Home Recording – How Did We Get Here?

A brief history of audio recording and how we arrived at the home recording revolution of the 20’s.

The 1800’s and the Phonograph

In the 1800’s Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. His patent dates back to 1877. Ten years later, Emile Berliner created the first flat disk phonograph record, and the Gramaphone. The New York Phonograph Company opened the first recording studio in 1890.

Edison wax cylinder phonograph, circa 1899

The phonograph, or record player, is still viewed as the purest form of listening to a recording. Audiophiles will swear by the integrity of the format to this day, and rightfully so. Waveforms are recorded using physical deviations on the platter that are translated to audio via the needle as it vibrates. That sound is then amplified. It is an absolutely stunning piece of technology!

The 1900’s and the Fantastic Tape Machine

The 1930’s saw the invention of magnetic tape. However, it was not until the 1940’s that it made it’s way to the mainstream with some help from Bing Crosby. Crosby invested $50k of his own money into Ampex. If that sounds like a bit of money to you now, imagine how much it was worth in his day. If it wasn’t for Bing, tape might have never become mainstream.

7-inch reel of 14-inch-wide (6.4mm) recording tape

The Beatles first used tape in 1963 at the BBC. They didn’t have multi-track tape. Instead, they simply overdubbed onto another tape. This is actually one of my earliest memories of home recording – syncing up two tape recorders and playing one back while layering on top of it!

During the 1970’s, high quality tape machines were the industry standard. Most of your favorite recordings from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s were recorded on tape.

The 1990’s and the Modern Digital Age

The 1990’s brought mass adoption of digital tape multi tracking on ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape). The tape cartridges resembled VHS tapes, and you could record 8 tracks per tape and machine, up to 128 tracks in total.

I recorded an album on ADAT in 2000 – 2001.

If you look at CD’s produced in this era, you’ll probably see a familiar label. They were almost always labeled AAD, ADD, DAD, or DDD. This was referred to as the SPARS code. It was created to signify the recording, mixing and mastering process – Analog or Digital. The first letter signified the recording method. The second signified the mixing method. And the third was the final mastered format.

The mid 90’s also brought rising popularity of Digital Audio Workstations such as ProTools and Cubase. This led us to the modern era of recording. An era where we record to a digital hard drive, and use plugins to make things sound like tape. I know, it’s a little ironic.

The 2000’s and the Rise of the Home Recording Machines

The 2000’s saw big market growth in computer based recording. At this point, you could buy yourself a PC or Mac that could run at speeds matching an iPhone 5. We were at home, recording 8 or more tracks at a time on these dinosaurs! Today, you can find these home recording beasts at your local Goodwill Thrift Store.

Surprisingly, audio interface prices in the 2000’s were priced very similarly to today. A decent 8×8 audio interface would run about $500. These were mostly PCI and PCIe based card controllers that connected to a matching audio interface. In the early 2000’s, the use of USB was simply not suitable for a large number of tracks.

In the 2000’s I owned an Aardvark Q10.

The DAW market also grew during this time period. We saw several audio software companies rise and fall. It was a brutal couple of decades for companies like Cakewalk/Sonar and Sonic Foundry. Others like Studio One (Presonus), Logic Pro (Apple), and Reaper consistently improved and grew their market share. The audio plugin market also grew by leaps and bounds providing vast amounts of unnecessary plugins.

Fast forward to the Roaring 20’s.

The format of recording hasn’t changed from digital, computer based recording. In fact, recording formats have largely stabilized. Early digital tape hardware is a relic of the past, although we emulate it. The hardware and software required to record at home has become less expensive – and significantly better. Today’s home studio hardware and software is better than yesterday’s professional setup.

Anyone can now enter the world of becoming a home producer for far less than the cost of a daily cup of coffee. Let that sink in. We have no excuse. The free software you can find online is more than anyone truly needs to produce music. Anyone can have a free orchestra at their fingertips.

That is why you and I are here today, recording music from our homes. The barrier to enter is lower than ever, and it’s easier than ever to make something amazing right from your home! In fact, a vast number of producers, mixers, and musicians all work from home to one degree or another.

Now go make some music! You’ve got no excuse.