also have to deal with noise reduction, formerly a highly specialised field developed to reduce analogue tape hiss. Our clients expect us to clean up room tone, undesirable instrument and performer noises, in addition to delivering a perfect edit and mix. A turnkey Sonic Solutions NoNoise system cost nearly £80,000 when it was introduced in 1987! Today one can buy a high-end plug-in suite for around £1,000, though some software still costs about £12,000.

Another major change is how recordings are distributed and publicised. Consolidation of the major labels and the demise of retail outlets have resulted in more boutique point-to-point labels, often owned by an arts organisation or even an individual performer. With so many more recordings issued year-to-year, is there less quality control? With the demise of music magazines and loss of column space in newspapers for reviews, is the consumer adequately informed which are the highly recommended recordings? Finally, historical reissues compete with current releases more than ever.

Last but not least, distribution paradigms are shifting quickly with the adoption of streaming, digital downloads and subscription-based services. While shopping over the internet makes obtaining recordings easier than ever, how can potential customers be reached effectively?

David Bowles is a freelance audio engineer specialising in recordings of acoustic music in surround-sound and 3D audio. He guest lectures at New York University’s Steinhardt School Tonmeister seminar, resides near San Francisco, and likes good wine and bad puns.