This article is part of Electronic Musician's special 30th Anniversary issue. To read more commemorative content, visit www.emusician.com/30thAnniversary.
Future historians will look back on the ’70s as the end of the Industrial Age and the beginning of the Microprocessor Age. The music business was always too small (and still is) to generate much of its own technology, so it tends to ride the coattails of consumer electronics. When Commodore, Apple, IBM, and Atari took the microprocessor mainstream, it sparked a shift in the music industry that reached critical mass in the ’80s—and is still being played out today.
When EM appeared, it had its roots in the DIY ethic because at that time, computer-based synthesis and recording was the domain of pioneers—not mainstream music industry companies. Magazines of that era were “vertical,” like Guitar Player, Modern Recording, Keyboard, etc. EM deliberately chose to be a “horizontal” magazine for, say, the guitarist who doubled on keyboards and recorded in a home studio while playing to a drum machine. But as microprocessor-based musical tools went more mainstream, so did EM. Articles transitioned from how to make your own widgets, to reviews of the sophisticated widgets that were starting to become more commonplace, as well as techniques pieces on how to apply them.
And there was plenty to write about. The ’80s were when sampling, drum machines, FM synthesis, ROMplers, and MIDI (which is even more relevant than ever today) hit escape velocity. Analog audio was transitioning into digital audio, at first with CDs and then with hard drives. To give an idea of how primitive technology was at the time, copy for early issues of EM was transferred from an MP/M-based, 8-bit S-100 bus computer running Wordstar to a Radio Shack Model 100 laptop, and transferred overnight via 300 baud (yes, baud) modem to the parent company’s main offices. Seriously.
But then the ’90s slammed down on the accelerator, and the rate of change went off the hook. Steinberg invented VST, which started hardware’s extinction-level event clock. Massive consoles and recorders were reduced to pixels on a screen. Meanwhile, although the Alesis ADAT is generally considered the daddy of the digital home recording revolution, don’t forget that the Mackie 1604 mixer—first shown on a card table at the Chicago Summer NAMM show in 1991—provided an economical way to mix those tracks. The first wave of the democratization of recording that started with the TEAC 3340 multitrack tape recorder gave way to the second wave, where analog waveforms represented by magnetic particles suspended in plastic ceded their reign to ones and zeros stored in memory.
As more musicians had access to the means of producing their own music, EM turned more of its attention to recording, live performance, and a software-based world. This reached a tipping point in 2011, when EQ magazine—which had been dedicated to recording—was folded into EM. EM’s focus on gear broadened into adding EQ-style artist interviews, but also, EQ had found a sizeable following among Windows-based musicians, who had often felt abandoned by magazines with a Mac orientation. Features like Power App Alley, which had been a mainstay at EQ, now served both sides of the operating system divide. Meanwhile, the enduring popularity of EDM and hip-hop placed even more focus on musical electronics.
This was also when EM focused more on new elements that had been added to the modern musician’s mix: do-it-yourself career building, DJ-style thinking, and the power of the Internet. With the former record industry power structure in ruins, more and more musicians took control of their careers—and what had been limited to recording your own material became about distributing it, promoting it, and building careers through the new tools of social media. First timidly, then with more assurance, EM and its sister publications started transitioning to a combination of the internet and print: With mobile and tablets coming on strong, more musicians were getting their information not from monthly doses of paper, but on-demand from pixels in a display.
Many of the companies and stars of the mid- ’80s are no longer with us. Commodore computers flamed out when an upstart called Apple bet that the user experience was more important than technology. Pioneering digital systems like those from New England Digital, Fairlight, and E-Mu couldn’t advance fast enough to keep up with the industry that spawned them. Ensoniq was acquired by Creative Labs, and is now just a fond memory for veterans of that era.
Yet others have continued to grow by adapting, mutating, and changing: MOTU developed a strong hardware business, Sound Tools morphed into Pro Tools, Akai rose like a phoenix from its own ashes, giants like Yamaha, Korg, and Roland continue to explore the boundaries of synthesis, and we even have an analog resurgence—often aided and abetted by digital control—thanks to the return of pioneers like Dave Smith.
What’s next? Well, that’s easy to answer: Keep reading EM for another 30 years, and find out.