A Brief 'History' of Recording and Audio Processors
Updated: May 7, 2020
A Long Time Ago... In A Galaxy Far... Far... North..
Once upon a time, there was a band. Being the best band in the world, of course they were a smooth jazz band. They played all the most famous elevators in the globe, that could fit a drummer and bassist, keyboards and guitar, and their star sax player. There were in fact only 2 such elevators, since electricity had only been around for a little while, so it was a nice gig. Then, their bassist made the mistake of writing their smash hit, Smooth Beach, and that's all anyone wanted to hear when they rode the elevator.
Try as they might, they couldn't shake the fame that had overtaken them. They wrote more material, but nothing surpassed their hit, aside from a crude remake, Smoother Beach. And so this band was stuck playing 2 songs all the time, instead of their usual 5 song setlist, and it nearly killed them.
Then, one of them said "If only we had a way of inventing recording." And so they invented the compact disc, which would be unsurpassed in sound quality until later some nitwit would find a way to make it analog, and discover vinyl. But they could now sell copies of their hits and never have to perform in elevators again, and that would be the death of smooth jazz.
Still, recording directly to disc was crude, and wouldn't actually be considered something cool until there was enough gear out there to misunderstand, misuse, covet, worship, and generally make the process of recording kinda not fun. So they invented the ADAT.
The First Tweaks..
The band decided that the sax was too honky, and they wanted to 'filter it'. They tried shoving things down the sax, but then decided that 'treating things at the source' was too efficient, and they would rather 'fix it in the mix'. So they invented the eq, which was an audio frequency filter. Since it was the first one ever, it was automatically the most vintage, and thus the best sounding. Of course, no one at the time knew that they were supposed to only record with vintage equipment, so they kept making new stuff, and trying to improve on the design schematics.
The band wasn’t happy just solving the honk problem though. They thought that if cutting one frequency sounded good, cutting ‘all’ the frequencies would sound even better, right? So they invented George Massenburg, who invented the ‘parametric eq’. It could slide around to different frequencies, at different widths, and had multiple bands. If you were really clever with it, you could cut ‘all the frequencies’ like the band wanted, basically a fancy way to turn the volume down. Also, now with so many options of filtering, they could now argue endlessly over the eq settings.
But it didn’t stop there. As soon as the keyboard player figured out how to loop bars on the Adat, the drummer was sampled and then fired, but they still thought the drum samples were too ‘dynamic’. If they were going to loop 1 bar of drums over and over again, it might as well be a single volume level. So they invented a way to stamp dynamics out of music. There was a miswire, however, and they accidentally invented the ‘expander’ which increased dynamics, but they peered long and hard into their music crystal ball and decided no one would ever use an expander anyway, and they were right, so they wired it back into a compressor.
Now the sax guy was jealous of the drum sound being only one volume and so repetitive, so he said “I want to sound like I’m in a bathtub in a concert hall wrapped up in a canyon.” And the guitarist hadn’t really contributed much to the band so far, basically just watching the keyboard player and playing whatever he played, just a sixteenth note later. So she went off and did some calculations, and said “If we just put you in a room like you want to sound and mic that then it’ll sound like a real space. Alternatively, we could sample the rooms and apply them later via convolution calculations.” But the sax player insisted, “But I want to buy several pieces of this gear and leave them each on one setting. I can’t buy a room.” So she left and came back having discovered the algorithmic reverb unit, which would mathematically simulate rooms, with almost infinitely variable parameters. Unfortunately she took a bit long and by then the sax player had logged onto some audio forum and decided that ‘analog was better’. So they just plugged the sax into a sheet of metal and recorded that, setting digital reverbs back 20 years.
What's Next To Destroy..
Inevitably, the sax fell out of style, so they demoted him to driving the tour bus and playing the occasional solo, while they looked for a replacement frontman. They found this guy, Nat Cole, but they didn’t think his voice sounded very good, and it was soon back to their wacky invention lab to whip up the 'realtime voice processing synthesizer’, or ‘vocoder'. They’d parade Nat out then make him sing their songs about smoothness and being relaxed while they triggered notes and melodies off the keyboard. This went on for several years until Nat convinced them there was a more natural way to process a voice and still keep tune, and it would free up the keyboard player to play more and thicker pad sounds. So he came up with a way to ‘automatically tune’ any note coming into the device, in close to realtime. ‘Close’ was not close enough, since the delay on the autotune was exactly 2 bars, no matter how fast or slow the song was, and the band would never play the chart right. So Nat would still look silly, even after all that hard tuning. He was fired, and became a heavy smoker.
As time went on, the band would invent every piece of audio equipment that solved their petty recording problems, even inventing some things they didn’t want to, like the flanger, and the doppler effect plugin. But everything after those first few years was pretty much just a variation or a combination of those core elements: filtering, dynamics, reverb, pitch. If you turned any of that gear up too much, it would distort, so they made special ‘lofi’ distortion versions of all their gear too.
Too many options..
The group was starting to lose creative steam, spending more and more time fiddling with their equipment and less time writing, but before they knew it sax was back in style, and people didn’t care how catchy and short songs were anymore, they just wanted them to be ‘long’, repetitive, and theatrical. So they’d book studio time for months, then just go in and jam and write while in the studio. They had so much gear that they had to invent cartage companies. The studio albums were coming along ok, as long as every 16 bars they turned on a new effect on an instrument to keep people’s attention. When they performed these tunes live, they’d have laser shows and inflatable pigs that would go off at random to keep people awake during the long songs.
Around this time is when the group’s first major band rivalry was taking shape. They’d had minor altercations before with artists such as Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, and the Big Bopper encroaching on their music ratings, but all those people managed to meet mysterious ends. But this latest group, calling themselves Steely Dan, refused to get on an airplane, making things difficult for the now aging smooth jazzers. Steely Dan was doing exactly what the jazzers wanted to do: get great drummers with great feel in the studio, then have them play it over so much that all the feel gets taken away. But they were doing it first: there was no way they could patent the process anymore. Something more drastic would have to be done.
If they were going to take out Steely Dan without breaking the law, they would have to do something to drumming far beyond taking the feel away. They'd been looping their drummer on Adats since the early '30s, but what if they looped drums that 'didn't even come from a human'? And so the drum machine was born, and Steely Dan's last good album was Gaucho. The drum machine carried with it a new concept 'Drum Editing', and that would cause a good many acts to track even worse in the studio, adding to the phrase 'we'll fix it in the mix' a preface 'we'll fix it in editing'. And so became what was basically the last great audio processing development to actually be new, the next and final audio development to simply be a fall back to the past.
Back To The Future..
The smooth jazz group was approaching their twilight hour. They'd had a successful if bumpy run ever since those fateful days in the elevator. Their fan base had dwindled, styles had once again changed, and something was just sounding funny in the modern recordings. They had invented so much gear, and everyone was using so much of their equipment, that they felt there was just a loss to the tone that they couldn't quite put their finger on. They needed to get 'back to the basics' which inspired the name of their comeback album 'Back To The Beach'. They would use the 'old' equipment they invented from way back when, for its awesome sonic abilities, and restore recordings to their former glory.
There was one big problem for them: they had traded all their old vintage gear for their new models, they didn't have anything left from the golden era. "What if we just try to use the new gear properly and in moderation?" Said the guitarist. Everyone pretended they didn't hear her. "The sound is totally in the preamps.", said the keyboard player. "We can't possibly sound good unless we record through vintage preamps with other miscellaneous gear patched in too. And we have to record to our vintage Adats, because they sound the best still."
But the local music store decided they wouldn't take a stake in Back To The Beach as collateral to get their gear back, and for one final time, non-necessity would breed invention. They all got their coding hats on, and made virtual recreations of the vintage gear they wanted to use, so they would record the world's first 'all-virtual-analog' recording. They would record through special preamps, then through virtual tape plugins, virtual vintage eq plugins, virtual analog compressors, then virtual plate reverbs. It would be virtually awesome-sounding.
The Last Piece Of The Puzzle..
They learned something totally fascinating through the experience. Turns out their first batch of virtual plugins didn't sound as good or the same as their vintage gear. After some careful analysis, they realized a lot of the non-linear harmonics and artifacts were left out of the math they were doing when they made the plugins. What they 'thought' the gear was doing was not the same as what the gear 'was' doing, and so they had coded some pretty straightforward-sounding plugins with vintage names. Eventually, they added non-linear harmonics into their stuff, and they then had an old vintage sounding smooth jazz album, just like they wanted. No one else wanted it, though, because the writing was rubbish and it was somehow both over and under produced, and the keyboard player and guitarist couldn't stop arguing over which synth workstation was better. So the band retired from music and started Spotify.