Arguable benefits: valve conditioner, anyone?
Initially, attempts to change the ‘purity’ of digital were somewhat tentative and naïve. In the UK, Tony Larking Audio (TLA) – a company that had made a business from hacking channel strips out of old Neve mixing consoles and selling them as mic amp/equaliser outboard gear – produced the VI-1 valve conditioner. [PDF brochure]
This was an eight-channel box that you’d plumb into your digital recorder’s analogue I/O signal path and was typically used with an Alesis ADAT or Tascam DTRS tape system – these were the modular digital tape recorders appearing around 1992 that helped seal the fate of the Sony and Mitsubishi behemoths discussed in part one. The VI-1 had valve (tube) circuitry that was supposed to add warmth to those colourless converters. It had no equaliser or drive controls and it was arguable whether it had any effect. For many, it was a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, as subtlety at this level didn’t really cut it in this Brave New World.
With the decline of tape, recorders found other uses: a Mitsubishi X-880 32-track metamorphoses into a beer cooler
Naturally, you could always opt for original valve gear, and hire in a classic Fairchild valve compressor or Pultec EQ, but it would cost you. And wasn’t this sort of behaviour somewhat incongruous with digital’s promise of clarity and linearity? It was like these musicians and engineers were being given a delicately flavoured meal only to splash mustard and tabasco on it.
The spice rack would grow, but in the form of software emulating classic kit: anything from early drum and bass machines (Propellerheads ReBirth) to valve gear (IK Multimedia T-Racks and Waves Renaissance).Every week there was something new, and so it goes today.
Classic equipment has been analysed and remodelled in the digital domain to reintroduce the je ne sais quoi that had graced recordings from a bygone age. For a time, Steinberg’s Cubase featured True Tape, a plug-in that was designed to emulate analogue tape saturation. The only thing missing was noise, and you could supply that yourself.
The rise and fall of the DJCreatively, musicians were catered for by the digital domain, but this came at a price which was that non-musicians were getting in on the act too. DJs with production ideas were lifting whole sections from songs and adding a few beats and maybe a singer. These weren’t two second Funky Drummer steals from James Brown any more, if you consider the likes of P.M. Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss then you’ll find yourself listening to a large chunk of Spandau Ballet’s True. Likewise, Guns of Brixton by The Clash served to get Norman Cook’s career started when Beats International used the bassline intro as the mainstay for Dub Be Good To Me.
Musically, these were interesting times, with DJs self-promoting their homegrown projects with works from real musicians seemingly sidelined. For many musicians, who had spent years honing their craft, the idea that someone who hadn’t nurtured such ability could just nick your performance and make money out of it seemed like rewards for failure. Listen to the radio through most of the 1990s and you could count prominent live bands on the fingers of one hand. It just took a while for the novelty of dance music to wear off and for it to find its place as yet another genre, rather than the dominant one on the airwaves.
Kate Bush took to sampling as composition tool
Whether the music business feeding off itself in this way was healthy or not would need to be examined by degrees. Musicians sampled too – Kate Bush was already paid-up Fairlight fanatic long before her 1985 samplefest The Hounds of Love/The Ninth Wave appeared – it wasn’t exclusive to one camp or another. However, the means to sample, to make squeaky-clean copies, inevitably went beyond the bounds of the studio and ended up on the desktop.
Sampling was the free lunch to get a tune started by pinching a drum loop or guitar riff, but the means had grown and mutated to just drag and drop of whole pieces of work. And this wasn’t necessarily being done by those with creative endeavours, it was being done by the artist’s greatest asset: the listener.
Next page: Star performance
No mention of the Loudness Wars?
To rip or not to rip
How the world has changed. I recall seeing Thomas Dolby live in the 80's and his stage was adorned with keyboards and a modified light controller (ex Tangerine Dream) called "Henry" acting as an improvised (pre-Midi) keyboard sequence controller.
Depeche Mode was another bunch that would fill the stage with keyboards too, with the band members banging down on the Korgs and Moogs during their performance
I saw Dolby again in 2008 and he had three keyboards and a PowerMac acting as his sound library and Midi sequencer. What I did love about his show is that he puts the songs together piece by piece and explains what he's doing. Yes, old school with a modern flair.
I also saw Depeche Mode in the 90's in South Africa when I was living and working there. All the music was provided by a DAT player. Some were disappointed whereas I was impressed.
My son who is an aspiring DJ has a music room full of expensive items made by Pioneer, Numark, Korg and other brands. He uses a combo of custom burned CDs as well as a library of MP3s when he does his gigs (friends' parties etc.)
I am impressed by this kit, how he can add reverb, phasers, sample and loop turning the song into his own "interpretation". I occasionally hand him some old school techno like New Order and ask what he can do with that. He listens, plays with it a bit and gets bored as he's rather be emulating David Guetta than a mid 80's club DJ
He saves a lot of his creations onto the home server disk, where it's mirrored and backed up weekly. Backing music up, who would ever of thought of buying two copies of the same album in the 70's and 80's?
I often tell him how we used make compilations from Vinyl using C60/90 cassettes. He thinks it's comical, but I was born of the analogue era and have adapted to the digital era with ease thanks to portable music players, PCs and yes, factory fitted car radios that allow me to dock my music player and control every aspect of it from the steering wheel controls.
I still buy those 12cm silver discs that we call CDs and also download music too, but times are a changing and I wonder how long it will be before the MP3 download will replace the CD just like the Midi sequencer and keyboards are replacing the band members..
A great article again El Reg
I also missed the loudness war
I read through until I got to:
"Furthermore, those honourable intentions of delivering the best sonic reproduction were in tatters too."
Surely I thought there would then be the discussion about the music industry committing long-term suicide, deciding to throw sonic reproduction into the bin and just compress everything into a harsh wall of digital distortion, but no! Not a single word.
For me, no matter how much good the band does with using super-high resolution audio in the studio, and no matter how good the sampling and mixing is, it's all invariably wasted these days when the mastering engineer takes the excellent, clear and dynamic recording that they have produced, before turning it into a muffled and distorted pile of mush.
The rest of the process doesn't matter that much when the final stage has such a negative and destructive impact on the music.
And after they've turned the music into distorted mush of course, we're still expected to shell out £10+ for the result!