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A Sound Education

The Birth of Home Recording

"I bought a Dutch barge and turned it into a recording studio. My plan was to go to Paris and record rolling down the Seine."
Pete Townshend, The Who

What do you get when you combine a $150 microphone, a simple audio interface, a computer, audio recording and mixing software, and some musical talent? Maybe a hit record, even if it's made in an apartment living room in the middle of the night. The tools to produce quality music recordings are ridiculously good, affordable, and plentiful these days. It wasn't always like that. The Beatles, for instance, recorded the bulk of their music in London's EMI studios, a corporate juggernaut complete with tie-wearing audio engineers. In the U.S., record companies practically burned cash using session players such as Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell, and Carol Kaye of Wrecking Crew fame in commercial studios. In the 70s, The Porcaro brothers, Steve Lukather, David Foster, and other household musical names rode the session player wave until synthesizers and affordable recording equipment came along.

I'm conflicted on the topic of recording music at home. The business part of me frets about studios losing out on billable hours. The musician part of me relishes creating art in a non-pressure environment. But the history of artists recording radio-ready songs in their humble abodes goes back further than you might imagine. Let's explore how affordable home music recording for the masses came to be, but also look back at the origins of this revolution in recording.

Blank recordable phonographic discs first appeared in the mid-1930s as a way to instantaneously record sounds to disc. Some of these early direct-to-disc recorders were somewhat portable, at least enough to be carted around in the trunk of a car. John Lomax used a 300 pound one to crisscross the south recording folk songs from such legends as Lead Belly for the Library of Congress. I discuss John and his son Alan in my article "Recording History" here. Over time, direct-to-disc cutters shrank to the size of a small suitcase, but the convenience and quality of the next big recording technology would overshadow it.

Enter magnetic tape recording. Technically, it was invented at the turn of the century, but its development was in Nazi Germany. In 1945, when the Allies were divvying up the spoils of war, the U.S. chose the Ampex Corporation to manufacture the first American-made reel-to-reel recorders. Artists like Bing Crosby and Les Paul pushed the technology to its limits while inventing new techniques and recording methods along the way. Working out of his home, Les Paul and Mary Ford recorded a string of hit songs using crude overdubbing and half-speed effects. Paul was also fortunate enough to have the first 8-track recorder, again inventing recording methods that would be used for decades. I also wrote in detail about Les Paul in my article "Recording History."

But these machines were beyond the budgets of ordinary people. For much of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, multi-track recorders were bulky, expensive, and hard to maintain. Recording tape for multitracks, usually 1" or 2", cost a small fortune. Consoles to record and mix on were also quite expensive. But things were changing. Microphones started to come down in price in the 60s, especially when Shure introduced the SM57. The "57" is now a staple for recorded and live music (and is still the preferred microphone for Presidential speeches).

As post war technological advancements matured, inventions such as the transistor and IC (integrated circuit) started to shrink electronics. Japan had rebuilt its factories and started to make major innovations in electronics. The Japanese company TEAC (later Tascam) almost single-handedly invented the home recording market in the early 1970s with affordable 4-track recorders that used miserly 1/4" tape (I used the TEAC 4-track in my very first recording experiences in the 70s). By the late 70s they had introduced an 8-track 1/2" recorder. In later years Tascam would sell other firsts, like the first 8-track reel-to-reel / mixer combo, the 4-track cassette recorder, the R-DAT, and the MiniDisc multitracker.

In the early 80s, another Japanese company, Fostex, rocked the world when they introduced an 8-track reel-to-reel recorder that used 1/4" tape. They later squeezed 16 tracks onto 1/2" tape and 24 tracks onto 1" tape – with SMPTE and MIDI sync to boot. The G24s was the ultimate affordable tool of small studios until digital recording came along.

In the 80s synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and sequencing software started to take over the music world. Much of the performance was done in the musician's home on the keyboard while a computer acted as a modern piano roll and recorded data from key presses and the sustain pedal. With simple mixers and affordable recorders, all that had to be added were live performers in a studio.

Some classic albums have been wholly or partially recorded and mixed in home studios with this early affordable technology. Tom Sholz cut most of the guitar and drum parts to Boston's first two albums in his basement on a Scully 12-track 1" machine. Tascam's 4-track cassette recorder was the center piece for Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Wu-Tang Clan's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Iron and Wine's debut The Creek Drank the Cradle.

Today's cheap but effective music creation tools, such as GarageBand, are available to the masses like never before. So hold off angrily pounding on your neighbor's door in the middle of the night. Maybe that glass-rattling thumping bass might be the next Grammy-winning album being made.

Read about Tom Scholz creating the first two Boston albums in his home in Guitar World.

Mix Magazine talks with Scholz about the classic song "More Than a Feeling."

Tascam is the subject at the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

Fostex gives their fascinating history on their corporate web site.

Mix Magazine's behind-the-scenes look at session musicians during the heyday of the LA recording scene in the 1970s.