Network: Making sweet virtual music - on a computer

Why bother using a studio, when computer technology is so cheap? By Hannah Gal
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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a time when recording an album meant hiring a studio at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. Now, in the age of individualist consumerism, you needn't be in the studio at all - pounds 2,000 will bring it to your PC.

Latest developments in Virtual Studio Technology (VST) mean that you can have a professional, multi-track recording studio on your computer screen, with no compromise on sound quality and almost all of the facilities you would expect from a traditional recording studio. Would-be pop stars, as well as signed professional acts, are enjoying the creative freedom provided by VST. The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Radiohead, Bush and Massive Attack are just some of the bands whose current albums were recorded using VST or similar programs.

Massive Attack's highly acclaimed album Mezzanine was produced almost entirely on an Apple Mac. As Neil Davidge, the band's producer, explains: "The computer's role as a recording and writing tool in music today is central to all studios, whether working with pop bands or orchestras. The Apple Mac, with Cubase and various other types of software, is the heart of my studio. As a tool for writing, recording and even mixing, it is totally flexible and allows me to go anywhere my imagination takes me."

Computers are not new to the music industry, having entered the scene as long ago as 1983. Never before, though, have they offered this level of uncompromising professional sound at an affordable price. VST is not only destined to rock the music industry, it could also fundamentally alter the way we all consume and treat recorded sound.

It all started in the early Eighties with the introduction of Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) sequencers. You simply played the synthesiser and the music was transferred on to the computer as a set of commands. The computer could follow the commands and play the music repeatedly. Automation soon took over, where, for example, instead of creating a varied drum part, a short synthesised drum pattern was recorded and repeated for the duration of the song. The same was done with the other instruments, hence the mind-numbing, repetitive sound. As the computers of the time could be triggered only by synthesiser, recording directly into them was limited to the sounds synthesisers had to offer.

Recording live instruments and vocals on to the computer was possible with systems such as DigiDesign, but it was the preserve of big studios only. "Musicians' demand of computers' processing power is greater than in other art form," explains the record producer Ofir Kry. "When a designer applies a Photoshop effect to an image, he can wait for minutes for it to complete.

"Real-time processing is crucial for music-making. You either have it or you don't, in which case you do not even try. You need to hear what you play as you play it."

The introduction of the Power Mac meant you could do just that. Its improved processing power also meant that hardware had caught up with music software programs such as Emagic Notator Logic, Digital Performer, Waves and Cubase VST, which were ahead of their time. At last, you could run a virtual, 32-track recording studio without the need for expensive external hardware. The attraction for musicians was clear.

"With affordable hard-disk recording, you can capture those rare moments of inspired performance that happen when a musician first hears the track," says Neil Davidge. "You can keep these safe while striving for the perfect take, then go back, review all the performances, and combine the best into a master take. This is impossible with traditional multi-track recording unless you have a budget the size of a small country and the patience of a saint."

A program such as Cubase VST gives the ability to multi-track and over- dub instruments. Any computer these days is equipped with an audio input facility as standard, so instruments are recorded directly into it. You can record any instrument or vocals at any time, or several together, and cut and paste any section of the recorded material.

"Most of Mezzanine was recorded directly into the computer," Davidge explains. "Tracks would usually start with a simple looping idea, which we would develop by recording the band or various musicians jamming along. It would then be a matter of sifting through the performances and picking out those moments of magic, and weaving them into an arrangement.

"We would then try out vocal ideas, which we would rearrange again straight after they had been recorded, adding the final touches before beginning mixing. While mixing, we still kept everything virtual so that we could alter arrangements as the mix developed.

"On the whole, the process of making the album was unpredictable, but the method would not have been possible without this technology," Davidge says.

The program's capabilities are extended further with plug-ins. Recognising the changing face of the recording industry, these are being developed by traditional recording studio names such as Yamaha, Korg and Lexicon.

With 1,000MHz and even 2,000Mhz computers soon to hit the market, we are on the verge of a music revolution, with budding musicians everywhere having the ability to release their PC-created tunes.

"As more and more individuals who have little or no experience of these traditional practices are finding their own ways of making music," Davidge says, "they are, in turn, influencing the next development. This is based on a whole new philosophy, and will prove to be as revolutionary as rock'n'roll, punk and hip hop."

The possibilities are limitless. With better Internet connections, rewritable digital media and bedroom recording studios, you could (technically speaking) have Pat Metheny adding guitars to your recording via the Internet, with you in London and him in New York.

With album recording budgets a fraction of what they once were, the recording industry's clear advantage over the individual is likely to become their power to promote. True, we could all place our little PC creations on the Net for the world to hear, but we would still need to create awareness of them.

"There is now a level playing-field from which to challenge the established hierarchy," Neil Davidge says. "It is the major labels who are now having to play catch-up, with the future of music being decided by the individual with a copy of Cubase VST and access to the Internet in his or her bedroom. Where this will lead us, I am happy to say I don't know."

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