The Sounds of Music: Pop Production Trends Through the Decades

The Sounds of Music: Pop Production Trends Through the Decades

At the 2020 Oscars, Billie Eilish sang a sulky version of The Beatles’ ballad “Yesterday.” Despite her neon-green hair and firm commitment to weirdness, Eilish’s rendition was subdued and solemn, a stripped-down but ultimately faithful cover.

The moment threaded six decades of recorded music history, connecting an artist born just after 9/11 with an artist born just after the Blitz. During that time, cultural shifts intertwined with changes in recording production to create an identifiable “sound” for each decade of music. 

The ‘60s

The single “Yesterday” hit the U.S. charts in 1965.* During the 1960s, studios spun gold records from live recording sessions. Sound editing meant taking razor blades to actual tape, so track mixing was also done live. 

Record producers demanded perfect (some might call it “sanitized”) live sound, so skilled session musicians employed by the studio played backing instruments while the “real” band sang vocals. Crack session teams, like the Wrecking Crew, became legendary for their technical proficiency as in-studio performers—the warm instrumentation of the Wrecking Crew alone characterized #1 hits from Frank and Nancy Sinatra, the Mamas & the Papas, The Beach Boys, and many more quintessential 1960s acts.

Speaking of The Beach Boys, in 1966 the rock band released Pet Sounds, which blew open the recording industry with a new level of sonic complexity: multi-tracking. The Beatles, galvanized by reports of Brian Wilson’s mad-genius pop orchestration during the abortive Smile sessions, responded with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since they were still using four-tracks, the Fab Four bounced tracks to craft the many layers of Sgt. Pepper.

Popular music of the 60s was expensive and expansive, characterized by the symphonic “Wall of Sound,” sweet harmonies, the “jangle-pop” notes of undistorted electric guitars, and (yes) psychedelic soundscapes. People listened on the newly-popular FM radio and on record players at home, now available in stereo sound. 

*The B-side, “Act Naturally,” was a cover of country & Western star Buck Owens, perhaps signaling the moment the southern-tinged American rock-n-roll of the 1950s—when Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash all laid tracks at Sun Records in Memphis—ceded to a full-on British Invasion.

The ‘70s 

During the 1970s, the recording industry reached the apex of its power (and market share) by building on technology from the previous decade. Artists could double track their vocals (see: Fleetwood Mac, Abba, the Bee Gees). Four-tracks became 8-track recording, and then eventually 16-track and 24-track, ballooning into galaxy-spanning experiments like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and reaching an apex with Boston’s 1976 self-titled powerpop masterpiece.

The production style sparked a backlash from rock fans, who criticized the bloat of both the industry and the music. By the late ’70s, punk rock promised a return to the lean, hard-charging, personality-driven rock of the ’50s—as well as that decade’s target track length of two minutes. The Ramones even dressed like 50s hoodlums, while Joe Strummer of The Clash emulated James Dean. 

Meanwhile, the optimism and “issues music” of the civil rights era crumbled into cynicism and escapism. Popular music turned toward the intentionally blithe, from disco to the Partridge Family to the Jackson 5.

The ‘80s

In the 1980s, digital processing let producers alter individual tracks. Compact discs permitted longer albums. MTV launched. Legacy rock acts, ahem, lost their way. Even Leonard Cohen, sanctified sex prophet, spent the decade sounding a little soulless.

The muffled drum sound of 80s rock, gated reverb, was both invented and perfected by Phil Collins (just listen to “In the Air Tonight”). Otherwise, the flat, processed noises of the decade owed more than a little to a new invention: the Yamaha DX7, which was relatively cheap and democratized the synthesizer for bands who previously could not afford it. 

Outside the pop and rock mainstream, electronic sampling launched a new scene: hip-hop. It began with live vinyl sampling, but as digital samplers became widely available, independent hip-hop artists turned samples into art.

The ‘90s 

Tape gave way to CDs gave way to MP3s. Gen-X piracy pioneers downloaded audio files from Napster and burned CD-Rs. Lo-fi bands like Pavement and Elliott Smith were popular—possibly because the average fidelity of digital audio was rough and scratchy. Increased digital compression sparked the loudness wars

Digital recording broke through with the launch of Pro Tools in 1991. Beck’s acclaimed 1996 album Odelay used it, as did Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” the first Pro Tools No. 1 hit.

Then there was Cher. In 1998, her smash single “Believe” left even seasoned record producers guessing at the otherworldly vocal treatment. 

It was possible to manipulate the pitch of vocal tracks before Antares Audio Technology released its Auto-Tune plugin in 1996. Beatles producer George Martin created the distinctive vocal effects on “Strawberry Fields Forever” by recording a double of the lead vocal at a slower tempo and lower pitch, then speeding up the playback of the tape to adjust its pitch upward. (Alvin and the Chipmunks took this to its logical extreme). In the 80s, sampler-based pitch correction enabled producers to view audio waveforms to see where the performer had gotten a little pitchy. But the technology was as expensive as the process was time-consuming.

Auto-Tune changed everything, offering real-time pitch correction to the burgeoning Pro Tools crowd. “Believe” was the first major recording to feature such prominent pitch correction, launching an unstoppable movement in pop production. 

The 2000s

These trends (digital production, compression, lo-fi) intensified in the new millennium. Almost every piece of popular music recorded since 2000 has featured some form of pitch correction, from the shimmering background vocals of Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 smash “Since U Been Gone” to the lead vocals of your average mid-aughts emo band to, of course, T-Pain, a naturally talented musician (he won The Masked Singer!) who went full robot for artistic reasons.

It’s no surprise that as social media allowed audiences to reflect a digitally perfected version of their lives, music producers would commit a similar facade to record—or, rather, digital audio file. The iTunes-driven digital distribution model upended the record business, as global revenue dropped from $24.4 billion in 2001 to $14.9 billion in 2010. But it also affected music production, as engineers experimented with ways to offset the loss in audio quality from compressed files. Partially at the behest of legendary producer Rick Rubin, Apple began offering “Mastered for iTunes” versions of albums by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Of course, the rising generation seemed not to care very much—electronic musicians could record songs in their bedrooms and upload them straight to yours.

The 2010s 

In 2012, Apple included GarageBand on all new computers, a watershed moment for amateur producers. A $100 music editing program can do a hundred times the work of a 1970s soundboard. This democratic access to music production brought us boundary-pushing art from Frank Ocean to Grimes and (finally) Billie Eilish, who won five Grammys last year. 

Meanwhile, cloud-based streaming services like Spotify made “physical” ownership of digital MP3s obsolete—even as vinyl records have made a mini-comeback among tastemaking millennials. Generation Z, for their part, continues to challenge expectations for what constitutes “real music”—just like every younger generation should. 

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