The impact of digital audio on engineers & producers by Matt Ottewill 1998

We may characterize a good music technology as that which facilitates creativity by freeing the music maker from uncreative tasks and suggests and allows additional ways of creating whilst marginalising unwanted side effects introduced by the process. However, it may also impose new limitations that demand and inspire the application of creative solutions.

Since 'Pet Sounds'1 the recording studio has been recognised as a creative tool, and experimenting with the application of differing technologies a creative act in itself. However, an improvement in a given technology does not necessarily imply an improvement in our ability to complete a creative task.

"All to often technology facilitates laziness, blunts sensibilities and distracts people into a futile and sterile quest after perfection." Rikky Rooksby

"I keep saying that one has to consider machines as one's tools and not one's masters, because you become so obsessed that you become a nitpicker." George Martin

The creative studio

Undoubtedly the implementation of new technology in the recording studio is widening the gulf between the recording and live performance of a composition and redefining the roles of producer and engineer.

"The new engineer doesn't really think in terms of bands playing. He thinks in terms of the presentation of the tape." Alan Parsons

In the early 1960's a producers job involved very little creative input if any. He booked the studio, organised budgets and then together with his engineer ensured that his acts live performance was accurately captured on tape. LPs were often recorded in a single session. Until 'Pet Sounds' and 'Sergant Pepper' the studio had rarely been used in any other way.

Today a producer must be, if not master of, at least aware of the potential application of a vast array of studio tools. The technology has made it possible to 'artificially' control and enhance all aspects of the creative artifact. If the introduction of multitrack recorders was the first great revolution in music recording then the development of digital, and in particular digital non-linear, is the second.

Digital linear

Digital recording systems may be broadly divided into linear and non-linear categories. Tape based (linear) recorders were originally introduced by Sony and Mitsibushi in 24, 32, and 48 track open reel formats in the late 70's. Despite the cost2 they reached mass popularity during the 80's.

Operational advantages over analog include the ability to bounce3 in the digital domain, and the cloning4 of tapes (using two recorders) allowing backup and sub mixed working copies5 to be made. Also, when sync locked6, individual tracks can be time slipped and transferred between tapes. Thus irreversible creative decisions can be postponed until much later on in the recording process.

"With Sting things change during the course of recording an album. We're always doing multitrack edits and moving things from one end of a song to the other, and it's much easier to do that on digital." Hugh Padgham

"...one has to go the digital way, because it's the way of the future." George Martin

The introduction of Alesis's 8-track VHS7 based ADAT (1992) and Tascam's DA88 (1993) formats brought professional quality digital audio and its operational advantages within the price reach of amateur and semi-professional recordists. Both formats allow sync- locked multi-machine systems8 to be built up controlled from a single remote.

"One thing that I have always wanted to have is a backup of my multitrack master on a format I can take back to my own studio. The Tascam DA-88 is absolutely amazing." Greg Penny on recording Elton John

Whatever the operational advantages of digital tape over analogue, they are marginal compared to those of linear systems over non- linear.

Digital non-linear

Our thought processes are non-linear. Therefore it's natural that we should attempt to construct technologies that emulate them. At present digital technology offers us our only chance of achieving this. Repeatability and flexibility are the core attractions of digitally controlled non-linear digital recording, editing and storage systems.

Because the seek times9 of modern hard drives are so fast. digital hard disk based recording systems offer virtual10 random access non-linear recording, editing, and playback, thus overcoming the major failures of their linear counterparts. The deconstruction of a recording into its component parts offers tremendous advantages in the precise preparation of multitracks and masters giving unprecedented control over the editing and presentation of an artists performance.

"I love Pro Tools I use it for everything. With Seal I take a hard disk home with his vocals and work on them there." Trevor Horn

"I love computers ... now we've got hard disk recorders ... it's brilliant not to have tape any more." Hugh Padgham

Sound, having passed through the A/D11 converters, is recorded directly to to the systems hard drive. Instantaneous replay from any part of the drive makes possible sophisticated cut and paste non-destructive editing12, and a play list13 can be used to define the order in which chunks of audio are heard. Additional DSP14 manipulation of sound allows automation of the entire mixing process and its intergration with MIDI15 and multimedia16 right through to and including mastering17.

"Because of the unusual way in which George (Michael) composes, there were a few instances where what he though was a verse ended up as a bridge. Very quickly we were able to move areas of the recording around and literally arrange a song on the radar." Paul Gomersall recording George Michael with an Otari RADAR

"The long term potential of computers in music is enormous. They can offer creative freedom, ways to fine tune a performance and - eventually - financial savings too." Clive Williamson

Nethertheless, for many the implementation and use of these technologies implies a decline in artist talent.

"I'm really not interested in working with somebody who can't sing or play. Some producers love the idea of being in front of their Macs and changing it all (a musical performance). I can't tolerate that kind of thing. If an artist has a aberration, then OK, we can stick it through Sonic Solutions but I would never work with an artist who I initially considered to be incapable." Hugh Padgham

"Consider also what people do with the music as a result of the freedom digital recording offers them. Effortlessly cut and paste that perfect chorus throughout a tune. If you listento any great song each chorus will be slightly different, and those differences are important." Rikky Rooksby

Analogue linear

Despite its massive operational disadvantages there are good reasons why the popularity of analogue recording persists ...

1) It is far from clear that digital offers better sound quality.

"We all like the sound of analogue so there didn't seem to be any point in changing things." "We used Sound Tools to edit songs and final mixes. Once we'd made our decisions we'd repeat them on the half inch mixes with a razor blade." Robbie Adams on recording U2's Zooropa LP

"I still think that in terms of warmth and sonic integrity analogue has the edge over digital. I still have many problems making records on digital that I don't have on analogue." Hugh Padgham

2) It offers a proven robust storage medium. 3) Recordists like the operational limitations it imposes.

"We liked the restriction of 24 tracks because it forces you to make decisions." Robbie Adams on recording U2's Zooropa LP

In conclusion

Because the music industry recognizes the value of two distinct disciplines, that of writing a great song (eg Walk On By), and that of making a great record (eg Owner Of A Lonely Heart), it is uniquely placed to promote and exploit the many differences in approach that record production encompasses. Its ironic that digital has slowed the creative process by offering so many additional possibilities. He who commands these technologies is empowered creatively. It is unsurprising that many producers, such as Steve Lipson and Stephen Street, began their careers as engineers. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Phil Spector, and LA and Babyface are now considered more important than the artists they produce.

Every new technology has it's honeymoon period but recently there has arisen much disillusion about the ability of software to successfully model some analog processes. Renewed interest in old solid state and valve technologies has necessitated the intergration of analog and digital signal paths. Although problematic this may be preferable to the panacea of audio mediocrity that integrated digital systems sometime seem to offer whatever their operational advantages. My personal view is that any technology which gets the job done with the minimum of anguish is all right with me. Any minor audio advantages of one system over another are easily compromised by artistic and aesthetic ineptitude anyway. And finally ...

"One major snag with today's technology is that it moves so fast that there is barely enough time to assimilate the possibilities offered and techniques required before we have to move onto the next." Clive Williamson

Notes

1. Seminal Beach Boys LP recorded in 1966.

2. Several hundred thousands of pounds.

3. Mix several tracks down to one track.

4. To make an exact digital duplicate.

5. Conventionally a sub-mix of a completed backing arrangement may be mixed to a stereo pair of tracks on a new tape allowing further capacity for overdubbing.

6. One recorders transport is controlled by another to allow synchronised playback.

7. VCR transport based helical scan rotary head.

8. Up to 128 tracks.

9. The maximum time a drive takes to find and transfer data.

10. In reality hard drives take a finite amount of time to retrieve data and may therefore be technically considered linear. In practise modern drives are so fast we may consider them and the systems they serve as being non-linear.

11. Digital to analog.

12. Editing does not involve physically moving or erasing data but creating a list of points of playback start times.

13. A list of playback start times.

14. Digital signal processing; software implementation of mixing, effects, dynamics, time streach, de-hissing algorithms etc.

15. Musical instrument digital interface.

16. Integration of graphic art, text, animation, video, and sound.

17. Assembly and processing of finished master prior to manufacture.

Bibliography

Books

- Borwick, John (ed) Sound Recording Practise (4th Ed) (Oxford University Press 1994)

Articles

- Rooksby, Rikky Sounding Off in Sound On Sound (May 1996)

- Tigen, Paul George Martin in Sound On Sound (December 1993)

- Tingen, Paul Recording U2 in Audio Media (April 1994)

- Buskin, Richard Hugh Padgham Master Craftsman in Sound On Sound (October 1996)

- Tingen, Paul Projecting Alan Parsons in Audio Media (October 1994)

- Lockwood, Dave Greg Penny Producer - DA-88s In Action in Audio Media (December 1994)

- Buskin, Richard Round The Horn - The Trevor Horn Interview in Audio Media (July 1994)

- Cunningham, Mark Otari RADAR In Action - Recording George Michael in Audio Media (June 1996)

- White, Paul Meet El Presidente - Keith Barr Of Alesis in Sound On Sound (May 1996)

- Williamson, Clive Digital DIY in Sound On Sound (July 1996)

- Steer, Mike Audio Editing Systems in Audio Media (Jan 1996)

- Hawkin, Dominic Otari RADAR Digital Multitrack Recorder in Audio Media (Oct 1994)

- White, Paul Roland VS880 Digital Studio Workstation in Sound On Sound (Mar 1996)