When Thomas Edison was creating the phonograph, he surely had no idea that an entire industry would spring up around his device. Even if he did have some inkling, you can bet that he wouldn’t expect to see the dramatic technological advances that have accompanied that industry.
From records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs and finally MP3s, technology has certainly changed the way we consume music. What you might not realize, however, is that technology has dramatically changed the way that music is produced, as well.
Here are some of the most important technologies used by the music industry in creating today’s music:
- Digital music storage. In 1982, Sony Music released the album “52nd Street” from Billy Joel on Compact Disc. This represented the first storage and dissemination of music on a digital media, roughly 100 years after Edison’s phonograph. More importantly than the CD itself, however, was the fact that music could now be recorded and produced in a digital fashion. This technology advanced music production on a number of levels: first, it eliminated the need for expensive tape used in recording. It also allowed producers and engineers to make more precise adjustments and changes to their tracks, greatly improving the quality of mastering and mixing. This also served to help streamline the production process.
- MIDI.The Musical Instrument Digital Interface of the 1980s turned the synthesizers of the 1970s into a whole new type of digital music. MIDI let producers manipulate only one bank of sounds or one sound at a time, and play them at a specific pitch or tempo. This basic process – known as sequencing – eventually became the basis for most musical production, and is the core idea behind musical notation software.
- Digital mixing consoles. The earliest recording consoles used for mixing back in the 1950s would have four or perhaps five channels. With the advent of digital music production, a mixing console could literally handle hundreds of channels at the same time. All of the appropriate mixing setting and levels could be pre-set, making production of live shows significantly easier than it had been in the past.
- Digital effects. Since the advent of digital music, producers and artists have experimented significantly with all sorts of options in music. Today, for example, some artists are known for auto-tuning, which is simply setting sound to a certain pitch using computer technology.
- Digital distribution. Perhaps the most significant way that technology has impacted your favorite song is the way you now receive it. A digital version of a recording has a distinctly different sound from one that’s played on an audio tape or a phonograph. The reproduction of the sound is at once purer in its representation, but also potentially significantly different from the original sound because of digital manipulation.
What does all of this mean for the music industry? Some of the effects are obvious. Music labels are hurting, partially because of digital piracy. Beyond that, however, there have been significant changes to the industry based on this technology, such as:
- Accessibility. Today, anyone with a strong degree of computer technology can produce music. That doesn’t mean the music will be good, of course, but it does mean that the user doesn’t require some of the advanced training that may have been necessary in decades past. A talented person can produce music without having to understand all of the technical aspects of what she’s doing, either.
- Lower barriers to entry. Today’s sound recording software and equipment is relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to the equipment needed just three decades ago. Anyone with a room with the right acoustics, a good computer, the right software, and some quality microphones can create music. As we’ve seen, this means more and more independent labels, more independent artists, and a much wider marketplace for music fans to pick from.
- A change in the business side of the industry. The music industry has gone through (and is still going through) a dramatic transformation. It’s not certain what it will look like on the other side, but what is certain is that technology has forever changed the way we create, record, and distribute music.
There are even more exciting changes to come. As we develop “smarter” recording devices, much of the work that was formerly done on the back end will now be done during the recording process, reducing the need for editing. It’s truly an interesting time to watch what technology is doing to the music industry.