Here's the scenario: You're reading an article in a magazine about the current state of the music business. You come across the inevitable part where the journalist talks about how empowered musicians are, now that recording is possible with personal computers. You might nod your head in agreement, or you might stop cold in your tracks like myself and think, "What in the hell are they talking about?"
"Whoa, what's Larry getting so fired up about?" you might ask. "Of course everyone can make records on their laptop at home nowadays."
Think back to the origins of recorded sound: One track of audio recorded through a mechanical horn onto a wax cylinder. Then, for many years, even with the advent of electrical- based recording and tape, there was only one mono audio track. Capturing a performance meant placing the musicians in proper relationship to one microphone. In later times it meant putting up several mics and blending their signals together to this one track.
As technology marched forward we stepped into the world of multitrack recording, whether via deck to deck with blended-in overdubs (like Joe Meek and Les Paul) or via multitrack tape decks. Those with the right equipment were able to either add extra overdubs, or even isolate instruments and players to separate tracks.
It's this isolation of tracks and overdubbing that begat the concept of performances that could be built up from events that did not occur simultaneously or in real time together. That's fine by me — it's a fact of life that we can manipulate time in order to create something that might (or might not) sound like people playing music together in a room. But it's essentially this multitracking that has confused and misguided so many folks when it comes to discussing the intersection of technology and music. Let me tell you why.
The amount of tracks available on a recording device does not limit the amount of instruments, musicians or channels that can be recorded to it in one pass. Of course this means that if all you have is one track, you'll have to mix the instruments together as they are being recorded. But hey, people were doing that for years and many classic recordings were made this way. The track count does not in any way equal the quality of the audio being recorded. I would guess that most of our readers understand this. We've all heard crap records made on anything from four to 248 tracks. Track count is not a definite signifier of audio quality.
You need a lot more than just the recording device (such as tools, factors and environments) in order to record a great album. You'll need to buy a mic. Probably several mics. You'll need a mic preamp in order to bring the signals up to line level. You need an interface in order to plug these mics into your computer (though these last two can be combined into a single unit). And guess what? Most of these cheaper interfaces sound like shit, so you'll soon (hopefully) realize this and start salivating over interfaces and mic pres that will set you back thousands of dollars. Oh yeah, you'll also discover your interface sounded like shit when you finally stop listening to your work on iPod earbuds and buy some $500 monitors. But you'll soon outgrow those when you realize you still can't hear things properly and there's no sound coming out below 150 Hz. You'll need a room that flatters these players' performances with balanced acoustics. You'll also need the knowledge of where to place the musicians and the mics. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that you'll have to write some amazing material, as well as finding players and singers that can perform it. But wait — let me just stop here....
None of this, aside from the capability to record a batch of audio tracks at a time (given that you've invested in some interface hardware and software), is available on your computer. All you have there is basically a way to capture and play back audio. Granted, There are some nifty plug-ins that (sort of) replicate what happens with real analog equipment — and if you work really hard and already have some seasoned skills you can make a pretty good mix happen in a computer. But you still have to put some really great sounding tracks into this damn thing in order to have anything decent to work with.
Sure, some lucky geezer like Owl City's Adam Young can build a record almost entirely in Reason and have a hit on his hands; but even he turned around and invested more money in a decent home studio space and better equipment in order to improve his sounds. Hell, his recent album, All Things Bright and Beautiful, was mixed with Jack Joseph Puig — and I can assure you that is never cheap.
So, next time some journalist or nitwit know-it-all says, "I guess I can do everything in my little computer that it used to take a whole studio to do," set the jackass straight. Making an album is a whole lot more than simply the amount of tracks you can record to and manipulate. In addition, in case you weren't convinced, I did a little math. My first "commercial" 8-track, analog recording studio had about $4,000 worth of gear in it. I was recording people all the time on that equipment, and many albums and singles came out of that basement. And there was no computer in sight. The technology has been available to record at home for a long time. But you knew that all along, didn't you? Hell, you read Tape Op. Duh.