It was a cold January evening in 1987 when Tim Quirk and two other members of the punk band Too Much Joy piled into a station wagon for the drive from New York to Toronto.
The 500-mile trek to the World Records studio took all night. But it was the kind of inconvenience the band was willing to endure to get their debut album, Green Eggs and Crack, pressed into vinyl as cheaply as possible.
They spent a day mastering the tapes, adjusting the sound levels on each track. The mastered tapes were played back on an oversized, malevolent-looking turntable that physically carved grooves into a mold that would become one side of the record.
"Several weeks later, UPS came to my apartment in the city with dozens of boxes containing 1,000 copies of our record," recalled Quirk.
Fast-forward 17 years. Quirk and former Too Much Joy guitarist Jay Blumenfield, who now perform as Wonderlick, use a digital audio workstation and Digidesign's Pro Tools software to create music in an Oakland, Calif., studio.
The two add instrumental performances, drawing occasionally from a digital repository of rhythms laid down by a former band mate. They introduce sounds that are difficult to reproduce on reel-to-reel tape - say, a cymbal playing backward. And they experiment with rearranging the order of a song, literally cutting and pasting the perfect rendition of the chorus on a computer.
Digital technology has changed everything about the process of making music, from the way artists compose and record their songs to the way these works are distributed. Apple Computer's GarageBand, Sony's ACID and other powerful yet easy-to-use software programs let professional musicians write and record music whenever and wherever the muse strikes: on the tour bus, in the dressing room or even on the plane.
"Recording with Pro Tools made me feel more like a 14-year-old punk rocker than I have in years," said Quirk, 39, who by day is RealNetworks' executive music editor in San Francisco. "There are no rules and no restrictions. Even if you wanted to do things before, you were physically limited in how much you could pull off."
Now, he said, "If you can think of something, you can pull it off."
Quirk released a live album on CD - with a full-color jacket and four-page insert - for $500 less than the $1,800 cost of Too Much Joy's first LP back in '87.
"This is kind of sad and kind of beautiful: I'm making more money now, making music in my spare time, than I ever did as a full-time professional Warner Bros. recording artist," Quirk said.
He uses Internet retailers like Amazon.com and CDbaby to distribute the original Too Much Joy recordings, which in its heyday attracted mostly a college crowd. And he releases new recordings through his own Web site, the Susquehanna Hat Co.
"And," he adds, "I have the benefit of owning everything I do."
The digital revolution that transformed professional recording studios reached the rock-star-aspiring masses with Apple's introduction of GarageBand in January. This music composition software gives Mac users the ability to mix 64 digital music tracks and play more than 50 virtual instruments.
The technology creates a more level playing field for emerging artists, such as Kylee Swenson of the San Francisco-based pop group Loquat. All she needs is a small bag of gear - a guitar, a laptop running Pro Tools and an Mbox for connecting the guitar and microphone to the computer - to produce a polished recording.
"Now I'm no longer just limited to, say, my guitar or my voice. I have so many sounds at my disposal," said Swenson. "All these things come flying out from all directions. It's so much quicker. It's more inspiring."
Joe Chiccarelli, a two-time Grammy winner whose engineering and production credits stretch from Tori Amos to Frank Zappa, said artists are increasingly composing on GarageBand. That's because the learning curve isn't nearly as steep as with other studio tools, and musicians don't need to lug loads of hardware to compose, he said.
"It tends to be the choice for people making demos," said Chiccarelli. "The fast access to loops and sounds is pretty impressive. I'm finding that more bands come to me with demos they did on GarageBand."
But Apple's editing software, acquired in 2002 from Emagic, faces steep competition from other established studio tools, such as Cakewalk Sonar 4, Motu Digital Performer 4.5 or Steinberg.