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When DAWs Were Young

Yes, there was once a time when audio production did not involve personal computers at all.

When I started working in the studio in the late ’80s, Masterfonics had been involved in digital audio editing for around eight years. I’ve described the JVC DAS system before—audio stored on 3/4-inch videotape as black and white dots within a video waveform. Editing was all assembly—using what was essentially a modified video editor, a master was built by serially recording a compilation or an edited track piece by piece, in real time (well, in real time plus the time it took to load the source machine with the tape holding the next bit to be added to the master, to use the dedicated controller to electronically mark the edit points on both so the system knew where to punch in, to rehearse and tweak the edit point from mono snippets in RAM, then to execute the edit which sent the source and destination videocassette players flying off into pre-roll and synchronization before the system automatically punched in at the desired spot. Punch out was manual).

While this all sounds very primitive, and by today’s standards it is, the JVC system was sample-accurate from its inception, and capable of some very sophisticated work in the hands of a skilled operator. And while it sounds very slow, it was faster than razor-blade editing, its predecessor. One particular producer drove Masterfonics to use the system to his maximum advantage. When his mixers laid down their final mixes, they would also lay down multiple versions with the lead vocal pushed up or down and BGVs also boosted or attenuated. When you had multiple lead singers, like the Oak Ridge Boys quartet, the version permutations were staggering, producing cases of alternate mix tapes. The producer would come into mastering, chose his reference version, then play the tune back while marking a lyric sheet with notes to take a phrase, a word, or on occasion, a single syllable from one of the alternate versions.

When amanufacturer whose U.S. headquarters was then locally based developed a pro-level DAW in 1990, they were anxious to see it adopted by facilities like Masterfonics. They sent in a demo system with an experienced user. The studio engineers provided them a lyric sheet and all the source material required to do one of the assembled mixes as described above, even letting them load all the bits and pieces on to their hard drive before the chief engineer took the masters into his editing suite to perform the identical test. According to the legend, when he returned with a finished master, the guest editor was still rehearsing his first edit.

DAWs have come a long way in 20 short years. We’ve made undeniable progress in terms of capability, performance and cost, though take the time read Alex Oana’s Studio Sense column for another perspective on whether there’s also been a cost.