Audio Editing – The Early Pro Tools Days

The Early Days of Audio Editing With Pro Tools

Most people in audio production never stop to think about how recording and editing was done before the age of the computer. This article discusses one of the early hard disk based editing products from 20 years ago. Digidesign’s Sound Tools was the predecessor to Pro Tools. With only two channel editing, it was primitive by our present standards – but (in old man speak) “We liked it that way!”.

Today it seems unimaginable to spend seven-figure money to set up a world class recording studio – much less “wait” for even a simple edit to take shape with clients over our shoulder. But soft leather couches, patient production people working long hours and a good cappuccino machine made the process  manageable. It was early in the 1990s and we all thought the professional production world would always be this way, expensive and slow. Within a span of just 2-3 years it all changed dramatically.

From Linear to Non-linear. With tape – every edit was a rhythm of roll the tape, stop, rock the reels to find your edit spot, mark with a grease pencil or thumb, slide into an edit block, cut with razor blade and reconnect tape with edit tabs. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! Some of our best clients would have so many edits, the tape was solid white with edit tape!

Early Pro Tools Mono-Chrome Interface

Enter this new thing, “non-linear” editing. In 1989 Digidesign and Dyaxis offered the audio editor the first generation of “hard disk based” editing.  The 500Mega-byte drives were very “mechanical” sounding as the fans and whirling drive parts chattered and buzzed.  It was still very exciting to think that you could move between edits with almost instantaneous commands. This space age user interface boasted a crazy new feature called an “undo” button. OMG! ;0)

To appreciated how impressive these new systems were compared to “linear” tape, think of comparing Star Treks’ transporter to driving across country in a car. There was no comparison!

Digidesign Sound Tools circa 1990 (click for enlarged view)

Typical of dramatic changes in high technology products, some people adopted early. While the subjective quality of the new hard disk based editors left some hold-outs, many were quick to save money and benefit from the much quicker new “non-linear” editing workstations. It would be a few more years before hard disk based system surpassed most “broadcast” or “world class” quality analog editors.

EAR was the first  Apple, Avid and Digidesign professional audio reseller in the Southwest and the new “Pro Tools” was a huge success. At only $6,000 it was a bargain! Professional Ampex, MCI or Otari tape decks were $4,000-$25,000 alone. The new price point and 16bit resolution made it an instant hit with smaller production companies and studios. The workflow of the day still required your edited project to be finished back to tape (ie: “layback”). However, the cost savings of buying one tape deck compared to multiple decks more than paid for the cost of the computer and software.

Sound Tolos brouchure details

The system was built on the Apple SE and Mac II, early Mac desktop computers. Apple was still a renegade computer for right-brained people, but their superior (often mono-chrome) graphics and creative feel made them the obvious platform of choice. EAR was also an Apple reseller – a perfect fit for our clients! Some may remember these days with fondness, others with frustration.

The early systems were not without their temperamental crashes. Like most new technology, as long as the head aches  don’t out number the advantages – people grew with the improvements and stability over the years.

30 years later EAR is one of the largest professional audio editing workstation providers in the Southwest. We now cover everything from microphones, mixing, content distribution and automated filed based workflow products.

We’re proud to have had the opportunity be the first of our kind in so many ways over the past decades, while still blazing new technology trails today! Haven’t seen the newest version of Pro Tools? Download a 30 day free trial version.

EAR’s nationally renowned award winning staff offers deep product knowledge and first rate integration, management and “after the sale” support for professional audio and video products and services.


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