A Brief (and sad!) History Of Recorded Sound

Eureka! In a strange effort to recapture my fleeting youth, I’ve run across a way to make myself feel even older than I already do. Oh Joy! – as my old maid school teacher auntie used to say.

While looking for something of interest to write about, I was cruising the length of my music career, thinking there might be something of interest there, especially over that period of time when the world went from analog recording to digital. What I stumbled across, however, was depressing enough to send me, shaken and unnerved, straight to the liquor cabinet for a double brandy. For what I accidentally discovered was enough to turn a bald man’s hair white!

Rather than trying to glue together the recording events of the middle eighties, I unhappily discovered a fact that stunned me – I have lived through 7 major changes of music media in my lifetime! Yikes!

Yup, it’s true. For the first 14 years of my life, all our music was on 78 RPM records. Do you know (said the old man to the youngster) that the first record albums were really albums… three to five sleeves of 78 records in a record-size book. I had a bunch of them, sold them to an antique dealer. 

In my teenage years, we had 33 1/3 albums and 45’s for the hit singles of the time. In my middle twenties the 8-track came into existence. That medium was probably the shortest run of all the consumer forms of music playback, perhaps partly because so many of us had 8-track players in our cars, and so many of them were stolen, (Yes, mine was, too) and the fact that they didn’t work for very long and were difficult (and seldom worth it) to repair.

After 8-tracks came the venerable cassette, (and Walkmans, remember them?) which lasted a surprisingly long run. Cassettes were finally put out to pasture by the compact disc in the early ’80’s. The CD lasted a good while, long enough for most of us to have collected a hundred or so of them.

Embarrassingly, I was not really aware of the CD’s demise until sometime last year, when I recorded some piano performances for my dear friend Will Hardy. After a touch of digital cleaning up, I asked him what medium he wanted it on. He looked at me curiously, then said, “A file will do.” A file! Good god, I was about to burn a CD of his recordings for him. But a file?!

I finally recovered enough to say, “Oh, you mean transfer these digital files to a flash drive…”
“Yeah,” he smiled. “That’ll work.”
“Just so I know, do you even have a CD player?”

Will is 24 years old, and a techno wizard. He loves his music and is serious about it. And he doesn’t own, nor does he want to own, a CD player. My brain nearly seized up. I have probably over 300 CDs, thinking (obviously erroneously) that the CD would be the most widely accepted medium of music for the rest of my life. But NO!

Just in case you don’t know what comes next for music lovers, and would like to know, I’m here to tell you it’s now going to live in digital files and streaming devices. Hope you’re ready for that, I’m not.

I asked Will what are the going mediums today for people under 40. Here’s what he told me – “I think most people went to using their iPods and iPhones in the late 2000’s,  since they could carry music with them for the first time. (Will is too young to know about the Walkman. Even that is depressing…) Afterward, as apps for smart devices became more sophisticated and cloud/streaming services became commonplace, as far as I’m aware, most people use Apple music, Spotify, or YouTube (YouTube Premium, that is). Personally, all of my music is accessed through the latter two. Furthermore, even our earbuds are wireless now! So all we have to do is pop the buds into our ears and press play on the device and we’re off.”

And there you have it… iPods & iPhones driving wireless earbuds. Sigh.

About the time I was finally getting used to the idea that I’d lived long enough to have experienced, enjoyed and survived 7 evolutions of music media, another devious and unwanted thought hit me… how many different ways to record sound did I work through in the 31 years of owning a recording studio? Oh god, I had the feeling this was about to get seriously depressing. But okay, now that the bad egg of a thought had been laid, let’s go ahead and try to figure it out, knowing all the while it’s going to end up making me feel older that dirt.

There was the 2-track Crown recorder in Sandy Fuller’s basement. My own first studio had a Teac 4-track recorder. Next came a Teac 8-track recorder, which lasted quite awhile, probably 15 years or more. Then in ’85 the first Apple computers with 4-track recording software arrived, and of course we all pounced on it. For several years after that, I had 4 different recording devices all working together at the same time through the magic of SMPTE time code. All that could be saved to a floppy disk. There was the 8-track, the Apple computer, a Commodore 64, a Commodore portable computer for special effects and an E-MU Sampler for digitally recorded instruments. Along with all that was Yamaha DX7, connected to two synthesizers, Prophet Fives that were also able to run in tandem for a fatter, richer sound. All that was connected with wires called MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

There was one piece of audio equipment that survived all 31 years of my working studio – a MacIntosh stereo tube amplifier! There was no reason to replace it because 1. It never stopped working. And 2. In all that time, no amp came out on the market that was better.  A truly incredibile piece of audio gear, which now resides at Fox Gap Farm!


Here’s a fairly good picture of it, with Dillon at the keys.


And finally, digital lightning struck! The Macintosh computer arrived, and shortly after the first version of MOTU Digital Performer, a music recording software, which amazingly, had 99 digital (synth) tracks, and 24 audio tracks! Now we were getting somewhere! I got mine in 1990 and soon upgraded my audio console to 24 tracks in and 8 tracks out.

This form of recording was my preferred studio setup until I retired in 2005. Even then, I moved it back to Montana and set it up in the corner of my cabin. At that point all my digital instrument files were in the computer, so all I needed for a good working studio was several high-quality mics, a keyboard, and the computer. I could even burn CDs of the finished projects in the computer. I swear, after all the years of needing tons of hardware equipment to produce a decent recording, all this new stuff felt like cheating!

Dillon & me in the cabin studio

After that huge digression, for which I apologize, (which only a half dozen older musicians would appreciate) I began to count all the recording changes my studios went through. There were at least 13 over the span of 31 years, and in several of those medium changes, the learning curve was fairly steep. A few of us Atlanta composers helped each other a good deal, sharing our new experiences and occasional failures with each other. That turned out to be a huge help in making the leap from analog to digital.

13 different recording formats and 7 different playback formats during my looooong lifetime! Egads! I think this has probably been a mistake from the get-go. On the one hand, I feel like a grizzled old recording sage, yet on the other I feel like I might have actually been born in the 1850’s or something and have slipped into a wicked time warp, or perhaps the Twilight Zone. Arrgghh!

In an attempt to recover at least a modicum of my former, more youthful self, I have begun streaming a jazz radio station through my iPhone to my sound bar. Yes, gone is the big receiver, the big speakers, the turntable, the CD player… all of it. Gone. Now it’s all on my phone. I am beyond grateful to have lived this long in good health, to see and experience this new world with its powerful digital domain. I see that receivers, amplifiers and even turntable and records are making something of a comeback. That’s good. Aside from my personal horror of actually having lived through all those times, I’m perfectly content to stream the rest of my life away. And why not? It’s the latest thing, you know… at least for awhile.

Steve Hulse


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