The Tapeless Recording Boom — Fact Or Fiction?
Is the 'Tapeless Studio’ fact or fiction? Yasmin Hashmi ponders the current state of the recording industry.
There is no doubt that tapeless recording is here to stay, and judging by the number of manufacturers currently offering this technology, you could be forgiven for thinking that it has caught on in a big way. But is this an accurate assessment of the current state of things, or is the technology only being used by a privileged few in the industry?
At this summer's Association of Professional Recording Studios Exhibition alone there were 19 different tapeless systems on show. Granted, not all of them were past the prototype stage, but even this number represents only two thirds of the actual number of different tapeless systems which now exist. It is obvious, then, that manufacturers believe that tapeless recording is or will be catching on - but then they've been saying that for the past three years at least, and the great boom has yet to manifest itself. One can certainly not claim that tapeless recording is an extremely high-end 'state of the art' technology - there are too many studios which have integrated a system into their normal working environment for that to be true. But equally, one cannot claim that tapeless recording has become standard practice - the number of facilities actually using tapeless recording in a major way does not represent a substantial percentage of all audio recording facilities. So what has been happening with this revolutionary technology?
When tapeless recording first appeared on the market almost four years ago, there were two systems available: the AMS AudioFile and the NED Direct-to-Disk system. What both systems offered was the ability to digitally record and edit audio, and re-arrange it without actually physically moving the recording medium. This seems like a fairly straightforward concept these days, but at the time there were a good deal of furrowed brows since the only other accepted method of recording was tape-based. Tape machines employ linear recording and playback, and therefore a linear mentality is required, whereas this new technology used random access, and in order to appreciate this the linear mentality had to be abandoned. This was too much for a lot of people to handle - was everything they had learned suddenly useless or inapplicable? It seemed as if the editing limitations of tape had suddenly been thrown out of the window, and along with it would go peoples' jobs. How much this perceived threat contributed to the initial general resistance to the technology is hard to say, but an indication may be to look at how the marketing of these systems has evolved.
The NED Direct-to-Disk could initially be used only in conjunction with a Synclavier system, and used together they presented a formidable challenge, not only to people trying to understand where one ended and the other began, but also for the exponents of the system in even beginning to convey the power of the technology. It eventually became apparent that you couldn't expect most people to be able to make such a drastic conceptual leap, so the use of tape analogies was inevitable to help people come to terms with the possibilities of hard disk digital recording. The AMS AudioFile, on the other hand, started off by simulating tape recording techniques where possible, with tape transport controls and displays of tracks. However, it is not easy to find a balance between gently introducing the technology by using familiar concepts (and possibly holding back a little with the system's capabilities in the process), and unleashing the full power of random access, which could send people reeling (no pun intended).
The result of these compromises is that we are left with a technology which is continually compared with tape, whose generic term 'tapeless' still refers to tape, but whose capabilities in some areas bear no resemblance to tape at all.
In practice, the broadcast world initially took to tapeless recording on a far greater scale than the music recording world. There could be a number of reasons for this: broadcast companies in general have larger corporate budgets than privately owned recording studios: their clients are usually themselves or other TV companies; and their range of uses for tapeless recording technology, to date, has been greater than that of the recording studio. Many major recording studios, on the other hand, had already spent vast sums on upgrading to digital tape machines and needed to see a return on their investment before considering introducing an even newer and even less familiar technology. Besides, their requirements were for more audio tracks rather than fewer, and until recently there was no tapeless system which attempted to directly replace a 32-track digital tape machine - most larger tapeless systems offer the equivalent of only 8-track playback.
It will be argued by most manufacturers that their systems are not intended to replace multitracks, but can work successfully alongside them. This is certainly happening today but initially, the overall marketing of tapeless systems was unclear and, due to their relatively high cost, many studios felt that they had to make a choice between tape and tapeless. For many, their decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that tape is a proven medium and its operation is conventional, irrespective of it being analogue or digital. Furthermore, their clients' or record companies' demand for the technology was probably negligible.
It could also be argued that most of those people in a position to authorise the purchase of a large tapeless system tend to be successful, middle-aged and unfamiliar with the idea of random access. They would rely on their engineers to advise them, and the engineers' enthusiasm for the technology would depend on whether they themselves were familiar with random access. The likelihood of them being so is increasing rapidly due to one main thing — the personal computer (PC).
The PC has had a profound effect in the audio business - the relatively low cost of hardware and software has given many more people the ability to control audio (be it as note information or actual audio) using random access. Although most PC-based audio recording systems have relatively low capacities and do not support multitrack operation, the main point is that their users will have unconventional expectations of recording techniques, and will increasingly demand tapeless technology as a matter of course. Whether this is already being reflected in current trends is hard to tell, but a recent survey carried out by SYPHA showed that over 40% of studios (24-track and above) which did not already own a tapeless system said that they anticipated purchasing one within the next 12 months - which is just the news the manufacturers were hoping to hear.
One thing is certain: a technology which revolutionises recording and editing capabilities demands a change in working practices - you simply cannot expect techniques to stay the same if you no longer have the same limitations. In the meantime, has anyone got any suggestions as to a more befitting name for this revolutionary technology, rather than just 'tapeless recording'?