A Mini View Of The Midi Revolution
Non-audiophiles, beware! This one is for my music biz pals who are
over 50… and there are quite a few, believe it or not. I’m hoping you
will find this interesting, or, at the very least, memory-jogging and
perhaps entertaining. It’s one person’s view of the transitional time
between live musicians and the midi revolution. And depending upon
whether you were an audio engineer or a composer, the change from
the analog world to the digital world was either fairly fast, or fairly slow.
In this article, I am totally open to being corrected on my memory…
I know a few of you will jump all over that. And that’s okay. We were all
in that together, and we all have a perspective. Mine is fairly narrow…
I give you that.
I’d had a small home recording studio of one sort or another since ’73. When
we moved into the new Doppler building, Jimmy Ellis and I each got our own
room and I was able to move my studio into a new office there. It was great
for composing and demoing. When I left Doppler in ’87 I set the studio up
in my home. As one might expect, my weekly business dropped off
dramatically. The timing of all this coincided with the first changes from the
analog world of audio to the digital domain… a monumental transition for
those of us who dealt with the restrictions and the realities of analog recording
for some 30 years or more. Before continuing, I have to share with you
the best of many strange experiences I observed in the analog world.
Joe Neil, perhaps the premier audio engineer in the Southeast, made a
tape splice unlike anything any of us had ever seen. I can’t remember the
reason for it, exactly, but I remember the time and place very well… down
in the old Doppler, upstairs from the piano store, on a Scully 16-track, I
think. Joseph could tell this much better than I, and perhaps he will, if he’s
reading this. Anyway, it must have been an important project, and an
important part, because there was a short (probably 2-3 second section
on track 16 that couldn’t be punched in or replaced for some reason. So
our Joseph did the only thing left to fix it… recorded “the fix” on a separate
piece of tape, and did a horizontal splice on track 16… really! I still remember
seeing that little section of tape slide by the heads, sounding perfect!
When I left Doppler, my studio consisted of a DX-7, two Prophet-5’s
connected by midi, and a small Korg drum machine. Recording and
sequencing were done with a Commodore 64 computer and some 4-track
software. The computer was synced with a Tascam 8-track recorder with
DBX. (If I remember right, I think we had to turn the DBX off if we laid down
time code on a track, as the noise reduction messed it up.) For my non-audio
pals out there, remember that time code was one of the first ways we could
sync recorders to computers and recorders to other recorders. I used to put
the time code on track 8 of my 8-track. That would reduce my 8-track
to a 6-track, as the code on track 8 always ‘leaked” onto track 7, making it
unusable. Funny what silly stuff we had to deal with back then, isn’t it?
My audio console was an 16-in 4-out Tascam. I forget what kind of outboard
reverb I had, but it wasn’t the old spring unit I’d had for years. Remember
those? You couldn’t drive them very hard or they’d twang. Anyway, the digital
world of audio was just getting off the ground, with new and better equipment
rolling in every couple of months. The Korg Wavestation came out around ’90,
which, in a way, heralded the end of the old analog era for me. Within the
next year, new, bigger Mac computers hit the scene. Digital Performer came
out with the new software that recorded live audio, with 99 midi tracks, and the landscape of the home audio recorder was instantly re-invented.
In 1984 a new Prophet-5 cost $4500. In 1992 my 24-in 8-out Mackie audio
console cost $3500. Today one can put an entire digital studio together
for under $4500. When I first learned to be an audio engineer, back in
1970, there was a limiter/compressor called the UA-1176, put out by UREI
in ’67. Today the hardware version can be bought at Sweetwater for $2K.
I don’t know what they sold for in 1970, but the studio in BostonI worked in
had two of them. My point is, Today we can buy the entire MOTU Digital
Performer recording/mixing software, with the Masterworks FET 76 included,
for $500. Imagine that! Not long after I began using DP, I went looking
for a good limiter for a vocal I was recording. There, among the other
software choices, was the 1176… now called the FET 76. I couldn’t believe it!
To my ears, it acts and sounds the same as the original, and I suppose we
shouldn’t be surprised. It’s barely the tip of the iceberg of the reasons why
the digital era of recording hinted at the eventual downfall of many of the large
studios across the country in the last 10 -15 years.
The beginning Of The End
My story is pretty much a microcosm of what happened to big studios, I think.
It began in 1987, when the first digital samplers began hitting the market, and
the sequencer in a Mac became fairly standard equipment for the home
recording enthusiast. Several of my Atlanta A-list composer pals and I began
noticing that our stream of work from the Atlanta ad agencies suddenly
began slacking off. At first we thought it was simply a dip in the seasonal
work… we’d had those before. But now we began hearing some cheesy
electronic music under some of the radio and tv spots around the city, and
we finally figured out what was going on… our price per jingle was being
seriously undercut by garage composer wannabe’s who had a computer
and a synthesizer, and could suddenly record a “finished” product in their
basement or bedroom! I found that instead of having 5 or 6 serious
competitors for the ad agency music, I now suddenly had 20 or more.
I asked several of my agency producers what was happening, and their
answers were frighteningly consistent – all these new guys were showing
up and offering to do original music for the agencies for $100-to $500
a shot, whereas we’d been getting $1K to $5K just several months ago!
I asked my contacts why they were using these amateurs, whose music
basically sounded like shit, for the most part. They just shrugged and said,
“We’re saving a ton of money on production costs.” And when I asked them
how they could put that crap on the airwaves, they simply shrugged again,
saying “Who cares? The audience out there doesn’t know…”
And it was true. Sadly, nearly no one in Atlanta, save the few hip media folk
and the real musicians who know quality from bullshit, knew that a huge shift
in music for media and picture was taking place. I, for one, found it hard to
actually believe for a long time. In the long run, however, it turned out to be a
turning point for both composers and recording studios.
The first live players to be hit by the coming technology were bass players
and drummers. The first Moog synths had a sweet, fat bass sound that got
trendy right away… as did the drum machine. Soon several players came to
Doppler, asking, “What the hell is happening? Why haven’t you called me
lately? I hear your stuff on TV, but I’m not on it…” And our answers were
usually lame, but true… “We’re just trying to stay current here, and the
electronics are the new, cool thing…” Not satisfactory. To anyone.
What the players didn’t realize right away was that we composers were being
slowly put out of business as well, much of it caused by the new sound
libraries that were suddenly appearing in droves. With the advent of the
sound libraries, an agency creative could book a small room for $50 an hour
and go through the studio’s sound library, searching for the right piece for
their :30 or :60 ad. We called these little short pieces on the library CDs
“needle drops.” If a creative could find the right piece of music for his
spot within an hour, he then paid the $50 for the studio time, plus $75
for the use of that needle drop for 13 weeks, for the cool total of $125.
Bye bye, live composers… y’all are history!
Within several years the digital samples of real instruments rolled in, affordable
to everyone with a computer, and the six of us original composers, who
helped the Atlanta ad scene become the national player that it was, were
now scrambling to do five minutes of music for a paltry $500-$800 a crack.
One of the saving graces for me, anyway, was that the prices for good
electronics came tumbling down about the same time… so the same
availability of good digital equipment for a WAY lower price, which made it
possible for the wannabe’s to be competitive, also helped guys like me
keep current and stay in the mix. It was weird… several of us composers
would go to lunch and laugh about how good the new equipment was,
and how cheap it was getting, not realizing that all the time it was slowly
putting us out of business, as the amateurs were able to afford it, too.
And I think the same thing happened to the large studios. Much of their pro
equipment didn’t get cheaper, and their margins of profit kept slipping.
The basement studio began to rival the big studios in sound quality. Top
quality was still huge in the record business, but in media, it simply didn’t
matter as much. And in time, the larger studios had only three advantages to
set them apart from the basement studio… space to record large groups, and
good to great audio engineers who could put out a sparkling finished product,
using experience and expertise that we “home-brewers” couldn’t really touch.
And the third advantage, an almost intangible element we referred to as
Client glitter and “bells and whistles” were nearly synonymous. They consisted
of the really big console, with flashing lights, tons of buttons, and a huge
rack of expensive amps and outboard gear, all beautifully displayed. Soft lights,
big tables and easy chairs and sofas were key in the client glitter game. The
big studios made it easy for its clients to feel important, sipping coffee,
taking phone calls and telling the engineer to tweak the mix a bit. The big
studios were able to send a mix to L.A. over a DSL line, a perk that took
the smaller studios a while to get a handle on, if ever. My little studio didn’t
bother with it and seldom needed it.
Within a year of leaving Doppler I had a new studio on the outskirts of
Decatur and a new room full of digital gear, good quality, affordable gear
that completely upgraded my musical sound and my studio’s ability to record
outside projects. By ’93 every piece of my studio was new/different except
my two Proteus modules, which I used occasionally for several more years.
They sat quietly blinking in a new rack mount Bill Orisich, owner of “Whoa
Films,” had built for me, and were, to a great degree, the closest thing
I could come to “client glitter.”
My Post-Doppler Years
By the time I had what one could consider to be a serious recording studio,
I was no longer one of Atlanta’s cutting edge composers. I had just turned
50, and was old by music and media standards. The young guns had taken
to the new technologies in a flash, and I was now playing catch-up… and
not that well. A new term had emerged… “sound design” and I didn’t like it.
My old school ways started to show, and it hurt me in the downtown music
arena. I didn’t want to put additional sound effects in my music tracks, nor
did I want to offer sound effects for my several clients. Unfortunately, my
younger competitors were all over sound fx and sound design, and I found
myself eating their dust in the potential jobs where we were required to
submit demoes of our work, or a demo of what our potential client might
have wanted. By the time I figured out that the new clients wanted more
sound fx and less music, I was nearly out of business. In the last 10 years
of my career I was able to barely stay afloat with the help of my previous
reputation, some faithful friends in the biz and the fact that I offered a
really good-quality recording studio for $50 an hour.
At one point I had to sell off all my old keyboards and synths… and that
really hurt. I had a Clavinova – a clavinet with a Rhodes-sound that you
could mix in and out… it was sweet. And my best piece of gear, a Fender
Rhodes suitcase model with outboard stereo speakers. I did some of my
best composing on that little keyboard. It had a killer sound and I still miss it
(and the other equipment) to this day.
My best years in music were from ’75 to ’87. I did a lot of good work during
that period, and made a good amount of money. In ’87 I had a cabin in
Montana, a cabin on Lake Burton, a house in Virginia Highlands, a Ford
Bronco, a ’56 Chevy and a motorcycle. And a new wife and baby.
By the end of ’88 my work had fallen off dramatically but my creative
juices were still flowing. For years I was what my rock musician friends called
a “studio rat.” I could spend all day in any dark studio doing music, and it was
like my safe haven. I hasten to say that I did a lot more good music before I
hung it all up. As the new digital orchestral samples became better and better,
my orchestral composing chops flourished, as I’d always been a good
orchestrater and arranger, thanks to my Berklee education. It became great
fun for me to compose and record an orchestral piece, using oboes, flutes,
string sections, trumpets and french horns. Percussion samples were terrific
at that stage… one could get a great timpani roll in a heartbeat. What used to
take 5 days and 20 musicians to record now took maybe 2 hours. Talk about
instant gratification… it was a new world for me… hell, for all of us!
But now the Atlanta agencies weren’t wanting orchestral music any more…
they wanted “beats” and sound design, and that was the first big, major
change in the music biz that I wasn’t able to make. During the last 5 years
of my career, I had to begin playing live again, usually in restaurants and
hotels, usually with a trio. It was different, moving back into live playing again,
after 28 years in Doppler and other studios around the country. It was easier
now, in several ways… portable pianos were much easier to carry, and
restaurants and hotels were no longer smoky. I was able to pay some of the
bills, but not nearly all of them, and in the last 6 months of 2005 my entire
studio sat in the garage… in boxes.
Am I bitter? Yeah, I guess… a little bit. No gold watch, no “good bye” party,
not a peep… the phone simply stopped ringing, and on the rare occasion
that I was asked to submit a demo for a job, I rarely got it, either because
my connections with the right people were long gone, or because my
approach was now dated. For a long time I refused to believe any of that,
and it became clear to me only after several years of evenings in my
Montana cabin, rocking in front of the fireplace with brandy in hand, still
wondering what the hell had happened back then.
As the memories came floating in, it became evident that I had messed up
some things in Atlanta far more than I’d previously realized. Having visualized
myself as something of a renegade, I had acted that out far too often, always
with bad results. I talked about people I didn’t like too often, and too loudly.
I didn’t show up for an awards dinner in ’85, when I won the Southeast
Composer of the Year award. I didn’t even hang the plaque up, as I was “all
about the music, not the awards.” Bad choice. Wrong image. And I got
over-confident. I didn’t know it at the time, it’s hard to see some of that stuff
from the inside, but I think my ego was getting pretty large, which is weird,
considering back in ’80 I was asking Steve Davis if he thought I might possibly
be good enough to attempt an album. Everyone responds to success differently,
I’m not proud of how I handled it. It’s one of the few times in my life I’d like to
have another crack at.
But I will never, ever forget the wildly talented people who played, sang and put the polish on the pieces that Jimmy and I wrote for them. I love you guys…You made our music sing… you gave it the sparkle and the class that it would otherwise not have had. Thank you for that!
Long after I’d retired and returned to Montana, it finally became clear who
and what I was all those years. I was never a Keith Jarrett, never a Henry
Mancini. I wasn’t a John Williams or a Hans Zimmer… not even close.
What I was, was a slightly better than average composer/arranger who could
play. But what I really, really was, was an incredibly lucky guy who was given
a chance by Pete Caldwell. Pete helped me into a perfect niche, that of a
Doppler composer, and for quite a few years I was just right for that niche,
and it for me. As I said, I finally left Doppler in ’87, and in hindsight, that was
for me, the beginning of the end.
I don’t regret any of that… hell, that’s life. We all think we’re doing the right
thing at the time. A broader view of my life and new family would have
revealed that I now needed Doppler more than ever. The problem there was,
Doppler no longer needed me. They now had new, fresher talent in-house,
who were brilliantly continuing the Doppler standard of music (and jingle)
quality that Tom Wells had started, and that Jimmy Ellis and I had continued.
For me, at that point, the magic Doppler years were over. But my god, what
a time it was… and what a time we had!