Digital technology and computers

Photograph of digital recording technology

© istockphoto.com/Mario Kos

Advances in cheap MIDI technology, computers and virtual studio recording mean that professional standard recording facilities are now available to a much wider group of musicians and producers than at any time in the past. The use of computers has also had implications for musical performance, with many acts now taking laptops and other computer technology on stage.

As personal computers became more powerful and widely available in the 1990s the types of sampling, sequencing and digital recording technologies that emerged in the 1980s became available to home recordists through newly developed computer programmes. There are now numerous digital audio workstations (DAW) on the market which allow users to record, edit and play back digital audio on their computer systems. Programmes such as Cubase, Pro Tools, and Logic all provide professional standard production facilities without the need for external hardware such as synthesisers, sequencers or tape.

One major feature of these developments has been that access to the recording process has been opened up to a larger number of musicians and producers. We can see this as something of a democratisation of the recording process, whereby musicians can record and release their own material, often finding an audience through internet communication. Often this has taken the form of producing professional sounding demos designed to bring acts to wider attention, but in some cases highly successful records have been made on such equipment. The Scissor Sisters' debut album, for example, was almost entirely recorded at band member Babydaddy's Manhattan apartment using a Logic DAW on a Mac G5 computer. The record went on to be the UK's best-selling album of 2004, selling 3.5 million copies.

These types of technology can also have a major effect upon the sound of music itself. Sampling and synthesis technologies allow for an infinite number of sound sources to be incorporated into sound that we recognise as music. However, many of the post-dance music genres that emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s (loosely referred to as electronica) actually made a virtue of their status as computer-generated music. Within these types of electronic music non-musical sound sources are processed and sculpted into rhythmic, melodic, harmonic forms as central part the compositional process. In electronica there is often a very self-conscious use of sounds associated with computer technology, such as the manipulation of sine waves, the use of types of sound derived from the application of digital editing technology, the use of ambient sounds associated with computer technology (drones, electrical hums etc) and the inclusion of random and error sounds which are by-products of digital technologies and sound manipulation (glitches, pops, hisses etc).