Ahh its so nice to be a producer or engineer these days. Just buy a computer, a DAW like ProTools or Logic Pro and a keyboard and you’re good to go. You don’t even need to buy monitors really, headphones will do. At risk of dating myself, this blog is about how today's producer/engineers have it easy. No judgment on talent, skill and all that, just a quick reminder on how things used to be. A walk through the past, or better yet, a peek into a parallel universe where computers have not taken over. Making music was fun back then, just as it is now.. But you had to really, really, really have a burning desire to be a producer or engineer because it was expensive and frustrating. Anybody that has been in this business for 15 years or so will know exactly what I’m talking about here. For those of you that are new to the game, read on to see all the fun (not) you missed.
Here are five things that today's producers and engineers had the good fortune of missing.
So.. you wanna be a producer huh.. How much money you got?
My first keyboard was $1200. It had maybe 128 sounds, and a 8 track sequencer. It didn’t really have any drum sounds so I had to buy a drum machine that was an additional five or six hundred dollars. So thats about $1800 so far and I still could not record any vocals, or any live instruments. I also did not have any effects, compression, eq, a mixer, or even something to record everything to like a DAT machine. All of those things had to be purchased separately, and none of those items were cheap. Back then, you really had to pay to play.
Yes, there was a time when there was no safety net. If you made a mistake you paid for it. - with time. Lots of time. Miss a punch in? Gotta re-sing it. Record over that special take? Gotta re-record it and hope its still special. There was no other way around it. Oh and by the way there wasn’t any autopunch, you just had to get it right. Period. If not, well.. Good luck.
Yes, ADATs are those machines that used a fancy VHS tape and could record 8 tracks. Need more tracks? Buy another machine for $1000 or so. Three ADAT machines got you 24 tracks.. Nice! So that means you had to buy three of those fancy VHS tapes to record those 24 tracks. Okay.. But wait, how did it work? Those three machines had to sync up together using a BRC - Big Remote Control (I didn’t make that up). If you couldn’t afford the $1000 BRC because you were broke from spending about $3000 on those three ADAT machines, you could use the included LRC (yep, little remote control). Told you it was more expensive back in the day. I didn't even talk about the 24 channel mixer you had to buy to plug all those tracks into. Or the monitors, or the amps, and then the outboard gear - remember there were no plug-ins. At that time you really had to plug-in to that reverb or compressor, with cables that you had to buy. Wait, back to the ADATs.. I should mention that they were a piece of shit! They would break down regularly, didn’t sound very good, and took a lifetime to sync up. Don't even try to sync up 6 machines to get 48 tracks! Just rewinding (yes rewinding) to the beginning of the song was a chore. All those machines had to “return to zero”, be ready to play and hopefully sync up by the time the song started. Better add 30 seconds of pre-roll to be sure. (Ever heard of pre-roll? Google it.) Pre-roll was your friend. Yeah, ADATs were the worst!! The worst!! Just ask anybody that worked with them back in the day and they will have a story to tell. We all used them because they were the cheapest way to get that coveted 24 tracks. A 2-inch 24 track machine at that time was like $80,000 or more. Okay maybe you could get a deal at like $40-$50 thousand. For a little perspective, you could buy house in Los Angeles for $80,000 back then. Those ADATs sound better now right?
Limited Track Counts
When I first started out making music, I was using a 4-track recorder. Later, I graduated to a 8-Track! Nice right? When I had the blessed opportunity to produce a song a real studio, I had the benefit of using the 24 track recorder. It was luxurious, but I soon discovered that conserving tracks was a full time job. Those days, you might have three different things on one track - a string part on the bridge, a vocal on the verse and maybe a guitar part. That makes mixing fun huh? Yeah... Sure, we could sync two of those Studer tape machines together and get 48 tracks but that costed more. A lot more. That meant I had to buy two 2 inch tapes at around $175 each! And these tapes were only 16 minutes long so I could record three to four songs. 48 tracks was a luxury. Only rich people and record labels would record on 48 eight tracks. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones had 48 tracks.
I remember when I got my first DAW and was able to use automation in my studio, it was a glorious moment. Up to then, I was mixing everything on the fly. Riding vocals and adjusting effects as I was recording to a CD. So if I missed an important vocal ride at the end of the song I had to re-record the entire mix. Not fun. Especially when I was recording to CDR’s that were $5 a piece. Every mistake would literally cost me 5 dollars. Automation was an upgrade, like rims on your car. Even if you went to a professional recording studio not everyone had automation, and most of them didn’t have moving faders automation. SSL mixers like the G series and E series didn’t have it. They had automation but the faders didn’t move, you had to look on a screen that showed the faders as a green bar that would move up and down to illustrate the automation. The Neve boards had what they called “flying faders” automation and it was state of the art back then, and super expensive - like millions of dollars expensive.
We got it good!
I remember when Pro Tools and computer recording was first taking over. People would either take the analog purist side or the computer recording side. Honestly, I was one of those analog purist dudes. I was not a big computer recording fan, especially for creating music. I held onto my MPC2000 for as long as I could. Needless to say, it’s somewhere in the corner now looking lonely. I wonder if it still works?.. Probably does. When I first discovered that you could buy a hard drive and record hundreds of songs on it or buy a 2 inch reel for $175 and record 3 or 4 songs on it, I knew analog was dead. You can’t argue with cost effectiveness. When I saw that you could easily edit songs and have perfect recall of a mix, I gave in.
I can go on and on, there are so many things that we had to endure back in the day. Its great to be a producer/engineer now. Especially if you know the way things were. Yeah.. We got it good!