1 A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Musical Technology: Promises and Risks for the Diversity of Cultural Expressions

(Original in Portuguese)

Paulo Assis[1]

Music and mankind have always existed side by side. In archaeological sites dated from the Palaeolithic era of over 40 thousand years of age, rudimentary forms of flute can be found. Music, which is among man’s first cultural expressions, appeared before agriculture or writing and is present in all societies on the planet in different formats and social functions, to follow a religious ritual or simply to break a lonely worker’s silence.

We will recall in a very simplified way some of the recording technologies developed in the last 120 years, and how they have influenced the creation of new musical forms. We will also see how the most recent advances have modified creative possibilities, and how industry’s mass-produced music affects diversity.

Until not so long ago, hearing music required the presence of performing musicians. Percussionists accompanied armies marching for the Roman Empire, and in southern USA cotton fields, workers would take turns in slave chants. Throughout history, expansion wars, commercial routes, and religious impositions opened paths for cultural exchanges of all kinds, including musical.

While some automatic instruments, such as player pianos and music boxes, appeared in history, they did not replace de facto the musician as the central element – be it a lonely housewife singing or a professional hired to liven up a royal court dinner. The way mankind experiences music started to change after the radio and the record were invented, since they made it possible to distribute and listen to pre-recorded sounds.

I – The analogic sound

A – The wax cylinder, shellac and the radio

By the end of the 19th century, people had access to some rudimentary audio recording technologies. One of the most popular pieces of equipment of this time was Tomas Edison’s phonograph, introduced in 1877. The phonograph had an acoustic cone with a needle on the tip that scratched a moving wax cylinder. The sound was played back by a mechanical process, in which the grooves on the cylinder caused a needle to vibrate and this vibration was amplified by the acoustic cone. Other similar technologies appeared in the same period, such as gramophones shellac records.

And then comes the cylinder and record business. The reproduction quality of these first models is quite limited, and, initially, their recommended use is the recording of monologues and famous speeches. Recording on these pieces of equipment was a delicate task, requiring that performance take place close to the sound-pickup cone, and the result was not always very good. The recording quality and sound clarity were important selling points for the cylinder manufacturers: one of the main features they would advertise was their artists’ diction (Cummings 2013: 16).

Soon, songs start getting included on this media – but not without many technical difficulties. The acoustic cone had poor sensitivity and was able to pick up only the loudest sounds. To balance the volume of the different instruments, it was necessary, during the recording sessions, to place them around the cone according to how loud they were. The louder the instrument, the further they were. To change the importance of the instruments during the recording the musicians were placed on moving platforms while playing – when it was time for a trumpet solo, the singer had to get out of the way and let the horn come closer in a complicated choreography. The wax recording was a finished piece of work. It was not possible to correct a faulty performance afterwards (Byrne 2012: 81).

Some devices initially sold to the public were more than mere record players, for they could scratch new cylinders, enabling home-made recordings. However, manufacturers soon realized that it would be a lot more lucrative if users could solely listen to what they bought from them. That resulted in a strategy directed to promote music consumption through mass produced cylinders (Byrne 2012: 84).

At the beginning of the following century, a new generation of inventions, based on electric power, changed the access to music again. The development of microphone technology and the discovery of electromagnetic waves made radio popular as a music-and-news broadcasting system in the 1920s. Radio could be listened to by anyone who had a receiver at home, and interestingly enough, it was still based on real-time musical performance inside the broadcasting studio. The sound quality of a live transmission was, at that time, far superior to that achieved by wax and shellac recording equipment, which created a whole generation of radio musicians.

B – The magnetic tape, vinyl, and the music industry

Among the technologies developed by the Germans during World War II is the audio recording on magnetic tape. Though some experiments had already taken place in the United States in that particular field, the Nazi had developed such good equipment that people were in doubt whether they were listening to recorded performances or live playing orchestras (Moormann 2003). When the war was over, the technology was studied by the Americans and the first magnetic tape recorder was released in 1948. Broadcasting radios started to use this equipment, expanding its broadcasting possibilities – the live musicians’ constant presence was no longer necessary, and the recording studio was born.

Still in 1948, vinyl hits the market. Immediately, it is adopted by the consumers as their preferred medium for sound reproduction. Innumerable sizes and speeds of vinyl records were marketed, changing and evolving along with technology and commercial interests. The first records were 7-inch discs and should be played at 78 rpm’s, which provided less than four minutes per side, leading to the single compact format with one piece of music on each side and within this duration margin (Byrne 2012: 92). Moreover, vinyl grooves imposed some serious volume restrictions on bass frequencies, for they caused needle jumps if they were too loud. The form and sound of pop and rock music that we’ve known through the years was strongly influenced by these limitations.

People soon became accustomed to the idea of acquiring and listening to music on records, and they voraciously started buying this new product. The recording and distribution process, however, lay in the hands of a new kind of company that, structuring the musical industry, controlled the production and consumption cycles during the second half of the 20th century: the record company.

C –The studios and their technology

Recording studios were important tools of this new industry. They were acoustically treated places where, in a complex and costly process, experts would place microphones in front of the musicians. The audio picked-up fed several pieces of equipment, such as pre-amplifiers, compressors, equalizers, soundboards, and recording machines. During approximately four decades, the only way to record music professionally was to use one of these spaces, paying a large sum of money. Additionally, the whole procedure was surrounded by secrets. Each studio had unique methods and equipment, creating sounds with their own personality. The producers’ ingeniousness in overcoming technical limitations and solving problems that appeared in each project resulted in new techniques that expanded the horizons of recorded music and instigated other producers to search for even better solutions (Heylin 2012: 32).

In 1957, American guitar player Les Paul modified a magnetic tape recorder to create the first multiple-layer recorder, making it possible to add new instruments onto the same tape roll, playing one by one. As there was only one recording track, a recording mistake would ruin the former work and the whole process would have to be restarted (Moormann 2003).

The improvement of this technology is the multitrack recorder, in which different areas of the magnetic tape are designated to independent tracks, and they can be recorded or deleted without altering the others. Today, with a computer, a studio can record hundreds of independent tracks, but such evolution was very slow. All the records from the beginning of The Beatles’ career to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in 1967, were recorded using only four tracks of a magnetic tape (Lewsohn 1988: 146). When it was necessary to insert more instruments, two or three tracks were united in one, freeing space, but also preventing further alterations of previous recordings. In the following decade, the tapes evolved to eight, sixteen, and up to twenty-four tracks.

Another essential piece of equipment in a studio is the soundboard, responsible for organizing the audio tracks in the recording session. The soundboards evolved along recording machines, keeping up with the increasing number of tracks. There are models with hundreds of channels, each one with a dozen control knobs and sliders, housed in cabinets that can exceed three meters long (such equipment can be very intimidating for lay people). A magnetic tape track is attributed to each channel of the soundboard with independent controls. Thus, it is possible to manipulate the sound of each channel before and after picking it up, allowing for adjustments in sound volume and equalization, reverberation, or compression. Such adjustments are part of the mixing.

During mixing, these adjustments are done in each channel so that the instruments recorded separately may sound cohesive when played together. The sounds are normally mixed for stereo, with two channels – left and right. This is the common format for CDs, vinyl records, and music digital files.

There is more to a studio than just acoustic treatment, recording machine, and soundboard. Each kind of audio processing is made by a specific piece of equipment, of a size varying from a remote control to a refrigerator. The main difference between recording studios used to be the equipment they had; having a lot of equalizers or compressors meant having more mixing possibilities, and a higher cost as well. Ultimately, the use of more refined production tools was restricted to those who had access to professional studios, and only those who already controlled the market were able to accomplish greater musical projects.

II – The Commercial Sound

Since the beginning, the record companies created a closed system for their business. Composers were paid to write new musical pieces. These creations were recorded at the company’s own studio by a hired artist, who was made popular thanks to the radio, boosted sales and generated huge profits for his employer. Frank Sinatra was the first artist to have some control over his career. Being more than just a very famous employee, he was able to impose his will during recording sessions as well (Gibney 2105). In the following decades, the singer-composer and rock bands who wrote their own material started to show up on the scene.

However, the whole process was very costly and risky, businesswise. Besides the recording itself, there were costs involved with record manufacture, distribution, marketing and the absorption of losses of unsuccessful projects. The massive success of some artists ultimately generated capital for investments in other projects, allowing the development of new talents. Many of the 1970s most successful rock bands, such as Queen or Yes, were financed by a record company or a producer for years before they became lucrative. Independent artists always existed, but their sphere of influence was naturally smaller. To make their music cross the planet and influence other cultures, it was necessary to be part of that closed circuit of contract, recording, marketing and massive sales – at least until technology made it possible for performers to exist outside this entire scheme. Punk bands are an early example of this approach, with their albums produced on cassette tape recorders and with very low studio resources.

At the beginning of the musical industry, the performers’ material was released on compact singles, usually containing two songs, one on each side. Major careers, such as Elvis Presley’s, were built upon singles’ sales. The 12-inch record, released a little bit later, was initially used for anthologies and niches such as classical music. During the 1960s, artists such as The Beach Boys and The Beatles started to use the bigger format as a means of expression through a cohesive set of songs, the so called “concept albums” (Heylin 2102: 8). After them, pop and rock music started using the album as their main product, with a less artistic motivation: a long play record was sold to the final consumer for a price five times higher than the single.

With this growing economic power, American and European record companies expand their scope throughout the capitalist world, and between the 1950s and 1990s a growing sales unification takes place, with the most profitable products of each location being globally commercialized, and branches of the big record companies appearing everywhere. Cultural exchanges, which always existed, are intensified and directed towards this new force, the recorded music. Foreign sonorities start to strongly influence some local musical characteristics, which absorb them and generate a new language.

Initially, American (and British) music is distributed all over the world as a product and a cultural domination tool. When rock ’n’ roll, for example, started to be played in Brazil, it led to the tropicalista movement, which adapted some foreign elements of pop music in a brazilianized way. This same movement, further on, would be added to the World Music category, that is, everything that does not originate from the countries where the record companies are originally established. World Music, in its turn, ultimately shapes the sonority of some American and British pop/rock artists in the 1980s and 1990s with Latin-American and African rhythms. Brazilian artist Gilberto Gil gets the Mutantes to play electric guitars on his record and two decades later David Byrne is accompanied by an orchestra of Latin musicians (Byrne 2012: 59).

Classical music was also used as a cultural imposition tool. Pieces by European composers from former centuries are brought back and disseminated, solidifying an entire collective vocabulary of classical works – what is considered today as historically important music was in fact popularized by the radio, records, movies and television.

A musical score was, until recording emerged, information to be transmuted into sound by the musician with his interpretation. The memory of famous recordings now imposes an interpretation bias on new performances. Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Bach, for example, exerts a strong influence on the pianists that play this repertoire. The audio recording is ultimately as important to the collective memory as the work of the composers themselves. The sonority of some instruments also changed due to recording: the vibrato technique – vibrating the finger on the string to obtain a soft variation of the frequency played – was considered just a tacky trick to disguise the inconsistencies of the notes played live. Fearing the eternal recording of their mistakes, musicians started to play more and more vibratos, and today it is just unthinkable to interpret classical music without such resource, which would make it sound flat, lifeless (Katz 2005: 85).

New technologies also generated new composition methods. Electroacoustic music, for example, emerges precisely from the use of equipment such as recording tape and electronic effects on conventional instruments.

III – The Digital Sound

The capitalist world has been consuming a mix of global and local hits since the 1950s. At the end of the 1970s, however, the industry, concerned by the drop in vinyl records sales, had to reinvent itself. One of the main factors that saved record companies at that time was another technological innovation.

Up until 1982, storing and reproducing sounds was essentially made in an analogical manner, by physically printing audio through electromagnetic and mechanical means. In that year, a new technology, the compact disc (CD), introduces digitally represented information. During the 1980s and 1990s, the digital format multiplies industry profits due to decreasing reproduction costs and a booming market for pop music. Not only does the listener accept to pay more than twice as much for the new kind of media, but he ends up reacquiring his favourite albums in digital disc version as well (Hanks 2015).

A little before the CD was released, recording and manipulating audio was still also essentially analogic: magnetic tape, valves and transistors. Since the end of the 1970s, however, digital equipment gets increasingly more space in the studios: processors, board, and recording machines start to be converted to the new technology.

In the analogic studio the microphone converts the picked-up sound into an electric wave, which runs along wires and equipment. It is altered and manipulated by the soundboard, processors, and, finally, recorded onto a magnetic tape. In the digital world, sound is represented by a sequence of numbers that describe the sound wave behaviour. The audio processors are made from algorithms that operate mathematically to modify the sound.

The digital effects emerge with the first synthesizers of the same kind. Sampler, compressor and delay units start being used in the studios as technological novelties. Rooms used only to reproduce reverberation in recordings can be replaced by a small device that simulates their sound. In the place of fragile valves and circuits to alter the equalization of a channel, a chip programmed for such function is used. With the advance of these devices, studios slowly become homogenized and lose their capacity to differentiate themselves from competitors equipment-wise.

More and more powerful, computers start to play an increasingly active role in the recording process. In 1982, a recently released IBM PC-XT had the capacity to perform 20 mathematic operations per second. Thirty years later, a modern personal processor operates over one thousand times faster. This speed makes it possible to use complex algorithms that bring digital effects ever closer to analogic ones, with electronic copies of some famous classical equipment, formerly accessible only to big studios. While the use of a physical piece of equipment is limited to certain number of channels, its digital recreation can be used simultaneously an indefinite number of times for a fraction of the original price and without generating maintenance costs in rare valves or overheated transistors. Even typical hissings and noises can be simulated by the computer and turned off anytime, something impossible with the original equipment.

Support technologies in the studio were also adapted. The soundboard, central piece of an analogic configuration, was an extremely expensive and complex item, through which all channels went and were manipulated by buttons and controls, electrically managing the sounds coming from or directed to the magnetic tape. In the digital studio, the computer is the main tool, and the soundboard becomes a mere controller with its knobs and sliders simply sending digital instructions to the computer. The soundboard can become smaller, and even be considered obsolete, being replaced by a mouse and keyboard shortcuts.

The equipment that used to be almost inaccessible is becoming affordable to even non-professional musicians. Soundboards and magnetic tapes can be all replaced by a single personal computer. Microphones have dropped in price. Today, a big studio has become dispensable in some situations, and it is possible to record entire pieces of music with just a notebook.

Additionally, manipulating digital audio is extremely easy. To put together two recordings in a magnetic tape, it was necessary to find the slices of tape that one wanted to use, and, then, physically cut and glue the pieces. Now, with a computer program one can simply click and drag the digital audio and paste it on a new section without even destroying the original material. Besides, there is no physical degradation of the recorded material, which occurs each time a magnetic tape or a vinyl record is used. Inversions, synchronizations, all is done much faster than it was with the old methods.

Computer programs designed to create, record, edit, and mix music are becoming increasingly more efficient and able to replace physical equipment, and today most studios are using the computer as their main tool.

The same nostalgia that made consumers go back and buy vinyl records in the 21st century also creates situations in which equipment built before World War II survives within the most traditional studios. And there is still some controversy about the limitation of each kind of technology. A great part of studio recordings, today, is made digitally even though using analogic equipment at some point in the process (Grohl 2013). Only a few specific artistic experiments manage to carry out analogic projects from beginning to end. Other more daring projects even experiment with wax cylinders (Negovan 2011).

IV – The Virtual Sound

The popularization of the Internet in the 1990s brought about the development of several technologies. Besides the entire communication interface – servers, modems, networks – optimized methods for transmitting information through the Internet were created. JPG and GIF compressed image file formats became popular. And, before long, audio transfer solutions came up.

Mp3 is an algorithm that drastically changes the audio file size, reducing it to up to 8% of the original size. Much of this reduction only results from an intelligent way of describing the file content, but, depending on the parameters used, the files it generates have a much lower audio quality. In 1995, when such format became popular, such quality loss was, however, a lot less important for the listeners than the capacity of exchanging music online (Witt 2105: 16).

A few years after its beginnings, the Internet became the nightmare of record companies and artists that blamed the drop in CD sales on the beginning of digital piracy, not entirely without reason. In any case, record companies had started to lose their power for other reasons.

Besides piracy, for the first time, the Internet allowed information to be exchanged between consumers in different parts of the world, without an intermediary filtering this content. A Polish musician can now show his work directly to a listener located in Bolivia. And, in an unprecedented two-way path, the consumer can directly feedback the artist from a distance. Websites, blogs, and social media pages have completely changed the way an artist reaches his consumer.

This is also the case for music distribution channels. Before, for our hypothetical Polish artist’s album to reach his Bolivian fan, it was necessary to physically reproduce the record somewhere in the world, transport it to the destination country and put it for sale in a shop. On top of that, the consumer had to be informed by some media such as the radio or billboards that a certain record could be of his interest and that it would be available for purchase in his city. Only then our Bolivian could listen to the record, and, if he chose to buy it, finally bear the cost of this entire chain.

All this becomes obsolete when the artist can tell his public directly by email that a new set of songs is available online. But it took more than a decade and many lawsuits for the industry to try reinventing itself and start selling, in addition to the obsolete physical media, electronic files by download, and, more recently, by subscription to music by streaming.

V – The Present Sound

Information technology plays an essential role in updating studio technologies as well as music distribution and dissemination. The evolution of the studio also generates new tools and creation facilitators.

For a lonely composer, working on a piece of music with only one musical instrument is often insufficient. The computer can be very useful in the composition process. Today, technology can provide rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment in real time – virtual musicians almost. Instruments such asthe bass, drums, and keyboards are available. Far beyond providing timbres, these programs de facto add factors to the composition, collaborating with the arrangement in a semiautomatic manner. The computer, equipped with ready to use sounds, opens space for the composer’s creation.

It is important to note, however, that such freedom is limited by the equipment used. A piano can only play a western twelve-note scale per octave, and a virtual drum player can only play what has been previously programmed. Analogic tools allow some degree of customization, however limited; it is possible to use a piano as a percussion instrument or convert it into a reverberation unit, for example. However, it is much more complex to modify a software so it plays something that was not included in its initial configuration. A software that suggests harmonies based on the user’s melody cannot go beyond the factory parameters.

New technologies can also be used in very effective ways, becoming important sources of artistic innovation. Way back in the 1970s, musician and producer Brian Eno found a unique use for the magnetic tape recorder turning it into a musical device for pioneer sound experiments, developing what is now known as background and generative music, in which the interaction of a musician or a recording with an analogic algorithm (built with the recorder) generates indirect sound consequences (Scoates 2013: 110).

New interfaces also created other interaction possibilities: tablets, such as the iPad, allow for a series of different applications that facilitate music creation, in a totally new way, far removed from the studios’ original logic. Presented almost as entertainment, they can suggest chords, musically accompanying the user and creating entire compositions by a few touches on the screen, as well as using cameras and gyroscopes as sound generators. More than three decades after using a tape recorder to distort a string quartet’s performance, Brian Eno released a series of iPhone and iPad applications that generate harmonies, melodies, and rhythms from screen touches and movements of the device.

Some creative minds use computers as creation tools for new musical interfaces. Today, there are development platforms, such as Max and Arduino, which permit the creation of unprecedented effects, instruments, and sonorities. It is possible, for example, to use humidity sensors and online databanks to control virtual synthesizer parameters. The limitations finally go from the software creator’s hands into the composer’s, and also to the listener, thanks to software programs that allow complex interactions between the consumer and creative work.

VI – The Sound of the Future

The creative crisis occurring in the arts is largely connected to the aversion to risk that is prevalent in times of financial crisis. The current movie industry is producing many independent, innovative, and low-cost productions that share the scene with blockbusters designed to yield profits, with a calculated bet on solutions already accepted by the public. In the music industry, the situation is quite similar. Record companies invest in well-known artists, or in new ones that fit their success model. Innovation happens in the low budget initiatives. The more successful ones wind up absorbed by the mainstream.

A quick look at current market trends can shed some light on this situation. Past decades big names go on world tours and release new albums with relatively modest advertising. Popular rap, hip-hop, and electronic music artists keep their careers going by constant releases and a very strong presence in the media. Meanwhile, independent artists of all styles release their material with whatever marketing they can afford, financing their projects through private initiatives or crowd funding – even the humblest musical work can easily be made available in distribution channels such as Apple Music Store or Spotify. Thus, the public for such production is potentially global, which is another influence on the artists’ works. Perhaps the World Music category is not comprehensive enough, and all music currently made is somehow World Music!

The virtualization of music, separating content from physical media, led to a curious consequence: the album format itself, as a cohesive set of an artist’s music, is falling into disuse. The younger generations listen to playlists, sets of songs from several different artists, organized according to their own taste or by the streaming service.

A creative process with no ties to a physical media also allows the final product to be of any size. Various new artists have launched material in sets called EP – perhaps many of them do not even know that EP means Extended Play, the vinyl-record format larger than the single but shorter than a long play, comprising five or six pieces of music. It is also possible to disregard the amount of audio that could fit in a CD and release a four-hour virtual album containing only two pieces of music: there are no more limits imposed by physical media. Therefore, format impositions today are a mere leftover from past technical restrictions.

The access to information brought by the Internet creates an immense potential of information exchange between different places, which promotes cultural exchanges never seen before. Today, a young man can carry more music in his pocket than his parents had at home when they were the same age. But the same tool that provides unrestricted access also opens the way to massive dissemination of music. Big record companies are still stronger than small local forces, which results in musical influences in big urban centres being similar all over the planet. The potential for research is huge, but people still tend to concentrate on a few products. What could be unlimited listening of infinite different artists becomes, most of the time, infinite listening of a few similar artists.

The technology that lowers the cost of music creation is even more important when one considers that independence is necessary for innovation to take place. Naturally, even though the development of complex software programs (like those used to make music) is still expensive, as the reproduction cost is extremely low such software ends up being much more accessible than the old equipment full of panels, knobs, transformers, and valves. Again, there is some convergence here, and the best software ultimately goes to most musical content creators.

As a creation support tool, the computer transformed the complex art of an analogic studio into selecting sounds with clicks. This convenience, however, does not come without a price. If, before, producers and musicians had to work hard and create solutions inside the studios, today everything comes previously programmed, parameterized to work – which means that solutions are pre-existing, not leaving much space for creation and innovation. There is a strong homogenization in the way musicians record their songs today. That pre-programmed virtual drum player will not compose anything new; he will only imitate very well something that has already been made. The iPad software that plays along the user while he or she sings is only repeating an already-developed sequence of chords, sounds, and rhythms. Musical creation, though popularized by those facilitators, becomes dangerously restricted to these software parameters. Musical expression can ultimately become hostage to those pre-programmed sonorities.

Current technologies are extremely welcome, for they open the way to new possible influences, allow the dissemination of the artists’ works, and aid musical production, providing composition, recording, and mixing support. However, some measure of caution is necessary so that the tools available today do not become collective limitations, reducing the horizon of creativity and, consequently, of musical diversity.


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  1. Paulo Assis is an audio engineer and producer in his Audioclicks Studio, in São Paulo, Brazil, and a consultant for acoustics and musical instruments, who tries to prevent technology from making artistical decisions for him. He has few vinyl records and many CD’s, but only listens to mp3 music.

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