Film/Tape World Magazine Logo

SLAPBACK: (noun) the echo of a sound as it bounces between parallel reflective walls.

Analog is Not Dead

Talk about analog and digital sound usually is preceded by the definition of analog recording as a constant signal, "analogous" to the real world we live in. Sound in the real world is a constant sound, and analog sound recording captures a magnetic record of this sound on a long continuous piece of tape. Digital doesn't capture a continuous record of the sound, but thousands of "samples" of the sound per second which are strung together to fool our audio receptors (ears and brains) into thinking that we are actually hearing the constant sound.

Coming from a visual perspective, where audio is mostly a post production experience, Film/Tape readers might assume that analog technology is history, relegated to the cutting room floor of technologies that count today.

Not the case buckaroo. Analog is alive, well, and growing amongst those that really care about sound - and only sound - music folks.

This is especially apparent when it comes to the final creative task in record production - the mastering process. This is the last chance to add, subtract, equalize, and in any other way "color" the sound of the final audio. This is one area in which analog is not just maintaining adherents, but growing.

Mike Spitz is a tape recorder technician whose business, the ATR Service Company, is one of several small specialty shops that rebuild and maintain analog tape recorders for music mastering. He specializes in one and only one machine - the long discontinued Ampex Model 100. Originally introduced into studios in the late '70s and early '80s, this machine has become more and more popular in the late '90s.

"We've been steadily growing since our start in 1991. At our first AES show we were laughed at...after that we were taken seriously. It was a complete 180 degree turnaround from 1991 to the end of 1992. At that time we started to be taken seriously. The average age of the person that gets these machines is dropping. And that 's been a noticeable trait since we opened the doors. When we first started we had the guys that were 48 years old, they knew analog, were very comfortable with it, they didn't like the sound of digital. They knew what they wanted and had a lot of experience, and that was our only customer. And now we have all age spectrums, now we have 25 year olds and we have 22 year olds that are stepping up for $9100. machines" says Spitz.

These are 1/2 inch analog machines which, when used for mastering, record just two tracks of big, fat, wide audio. 1/4 inch four track heads are also available for playing back older tapes. Options can get the machine up to a $14000. price tag.

Spitz is not just a techhead. He worked for AMPEX for six years before starting the ATR Service Company, and before that worked at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, where most of the "Sounds of Philly" records were recorded - the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, and a long list of R&B sounds. Mike first used the AMPEX 1/2 machines there at Sigma. When they were first introduced the staff compared it to the 1/4 inch, doing simultaneous mix downs to both formats. "We noticed a solidity in the bottom end, we could pick it out in a blindfold test. It gives a sound texture that can't be recreated any other way with compression or any other digital or analog processing", says Mike.

The ATR Company has taken this a step further - starting at $15,000. they now make a 1" stereo machine on the same AMPEX 100 platform which is becoming a new mastering standard. Mike has provided a 1" deck to Bob Ludwig's renown Gateway Mastering Studios. Another testament to analog's dominance in music is the fact that 70% of the tapes Ludwig receives for mastering are analog tapes.

Spitz gets "Zero demand for timecode on these machines - not one call a year. Post people demand flexibility. Let me be the first to say that digital makes sense for post people. As much sense as it makes for them - music defies digital storage - it just defies it - it's been doing it since day one. The ear is going to somehow want to reject this stuff. I used to listen to music to relax, but listening to CD-based music doesn't relax me a bit - the CD will sound totally correct, but there is no depth to it, there is no realism to that sound stage in front of you."

Is it easier to fool the eye than the ear? On the surface this would seem to be the case. It takes only 24 still images per second, each on screen for 1/48 of a second, to create the visual illusion of smooth movement. Yet It takes over forty thousand samples of audio per second to create the illusion of smooth, noise-free sound. Our ears are on duty 24/7 and cover a 360 degree area. More adept as a warning system than our eyes, in an evolutionary sense it would be logical to assume that the development of our hearing would be more complex than our vision. Perhaps when all of our attention is fixed on listening to music, without the diversion of dialog, locations, sound effects and quick cut images, the richness of that experience is more in tune with a constant analog recording method.

Many in the music recording field feel that analog still yields a more pleasurable listening experience. This could be seen recently when Studer, the Swiss manufacturer of what is universally considered to be the Rolls Royce of 24-track analog machines, announced that they were discontinuing production of these behemoths. These machines were $45,000., and Studer had 35 of them left to sell one year ago, a month before the AES convention was held here. As John Carey, President of Studer North America told me, "At the rate we were selling them, that should last awhile, right? Wrong! The minute the word hit the street the music guys just woofed them up and they were gone...So in hindsight we underestimated the demand that might occur." They decided to bring back laid off workers, reopen the production line, and build another 100 machines, now at a price of $60,000. each. Thirty of the fifty machines reserved for North America are still available. After that, it'll be up to some new enterprising tech to build a business around keeping the Studers alive.

Neil Young was one of the first artists to control his recording experience by building his own studio. He was also one of the first to embrace digital audio, purchasing a pair of Sony 3324 digital 24-track machines in 1983. The studio has always had analog consoles. Neil started with a Quad Eight, and replaced that with an MCI 636 in 1984. I bought the MCI for Focused Audio in 1991 when he installed a mid '70s Neve 80 Series.

The Neve 80 series is probably the most highly regarded analog console ever made, legendary for its warm mic pre-amps, musical equalization, and transparent compressors. No doubt it helped warm up the quality of those first generation analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters on the Sony machines. One problem from that era, recalls engineer John Nowland, was that some of the final mixes were going only to the 1630 Sony digital 2-track. Those mixes are forever locked into the sound quality and limitations of those early A/D converters and sample rates of the Sony, whereas the analog mixes from the same period preserve more of the sound that was coming out of the studio speakers. The analog mixes still sound great and are available for dubbing to a variety of newer and better sounding digital formats.

In 1996, after recording with Pearl Jam in an analog studio, Neil came to a decision he'd been leading up to for some time. He put the Sony digital 24-track machines up for sale and went back to analog. His studio, still called Redwood Digital, is now equipped with four Studer 2" tape machines - three are A800 24 track machines and one is an A827 converted to be a 2" 8-track machine. Originally designed for "fat" tracking of bass and drums, Neil uses the 8 track Studer for 5.1 mixes for music and DVD/video tracks (timecode on track 8). He also has three of ATR Service Company's rebuilt AMPEX 100 machines.

NeiI's experience is not uncommon in the music recording world. Analog is a mature medium. It's been around since Edison, and the problems involved with recording on tape have been worked on for over fifty years. As far as sound quality goes, many professionals feel it just doesn't get any better. Digital has only been around for twenty years as a commercial tool. There are scores of formats, workstations, and standards that have already been discarded for a better way. The professional and consumer electronics manufacturers are certainly not above selling us a technology before its time. Today most serious audio professionals even disparage the audio quality of the standard 44.1K/16 bit CD format, and are moving on to higher resolution DVD and other formats.

Artists that are working today on master tapes which they hope will have a long and valued life want the tried and true for their creations. They want to be able to playback that master tape on a format that will still be around in a few years. Analog is not dead.

FIlm/Tape World Magazind, October 1999