Sometimes we get it too easy.
I often think of the experiences I’ve had recording music using software plug-ins instead of real hardware.
Time was that recording music was hard. My home recording set-up was a Tascam 8-track tape recorder, three guitars, a choice of two amplifiers, a bunch of guitar pedals, a microphone for recording guitars (you can’t just plug your amp directly into a tape recorder, you have to mic it) and occasional bad vocals, a bass guitar, a drum machine and a Roland synth module controlled by MIDI from my 486 PC.
Recording to tape takes patience. And, while 8 tracks might sound a lot, it’s actually very limiting. One track is vocals. For rock and metal, you record rhythm guitars twice for left and right to get a stereo spread. Bass guitar makes four tracks. Lead guitar makes five and six, if you want harmonies. Drums take tracks seven and eight for stereo. Then you “bounce” the guitars down to two tracks – basically output a stereo guitar mix and record L and R on just two tracks – to make space for stereo keyboards at the end.
Typically I needed several takes for each guitar, bass and vocal part. And between each take, I had to rewind the tape to exact point where I needed to “punch in” again. If, during mixing, I decide I didn’t like the guitar sound, I had to record it all over again.
Fast forward to the 2010s, and I’ve been doing it all using software. The guitars are real, but the amps are digital – often recorded using plug-ins that simulate guitar amps, speaker cabinets and microphones – and I can choose from hundreds of amp, cabinet and microphone models. If I don’t lie the guitar sound, I can just change it. No need to re-record that guitar part.
And I can choose from dozens of software synthesizers, offering thousands upon thousands of potential sounds. I can have as many virtual Minimoogs or Roland Jupiter 8s as I like. My i7 laptop can run 10-20 of them simultaneously.
My drums are now created using a powerful multi-sampled virtual instrument that allows me to choose from dozens of different sampled kits, or create my own custom kits, and I can tweak the recording parameters and apply almost limitless effects like compression and EQ to my heart’s content. And, again, if I don’t like the drum sound, I don’t need to wind back a tape and record them all over again.
My Digital Audio Workstation lets me record as many tracks – mono and stereo – as my computer can handle (typically, more than 30 in a final mix), and I can route and re-route the audio as many times as I like.
Because I use software plug-ins for effects like echo/delay, reverb, chorus, EQ, compression and more, I have almost limitless production options for every track.
And, most mind-bending of all, I can record take after take after with no rewinding and the audio quality never degrades.
Digital is aces!
Except… About a year ago I invested in my first hardware synthesizer for a very long time. It’s a Korg Minilogue – a proper analog synthesizer (the first analog synth I’ve owned – and to operate it you have to press buttons and twiddle knobs). Unlike my Roland digital synth, it’s not “multi-timbral”. It makes one sound at a time, and can play up to 4 notes at a time. My Roland JV-2080 could make 16 different sounds a time, and play up to 64 notes simultaneously.
Compared to the software – and the digital synth hardware – the Minilogue is very limiting. It’s significantly harder recording music with the Minilogue than with a software synthesizer.
But when I listen to the first quick demo track I created using the real analog synth and tracks I created using software synths, I can’t help noticing that they have a very different quality.
Those constraints led me to something new – something simpler, into which I had to put more thought about the design of each sound, about the structure of the music, about the real hardware guitar effects I used on each “patch”.
I’m not necessarily saying the end results are better than using software synths. I’m saying that the constraints of the Korg Minilogue led me down a different path. It changed the music.
I’ve been inspired to experiment more with hardware instruments, maybe even revisit recording guitars through mic’d up tube amps again and see how that changes the music, too. (And this is a great time to do that, as low-priced analog synths are making a comeback right now.)
All this got me to thinking about the tools I use to create software. It sometimes feels like we’ve maybe got a bit too much choice, made things a little too easy. And all that choice and ease had led us to more complex products: multiple tech stacks, written in multiple languages, with lots of external dependencies because our package managers make that so easy now. etc etc.
Would going back to simple, limited editors, homogenous platforms, limited hardware and so on change the software we tend to create?
I think it may be worth exploring.