The 1980s and new recording techniques

Photograph of a midi controller

© istockphoto.com / Jaroslaw Brzychcy

The late 1970s and 1980s were another rapid period of change for the recording studio, with major developments such as the birth of digital recording and the introduction of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).

MIDI provided a way to allow differing pieces of musical technology (such as synthesisers and drum machines) to communicate and synchronise with each other. For example, the widespread use of sequencing technology had a major effect upon the way records sounded and their rhythmical and musical feel in the 1980s. Sequencers are a way of recording control data that are read by electronic equipment and make them perform a given task (such as pitch, rhythm, volume, velocity, changing a waveform etc). In some ways their limitations (in terms of rhythmic programming) gave a particular feel to music which used sequencers. As Paul Théberge notes, many of the dance, hip-hop and pop records of the 1980s that used this technology:

"had a similar robotic rhythmic insistence, an almost robotic feel of hyper precision stemming from the extensive use of synthesisers and sequence... the peculiarities and limitations of a particular technology seemingly contributed, in a positive way, to the aesthetic predilections of an entire genre of music." (Théberge 1997:222)

Although sequencing technology existed before the advent of MIDI, the 1980s saw this equipment becoming easier to use, much more widely available (due to a substantial drop in price) and therefore much more widely used in many different types of recording. Hence the use of such studio technology can significantly alter the feel of a particular piece of music and can clearly play a major part in the success of a recording.

The introduction of MIDI also saw a shift from real time recording towards the integration of pre-programmed MIDI-controlled parts as major components of many recordings. This meant that there was a major shift in the ways in which many recordings were made. No longer were multitrack recordings solely the fusion of individual performances of musicians (albeit played at different times) mixed into a coherent whole. The advent of sequencing and MIDI meant that significant parts of recordings had never been 'played' in a traditional sense by any one individual.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax'. The original song as performed by the group (see their famous appearance on the Channel Four music show 'The Tube') is significantly different in terms of instrumentation and overall sound to the recording that finally became a number one record in the UK. The hyper-contemporary feel and the overall sound of the single release were created in the studio, guided by producer Trevor Horn. The sparse funk sound of the band's original performance was replaced by a rich soundscape in the final recording. In this recording synthesisers;

"provide basslines, brass section stabs, swirling sonic backdrops and sounds clearly enhance the meaning of certain lyrics (timbral word painting)." (Warner, 2003: 83)

This replacement of traditional instruments with synthesised and sequenced sound was also at the very core of the record. 'Real' recorded performances (that is recorded in real time from the performances of musicians) were replaced by MIDI-controlled electronic instruments which were programmed in step time (that is, pre-programmed by selecting particular controllers on the MIDI sequencer). The original rhythm section of drums and slap bass was in this way replaced by a relentless beat provided by a sequenced Linn 2 bass drum. This was then layered with a sampled E note from the bass guitar sequenced in perfect, almost metronomic time.

The record went on to be the seventh-best selling UK single of all time. It remains one of the foremost examples of the highly stylised and overtly technological production sound that has become associated with 1980s pop music. In fact technology used on the record, such as the Fairlight CMI sampling synthesiser and Linn drum machine, are responsible for some of the signature sounds of the era with a countless number of successful acts using them in hit recordings.