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35 Years Of Sound On Sound

1985 - 2020 By Chris Korff
Published November 2020

A newsboy delivers an early copy of Sound On Sound, 1914.A newsboy delivers an early copy of Sound On Sound, 1914.Photo: Lewis Hine / Library Of Congress

We take a look back at the events and technology that changed the world.

As Sound On Sound enters its 36th year of production, the world is in the middle of the biggest health crisis in living memory. The novel virus Covid‑19 is scary enough on its own, while the economic implications of travel restrictions, lockdowns and quarantines look likely to be felt for years to come. The world of music has taken a massive hit, with the already precarious studio industry having to adapt to new working practices, and the live performance side of things almost totally on hold. The people who make the instruments, equipment and software that we all use and love have all been affected by SARS‑CoV‑2, as have the musicians themselves, the technicians, the engineers, the roadies and many more.

November 1985: where it all began.November 1985: where it all began.We are all in new territory that can at times be terrifying, but it’s reassuring to remember that music and the people who make it have survived all manner of catastrophes, crises and cataclysms — as has the world’s favourite recording technology magazine. So to mark our 35th anniversary, and perhaps keep the existential dread at bay for a while, we’ve scoured the archives to find out what artists you were reading about, and what gear you were lusting after, around the same time as the events that have shaken and shaped our world.

The 1980s

By the mid‑’80s the world had had an alarming number of brushes with nuclear annihilation. But, as the very first edition of Sound On Sound was being put together, the newly anointed Mikhail Gorbachev and recently re‑elected Ronald Reagan began putting their differences aside to restart negotiations on the Intermediate‑range Nuclear Forces Treaty — an agreement that prevailed until as recently as August last year (that’s almost as long as RME’s driver update policy). While Margaret Thatcher was brokering that deal between the USA and the USSR, music technology enthusiasts who’d popped out to their local newsagents in late 1985 might have found themselves reading about Midge Ure’s rocky relationship with the PPG, a promising new technology called ‘MIDI’, and that “Sony envisage the CD market really going places”. Impressive foresight on Sony’s part, perhaps, but surely not even the hippest of hipsters could have predicted that, 35 years later, Compact Disc sales would be overtaken yet again by vinyl, and that sales of the humble audio cassette would double between 2019 and 2020.

The original Microsoft Windows GUI was said to be heavily inspired by the works of Piet Mondrian.The original Microsoft Windows GUI was said to be heavily inspired by the works of Piet Mondrian.Photo: Used with permission from MicrosoftAs the shop shelves were being cleared to make way for issue 2, in which we concluded our two‑part introduction to SMPTE sync’ing, reviewed the Akai S612 12‑bit sampler (with its whopping 128 kilobytes of memory), interviewed Ultravox’s John Foxx and gave readers the chance to win a brand‑new Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000, a new operating system called Windows was released. Microsoft hoped to compete with Apple, whose pretty graphical user interface had proved a hit a few years earlier, but the first version of Windows was widely panned for being over‑reliant on that most short‑lived of innovations, the mouse.

Less than two years later, and in the same month that we reviewed the Fostex Model 80 tape recorder and a Quark MIDI Thru box, France and the United Kingdom were working on a thru port of their own. Signed in February 1986, the Treaty of Canterbury essentially drew a border between the two countries underneath the North Sea, providing the legal framework for the construction of the Channel Tunnel (or ‘Chunnel’, as it was known at the time). Astonishingly, the idea for what would eventually become the longest underwater tunnel in the world was first conceived in 1802 but, according to Wikipedia, “British political and media pressure” frustrated the ambitious plan to strengthen ties between the UK and mainland Europe. Plus ça change!

October 1987: featuring the now‑classic Emu SP‑1200, and the first of many features about the then still‑extant BBC Radiophonic Workshop.October 1987: featuring the now‑classic Emu SP‑1200, and the first of many features about the then still‑extant BBC Radiophonic Workshop.The 1980s ended much as they began: in a terrifying whirlwind of geopolitical instability and economic uncertainty. But, as ever, SOS was there to take your mind off the impending doom. If you’d survived the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash of October 1987 with your savings intact, you might have read our review that same month of Emu’s cutting‑edge new sampler, and decided to splash out. Indeed, if you’d gone straight out and bought an SP‑1200 at its retail price of £2199, you’d probably have done better than the stockbrokers did: right now, the going rate for a working one is somewhere in the region of six grand.

November 1989 marked Sound On Sound’s fourth birthday. It also marked the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it the beginning of the end of the USSR. The Iron Curtain concealed a parallel world of technological development, and music tech was no exception: the likes of Microtech Gefell and Geithain are now familiar names, but their cutting‑edge technology was developed largely in isolation from the West, as were instruments like the Polivoks synthesizer and the Rokton UDS drum machine. With the world now more connected than ever, will we ever be able to discover new gear from previously hidden markets in the same way again?

“The Polivoks is superior to your capitalist Minimoog in every conceivable way, Mr Reagan.”“The Polivoks is superior to your capitalist Minimoog in every conceivable way, Mr Reagan.”Photo: Yuryi Abramochkin / RIA Novosti

The 1990s

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first computer to win a Gearslutz argument against a reigning world champion.In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first computer to win a Gearslutz argument against a reigning world champion.Photo: Pedro Villavicencio / Creative Commons

In 1990, for better or worse, the World Wide Web was born. While IT pioneer Tim Berners‑Lee was busy building the first ever website (and inadvertently laying the foundations for endless forum arguments about the pros and cons of analogue and digital audio), musical pioneer Brian Eno was gracing our front cover for the second time. He’d just bought a Macintosh computer, and was singing the praises of a new piece of software called Sound Tools, which let you edit audio on a screen (fancy that!). But despite embracing the rapid advances of technology, he had a word of caution that sounds eerily familiar today: “Having more options is part of the fix‑it‑in‑the‑mix syndrome that has bedevilled recording since 48‑track and all that kind of thing. What you often see is people failing to make a decision because they can postpone making a decision... this shows a weakness of nerve to me. The danger is that you finally come to mixing and it’s then that you decide what piece of music you’re working on.”

March 1991: the dawn of a new era!March 1991: the dawn of a new era!Eno’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Within months of that interview going to press, we were hailing a revolution in high‑track‑count recording. Tascam’s MSR24S and Fostex’s G24S significantly lowered the entry point for 24‑track tape decks: they were far cheaper than the 2‑inch machines that dominated professional studios, and cheaper to run too, given the lower costs of 1‑inch tape, while their inclusion of Dolby S noise‑reduction put them within a hair’s breadth of the Studers and Otaris of the day in terms of quality. Our review of the Tascam model even asked if we were “witnessing the birth of a new standard”.

September 1992: the dawn of an even newer era!September 1992: the dawn of an even newer era!As it happens, we witnessed the death of one. As Editorial Director Dave Lockwood observed when we celebrated our 25th anniversary a decade ago, the introduction of the Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA88 digital multitrack recorders rendered this new format pretty much obsolete within a couple of years of its introduction.

Not all deaths should be mourned, however: South Africa’s brutal policy of Apartheid died its last official death when Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country’s first free election, on 27th April 1994.

April 1994: a high point for Oktava and a new record for products sharing an SOS cover.April 1994: a high point for Oktava and a new record for products sharing an SOS cover.That same month — some three years after the dissolution of the USSR, and half a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall — SOS published its first‑ever review of a Soviet‑made microphone: the Oktava MK219. While Paul White was uncommonly cruel about its looks (“the photograph doesn’t do justice to the monumental ugliness of this microphone!”), he was emphatic in his praise of its sound — although that’s perhaps less of a surprise, given that its capsule was made by Gefell, inheritors of much Neumann expertise.

Sometimes, events or inventions immediately present as threats to the status quo; other times, they are as the butterfly’s wings that cause a hurricane. In the former camp, we have Antares’ Auto‑Tune, which we were quick to recognise in our August 1997 review as a “remarkable tool” which made “undetectable turd polishing a reality”! In hindsight, we may have underestimated the world’s capacity for turd production, and we certainly didn’t anticipate the ‘undesirable’ artefacts of heavy Auto‑Tuning becoming a signature sound in itself.

As far as unintended consequences go, though, the Moving Picture Experts Group Audio Layer III file format takes some beating. Developed in 1993 by a team of Fraunhofer Institute scientists, the MP3’s ability to massively reduce audio file sizes made it possible to share huge collections of recordings quickly, even given the glacial pace of the dial‑up modems of the time. But it took until the launch of Napster in 1999 for Lars Ulrich, and later the wider music industry, to get serious conniptions about the MP3’s potential for piracy. It was too late: websites like MP3.com and other services like LimeWire had devalued recorded music in a way never seen before or since.

The heavily modified DeLorean used by PC columnist Martin Walker to warn us of the devastating impact of the Millennium Bug, in the December 1999 issue of Sound On Sound.The heavily modified DeLorean used by PC columnist Martin Walker to warn us of the devastating impact of the Millennium Bug, in the December 1999 issue of Sound On Sound.Photo: Patrick Pelletier / Creative Commons

The New Millennium

35 Years Of Sound On SoundThe start of a new decade always carries with it the weight of hope; the start of a new millennium all the more so.

In studio‑land all our hopes were pinned on digital technology. Indeed, all but one of our front covers in the year 2000 featured some new bit of digital tech: Akai, Yamaha and Boss multitrackers, Tascam and Mackie hard‑disk recorders, Roland and Lexicon effects units, digital keyboards from Novation and Yamaha, and an Alesis all‑in‑one CD mastering rack. The one exception was the Audient ASP8024, and even that was billed as an “analogue mixer for the digital age”.

In the wider world, Bush and Blair ruled the Anglosphere, and the World Trade Center was about to receive its devastating attack. Meanwhile, in the world of music technology, we were beginning to wonder whether throwing our 303s and CS80s in the skip was such a good idea.

Analogue instruments were gaining traction again, but for recording, computers were fast becoming the norm. The October 2001 edition of Sound On Sound featured an exciting new product called the UAD1: a powerful PCI card that let you run emulations of all the outboard gear that you’d sold in order to buy the computer that you needed to install the UAD1 card in.

Luddite tape‑ops destroy a hard‑disk recorder, circa 1812.Luddite tape‑ops destroy a hard‑disk recorder, circa 1812. February 2009: the recession‑busting issue.February 2009: the recession‑busting issue.Later that decade, the global economy was to take a serious hit, in the form of what is now called the Great Recession, but was at the time couched in terms like ‘housing bubble’, ‘credit crunch’ and ‘debt crisis’. With purse strings tightening around the globe, SOS was there once again to help make some sense out of the madness, with recession‑busting tips on what to look out for when buying a budget laptop (2008), and how to upgrade your studio on the cheap (2009).

The 2010s were no less interesting a decade (‘interesting’ in the Chinese proverbial sense). The Oxford English Dictionary’s picks for Word Of The Year are telling: ‘fake news’, ‘single‑use’ and ‘Brexit’ were all coined or popularised in the last decade (though the American Dialect Society’s 2016 pick ‘dumpster fire’ probably says it all). But the studio lexicon has expanded in the last 10 years too, with terms like ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘Dante’, ‘MPE’ and more all testifying to recent innovations and hinting at a bright new technological future.

The New York Stock Exchange trading floor. A broker tries to sell his last remaining Yamaha CS80.The New York Stock Exchange trading floor. A broker tries to sell his last remaining Yamaha CS80.Photo: Thomas O’Halloran / Library Of Congress

Back To The Future

April 2013: the rebirth of modular synthesis.April 2013: the rebirth of modular synthesis.So, having travelled through time from the mid‑’80s to the present day, via the advent of MIDI, the end of the Cold War, the founding of the Internet and the start of the Information Age, to the midst of a worldwide pandemic, what have we learned?

Perhaps just that the world has always been a bit of a mess. But also, importantly, that people have always been making music, sometimes in spite and sometimes because of the major events of the day. And as long as there are people making music, there’ll be people making instruments, and people wanting to learn more about them.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that, while the Huns and Goths were running riot over the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD, Anglo‑Saxon minstrels were discussing how best to oil the gut strings on their harps, and how to get the best tone out of them. And if they’d been blessed with piezo pickups, small‑diaphragm condensers and portable solid‑state recorders, they’d probably have wondered how to record themselves, and which bits of kit to spend their hard‑earned Schillingas on. In short, if we’d been around at the time, they’d probably have been reading Sound On Sound.

As long as there are people making music, there’ll be people making instruments, and people wanting to learn more about them.

“Wit ift ye befte audio interfæce for unter 100 pfennig?”“Wit ift ye befte audio interfæce for unter 100 pfennig?”

Published November 2020