A History of the Hard Drive in Music: Part 1

A History Of The Hard Drive In Music

In this article, we discuss a history of the hard drive in music. We look at studio disasters, ingenuous post-production techniques and the lost millions.

For a long time now, the external hard drive has offered musicians a safe space to safeguard their unreleased singles and rough cuts. Where once there was fear of destruction, there’s now an abundance of backed up guitar licks and sick beats stored on millions of devices around the globe.

It was way back in 1956 when IBM created the first commercial hard drive. This historical device, complete with the famous RAMAC 305 system, was the size of two fridge-freezers. It stored just 5MB of data in the ice-cube tray compartment. The whole device weighed nearly a ton and ran at a cost of $10,000 per megabyte.

Let’s have a look at how this incredible machine began to influence the recording industry and saved millions of love songs from total annihilation.

a brief history of the hard drive in popular music

“This error cost Elvis a portion of his integrity and stood accused of pursuing a career in appropriation.”

Elvis Presley, Big Mamma Thornton and the Loose Grease

As far back as 1956, the music industry began recognising the value of external memory. During a routine studio performance, an incident involving Elvis Presley and a splash of loose hair grease resulted in the original studio take of Hound Dog being deleted forever.

With no backups made, RCA was forced to settle on an alternate version which featured some lyrics unfamiliar to Big Mama Thornton’s original. This error cost Elvis a portion of his integrity and stood accused of pursuing a career in appropriation. From then on, Elvis and the industry knew they had to back up.

“Although it was a commercial hit, the damaged files cost Almond millions in royalties.”

Soft Cell’s Hard Drive History and Marc Almond’s Missing Millions

Although external hard drives became industry standard, human error was still affecting the release of new music in 1981. Leeds duo, Soft Cell, released a double A-Side of cover versions, including Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love. The initial plan had been to record an original tune as a B-Side. But buckling under severe pressure from the record label, Marc Almond’s New England Digital Synclavier II faced a burnout.

To fulfil their contractual obligations, Soft Cell released an improvised version of Where Did Our Love Go, by The Supremes. Although single was a commercial hit, the mistake cost the band millions in songwriting royalties. Soft Cell has been backing up ever since.

A lot has changed in the years since broadsheet headlines were dominated by such devastating examples of clumsy musicians and lost genius. Be it a full record, or a single guitar lick recorded into Garageband late in the evening, much hassle and heartbreak have certainly been avoided through the correct application of file duplication.

“Martin handed Lennon a cut and paste version of Strawberry Fields Forever and reached Number 2 in the charts.”

The Beatles, Strawberry Fields and a Cut and Paste Job

For every sad tale, there are countless positive ones, too. A band renowned for their creative use of backing up were the Beatles. By 1966 they were experts in using external drives to their advantage and created one of the all-time legendary back-ups.

It occurred during a session for Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Liverpudlians had already tracked over 45-minutes of tape before they became entangled and rendered entirely useless. John Lennon handed producer George Martin previously backed-up versions of the song and famously told Martin to “go deal with it, buddy.”

Despite being played at different tempos and in separate keys, Martin presented the band with a final, restored cut and paste job of Strawberry Fields Forever. The song went on to reach number 2 in the charts, missing out on the top spot to Engelbert Humperdinck.

“Band tensions reached breaking point and John Fogerty took home the Creedence communal hard drive.”

John Fogerty Takes Home the Hard Drive

But even the most durable of external devices are not immune the passion of a band’s internal power struggle. In the heat of studio politics, the hard drive often casts the final signature the winding-up order of a group.

In 1972, Creedence Clearwater Revival was the biggest band since the Beatles. Chief songwriter John Fogerty wrote, recorded and produced hit after glorious hit. But, despite their vast success, other members of the group had become disillusioned at Fogerty’s work ethic. A rift formed when they demanded a cooperative approach to future compositions and it went tits up from there.

The tension in the band finally reached breaking point and Fogerty left, taking with him the communal hard drive. Creedence would never play together again and many potential hits remain safely stored away, unheard to this day.

In part two of A History of the Hard Drive in Music, we look at how Billy Corgan took backing up to the excess. We also discover how Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit influenced a generation of musicians to back up correctly.

Read part 2 now.


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