Production Lines - Sadia
Guest producer Sadia joins the ongoing 'digital vs analogue' debate.
This month, record producer Sadia argues that the ongoing debate over which media we use to record our music is misleading; what's much more important is the music we record.
In the May 1992 issue of Guitar Player, an American publication, Neil Young launches a savage attack on digital recording, calling it "the darkest time for recorded music ever". He lays the blame for the "certain emptiness in the air" that he feels entirely at its doorstep, comparing digitally-recorded music to what he terms 'real' music, namely analogue recording.
New developments are often heralded by doom-sayers, who predict that the end is nigh. We have historical documentation of comments that virtually mirror Young's — except that these comments were made on the advent of LPs. Digital does give us great clarity — it shows up flaws that were previously masked by the analogue recording process — but alternatively, it can reflect great performances and technique with a transparent luminosity not found in any other medium we currently have available to us. And the larger peak-to-mean ratio of digital provides a more accurate representation of sound than the tape compression of analogue. Neil Young's been unintelligible for so long, perhaps he's afraid we'll find out he's inarticulate as well.
You pick the medium that's appropriate for the task at hand — I'm also a fan of analogue with Dolby SR noise reduction. But to imply that analogue is a 'real' or 'natural' sound, whereas digital is not, is ill-founded. Analogue and digital provide simulated sound — representations of an original — and both are electronic processes. Neither is a natural medium. Sound is already going through an 'unnatural' process before it arrives at the tape.
Variables inherent in analogue recording, such as the machine response, varying tape response in the products of different manufacturers, correct alignment, condition of the heads, recording levels — these all combine to add characteristics to the sound. Obviously, these so-called characteristics may be either beneficial or detrimental. Digital ostensibly adds no 'characteristic'. It either works or it doesn't. Analogue lends 'warming' and colouration to sound; digital is more impartial. Once again, it becomes a matter of taste.
Even when going analogue to analogue, the amount of processing/compression and high-speed duplication that goes into the creation of the average commercially available analogue cassette is staggering, not to mention the fact that everything is Dolby encoded, and this never seems to decode properly on a domestic cassette machine. As for vinyl, there's nothing particularly natural about scraping a bit of plastic with a tiny, blunt industrial carbon by-product. The room for 'error' in electronic music reproduction is phenomenal, what with speed fluctuations, unaligned azimuths and dirty or magnetised heads. And back in what I consider to be the dark ages, we had wow and flutter, rumble, scratches, dirt, static and badly balanced pick-up arms. I'm not denying that vinyl has some of the romantic charm of a bygone age. But as far as I'm concerned, almost anything is better than analogue cassette, be it DCC, MiniDisc or CD! I don't have any problems having a good weep over my favourite songs on CD.
The 'emptiness in the air' Young so decries is a function of substance, not the medium which carries it. Trends in production and over-production, born of our newly-found access to such a wealth of technology, are far more responsible for the state of music than the means by which it is recorded. Young further states that "sampling rates have to quadruple — at least — to get where analogue was." We're shown just 24 frames per second with film; there's an awful lot of action missing, but the eye still perceives it as movement, and it certainly doesn't compromise the value of the art, or fail to touch our hearts. There's certainly nothing like that amount of information missing with digital audio, and our ears are certainly no less connected to our hearts than our eyes. Analogue, digital, film, television, it's all illusion.
It's fashionable, in certain areas, to record everything using old valve technology. Analogue recording, pushed to its limits, can achieve the 'warm' or 'squashy' sound we associate with many great American recordings. Alternatively, some producers like to record drums on analogue, and overdub digitally. Digital is particularly effective in cases where a tape is going to be overdubbed continuously — it preserves the freshness of the sound, whereas on analogue tape the signal quality suffers. I particularly notice rapid deterioration in the transients on analogue tape, whereas I have friends who complain that when dropping in, the sound is significantly different; doesn't matter whether it's better or worse, it's different. I, of course, have no need to drop in on anything, ever (humour here!).
Don't get me wrong: I don't have anything against analogue either. Neither do I believe we're all going to hell in a handbasket. I know this is an ongoing debate, and there are points to be scored on both sides. I've had a lot of fun working with both media — and I look forward to experimenting with any new format that might come along. But I don't think my aesthetic is determined by my tools. Neither do I believe that the soul of music is lost, no matter with what means I choose to record it — it's only interpreted. Whether or not that interpretation moves an individual is entirely a subjective response.
Although a lifelong fan of Neil Young's music, I find, as a producer, that reactionary attitudes have a tendency to interfere with the creative process, limiting options as opposed to expanding them. And I believe that the auditory equivalent of fusion frequency or persistence of vision we find in digital is simply another one of those options. If technology serves any purpose, it should be to give us a greater freedom of choice.
Opinion by Sadia
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