Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ana Digs It

"Ana Digs It", if memory serves, was the pun-ny name given to an analog-to-digital device released sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s. Nowadays, it would seem that everyone digs Ana–if you know what I mean. On second thought, perhaps you don't.

What is it that captures the imagination so—when the topic of digital vs. analog comes up in techie to quasi techie conversations? Is it just imagined, the hind-sighted 20/20 aural visions of a better sound?

Some will tell you that analog is warmer, while–they say–digital is bright and harsh. I can tell you, I have heard too bright and very harsh analog. When Rufus Harris and I (google him) worked together at Motown songwriter Sylvia Moy's (google her. hint: "My Cherie Amor") Masterpiece Studios in Detroit, there was a certain engineer in training there who would record and mix at deafening levels. As the session wore on, the engineer's perception of highs waned and the situation was "remedied" by this person raising the highs to subsidize the dullness. Rufus told me how he walked in mid-morning to take over the room for his upcoming session. "Captain Ultrabrite" was just finishing, and asked Rufus his opinion of the mix. I don't remember him telling me how he answered, but I do remember him telling me how overbearingly bright and unpleasant it sounded.

It seems that many have forgotten how clean and naturally bright sounds—those where cymbals and steel guitar strings sounded live in the room, as opposed to sounding like tape playing back—was the Holy Grail of audio mix finals. From this goal, such figurative alchemical alembics as the Aphex Aural Exciter and Barcus Berry BBE 822's became staples in studios. In conversations lauding tape—like battered spouses dismissing a history of abuse, it is either forgotten or dismissed…the beatings we took from tape hiss; and many chose to grin and bear that rather than "dull" their audio experience with a press of the Dolby NR button on their tape decks. Incidentally, the brightness gained by not noise-suppressing is a matter of the hiss modulating to higher frequencies…making the highs seem brighter. 

To be fair, we have to imagine how things might have gone if 24-bit digital audio had come on the scene before analog. Had digital been first on the audio recording scene (recording having come along long before high potency number-crunchers notwithstanding), the pluses associated with that technology—high headroom, low noise floor, wide bandwidth, etcetera—the legacy recordings would sound more realistic in a "being there" way. Then, probably the complaint might be how unrealistically dull and dark "this new analog deal is", not to mention its spectral and dynamic limitations. Wax pressings might be thought of as unwieldy and too heat sensitive…and don't get me started on the scratches, the low end restriction, etc. The crunch of the nut is that the analog versus digital battle is about personal tastes and "that's how mom cooked it"-familiarity between apples and oranges.

The recording industry’s relationship with its end-users was founded on "infidelity"—some things never change; but seriously, folks… Take Edison selling his groovy cylinder grooves; their  band-stingy sound barking out of the megaphone-styled speaker was nothing anyone would mistake for anything like reality. …perhaps some dog hearing a facsimile of his master's vocal tone. But I'd never take anyone's advice on audio equipment who would drink from a toilet. The 50’s, with the changeover from 78 rpm records to 33 1/3 LPs and FM's wider bandwidth, is sited as the beginning of Hi Fi. It was analogous to our recent move from interlaced CRT television to 1080p high def flat screens; the ability to see more lines of resolution created the run to HD cameras and subjects that would display the improvements. Conceptual content has been trumped by brilliance that for my eyes most often is visual noise. The Charlie Rose basic black set backgrounds must seem a waste to set designers who now surround talking heads with digital video screens blaring images that make the news seem as if it's being broadcasted in the midst of a room on fire. Likewise, surround sound systems enhanced with subwoofer pushed LFE signals beg to be utilized for "grander" (if not grandiose) purposes like explosions. The center channel's dialogic calling is not so compelling when words are only there to rest the ears between revving motors, screeching dinosaurs, and boom-n-bangs.

This is much the same thing that has happened with digital audio. For those kielbasa enthusiasts out there, the truth to be found at the sausage factory is the best motivation for a vegan lifestyle change. Which is to say, the truest sound is not always the most entertaining. The studio process is a process. With analog, the rules are set by the respective mediums' inherent limitations. With digital, it's more like close the rumpus room door and let the kiddies have at it.

The moral of the story is just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to do it.

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