When is digital technology "better" than its analogue counterpart? Tim Goodyer measures the development of music technology against musicians' and technicians' abilities to use it.
Listening to the late Miles Davis' 1962 classic album Kind of Blue recently I was struck by the quality of a recording made 30 years ago. Apart from the ability of the music to withstand the acid test of time, the recording itself sounds as if it might have been made for CD reproduction. Similarly recent excursions into rock recordings of the 70s, however, left me with the distinct impression that recording technology and techniques had come a long way in the intervening 20 years or less. At best these observations are contradictory, at worst they imply that somehow there had been a regression in technology or understanding of its use during the swinging '60s.
Could technology actually have become worse in some respect during these years? Or was it that many of the engineers and producers simply didn't know what they were doing? Looking (or listening) into '60s recordings, it seemed to me that these too fell well short of the standards set by the jazzers of a previous era.
The conclusion I came to was not that the technology had "regressed" in any way nor that the technicians "unlearned" any of their lessons, but that technology and understanding had advanced at unequal rates. I'll explain...
When the CBS and Bluenote labels were building up their excellent reputations within the jazz fraternity, they were doing it with instruments and recording equipment which was well established. The instruments in particular had been explored by a wide variety of musicians over a considerable number of years and, consequently, their behaviour was well understood. About the only notable advance during this period (as far as I'm aware) was the recording of the drum kit as a complete instrument. As the '60s brought electrification and such unprecedented approaches as Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recording technique, sound recording left well-charted territory for something new. The 70s saw advances in instrument technology increasing in both frequency and complexity.
So while music was advancing on all fronts, recording it was becoming a less and less exact science. True, a lot was being learned by those in the front line, but their experiences and experiments are now the documentation of that era. Listen to a recording of Genesis or Dire Straits today, and you're listening to the lessons learned in the recording of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. I'm sure you'll agree, the techniques have done considerable "catching up" (shame about the music).
So what can we learn from this as we step further into the '90s? Quite a lot, I'd say. Look again at the current buzzword, "digital", and you'll see that the equipment industry is currently in a frenzy of trying to apply digital technology to anything and everything. Realistically, only certain areas are going to benefit from this. Take the example of digital EQ - it's complex, expensive, slow and often just plain unsatisfactory. Analogue EQ, meanwhile, remains cheap, effective, reliable and well understood. It's going to take considerable advances in digital technology before that situation changes.
Looking a little closer to home, are you as tired as I am of hearing digital synths trying to "sound analogue"? You spot the 'Prophet 5' preset and you know you're in for a disappointing time. And at what cost - why buy a £1000-£2000 digital synth to do the job when the real thing will net you change from £500? OK, there are other considerations, but they're not a reflection of how well hi-tech digital synths imitate low-tech analogue synths. I'm just making a point.
I suppose the real point is that digital technology - like all technology before it - has to have a chance to grow up. A lot of avenues must be investigated before we will know its strengths and weaknesses. But until that time arrives, be aware of what you're working with. To appropriate an old safety slogan: try to make sure you use "the right tool for the job". Or the right tool for the time, at least.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!