Living through a moment of historical significance is an amazing experience and not to be taken lightly. It might be something of global consequence, like the death of the pope, or something of national impact, such as Hurricane Katrina. In the music world, one can name numerous concerts or album releases that changed the course of musical events: the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps and the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, to name just two.
Sometimes, however, a moment in time is not a matter of hours, or even days, but a period of time that, viewed through the large lens of history, constitutes only a moment. I believe that the audio and music worlds are in just such a moment right now — in fact, closer to the end of it than to the beginning. I refer to the achievement of the all-digital studio.
Most people do nearly all of their audio work on a computer, but it was only some 20 years ago that I wrote an article for Mix, Electronic Musician's sister publication, pointing out how the combination of three new breakthrough products — the E-mu Emulator II sampler, the Apple Macintosh computer, and Digidesign Sound Designer software — fulfilled many aspects of a digital audio workstation as defined by Stanford's CCRMA computer-music center. It was clear even then that there would come a time when every recording and electronic-music function would be executable in software.
That time is now.
Look at what we can do on our desktops without leaving our screens: record, edit every which way to Sunday, synthesize, play samples or models of acoustic and electronic musical instruments, EQ, compress, add realistic reverberation or create imaginary spaces, add phasing and flanging, and experiment with a jillion other types of sound warping and synthesis that only mathematicians could have conceived of a few short years ago. And, of course, you can mix and master. In short, you can create the whole shooting match on the computer.
True, acoustical events are still handled by microphones, loudspeakers, and acoustical treatment, but even those are being worked on: witness “digital” microphones (that is, mics with onboard ADCs) from Neumann, HHB, and other manufacturers.
This is all reality — not just for the shrinking number of fancy-pants high-end studios, but for all of us every single day. Because we experience this constantly, we are tempted to take it for granted. But even if you never knew any other way, it is important to recognize the significance of this point in history, and to realize that every time you boot up your DAW, load a software synth, and throw together a handful of loops, you are part of something powerful and special.
That is not to say we have achieved perfection. There's still lots to be said about computers' frequent misbehavior. Much work is needed on control surfaces and systems, and there's an audible distance between models and the real thing. We still must meet the challenge of injecting human interaction and spirit into a working method that is much more clinical than the old- school ways. I certainly have my concerns about things such as digital microphones' eliminating the variety and character added by mic preamps. But the simple fact is that the all-digital studio is no longer a wish-list item.
So where do we go from here? What is the next historical moment? Interestingly, that is where a converse point must be raised: the quiet developments whose real importance is never recognized, such as resolution of the limitations I've described and others. Reading EM, one quickly loses count of the times when interviewees and writers complain about mixing with the mouse and keeping their eyes glued to the screen, not to mention all the articles that show how to hot-rod your computer for audio (aka “cleaning out the gunk that slows things down”), troubleshoot problems, or work around incompatibilities. The impact of those issues is clearly huge, yet if the problems get worked out, it will never seem as momentous as the achievement of the all-digital studio.
The early part of the year is a good time for reflection. As you move through 2006, I suggest that you contemplate our world of music production in its historical perspective.