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Doing That Digital Thing

Producer John Walters discusses how those noughts and ones will affect us musiciany beings.


Yes, but what does that magic word actually mean to the musicians at its mercy. Producer John Walters, who has just finished Twelfth Night's album entirely in noughts and ones, considers the means, machinery and way forward.

DIGITAL is the new buzzword on a million tongues. Not as easy to pronounce as MIDI or video but much more far-reaching.

People who hear that I've just completed a digitally recorded album are impressed. But their eyes quickly narrow. 'What was it like?' 'Was it really that different?' As if I were Chuck Yeager, or Arthur Miller.

There are big pros and cons. On the plus side: wonderful sound, no tape hiss or wear, fantastic dynamic range, freedom to bounce and move tracks around — a whole new approach to recording. On the minus: frustrating breakdowns, patchy maintenance support and the high cost — look at these grey hairs!

Someone told me I was a pioneer. 'Pioneers,' quoted that month's Studio Sound 'get mouths full of arrows'.

ANALOG VS DIGITAL



We're really talking about two very different ways of encoding and storing sound.The analogue process turns music into a continuous electric signal and records it on magnetic tape. Digital recording chops analogue signals into tiny samples which are coded as a bunch of numbers. These are dumped to tape or disk like an enormously complicated computer program. On playback the samples are reassembled to make music.

Future technology — digital mixing consoles and effects, even mics and speakers, may mean that analogue circuitry becomes redundant. But at present the music only spends part of its life in 'the digital domain'.

Look at the three capital letters — DDD, AAD etc — that you'll find on the back of compact discs. On all [completely digitally produced] CDs like 'Brothers In Arms' or 'Zoolook' it will be DDD, meaning that digital tape recorders were used at three main stages — (a) recording the session on a multitrack, (b) mixdown and editing on two track, and (c) mastering to a digital product, the compact disc itself. ADD indicates an original, analogue multitrack, then mixed down to digital two track and CD-ed, and AAD applies to most albums more than a few years old denoting masters recorded and mixed on conventional tape and these transferred to CDs.

MULTITRACKING



Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' is credited with being 'fanatically recorded digitally from start to finish'. I know what they mean: the devastating lack of noise, the shock of hearing back exactly what went into the machine. It keeps engineers and maintenance guys on their toes when you can hear everything so clearly. The extra degrees of perfectionism possible can sometimes slow the recording process down.

Maybe it's like shooting on 35mm film after 18mm or video: the more critical medium demands extra attention to detail.

But digital recording is as good for capturing live, dynamic music — spontaneous jazz solos or blues vocals... the subtle shadings of a great classical performance — as it is for carefully crafted studio rock 'n' roll. You no longer have to compress or EQ to cope with the limitations of analog tape, and there's no steady degradation as the tape passes over recording heads hundreds of times on a long project. Vocals and solos that would normally distort or disappear into hiss can be caught without bother.

Of course many people like the sound of analogue tape, it introduces its own tape compression and it's not uncommon for otherwise digital recordings to incorporate drums recorded on conventional tape because they sound 'nicer'. Half-speed and backwards tape effects are not yet possible on digital machines. Meanwhile analogue noise reduction systems like Dolby SR and Telcom are providing stiff competition for the cleanliness of digital sound.

The Sony 24-track and Mitsubishi 32-track machines look and work much like conventional multitracks until something goes wrong. Remember what they said about pioneers? I had to watch a Japanese engineer rescue my apparently damaged tapes by tweaking Mitsubishi error correction circuits until all the clicks and drop-outs had disappeared.

These machines need a controlled, dust-free environment and high standards of maintenance and line-up. Don't think of tape recorders — imagine a big computer with a tape memory dump. The new AMS Audiofile, which looks like a mainframe and uses hard disk for multitrack recording, may point to the way things will eventually go.

MIXDOWN



The post-production world of cutting rooms and editing suites has been quietly revolutionised by digital technology. The Sony F1/701/501 systems (recording on Betamax video tape) have made digital mastering and copying available to many, but the internationally accepted professional formats are the Sony 1610 or 1630 and the Mitsubishi X80 or X86.

To appreciate the advantages of digital mastering, let's examine the bad old days. The original, analogue master tape (the first generation) would be copied onto another analogue tape to make edits (second generation). That would be copied again to compile an album with cross fades and effects, and to get the tracks in the right order. A fourth generation master is made while cutting the record, but records pressed in foreign countries are often cut from fifth or sixth generation copies taken from the production master. Obviously there are plenty of opportunities for loss or degeneration in quality.

However the loss of sound quality through successive generations of digital copies is negligible — particularly if copies are made 'in the digital domain' where raw numerical data is transferred — however many times you copy the number 5, it's still a number 5.

The Mitsubishi system permits razor-blade editing while the Sony employs a video-type console. I love digital editing, particularly the Sony system, but the expense and extra time involved make it prudent to work out complicated edits at home on a Revox or twin cassette deck.

One effective way to increase the digital content and quality of a final mix is to run certain elements live on the mix. This means that sequenced bass lines, triggered drums or even live vocals can go straight to digital two-track without touching the analog multitrack. And there is an interesting move — Joe Jackson's 'Big World' being a recent example — towards live albums recorded direct to two-track without any multitrack recording.

Digital Sound Path
(Click image for higher resolution version)


DIGITAL TRANSCRIPTION



The final capital D brings us back to the living room, where real people listen to our wonderful productions on dodgy Amstrad systems or squashed through Radio 1's AM transmissions. 'Why bother with all this expensive digital recording?' ask the sceptics; 'What about the Dansette factor?'

Well, every artist and producer wants their music to have the best shot. Even if it's downhill all the way from the cutting room I'd like my creations to leave it in the best possible state.

Secondly, public tests are evolving rapidly. Despite the reservations of audiophiles, Compact Discs provide the next best experience to listening to master tapes at home. And here come FM stations playing CD's only, stereo TV and the latest source of consumer excitement — digital audio tapes (DAT). Maybe the buying public will expect and demand a much higher standard of recorded sound from their favourite music stars. Maybe they won't care. I'm not going to make any rash predictions.

THE FUTURE



Manned exploration of the Solar System; democratic rule in South Africa; the all-digital recording studio. There is a general feeling that these things will happen one day, but how soon? And at what cost?

Both SSL, the console manufacturers, and NED, who make the Synclavier, are working toward the 'tape-free studio' from different ends of the digital chain.

The former work from the front, building a mixer with analogue to digital and digital to analogue converters, then throw in digital EQ, digital dynamics, digital reverb, etc. When you've done all that, they say, you might as well throw in a storage system. The latter work from the back, regarding multitracking as a system of long, simultaneous samples (like racks of Emulators) which can be processed and moved around. The specialisations are breaking down.

One of the requirements of this digital utopia will be repaid access to vast amounts of memory. If tape and disk are not good or safe enough, new storage methods will have to be developed. The all digital studio could be the creative musician's dream come true; absolute fidelity on the one hand — on the other, limitless manipulation of of sound. And never having to run out of tracks.

CONCLUSION



Creative music makers will always push and stretch the limits of recording technology — they want to capture and preserve their work in the best possible way. Nothing new about this — Tom Dowd made some stereo jazz recordings in the early '50s, years before anyone figured how to make a stereo record.

Despite some bad experience with digital multitracks, and my new role as a kind of clearinghouse for digital horror stories, I'm generally very enthusiastic. Most breakdowns can be traced back to human error, which springs from lack of understanding and vision. We need a new breed of cool digital troubleshooters — maintenance engineering will be the glamour profession of the 1990's.

The creators will always want to keep up with new technology, but manufacturers and technicians have to understand music and musicians to stay in business. I'm confident that we have the whip hand.

The listening public pay out their hard-earned cash to hear music — musicians will go on making it. Digital recording cleans up the lines of communication.

Tony Bacon gets lit up over compact discs

MY FAVOURITE Compact Disc sleeve note comes on a US-recorded classical LP on the Telarc label. It says: "Because the temperature soared to 100 degrees during our session, it was unfortunately necessary to leave the air conditioning system in the hall turned on. At the same time, Telarc's philosophy of reproducing the total frequency spectrum precluded any filtering. The rumble is barely audible, and on most playback systems should be all but imperceptible."

So what do I do every time I listen to that disc? Yup - strain for the giveaway rumble of the Powell Symphony Hall's air conditioning system. And there's the rub with CD: the wowiezowieness of the technology can actually obscure the main point of the medium, which is to reproduce music as closely to the original master tape as is technically possible. Some people discuss bit differentials and D/A converter theory with a passion once reserved for subjects like guitar breaks and drum patterns.

So just before we get on to perfect reproduction, let's have a combined history and science lesson. Pay attention now - this is going to be brief.

The CD system was developed initially by the Dutch electronics firm Philips, but in 1979 Sony, from Japan, joined forces with Philips in a rare display of audio industry concord, and collaborated on the production of a domestic digital playback system. The result in 1982 was the Compact Disc system: the very first machines were predictably from Sony and Philips and cost between £450 and £600. Other makers soon followed and the price crept down. Now you can get a player for under £200.

The disc itself is silvery, 12cm in diameter and slightly flexible. It doesn't have grooves like a conventional vinyl record: the digital info is stored in tiny pits on the disc's surface. It's protected by a clear plastic coating and therefore is relatively immune to the ordinary record's principal enemies, wear and dust. Music is recorded for CD as digital pulses, and these pulses are etched into the disc to form the pits (which give the disc's playing surface a rainbow-like effect when angled toward the light).

The essential idea to grasp about digital recording and playback is that, by analysing the waveform or 'shape' of the sound at extremely short intervals (44,100 times a second) and turning this speedy analysis into numbers, sound is represented as strings of binary zeroes and ones. Amazing really, isn't it?

The discs carry information on one side only (opposite the 'label'), offer a maximum playing time of a little over 70 minutes (though record companies seem strangely slow in realising this), and are 'decoded' in the CD player thanks to a semi-conductor laser which gives off a narrow beam of invisible infra-red light. The laser tracks across the disc, inside to outside, with its 'tip' tightly focussed on to the pits.

The result? Well, CD spec compares very favourably with other playback systems, giving a frequency range in many people's cases beyond the human hearing range, a virtual absence of minor speed variations, a wide dynamic range reproducing realistically the extremes of musical levels, virtually no distortion to speak of, and a totally noise-free background. Doesn't sound very rock 'n' roll, does it?

All you should hear from CD is what came out of the studio: so if it was an analogue recording, you may hear recording noise (one of the earliest discs I listened to was Visage's "The Anvil"; the very first sound I heard from this brave new medium was unmistakeable and beautifully reproduced tape hiss). Better is an all-digital recording: then, all you should hear is music. Potentially, CD is a perfect copy of control room playback in your own front room.

With "perfect sound that lasts for ever" (as an early advertiser put CD), you would imagine that all the players would give the same sound. How can you have varying degrees of perfection? The marketers of CD players think otherwise: not only do they offer various combinations of facilities, most usefully centering on the playing of tracks in various orders, but they claim differing sound qualities between machines, principally through the use of different digital-to-analogue conversion chips. The hi-fi magazines generally concur with the makers on these tiny sonic differences.

Martyn Ware of Heaven 17 is a big CD fan, so I casually asked him during a Making Music interview earlier this year which player he'd recommend. Buy any of them, he replied, they're all the same. The hi-fi magazines are just panicking because in reality they have nothing to write about any more, he suggested. And given the machines that I've heard, I'd agree. The differences in actual sound quality are inaudible to me, whether it's a 14-bit machine, a 16-bit machine, double-oversampling, quadruple-oversampling or whatever. They all sound good; the differences are the stuff of test equipment, not ear'oles.

It's technologically comforting to know that my favourite machine, the Philips CD650, is a 16-bit quadruple-oversampling thing - in theory the best you can get at the moment - but I couldn't in all honesty say the sound was much different to that of the cheaper Sony Discman I also tried. The facilities are good on the 650 - including a wonderful idea where the machine will remember your favourite tracks in any order, write that selection in memory by registering the particular disc's unique pattern of tracks and track-lengths next to your selection, and then recall your tracks every time you put the disc in the player and press the 'FTS' button. Crikey.

Either machine sounded brilliant through a good system (Quad amps, Rogers speakers, rule Britannia) and with good digitally-recorded discs. I asked Steve Rothery of Marillion to put on the disc that best showed off his CD system when he offered to play me something during another Making Music interview. No hesitation: Donald Fagen's "The Nightfly". So I chose that one to compare CD and ordinary vinyl versions. You should know that ex-Steely Dan Fagen's first solo album was recorded totally digitally (DDD, as they say), and features excellently recorded vocals, guitars, bass, drums, Synclavier, brass and percussion amongst other things. My conclusion? The CD was subtly but undoubtedly better: vague terms like 'punch' and 'breadth of sound' and 'realness' loom, unhelpfully. More specifically, things leapt forward that were buried in the mix on vinyl - say the picked-and-damped guitar under the verse of the track 'I.G.Y', or the precise interplay and separation of the tuned percussion and synth on the tortuous 'Goodbye Look'. Bigger. Clearer. Musical.

But there is the law of diminishing returns at work here. No matter how much better records like "The Nightfly" sound on CD, it is not £200-worth or more. And it's not the 11 quid that you'll pay for most discs (ie double normal LPs). That's technology for you - you have to pay a lot for a small increase in quality. Everyone seems to agree that discs are too expensive, but while the record companies know that demand is high and supply low, they'll continue to make a killing on CDs while sales in other areas continue to decrease. And while some companies do at least attempt to give value for money (71 minutes on the recent Polydor Ferry/Roxy compilation; 68 minutes on Virgin's Heaven 17 dance album), few actually consider them worth promoting through the distribution of review copies - which is why I can't tell you whether the Heaven 17 disc offers sonic as well as temporal value, for instance.

And now, on the horizon, is DAT — that's Digital Audio Tape. Potentially, CD quality on stereo cassette tape. Yup, you'll be able to record at home with digital quality. Brilliant masters from your portastudio. Brilliant pre-recorded albums. Bootleg nightmare. Where will it all end? Dunno. Exciting though, isn't it?



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That Was Then

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Synth Sense


Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

 

Making Music - Sep 1986

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