Convergent evolution

Take a good look at how music technology has developed, and you will trace three evolutionary paths of music and audio production software. The first is the MIDI sequencer, as characterised by applications such as Cubase and Sonar. These have all evolved from Sequencer Plus, the original DOS professional MIDI recording and editing software released by Voyetra in the 1980s. Using this tool, musicians could compose and alter their work with a powerful set of editing tools and hear their compositions played by a wide range of MIDI synthesizers. As the power of the PC and the capabilities of the interfaces increased, audio capabilities were added to create the current crop of MIDI and digital audio sequencers.

Convergent evolution

The second thread has evolved from the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or non-linear audio editor. ‘Non-linear’ means you can instantly jump back or forward to any chosen point in the audio stream you are editing, which is in contrast to tape-based systems where you had to wind forward (or backward) through the tape to get to the bit you wanted to re-hash. These hard disk-based DAW systems were often built around dedicated hardware controllers and designed for putting together film soundtracks or CD mastering: being targeted at the needs of the film soundtrack, they often included features such as automatic dialogue replacement and CEDAR noise reduction. This part of the video-production cycle is known in the business as ‘audio post’, which is simply an abbreviation of ‘audio post production’. The best-known PC-based DAW system is Digidesign’s Pro Tools, which employs a combined hardware and software system, and has become something of an industry standard. Other players in the field are Sound Forge, SAW, Creamware (tripleDAT) and Syntrillium (formerly Cool Edit), which originally targeted the budget end of the market but ended up as pretty much the standard in the world of radio.

The final strand of the thread is the loop-based audio application such as Sony’s ACID, Garage Band and Ableton Live. Conceptually, these products probably derived from hardware audio samplers (the Akai 1000, for example) with some music-tracker software techniques thrown in for good measure. I have mentioned tracker software before in this column and these programs are an example of how a little musical knowledge and some clever programming can overcome the shortcomings of computer hardware. The original tracker was developed for the Commodore Amiga, which had built-in sample replay hardware in the shape of four channels of 8-bit audio. However, shortage of memory on the Amiga and the limitations of its built-in audio hardware meant that the only way to make a sensible musical noise was to repeat short sections of audio data. The software became more sophisticated as the hardware improved, perhaps reaching its peak with OctaMED, which allows 16-bit playback on eight channels. Music produced using tracker software has a highly characteristic feel to it and was often used as the background music for console games (which had similar hardware constraints to the original Amiga) and also for PC game soundtracks, such as Command & Conquer.

Digidesign Pro Tools

Like Voyetra, Digidesign has been around since the beginning of the PC music revolution. The company started out in 1984 as Digidrums, designing and selling custom drum sample ROMs for the, then new, crop of digital drum machines such as the Linn and Drumulator. A year later, it released Sound Designer, a sample editor for the E-MU EII sampling keyboard and then went on to release SoundTools in 1989, rather immodestly described as the world’s first ‘tapeless recording studio’. Digidesign has always tended to sit in the Apple Mac camp of music software, although it has often serviced the PC world with excellent products such as the Session 8 hard disk-recording system and SampleCell – a high-specification music sampler on a PCI expansion card. In 1995, the company was bought by Avid, the producer of one of the high-profile digital video-editing systems, which set the scene for all the subsequent acquisitions of audio software developers by video companies – Steinberg by Pinnacle, Syntrillium (Cool Edit) by Adobe and so on.

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