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"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." - Orson Welles

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." - Albert Einstein

Why Analog? Why Now?
by Bill McAdams

From the early days of recording until the predominance of large format multi-tracking (16- and 24-track) in the early 1970s, the recording engineer's job was essentially to capture a "live" performance. Multi-tracking, however, allowed the engineer and artists to replace individual parts, a practice which has ultimately served to undermine the importance of getting a good performance in the studio. While this ability to "fix" performances and separately track individual instruments gives the artist more creative options, it has also paradoxically led to a shift in power and control from the artist to the engineer.

The engineers of the 40s and 50s were more or less forced by technical limitations to record musicians in a setting and manner not too dissimiliar from their live performances. Recording engineers are now, however, able to dictate to the artist the very nature of their performance. For most musicians, it is not natural or conducive to artistic expression to be walled off into tiny booths separated by panes of glass and wearing headphones. It is easier, however, for the engineer and musicians to record this way because they do not have to get it right the first time or commit to any decisions until the tracks are mixed down. There is no need for commitment to a mix because there is no bleed of sound between tracks. But it is this bleed, when properly managed, that gives great recordings their character, cohesion, and sense of ambiance. In most circumstances these modern recording techniques are used simply to serve the prevailing technology of the day and not for any valid artistic or even technical reasons. We are living in a "culture of convenience" and contemporary recording techniques are just another manifestation of this.

As the equipment and working methods changed in the 1970s to accommodate large format multi-tracking, so did the actual construction of the studio. Large, "live" sounding rooms were deemed unnecessary, as acoustically dead spaces were desired to prevent microphone leakage from track to track and allow for artificial reverb to be added to the performance later. The disappearance of large and acoustically sensitive open studio spaces precluded the use of the techniques that had been perfected over the previous forty years. As most modern studios are simply not designed with live performances in mind, contemporary engineers have no incentive to learn how to properly record them. However, with the right microphone selection, microphone placement, and studio construction, you can record "live" in the studio—yes, even the vocals. This was the common practice for decades in all musical genres (from Sinatra to Elvis to Bob Dylan), and it is still possible today.

With today's digital equipment, the ability to control and manipulate performances has increased to even larger proportions, making it now possible, for example, to correct a vocalist's pitch and a drummer's tempo (though not without audible artifacts). Even as recording engineers complain about the tediousness of cutting and pasting poorly performed drum tracks in Pro Tools and bemoan the resulting laziness of their clients, they still continue to enable this deteriorating situation by following the dictates of the record industry and equipment manufacturers. As a result of the reliance on digital multi-tracking and editing, there are fewer and fewer engineers who even know, let alone practice, traditional recording techniques. The effect of this "progress" has resulted in a dehumanization of the recording process and an increased reliance on technology to create art.

Although the capabilities of digital editing has certainly benefited some genres, such as hip-hop and some forms of experimental music, it has had a detrimental effect on "live performance"-based music. There is no pressure on modern musicians to "get it right the first time," one of the many intangible factors that create emotion and excitement in a recording. There is much less human interaction between musicians, as parts are often recorded independently of each other, at different times, and even in different locations. Producers like Brian Wilson and Phil Spector understood that there is a special type of energy (borne out of camaraderie, competition, and excitement) that can only be created when musicians are playing together in the same room.

The limitless number of tracks and ways to manipulate sounds in digital recording frequently creates indecision and a lack of commitment to a production. It prolongs the recording process and often serves only to create more revenue for studio owners. When recording on 8 tracks or fewer the artist is often forced to plan ahead how and what they are going to record. They are compelled to work out the arrangements prior to the session and practice their parts because they will most likely need to play together in groups of at least two or more. When working with a limited number of tracks you must think about what you are doing. These limitations lead one to more seriously consider the artistic importance of every aspect of the recording.

Despite, or due to, the relatively recent shift to all things digital, a trend to reclaim the sound of the "golden era of the recording industry" is already developing. I've found that many musicians, regardless of their style of music, would prefer to record using the classic methods and equipment of the 50s and 60s but can simply not find a studio and/or engineer willing or able to do so. One can open any professional recording magazine or pro audio catalog and see that most manufacturers in the industry, both of analog and digital equipment, are trying to capitalize on all things "vintage." The equipment manufactures would like consumers to believe that an electronic box can make a $50 microphone sound like a $7000 vintage Neumann or that a new software program can emulate the tone of a $30,000 Fairchild compressor. Many consumers today want the quality and aesthetics of the past, but only if it comes with a sense of modern convenience and a cheap price.

This nostalgia that has pervaded our culture over the last ten years or so reveals a lot about our ambivalent relationship with technology. It is a specious trend, but one that does show that there is a dissatisfaction with the results of a purely contemporary approach to recording. What the advertisers won't tell you is that you cannot buy your way to a "classic" sounding recording simply because you own a new "tube microphone" or the latest "tube mic-pre." The productions that have stood the test of time are, more or less, the pairing of a great performance with working methods and technology that are sympathetic to the artist's goal. It is my belief that the recordings that have dated the least and are the most aesthetically satisfying, whether it's jazz, rock and roll, blues, pop, or easy listening, were recorded between the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. It is that confluence of technology and recording techniques that our studio is trying to reclaim and make accessible for today's musicians.

Another symptom of the inadequacies of the typical contemporary commercial studio can be seen in the trend toward home studios and home recording. While I personally believe that many great recordings have been made using modest means, there is no real comparison in quality to the fidelity of the typical home studio with a well-designed professional studio. For one, most homes simply do not have the volume of space to best record acoustically demanding instruments such as drums and piano. I believe that a sizable part of the trend towards home recording is actually due to the tedious and time-consuming nature of large format multi-track recording which has turned many musicians off to the modern studio experience. The recording process can and should be enjoyable.

The other major obstacle for anyone not making music intended, or striving for, commercial radio airplay is the difficulty in finding a sympathetic engineer that understands their music or intentions. For example, after unsatisfactory experiences in local recording studios, one of my favorite contemporary bands, Guided by Voices, initially made their biggest artistic impact with resolutely "lo-fi" homemade 4-track cassette and boombox recordings. While these recordings fly in the face of "high fidelity" and what is commonly considered a "good" recording, they are exemplary productions that show a sympathy of form and function that is missing from most contemporary studio recordings. These recordings, despite (some would say because of) their technical limitations, capture the essence of the song and the performance—which should be the real goal no matter what method or technology was used to get there.

These are just some of the arguments for analog recording and classic techniques— not to mention the fact that the results simply sound better.

For more vitriol and variations on this theme, be sure to check out the essays by my favorite recording curmudgeon: Walter Sear at Sear Sound.

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