UX and the music software Part 2: The rise of multitrack recording

Everything within this series is a combination of research and opinion. I strive to be as accurate as possible however I may skip a number of interesting details regarding this large history. Please feel free to email me with any opinions or ideas.


Part 1 of this series mentioned how Pro Tools originates as a project out of UC Berkeley and became a consumer product around 1991. Let’s acknowledge why digital multitrack recording is important. First of all it helped resolve the obvious limitations of tape. The conversation during the 1990s was, “Sure tape sounds great but now you can have theoretically endless dubbing options with digital recordings. Record ten takes, twenty, or even one hundred!” This was a sales and marketing sentiment. It was discussed in music production circles. The novelty of “endless” takes. Select the best recording. You’re no longer influenced by the hassle tape presents.

Multitrack recording became the sales position of music software and the creative angle. Since Pro Tools tried to solve perceived problems of tape recording, it’s solutions defined the experience of the software. It’s solutions were in response to mainstream music production concepts. This is why the multitrack paradigm became as significant as it is. It not only existed as a common production concept in recording studios before the digital era—record one performer, then another, then mix it together—but it continued as a paradigm during the digital era.

In other words: new technology initially set out to solve old problems instead of looking for new ones. Pro Tools popularized the trope of solving increasingly older recording problems (No one talks about the limits of tape anymore).

Multitrack recording Defined Creative Direction

The popularity and significance of Pro Tools defined the marketplace. Multitrack recording was a thing and so it’s marketing defined expectations in the minds of consumers. How else would a consumer/musician discuss computer music in the 90s without discussing the software’s ability to mix multiple tracks and record multiple tracks simultaneously? There were few other defining aspects in the early 90s. Many other factors defined the fidelity of the final recorded material—my first computer i/o box only supported 20bit audio.

So as personal computing increased dramatically in relevance,
very much due to Microsoft, the computer music industry had to compete on that OS. It did so in Emagic Logic, Cubase, and Twelve Tone Systems’ Cakewalk. In fact Emagic initially only offered a feature-rich MIDI sequencer on Windows months before they provided any audio features (this link may not work as of 6/20/16 but is currently being migrated to SOS’s new site).

The presence of multiple companies defining the landscape of computer music around multitracking acted as a further education to new consumers. This was also the easiest way to design and market these products. A musician who is new to computer-aided music only knew of a few options. It defined how consumers could experience computer music recording.

In Part 1 of this series I discussed trackers. They did not bubble up to the top alongside Pro Tools because it’s paradigm was not familiar enough to demand attention from companies. Imagine if it did. Imagine the way music would have been handled differently. Let that sit in. This is one way in which software defined creative directions. Software has played a large role in defining the styles of music available over the past few decades. If Pro Tools, for some radical reason, included a tracker feature, the history of modern music would be different (more on trackers later).

Why does that matter? Many musicians opted to be traditional solo acts or within traditional band structures during the early 90s and certainly before. Multitrack software supported this. However as the decades passed the manner of solo-musicianship has changed. Did the software lag behind?

However it wasn’t just the motivations of business that popularized multitrack recording. It was the focus of many musicians. It’s increasingly difficult to recall musical society without electronic music. However even into the 90s, many musicians opted for solo musicianship with acoustic or electric instruments or chose be in bands. If this was the most common way to perform music then it makes sense that software companies focused on fulfilling their needs. Many musicians are just regular people adopting the musical strategy of their peers and those they admire.

Why does that matter? Many musicians opted to be traditional solo acts or within traditional band structures during the early 90s and certainly before. Multitrack software supported this. However as the decades passed the manner of solo-musicianship has changed. Did the software lag behind? Few, if any, electronic musicians dub their lead synth on top of their bass track on top of their drum track—a multi-track recording strategy. Since few solo musicians do this, why is this style of software still used by contemporary solo acts?

What about MIDI?

The world of MIDI had a separate evolution outside of digital audio recording. MIDI, the protocol for communicating between different music machines, began its standardization in 1983 and was strongly focused on communicating between synthesizers. It had some years to define it’s role on the computer. By the late 80s we had MIDI sequencers—possibly first introduced on the Atari system—and thus it introduced very different user interface concepts compared to later multitrack concepts.

Side note: I just noticed I keep saying Emagic Logic. Some may be wondering if that’s the same as Apple’s Logic. It is. Apple purchased Logic from the German company Emagic in the early 2000s.

Two young technologies converge

As mentioned it is my opinion Pro Tools popularized computer-aided music during the early 90s but why didn’t the MIDI Sequencer do the same in the 90s? It was a less common paradigm. Fewer musicians approached music from the perspective of sequencing MIDI notes. Fewer knew it existed. A traditional guitarist wasn’t handling MIDI. Since there was money to be made, companies broadened their objectives. MIDI sequencing was combined with multitrack recording.

So two things were occurring by the early 1990s: companies discovered the increasing relevance of multitrack recording on the computer and companies who previously focused on MIDI sequencing saw an opportunity to converge both approaches. All the while alternatives, like trackers and MaxMSP (initially a visual programing language for MIDI), existed quietly in the background. This means we had two user interface concepts handling two different approaches to music production slowly integrating into one another.

More about the history of Pro Tools – http://www.musicradar.com/tuition/tech/a-brief-history-of-pro-tools-452963

The next part in this series will focus on the MIDI sequencer.

2 thoughts on UX and the music software Part 2: The rise of multitrack recording

  1. Robin Parmar says:

    I have a very different perspective to yourself. You say that Pro Tools “popularized computer-aided music”, but it was far too expensive for any but an elite few to own. I think the first version was six grand and did less than what you could do on an Atari. Pro Tools to this day has never been the most popular software, though it was the package adopted by professional studios in the USA, and hence became an industry standard. This did not happen because it was the best solution; in fact its features have generally lagged behind all other software packages. This came as a direct result of its professional use. Studio engineers do not want rapid evolution in their products; they want stability and support.

    1. estevan says:

      I agree and maybe I didn’t clarify in my post. I believe Pro Tools popularized computer-aided music because it was the standard and other people looked to this standard as inspiration. Of course Pro Tools did end up lagging behind while alternatives did not. However I believe Pro Tools originally set expectations of what computer recording software _should_ be and as the years went on, other companies redefined expectations–that’s a point I hope to make in future posts.

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