If you’re into creating and capturing music, chances are there’s a computer chip and processor that’s getting the job done. Whether it’s a smartphone app, micro recorder, or fully-fledged digital audio workstation, modern recording wouldn’t be what it is without computer power.
In the history of music, the shift from analog to digital might seem like a rather recent development. For example, in 1989 Steinberg released their first-ever edition of the famed Cubase software for engineers and home musicians alike.
Slightly earlier than this, the advent of home gaming systems meant playing and creating sounds could be done on a home console and television screen. When the Commodore 64 met the world in 1982, players had the ability to engage in a limited form of three-channel synthesis to make a surprising range of blips and buzzes in rhythmic creativity. By 1985, the Atari ST too boasted musical capabilities, this time including the potential to connect instruments via MIDI connections, which was technology developed only two years prior.
However, assuming that it was such console or computer stations that first connected musical creativity or recording with digital solutions misses some major technological advancements of the 1950s. That’s not a typo: we’re talking the decade of big fin cars, drive-up diners, and, of course, the birth of the solid body electric guitar.
There are at least two computer connected musical technological innovations of this era that are landmark achievements in the development of modern music creation and recording.
The first took place in Australia in 1949. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer Mk 1 (CSIRAC, for short) was the first digital computer from the land down under and the world’s first stored-program machine with musical capabilities. Though the entire operation was big enough to fill a room, one of the showcased features of the CSIRAC was a digitally created and played rendition of the tune “Colonel Bogey.” Unfortunately, there are no known records of this record setting tune.
The second major landmark took place in Manchester, UK in 1951. The Ferranti Mk1 was slightly less bulky than its Aussie forebear. And thankfully so, since the Ferranti Mk1 also holds the place as the first commercially-marketed computer for general purposes.
Among the limited range of functions the machine could undertake was the ability to generate a “hoot” sound. Users then had the ability to alter the pitch of this “hoot,” meaning they could create and perform a melody. To put these performative qualities to the test, the BBC descended on the University of Manchester to cover the news of the Ferranti Mk1. Their coverage included an audio recording of hoot-worthy renditions of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “In the Mood.” These recordings in the BBC archives, then, are the oldest known examples of electronic music.
To put all of this in perspective for the guitarists in the room — presently company included — this is the same year that Leo Fender made history by releasing the very first solid-body electric guitar, the Telecaster. When we look into the history of guitars and gear, it’s hard to overstate the impact and innovation of the 1950s. But when put in an even broader scope of technological development, it’s also apparent that these years were formative for other sorts of musical exploration, creation, and recording. From this perspective, turns out electronic music is as old as rock and roll itself!