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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.

UX and the music DAW Part 1: An Introduction to the 80s and 90s

The UX of your DAW software makes a critical impact on creativity.

I was a around the age of 9 when my uncle, a computer engineer, insisted that we take a trip to a computer software store to purchase something new. I was familiar with the computer to the extent that my uncle introduced all concepts and material to me from an ancient IBM compatible 8086 to Sierra Online’s King’s Quest. On this particular day we were apparently upgrading from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. As a young person I did not actually follow the news or developments of this subject. I was just a willing participant.

Windows 95

From my vantage point I took all technological advances for granted. However my uncle would offer context by emphasizing significant developments. Windows 95 was such a thing. From there the idea of personal computing increased, presumably exponentially or that’s the impression given to me at the time. There’s little reason to doubt that.

I was being bred as a computer nerd and noticed people around my community slowly acquiring computers for the first time. Microsoft pulled it off. For some reason people wanted computers. I put it that way because not everyone understood what to do with it.

I cut my teeth on 1990s, personal computing, audio recording software. I saw the rawness of the industry and it’s extremely important to discuss.

Alongside this advancement, audio recording software followed behind. Not at the same rate or with the same success. Not at all. It followed none the less. I cut my teeth on 1990s, personal computing, audio recording software. I saw the rawness of the industry and it’s extremely important to discuss. More important than what a younger producer may assume.

The evolution of the DAW is about two things: the evolution of computer hardware and the evolution of consumer needs. The nexus in between is where we find music production software shifting as a new Intel processor is introduced and it changed awkwardly with consumer mindsets.

The evolution of the DAW is about two things: the evolution of computer hardware and the evolution of consumer needs. The nexus in between is where we find music production software…

I don’t intend to cover the audio software of the 1980s. Primarily because I never used that software during that period. However let’s have an overview.
An admittedly unusual overview of music DAW software during the 1980s

  • The Macintosh, as many know, was one of the first personal computers and certainly the first that has clearly defined our idea of personal computing today
  • Early software projects, originating from UC Berkeley were introduced in the late 80s and would eventually evolve into Pro Tools
  • The first version of Pro Tools, released in 1991 worked on Apple’s system 6/7
  • Recording four tracks was the maximum offered by Pro Tools 1 during it’s release
  • The two top Billboard singles of 1987 were “Walk Like An Egyptian” by The Bangles and “Alone” by Heart
  • The Music Tracker scene advanced as shareware versions were created to support the Windows system

Schism-beyond

But wait, what’s a “Music Tracker” you may ask? As I mention, I’m skipping some details of the 80s. An undercurrent that should be acknowledged is that the paradigm of multitrack recording, that was spearheaded by Pro Tools, was not the only school of thought at the time. A different concept of computer music production existed as early as 1987 and was called a Music Tracker. It originated from a commercial software project called “Ultimate Soundtracker… written by Karsten Obarski… by EAS Computer Technik for the Commodore Amiga.” Think of it as a sort of step sequencer for small audio samples.

It’s worth noting this area of music software development because it represents the alternative influences that one day influence mainstream music production. None the less, Music Tracker software was likely fringe and underground. You know what else was underground during this period? Most electronic music.

Another significant, but increasingly insignificant, software development project that occurred during this active period of 1987-91: Cakewalk 1.0.

Another significant, but increasingly insignificant, software development project that occurred during this active period of 1987-91: Cakewalk 1.0. It was initially released on DOS then Windows 3.1 in 1991. I was first introduced to it on Windows 98.

This is where we will begin in the next part of this series. As mentioned, I cut my teeth on Cakewalk and in my mind it represents the complicated dynamics of technological innovation, evolving musical tastes, and software limitations that have a role in all music production software but are very pronounced in Cakewalk’s history. Simply put, multitrack recording concepts took a few punches during the 90s as many factors changed consumer demands. Cakewalk in my view represents that tense, confusing period.

I should explain my thesis with more clarity even though I am attempting a less formal approach with this series of articles. I’d like to move into different areas of history and ideas as the series evolves. However the larger thesis I aim to argue is this: all music software functions as an instrument. It functions as a musical instrument due to qualities of user experience. The evolution of user experience tropes and measures within music production software has not always been deliberate or informed. We as musicians can benefit or find ourselves hindered by this. However being unaware of these details doesn’t allow us to work within or outside the structure of the instrument. This series will present a history of user experience and user interfaces in music software as well as a theory of why it’s important to production.