I was born in England in 1988. Some of my earliest memories involve old BBC and Mac computers. I grew up listening to CDs, MiniDisks, playing “Duck Hunt” on my sister’s NES. The dial-up modem sounds are imprinted on my memory. I recall my father ordering books from Amazon.com back when that’s all Amazon sold. In my teen years I assembled my own computer to save money and grew to appreciate the inner workings of a computer. What I’m trying to say is, I’m an early product of the digital age, it’s all I’ve known.
By the time I found myself studying music and sound at college here in the US, I still hadn’t used tape nor any serious analog gear, and the majors I had elected to pursue focused on working “in the box” utilizing DAWs and plug-ins. In the middle of a mastering class we were discussing analog vs. digital workflow and I found myself wondering whether the speed at which non-linear digital recording and editing systems allow us to work (jumping quickly from edit to edit) might actually be a detriment to the final product. Did the enforced moments of rest as one shuttled back and forth though a track or splicing tape with a razor blade offer time for creative thought, or perhaps simply give space for igneous ideas to ‘pop’ into the forefront of our heads as they often unaccountably do?
This idea that there might have been a benefit to the innate inefficiencies of the analog workflow resulted in my conceptualizing a range of plug-ins which would enforce linear analog functionality within the non-linear digital DAW environment. With my range of plug-ins you would no longer be able to jump around instantaneously within sessions, edits would be final unless you paid for the “pro” version which included digital sticky tape, and the code would degrade over time requiring that you have it serviced every so often.
Of course it was little more than a humorous idea, but I do still find myself wondering what was lost in the transition to a predominantly digital audio workflow (well-trodden arguments about fidelity aside). So with that question in mind, and in the hopes to learn more about the analog to digital conversion (if you’ll excuse the pun) which I never lived through, I approached several established professionals in the worlds of music and sound with a simple question; “what’s one thing you miss about the analog audio workflow, and what’s one thing you’re glad to be rid of?” Here’s what they had to say…
Tim Larkin Is a Composer Sound Designer with twenty-one years of experience. He currently works at Valve and his credits include “Riven”, “Myst V”, “Half Life 2 Episode 1 and 2”, “Splinter Cell 4”, “Startcraft 2”, “Left 4 Dead 1 and 2”, “Portal 1 and 2”, “WildStar”, “DOTA 2” and “Counter Strike Global Offensive”.
The best part about analog production was that it usually required more than one person to complete a mix. I remember having anywhere from 2-3 people aside from myself sometimes sitting at a console waiting for their part to move a fader. Grease pencil marks would line the faders as to where we needed to start and finish our moves. It was much more of a collaborative process because you often had no choice on a wide mix. Two hands didn’t cover it. Analog was also early on in my career and like most, we seemed to be flying by the seat of our pants most of the time. Learning every step of the way and experimenting every chance we got. We’d have tape loops running through the door and down the hall. Fun stuff.
That being said, I really don’t miss cutting tape or mag film with a razor blade. You had one chance to get it right. It could be nerve-wracking. I remember scrubbing back and forth numerous times to make sure you were in the right spot, and then clinching your teeth and squinting as you made the cut hoping beyond hope that you didn’t just cut off a downbeat a fraction early. I also don’t miss having to calibrate the tape machines running tones and adjusting bias, making sure that the person before you did it correctly with constant double checking as machines would often drift.
Stephen Vitiello is a Sound and media artist who has worked on soundtracks for experimental film and video makers and choreographers. He has been working in the art world producing multi-channel sound installations. Examples of his work are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon. In 2011, Australian TV produced the documentary, “Stephen Vitiello: Listening With Intent”. http://www.stephenvitiello.com/
I tend to think that what I do and what I don’t miss about analog production are just about the same thing. I miss many of the objects and the interaction with those objects. It’s not so unlike the memory of going through the stacks of 45 records in my bedroom and choosing one to put on the turntable and sitting and really listening for those 4 minutes, ready to turn the record over and keep listening. There was an appreciation for the record as a “real thing” and the cover as a part of a published, produced work of art. Similarly, I think I had a much more intimate relationship with my first Fostex 4-track cassette recorder and later 8-track reel to reel recorder than I do with my computer which really feels like a utility, not an instrument. There was a recognized moment of beginning when turning on the machines, putting in a tape, that feels very different than getting my laptop out of sleep mode, closing the email window and launching Pro Tools.
In 2002 I was going to the Brazilian Amazon (to record in a Yanomami camp/village) and purchased a Nagra IVSJ. Once it arrived, I realized I wasn’t equipped to carry it, along with the 7″ reels and endless batteries – as well as other aspects of maintenance of recorder. Comparing the Nagra to the DAT and MiniDisc recorder that I did bring, there are miles of difference of course in quality. But also, there was a feeling of value and importance in holding that Nagra that couldn’t compare with the DAT and MiniDisc recorders which felt disposable and momentary by comparison.These days, I’ve been pairing my Sound Devices recorder with a Cooper CS104 for field recording so I’ve got some of the weight back on my shoulder but I’m also getting something close to the quality I remember from the Nagra.
I don’t have a full studio, the way most of the other participants here will I imagine, but just as I was saying I miss the objects, I also no longer have space for the objects. I think about digital as a kind of balance to economy. As spaces get smaller, the laptop becomes my studio. The small collection of outboard gear I once had becomes replaced with plugins. The only allowance I have around my desk for analog gear right now are two small modular synth cases… along with the recorder, mixer and mics in a nearby closet.
Greg Tripi is a film composer based out of Los Angeles, CA. His credits include “Drive”, “Contagion”, “Dark Places”, and several video games, television shows, and commercials. www.greg-tripi.com
I started my career playing Bassoon in the orchestra…. which is as analog as it gets. I miss performing with a room full of musicians. I miss breaking bassoon reeds, and having to build a new one. I miss the sound of the room, compared to the sound of my studio speakers.
When I started in film music, and electronic music production, analog synths were very cool ways to make unique sounds. I learned on an ARP2600. No digital preset could ever sound as crazy as what I made in real-time on that box. It never stayed in tune either… which itself was very unique.
It was however, a love / hate relationship. All those cables, and all that tuning. Trying to “compose” with it was insane. When I learned about these synths, we were recording the sounds on to 1/4″ tape… one note at a time, and then cutting the tape together in to compositions. Literally, using a razor blade to edit pieces of magnetic tape together. I don’t miss that one bit (get it… that’s an ADC joke).
George S. Clinton is a composer and music educator. His work includes the scores to the “Austin Powers” films, “Wild Things”, “The Santa Clause 2 and 3”, “Big Momma’s House 2”, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, “The Love Guru”, “Mortal Combat” and many others. George is currently the chair of the Film Scoring program at Berklee College of Music.
When I stop to think about it, the things I miss the most are sensory in nature and to some extent that makes them nostalgic. The smell of a fresh roll of 2 inch tape, the sound of the rewind, the feel of the razor blade cutting the tape on the splicing block, etc. There were more things in the analog process that existed in the actual physical (as opposed to virtual) universe and therefore could be interacted with on a more sensory level. I guess it’s sense memory.
One of the few aspects of the process that has yet to go all digital is the paper score and parts that are used during the scoring session. Even though I don’t write with pencil and paper anymore, I still like feeling the weight of a stack of freshly printed scores of the cues I’ve done for a film. It’s very satisfying to be able to hold in ones hands physical evidence of all the work that has gone into something.
In general the things I don’t miss have to do with the inefficiencies of the “old” way of doing things, especially when it comes to wasting time. Things like having to change VHS tapes for every reel, or waiting for the SMPTE number to be located on them and for the multitrack machine to “catch-up” . I don’t miss the towers of heat and hum producing gear with their tangle of cables and connectors that could decide at any moment to “go bad”.
I am not one who feels that analog sounds better that digital. Our ears get used to a certain quality of sound based on what we have experienced the most and so we “prefer” it. I don’t have a preference at this point because both are the product of the technology of their time. I have lived long enough to see things evolve from recording on Mag machines, to tape, to digital and I can truthfully say, I don’t miss the “good old days”. We are surfing a tsunami of technology and no one really knows what exotic beach we’ll end up on, but one thing’s for sure, it will be unprecedented and I, for one, am enjoying the ride!
Gordon Hempton, The Sound Tracker is an acoustic ecologist and Emmy award–winning sound recordist. For more than 35 years he has provided professional audio services to musicians, galleries, museums, and media producers, including Microsoft, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and National Public Radio. He has received recognition from the Charles A. Lindbergh Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. He studied botany and plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. His sound portraits, which record ever-vanishing natural soundscapes, have been featured in People magazine and a national PBS television documentary, Vanishing Dawn Chorus, which earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement. Hempton is subject of a feature film, Soundtracker, and co-author of “One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet”, (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). He is Founder and Vice President of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation and Quiet Planet®. Hempton has circled the globe three times in pursuit of nature’s music and produced more than 60 albums available on iTunes. He lectures widely on the importance of listening. He lives in Indianola and Joyce, Washington, USA. www.soundtracker.com, www.quietplanet.com
Back in the 1980’s, I wielded a Nagra-IVs, the world’s finest portable two-track recorder powered by eight D-cells. A single seven-inch reel of ¼” Agfa tape, back-coated to prevent print through, would allow a 15 minute recording at the “Nagramaster” setting–the highest standard at the time. The recordist’s equivalent of a Swiss watch included a ruby blade that scrapped the tape emulsion just before it passed over the head to increase the chances of a flawless take. By the time I had stuffed the last of my camping supplies into my backpack, I tipped the scales 75 pounds, before hiking up remote mountainsides or deep into the desert to record the last two dozen remaining pristine natural soundscapes in the Pacific Northwest.
In order for this to pay off, I had to first my homework–study maps and predict where the best natural amphitheaters might be. I might have only six reels to use over the course of three days. Each reel had to count. I watched the way animals moved and why. I observed how birds chose nest sites in secure places, like out in the reeds at the edge of a lake, because even the most cunning coyote would find it nearly impossible to avoid rippling the water which would announce his intentions in all directions. I would set up to record where the faintest sounds could be heard most easily. During my analog days I spent 90% of my time in the field and 10% back at my office.
Today, I’ve joined the digital age–my recorders, light and compact– three sets of gear weigh less than my Nagra; even after packing all of my camping gear, my pack is considerably lighter. Using three digital systems simultaneously, just a single day can easily produce more than 30 hours of recordings equivalent to more than 120 analogue reels.
An untended consequence of switching from burdening analog to convenient digital is that I now spend far less time in the field, removing me from my spiritual source, and I am in front of a computer.
I definitely don’t miss the editing process. If I wanted to edit a sound or make quick cross-fade between two sounds then I had to be good at splicing tape. To learn this essential skill I bought an aluminum splicing block a few inches long with cut lines running at different angles, to adjust the duration of the cross fade. Carefully I would place one or more pieces of tape in the block, quickly slice it with a straight edge, then add a piece of adhesive backed tape to form a strong union. The result, if masterfully done, would be a splice with no audible imperfections.
My fat awkward fingers and poor eyesight often spilled blood and ruined valuable recordings before I gave up this task. And because I could not edit, I was forced to find the most pristine places to record nature sounds if I wanted a perfect recording. While there, if a plane flew overhead or I impulsively swatted a mosquito, then I would rewind my tape back to the beginning and begin again. As the years passed, I noticed how these naturally quiet places were quickly vanishing because of increased air traffic and changing land practices. In 2005, I decided to do something about it and founded The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation. One of our goals is to maintain a list of The Last Great Quiet Places, places where it is still possible to listen to nature undisturbed by noise pollution for 15 minutes or longer—not by chance, the length of a seven-inch analog reel.
Todd Homme currently serves as a consulting music producer for Walt Disney Imagineering. Previously he has worked as a music executive and supervisor on more than forty films including “Saving Private Ryan”, “The Prince of Egypt”, “American Beauty”, “Gladiator”, “The Terminal”, “Collateral” and “Road To Perdition”.
I miss 2” Master reels. Just about all my favorite music still exists on master reels, somewhere, perhaps findable or not, in the vaults of various studios and archival warehouses. On a rare and fortunate day you may get to/ need to / have permission to – retrieve one of those reels. If so, then you are holding a real time capsule, a storage medium and these days, an artifact if not piece of art. The 2” reel was and is a physical participant of an meaningful event that still lives and points back to a given time on a given day when artists, players and crew captured that music. aside from some degradation, it remains as it was on that day.
The box and track sheet will hold human handwriting, detailing some technical details and naming some names. with the slightest nudge of imagination you are transported back to the event. Wonderful! Tape stock was finite and as it spooled away, the producer and engineer were always aware of how its consumption reflected how the ‘day was going’.
2” tape also indicated the deployment of other unique and valued resources, ie, the engagement of a recording studio, a rare environment that comes with a ticking meter. Studios were the exclusive domain of those with established and extraordinary skills where, for limited and intense times, those specially skilled players , arrangers and crew, came together and captured what became the music that lived then, lives today, and especially lives as the real and mystical stuff of our lives. The master tape was there, and when you hold one of those reels, you hold the accumulated product of the talented lives whose work was captured by it. It’s both fragile and precious because it is multiple layers of magic baked into a cake.
I don’t have any of these thoughts about the universe of hard drives that now proliferate, but i do prefer working with them and all the convenience they avail, but the advent of a commodity-medium, has come with far less wonder and magic per recorded minute.
Mark Camperell is the Founder and Creative Director at Empty Sea Audio in Los Angeles, CA. Mark is also a freelance Supervising Sound Editor, Re-Recording Mixer, Recording Engineer and Music Producer with over 100 titles under his belt including video games, features, television, commercials, trailers, music and web content. Mark’s work includes the videos games “Age of Empires III”, “God of War II and III”, “Unreal Tournament III”, “Devil May Cry 4”, “Metal Gear Solid 4”, “Fable II and III”, “Uncharted 2 and 3”, “Infamous 2”, “Halo 4”, “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” and the TV series “Drone”, “Almost Human” and “The Flash”. www.emptyseaaudio.com
I think the things I miss most about analog music and sound production involve tactile items or processes. Most studios I frequent these days are all hard-wired and/or in-the-box. This wasn’t always the case. In my early days, I produced several records in a mostly analog environment. We recorded digitally but everything up until that point would run in an analog environment.
Patch bays are something I miss. I miss walking into a control room and patching in my microphone/pre setup, or dialing in a compression/EQ chain on drum channels. This would mean playing with real knobs, not just clicking a mouse. It was cathartic. If your studio still has a functioning patch bay, bully for you! Why you ask? Well having this in your studio probably means you have fun outboard gear which is probably all analog! Mmmm analog… Now all I do is click. How drab.
Patch bays (at least to me) are like fun little a puzzle and they’re a great way to show that you know what the hell you’re doing. I remember one of my first days working as an assistant in the VO department at Soundelux Design Music Group. At the end of the day, engineer Elliot Anders quickly showed me the room and then proceeded to pull all of the patches. “Can you put it back?” he asked. I managed to complete this task and set the room properly for the next day’s session. Doing this showed him he could trust me and it gave me a chance to show off. Thanks patch bay!
Razor blades. I’m happy to be rid of razor blades. One of my first jobs in audio was working for a radio station in San Diego. This particular station still produced its commercial spots on reel-to-reel tape and then dubbed to CART machine tapes. Physically cutting tape with a razor blade was not only nerve-wracking but it could also be dangerous! On one hand, you could screw up the edit and have to bring talent back in ($$$) and on the other hand, you could slice open your fingers and bleed all over the studio (OW!) I’m very thankful that this has gone by the wayside.
One of the things I absolutely hated about working with analog gear was scratchy pots. Nothing could kill a good recording buzz like nudging a value on a board or piece of gear and hearing that horrible, grating, scratchy noise! You know the one. That’s one bonus to digitally automating software plugins. No scratchy pot noises! Now granted, if the gear was properly cleaned, maintained and cared for there wouldn’t be scratchy pots. But when you’re working in someone else’s studio, it can be frowned on to open up a piece of gear for cleaning and maintenance.
Ann Kroeber is a Sound Designer, Editor and Recordist whose work and sounds can be heard in numerous films including “The Black Stallion”, “Dune”, “Blue Velvet”, “Dead Poets Society”, “The English Patient”, “The Horse Whisperer”, “Star Wars: Episode I”, “Gladiator” and “The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King”. www.soundmountain.com
I miss the elegant, beautiful, simplicity of recording with a Nagra analog recorder. What you hear through the headphones while recording is what you’ll get on tape and without a bazillion presets. Editing films with analog mag required larger crews and more time to work on a project.
I’m glad to be rid of the heavy recording load — a 17 lb recorder and huge tapes that couldn’t hold much on them.
As far as editing is concerned, Protools is soooo much more flexible to cutting in mag. One small example, getting to design and edit many tracks and be able to hear them all together in the editing room at one time is sure better than not being able to hear more than two tracks at a time.
Daniel Birczynski is an audio developer and senior sound designer at Sony Computer Entertainment America. Daniel has worked as a composer, sound designer, audio producer and engineer, music supervisor, game designer, programmer, and university-level educator. His credits include “The Order: 1886”, “Hohokum”, “God of War: Ascension”, “Starhawk”, “Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure”, “The Sopranos: Road To Respect”, “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer”, “Space Camp”, and “Six Flags FunPark”. His film credits include: “The Barber”, “Ziarno Prawdy”,“PU-239”, “Scary Movie 3”, “The Proud Family”, “Date Movie”, “Relative Strangers”, “Caffeine”, and “Art School Confidential”. www.sounddesigncentral.com
To me, working with analog is closer to performing then producing. You’re capturing the moment and it’s the imperfections that make the sound interesting. Analog synths makes me focus more on the sound because I can’t go back and tweak parameters once the sound is recorded. Of course, you can modulate parameters to make the sound alive (in software or digital) but to me, there is nothing like “working” the knob while reacting to visuals or other stimuli. This also provides a much-needed break from staring at the computer monitor all day long.
I love interacting with my DOTCOM modular (synthesizers.com) and the fact that I can’t save presets – other than writing them down – actually works for me. It means that every time I start working on a sound, it’s fresh and never exactly the same. This frequently pushes me into the experimentation territory and often results in discovering new sounds. Moreover, when something is patched “wrong” (more often than not intentional) and happy accidents happen the system takes it very gracefully, I just have to watch my volume knob. It’s a very forgiving and friendly machine.
There is obviously the sound itself. Lately, the warmth of analog came in really handy when I was working on “Hohokum”. The game called for very organic sounds but I wanted to make them as musical and tonal as possible. The modular – plus recorded percussion instruments – covered a lot of musical ground and created a fantastic palette of sounds.
Having said all that I’m very happy that we can work with software or hardware, digital or analog and choose what fits the need and style at any given time. And as for the maintenance, treat your gear right and it will serve you a long time without downtime.
Randy Thom is an Academy award-winning Sound Designer and is currently the Director of Sound Design at Skywalker Sound. His work includes over one hundred credits including “Apocalypse Now”, “Star Wars: Episode V and VI”, “The Right Stuff”, “Backdraft”, “Forrest Gump”, “Jumanji”, “Mars Attacks”, “Contact”, “Starship Troopers”, “The Iron Giant”, “Cast Away”, “The Indredibles”, “Ratatouille”, “Beowulf”, “The Polar Express”, “Flight”, the “Ice Age” series, “Croods”, and “How To Train Your Dragon 1 and 2”.
I miss the elegant analog Nagras. They were beautiful pieces of industrial design, made in Switzerland, built ruggedly to last, and wonderfully tactile. Threading quarter-inch tape through the little labyrinth of rollers and pins was fun. The Nagra 3 was the first truly portable professional tape recorder for film. It was one of the pieces of equipment that allowed the French New Wave filmmakers to forge a new way to shoot movies. They were heavy to carry over the shoulder, with 12 D cells as a power source, and later with an attached box with Dolby noise reduction. I have several old analog Nagras on display in my studio. They remind me of the magical days in the 1970’s when I was gathering sounds for “Apocalypse Now”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, and “The Black Stallion”.
On the other hand, trying to get an acceptable analog optical sound track for release prints was ALWAYS a nightmare. In my experience it was never done correctly the first time. My visits to the labs where optical tracks were printed onto reels of film were like descents into Hell. These facilities featured huge stinking vats of noxious chemicals through which the film was dragged across decades of sediment and corrosion. I never visited one of these labs that seemed to care anything about cleanliness or calibration. Whether your track turned out correctly was more a result of voodoo than science.
Designing Sound would like to thank all of the individuals who graciously contributed to this piece. Do you have any good stories relating to analog gear or work-flow? Don’t hesitate to comment and share your story below.