Synthesisers and multitracking

Photograph of a synthesiser

© Weinrich

During the 1980s there was a revolution in sound brought about by the widespread availability of synthesisers and drum machines. Synthesisers are musical instruments that work through generating differing frequencies and sounds through the means of electronics. Initially synthesisers worked through analogue technology in which the control of circuits and voltages was used to control elements such as the value of pitch, volume, and velocity. The invention of the microprocessor led to synthesisers which used digital signal processing to produce sound coming on to the market in the early 1980s.

In the 1960s and early 1970s synthesiser technology had been limited to use in professional studios and established rock stars, due to their very high prices. These machines, often individually made, could cost the equivalent of a small family car. However in the mid 1970s large Japanese corporations began to enter the market with their own versions of analogue synthesisers, resulting in a significant drop in price. This was followed by the introduction of midi (musical instrument digital interface) and digital hardware which made this type of music-making even more accessible. Inspired by the 'Do-It-Yourself' attitude of punk, 1980s electropop bands from Merseyside such as OMD, A Flock of Seagulls and China Crisis put the sound of new technology at the heart of their music, producing recordings that would have been impossible ten years previously.

The invention of new instruments is not the only way in which technological development has helped to shape the sound of music. Recording technologies have also influenced the sonic possibilities that musicians can achieve. The Beatles famously gave up live performance because their music was being drowned out by the screams of their audience. However members of the group also have said that another reason they didn't play live again after August 1966 was progress in the way in which they recorded. On albums such as 'Revolver' and 'Sgt Pepper' the group made extensive use of multitrack recording, a system where musicians no longer had to play their individual parts at the same time but could instead 'layer' individual performances and instruments. The resulting sound was rich with differing musical textures and a variety of unusual instruments and sounds. This innovative and complex use of the recording studio meant that they were producing records that were at the time, impossible to reproduce in concert. It also took popular music into a different level of musical creativity.

As we continue to progress into an even more technologically sophisticated society the implications for music continue. It is now possible to produce highly polished and amazingly complex recordings on personal computers which can be distributed around the globe at the click of a mouse.