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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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