Skip to main content

Recording in the 70's and 80's

Hello, does anybody know when hard disk recorders came along, instead of tape? I'm just looking for technological advancements in these periods. My understanding is that in the 1970's, 24 track anolog consoles were available, along with 2" tape. I know that in the late 80's new technology came along which made big differences, but I'm not sure about any of it, nor can I find information regarding any of it. Does anybody know?


RemyRAD Wed, 03/08/2006 - 11:28
Thank you everybody!

I was very interested when I first heard about digital recording. I knew that it was comprised of "1s" and "0s". I thought it very confusing when I heard the term "PCM", pulse code modulation. A 16-bit word? 50kHz, 48kHz, 44.1kHz, 32kHz sampling and then 96 kHz and 192kHz? What? I thought it should have been a single Bitstream back then but the electronics were not fast enough nor perfected to the point of being able to accomplish that, much less recording it on anything.

About 10 years ago, DSC (?) offered up a listening test of their brand-new 24-bit 192kHz converters. It was approximately a 20 minute listening test of all sorts of different material. The originating source was an Ampex ATR102, 1/2", 30 IPS Master, barefoot. I heard a sizable difference where I should have thought I would not hear any difference at all between "A" & "B"? At the end of the listening test the presenter asked everybody in the room who thought "A" was the original source? It was obvious to me so I raised my hand. Nobody else in the room raised their hand and these were engineers and producers of notable track records. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and thought to myself "perhaps I should get out of the business because I don't know what I'm listening to?" When the presenter asked everybody if they thought "B" was the original source, everybody in the room raised their hands! The presenter then calmly looked at everybody and said "well at least one person today got it right." I and everybody else were stunned and they all wanted to know what the difference was that I heard. It was at that moment that I realized that PCM sounded like PCM sounded like PCM and I really didn't care for it. (Of course we have all succumbed to it)

Advance 25 years and now you have what I thought it should always have been just 1s and 0s and is called DSD or direct stream digital! A single Bitstream sample at 2.53MHz. When it was first introduced at the AES show in New York, I thought it sounded fabulous but when I requested a comparison to a standard CD of 16-bit 44.1kHz, Sony said NO! And then all of the other engineers in the room sided with me and started requesting what "she" asked for and Sony still wouldn't. I walked out. Two years later, they finally offered a comparison and MAN WHAT A DIFFERENCE! I was quickly spoiled. Unfortunately, I still can't afford it. I realized that it got closer to the analog sound than PCM could. It still is plagued by overload problems but of course that can be prevented.

A wealth of nothing
Ms. Remy Ann David

moonbaby Mon, 03/06/2006 - 09:05
I know that I was using some sort of Sony digital audio converter (2-channel) that stored the data on a Sony Beta video recorder back around '87-88 period. Not sure, but I want to say it was called an "F1"...
We were still tracking to an analog 24-track Otari.
I believe that 3M was the first manufacturer of digital multi-tracks in the late 70s(?). They were 32-tracks and had a bad reputation for problems. Then there was the Mitsubishi 32-track. These machines were both expensive, and very cumbersome. And they didn't give the term "digital audio" a very good rep. I had the misfortune to experience the Mitsubishi while working for Butch Trucks' studio(Allman Bros. drummer, FSU professor) back in the 80s. It was pretty good...for a while, but then the company pulled the plug on them, and parts/support were non-existent.
The first HARD DISK recorder that I remember was the Synclavier system, which integrated a monster synth/sampler keyboard with the HD recorder. Then there was the original RADAR system that made things much easier and user-friendly, but you still had to use a tape-based back-up system with it.
Anyway, I suggest that you research the MIX Bookshelf for their archiving of old articles on that subject...there were plenty of them written at that time!

Jim "Vintage Digital:RIP!" Mooney

Thomas W. Bethel Mon, 03/06/2006 - 10:59
Back in the "good old days" Analog tape and digital co existed for quite a while. Not sure exactly if there was ever a real switch over since I know many studios today that have DAWs and multitrack analog tape decks running together for different effects. So I don't think it was hard disk instead of tape at any one time.

Lots of early attempts including the famous "sound droid" of ILM fame. I saw a couple of hard disk based editing systems including Sonic in the early 1990s. There was even one system that cost $80,000 and you could record a couple of hours on in the late 80s. I still have my original hard disk from my Sonic system - 1.3 gigs and cost $3500 new. I think cost per hard disk gigabyte was the determining factor in when the HDs became usable for the masses.

There were so manyAudio/ HD recorders that never went anywhere but started the revolution towards NLE.

MadMax Mon, 03/06/2006 - 16:52
Not sure that I have much to offer about that particular time frame other than to maybe jog someone's memory...

In the fall of 1980 (IIRC), I remember going to a studio in Nashville (Ardent?) and seeing a demo of the first 3M 24 track DASH system.

While there, the lead engineer and I were talking about technology and he mentioned that they were already working on a technology that would revolutionize the music industry in 10 years... hard disk recording.


TVPostSound Mon, 03/06/2006 - 18:46
Lots of early attempts including the famous "sound droid" of ILM fame that became, eventually Pro Tools and that was in 1977.

Lucas started Sound Droid and Edit Droid in 1984 , they were acquired by Avid in 1993 to improve their non linear video editing technologies, not Digidesign.
Digidesign started as DigiDrums (drum machine sample chips) in 1984, Soundesigner was developed by Digidrums to edit Emulator II loops. Digidrums, changed their name to Digidesign, and developed Soundtools, it became Protools.
Avid acquired Digidesign in 1995.

Anyhow 1983 was a key year, as electronic keyboards, and MIDI were introduced, paving the way for computer based music systems, hard disk recorders quickly followed.

1994 was a key year for DAWs as Digidesign released Protools III which was a TDM based system that incorporated "plugin" and became a self sufficient hard disk recorder. Prior to that it was a combination of comuter and tape.

I remember losing tape completely in 1995

RemyRAD Mon, 03/06/2006 - 23:55
The first practical application of digital recording was performed by Tom Stockham of Sound Stream who recorded, processed, restored and digitally manipulated the acoustics of the original 78 rpm acoustic recordings of Caruso. He mathematically analyzed the resonance of the recording horn and through a recording of the modern singer on a Neumann U87 microphone "de-convolved" the artifacts created by the resonances of the acoustic horns that picked up the sound. He did this with some custom-built converters into a computer data recorder!

I remember the research that was being done on the 3M digital multitrack machine, which was 32 track not 24. It was NOT strictly an American invention but a consortium of American and British engineers with 3M (do you suppose that meant Manchester Mining and Manufacturing?? NOT).

Many people felt that it was one of the best sounding digital recorders. The reason for that was if you took a look at the specifications, it revealed that it recorded at a sampling frequency of 50kHz (there was no standard at that time)! That is one of the reasons why it sounded better than others once the others came along because the others were at 48kHz. It is also interesting to note that at the time they created the machine there were NO 16-bit analog-to-digital converters! They actually had a 12 bit converter coupled to a four bit converter and that equaled 16-bit! LOL, but it worked! There was also no practical way that worked out mathematically to convert from 50kHz to 44.1kHz since it was invented before the CD, when they wanted to release on CD, so I believe they went back to analog before they went to digital on the Sony mastering system!

Sony actually had created a 2 track digital recorder that printed its digital signal to 3/4" U-matic. The digital audio adapter alone was over $20,000 and another $10,000 for the U-matic recorder and that was for 1 stereo recorder! Then around 1983 Sony created a consumer oriented device that did in fact record to a Betamax or VHS machine and was called the PCM F1. Its price was a mere $2000! So I bought one. Most of us could not really hear the difference between that one and the $20,000 variety but there was an inherent difference. The $20,000 variety utilized 2 separate data tracks and was edited with a video editing controller and some other proprietary equipment. The $2000 variety multiplexed 2 channels of audio into a single data track which caused something like an 11 microsecond delay between the left and right channels. Now you think this phase shift would cause a problem in the sound and it did but most of us really didn't give a damn because it was better phase coherency than a stereo analog machine could produce. I still have mine and hundreds of old PCM tapes. Another interesting note regarding the PCM F1 was that the Betamax machines actually had a special switch (the reason Sony recommended the Betamax) which turned off the "color dropout compensator", which you couldn't do with a VHS machine. They said the VHS machine would produce more errors on playback, since it was a pseudo low band black-and-white signal that you can actually watch on a TV set! I never had to deal with that problem even though I was strictly VHS, it didn't appear to be much of a factor. Sony quickly discovered that other folks in the recording business were not spending the $30,000 for a 2 track recorder, they all went out and purchased the consumer version! After releasing the 501 and 601 consumer units, Sony discontinued production because nobody was buying the high-priced spread except the major studios/labels.

I also found a cool way to allow for fade-ins and fade-outs which I was told was not possible to do with the consumer unit. I needed to create some fade-ins and fadeouts on a digital copy when I was "editing", since there were no editing controllers for the consumer versions. So I came up with this cute little trick that nobody seemed to know about. While monitoring the analog output and copying digitally (from the digital copy output and it was not SPDIF), I would split the analog output back to the analog input of the unit and at the moment I wanted a fade, I would switch back to analog input from digital copying mode and lower the input volume controls. It was read before write! You never even heard a glitch! I turned on Ken Pohlman from University of Miami to this trick who thought it was also quite cool back in the early eighties while I was making a recording of the Miami Opera Company.

Necessity is the mother, and mother is feeling very old!
Ms. Remy Ann David

JoeH Thu, 03/09/2006 - 11:27
Indeed; Remy, you're amazing. BOOK time, for sure!

I'd only add that the changeover was gradual from the late 70's through the 80's and early 90's. We all knew it was coming. (The experts SAID so! ;-) ) I recall New England Digital did a lot of early (mid-80's) exploring into HD recording with the Synclavier. While hardly the earliest or any pioneers, they did wake a lot of folks up to the concept of multitrack digital audio via the keyboard and DAW approach, even if it was ridiculously expensive. (Ditto for Fairlight and some others)

I don't recall the last year that any of the big companies (Studer/Otari/Sony(MCI)) rolled out analog tape multitrack machines, but it's out there somewhere, I'm sure.

I remember back in the late 80's when early stand-alone CD recorders were $75,000, (and blanks were $10-15 each) then it halved to $35k (I knew someone who took a bank loan for this, I kid you not!) and then by '94-'96 it quickly dropped to about $1200 for a Yamaha or Sony CDr on a SCSI interface for PC or MAC. (At that point, I too was "First on my block" at the time to get one....hahaha)

Once the price of digital media dropped in the late 90s, it was all over for analog tape in the general public's mind. There were lots of landmark dates for various technologies, but it took the last 10 years or so for it finally take over almost completely.