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DIGITAL IS BAD


DIGITAL = BAD

(warning: rant ahead)

9/23/06: I have started to accept Digital, but rather than change this unit I decided to write a little extra explaining why at the end.


Before starting, I need to repeat that Digital is GREAT in that it allows music to be created that would have been impossible due to Analog costs, allows musicians to perform more comfortably without having to "watch the studio clock", allows musicians to control their music, and is more stable (when stored on optical media) for archiving.

For the full unit on why Digital is great, click here.

But as this unit is called "Digital = Bad", you just KNOW that I am going to say negative things about it. I have received various comments regarding this unit, and some have even said that my rhetoric seems as if Digital was a direct attack that I am responding to. I am glad my frustration has come through. Digital is ultimately here to stay, and is the root of many great things that have happened in the industry, but there have been major down sides as well. I guess what I am responding to are the changes that have occured as Digital has taken over and Analog is becoming a thing of the past...and how all of this has affected the industry, studios, engineers, consumers and the ART AS A WHOLE.

And yes, I DO agree with one of the comments I received: "...give me a 64kbps AAC encoded piece of genius over a 1" 2-track 30ips master of mediocrity any day."

YOUR comments are important to me. There are questions at the end of this rant and a link so you can rant right back at me.

Fasten your seatbelts...this could get messy...


Man, I HATE Digital!

I really really hate digital. I have always hated the sound of digital when compared to analog and now it has contributed to the fall of the industry and art that I love. The studios I used to love have become collections of dusty gear that often does not work, the engineers I used to respect have been replaced by people that think being able to make a simple edit in ProTools makes them "engineers" and the public I used to try to affect through art now uses music as a purely disposable item. Although there was always the "commercial" side of music it seems that all the art has been replaced with product and everyone seems happy about it. Who cares about listening to the real sound of a CD when you can fit millions of songs in an MP3 player? What the artist, producer and engineer intended for consumers to hear has been replaced with compressed bad-sounding MP3 versions...and nobody sees this as a problem.

It is as if all of the great paintings that ever have been or will be made are instantly converted to grainy 256 color pictures...and everyone not only accepts them but no longer cares about the original fully colored and textured works of art. Cheap product has indeed replaced fine art, and we all rejoice at the convenience without caring about what we have lost.

Oh, and the fact that people can download and trade music without paying for it has certainly had a serious effect on industry budgets, and how much funding is available for productions, studio fees (which studios rely on for keeping their rooms running in good condition), etc.


STUDIOS

Once upon a time, a recording studio was a place with top equipment that was kept working by experienced maintenance engineers obsessed with keeping the rooms running. These mainenance engineers (or "techs") were well-paid experts with years of experience behind them. The studios were stocked with replacement parts and even entire channels that could be swapped whenever there was a problem. While there were always studios with great gear that never worked, these were rare and easily avoided (one place in particular might as well had a PICTURE of gear instead of the actual stuff for all that things really worked).

Larger studios even had entire tech departments, with a chief tech that not only oversaw the big stuff but also trained the newer techs to ensure that knowledge, skill and quality control was passed down.

It was almost like there were guys who could just walk into a room, sniff once and then say, "It smells like a resistor in channel 41 just fried...better swap the module before this afternoon's tracking session" or "that sounds like an op-amp going in the second API...we better pull it out so nobody uses it"...wait, it WAS EXACTLY LIKE THAT!

But now most of the big studios have closed. Many of the studios that remain are struggling and no longer able to afford to pay techs well, so many of the best techs in the industry have left. To cut costs and keep things running they hire some inexperienced person with a background in electronics but lacking the specialized knowledge and experience that "super techs" used to have. Many studios do not even HAVE techs, but hire someone once a week or so to come and fix things.

Not only that, but even if they have "super techs", since most music made in studios are made within ProTools anyway, and most people only use three channels of a large console (stereo out from ProTools and a microphone), most problems go un-noticed until a real session that uses the entire board comes in...and even then it is often too late to do anything by try to "work around" the problems. Boards are no longer USED enough to know what the problems are until it is too late. These comments have been supported by various studio managers.

The end result is that even if the studio you rent has beautiful decorations and a big impressive looking console, chances are it is not used to it's fullest potential and not well maintained and you may have problems when you record.

Now, I always had a reputation for using the full board and finding anything that does not work, and always expected there to be stuff that needed to be fixed before I could use it, but these days it has really gotten out of hand.

I am sorry to say that even the "better" recording studios are no longer as reliable as they used to be.

NEVER ASSUME THE BOARD YOU ARE WORKING ON WORKS WELL. ALWAYS (AND I DO MEAN ALWAYS) CHECK EVERYTHING BEFORE YOU RECORD. IF YOU ARE RECORDING A FULL BAND THERE IS A DECENT CHANCE THAT YOU ARE THE FIRST PERSON TO USE ANY CHANNELS HIGHER THAN "8" OR EVEN "3".

THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT YOU WILL ENCOUNTER THIS IN EVERY PLACE YOU WORK, BUT JUST BE CAREFUL AND REMEMBER TO CHECK EVERYTHING RATHER THAN JUST ASSUME THINGS WORK PERFECTLY.


HOW DIGITAL AFFECTED ENGINEERING

Once upon a time, if you wanted to become an Engineer you started at the bottom position in a studio and made coffee runs for about a year. Then you were allowed into the actual rooms to help Assistant Engineers align tape machines, setup and breakdown sessions, move microphones and make coffee runs. After several years of this you were promoted to Assistant Engineer and no longer had to go for coffee. You worked with the Engineers and GRADUALLY learned what each Engineer did and why. If you were lucky you worked with many different Engineers in various musical styles. You also worked directly with Producers and learned from them.

All of the time you spent changing microphones around REAL instruments and HEARING HOW THE SOUND CHANGED, you learned. You learned about instrumentation, arrangement, appropriate sounds for different musical styles, different Engineering techniques and different Production techniques. You learned how to make the same instrument sound appropriately different for each musical style you worked on. By the time you were allowed to actually Engineer you KNEW what you were doing. You knew how to interpret musical ideas. You knew (hopefully) how to deal with people. You certainly knew how to deal with pressure and deadlines.

Today, anyone with a cheap audio interface and software is an "Engineer". I have heard many complaints from people who paid hobbyist Engineers that worked slowly, created bad sounds and could neither understand nor deliver what was requested. Most hobbyist Engineers can only imagine sounds within their limited experience. Most hobbyist Engineers have never really recorded anything other than an overly compressed vocal.

If you had to go to a Doctor, would you choose one that went through years of training and residency experience or would you choose a person that only purchased "Instant Doctor" software? After all, as long as they are healthy they should be a health expert, right?

By the same logic, is knowing "Instant Engineer" software the main qualification you look for in an Engineer?

WAIT, IT GETS WORSE!

Now that many major commercial studios are closing and records are made out of laptops, it is harder for aspiring Engineers to learn the craft (as Engineers did "once upon a time"). There simply are not enough studios that can offer new Engineers exposure to real Engineering and Mic Technique.

So, what to do? How to learn?

Of course it is important to experiment and learn your own way of doing things so you can properly express your individuality, blah blah blah. But if you want to learn how other people do things SO YOU CAN TAKE ANYTHING USEFUL FROM THEIR TECHNIQUE OR PERSPECTIVE you need to search harder for the opportunities.

You will need to seek out studios in your areas that record live musicians and be willing to work for free. Get coffee, take out garbage, whatever. Offer to work for free providing that they let you assist sessions. Do anything you can to get "into the room". Once you are sitting in on sessions, do what they ask you, always volunteer to move microphones if needed, keep your eyes and ears open and take in EVERYTHING, even if you disagree with what is happening in the room. You can learn from any situation, even ones that crash and burn.


THE DUMBING-DOWN OF SONIC QUALITY

The short version:

Digital

The medium version:

Digital technology, MP3 players and Internet piracy

The long version:

THE MUSIC INDUSTRY: Although Digital technology has recently begun to rival Analog in sonic reproduction, the file sizes and cost requirements are so prohibitive that many people never work beyond basic digital audio (44.1k at 24 or even 16 bit). In other words, anyone with a cheap audio card is working at (what has become) industry standard quality. Add to this the fact that so much music is created from 16 bit samples rather than real instruments and microphones and you greatly limit the level of sonic quality possible.

Since basic digital audio is easy to use and utilizes inexpensive computer equipment, musicians have embraced the lower standard of quality.

Since basic digital is so inexpensive and sonic quality is no longer important to consumers (see below) the music industry has embraced the lower standard of quality.

Basic digital is adequate and you can get good results if you know what you are doing. Most people do not and only get adequate results at best.

THE CONSUMERS: The Internet allows us to send digital files to each other. Although recent Internet technology is getting faster, some people still connect with slow dial-up modems. An MP3 is a digital audio file that is compressed small enough to transfer quickly, even at slow dial-up speeds. Bootleg MP3s are freely distributed through emails, message boards and file-sharing programs. Because these files are free (although illegal), consumers have embraced them. Because they are smaller than full quality digital audio files, it is possible to store a great number of songs in a single playback device.

The fact that they do not sound good is not as important as the fact that they are small and easily pirated. Sonic quality is not as important to consumers as is price (free) and convenience.

The bottom line is that FREE will always win over GOOD.

Unfortunately, due to various factors (music being made only in home computers, consumers no longer paying for music, low budgets, corporate greed, etc) MANY OF THE WORLD'S GREAT COMMERCIAL RECORDING STUDIOS HAVE CLOSED. Unfortunately, this means that the dumbing-down is going to continue.


Here is the real kicker: There are some that say that decades-old Digital is still an evolving media, and that eventually people will utilize the higher resolutions that can compete in quality with analog. I wonder about that. Since consumers are more than happy with MP3 quality that is not even as good as 16 bit audio, WHY should they care about 24 bit audio? Nobody I have asked (and I ask quite a few people) is interested in replacing their MP3s with 16 bit CDs, and so I think that although the technology may continue to evolve, consumers have stopped at a standard that is worse than the digital consumer standard was 20 years ago.

We are happily marching backwards.

How many people do you know that only listen to downloaded MP3s rather than CDs? How many do you know that actually purchased Super Audio CDs? Does the fact that companies sell high resolution audio gear mean that people are actually using those higher resolutions?

AND FINALLY, was this entire Digital-Dumbing-Down caused by technology or economics? Was this whole thing CAUSED by the technology or merely reactions to economics that TOOK ADVANTAGE of the technology?

Hmmmmmmm.


Out of the many replies I received, this one really stuck out as indicative of a certain point of view.  Although he is young, I did not include his age because I have heard similar comments from people much older than him.

Here are the excerpts from both the email and my response to him.

-------- HIS EMAIL:

I read your rant and I have just a few things to rant about in reply.  All in all, I disagree with you for several reasons that you may or may not have heard from anyone else.  Well, here it goes.. 

…ever since I began recording 5 years ago, one of my pet peeves has always been people who spend lots of time debating things like minute differences in sample rate, bit depth, compressors, mixer brands, preamp quality, and even some microphones (i.e. how one model of the same microphone sounds slightly different than the other... give me a break...).  Why does this bother me so much?  Well, it's because I think that a lot of these people are, quite simply, spewing garbage.  How do I know?  Because I've heard some of their mixes they've done and they sound, without question, awful!  Recording has both an artistic and technical aspect to it, and these people have all the technical without a trace of the artistic.  They have no ear for mixing so they make up for it in talking.  

…They think that they can definitively hear the difference between one piece of gear and the next days apart!  In my quest to figure out what the "huge differences" in different preamps were all about, I went out and purchased several models of preamps ranging from $180 - $500.  I A/B'd them up with the same, high quality condenser mic ($500 GT66) going straight into my 'critically acclaimed' Echo Layla 3G interface.  The results?  Nothing.  There were maybe some very slight differences between the preamps (neither being obviously superior or inferior in tone) and, if anything, the two built-in preamps on my interface were slightly superior to the $500 stand alone model.  Now do you see why I feel the way that I do?  Many of these people think that their ears are so good that they can hear these minute details and describe them in very vague, meaningless terms (warm, shimmering, etc). 

…It's about a superiority complex, it's about sounding smart, it's about playing with the "big boys," and it's about self-deception.  You can deceive yourself into thinking that one thing sounds better than another simply by expecting that it will.  I would challenge many of these people who claim they can hear the difference between a fully mixed rock song at 24/48khz or higher and one at 16/44.1khz to a blind A/B comparison…I would also ask them to tell me blindly whether something is a 192kbps Mp3 or a CD.  I would love to hear some of these people struggle to give the right answer and then make up excuses when they guess wrong.

From the consumer perspective, if technology was caught up to the point that we could fit as many wave files on a digital music player as we could mp3 files right now, I think that a lot of people would switch to the wave files.  But, convenience is a huge issue, and, moreover, if you can barely hear the difference, why not compress for convenience?  …Sonic quality has reached a height with CD quality where going any further is simply unnecessary and unnoticeable to all but the most gifted set of ears.  Cassette tapes lose quality over time and have a hiss problem.  Not so with digital CD's.  Digital is, basically, true to reality.  Why should anyone care enough to spend more money on a new format and a new type of player for that format just so they can add a few inaudible bits and samples, especially when recordings already, through both the magic of production techniques and digital technology, consistantly sound significantly better than live performances?  I mean, if not here, where should the "quality enhancing" stop?

Your comments belittling "pro-tools engineers" bothered me quite a bit.  I think you fail to see that, no matter how much technology there is, there will always be a place for recording engineers.  Not everyone wants to take the time to learn how to record, has the ear for mixing, or has the right kind of brain for the job.  The improved availability and quality of the tools themselves have allowed many more would-be engineers to have a shot at it, and I don't see how that's a bad thing (unless people are just scared because they want to protect their own jobs).

…In other words, people need to stop whining!

-------------- MY REPLY:

...I do agree that recording has a technical as well as a musical side, but understanding what all the different technical variations will give is the same as understanding the different types of musicality involved in using different settings on an instrument.  I know people that consider single coil pickups to sound the same regardless of which pickup is used (bridge, middle or neck) and even people who think the difference between a single coil pickup and a dual coil does not matter.

You will find as you continue working and listening that the differences in sound between different pieces of equipment are important, especially when you begin to work with just the sound of the mics rather than needing to process everything.  Yes, if you do put instruments into (lots of heavy processing) things sound similar, but the problem is that everything is going to sound like the PROCESS rather than the original tones. 

Maybe the mic pre's sounded the same to you, but I am curious as to what your source material was.  Also, if you ever get the chance to check out mic pre's above that price range (which may be difficult to do) you will find that the better mic preamps allow more of the original sound to come through.  It is true that (less expensive gear) is more similar to each other, but when you deal with Neve or API (etc) mic preamps you will find that one definitely sounds more warm and one will sound more hard.  This will lead to definitive opinions about what to use when.

Granted this is a luxury that most do not have.  The point is that perhaps the differences at the lower price ranges are less, and depending on what processing happens after the mic the differences may end up being evened out.

I do have a problem with people that do not learn how to listen and instead let some plugin or preset give them the sound.  This is not engineering.  For a musician that just needs to get ideas down that is fine, but for someone who is calling himself an engineer it is just indicative of the diminishing quality that comes from pointing and clicking without real understanding of what they are doing.

I am sorry that you feel the way you do, although I certainly understand it from what you said.  I hope that you have patience and learn the craft rather than let preset boxes do the work for you.  Hitting "play" on a player piano does not make you a musician the way that learning to play the individual notes will.  In the same way, using presets and not caring about the differences between mics and mic preamps will not make you an engineer in the same way that trying to concentrate and HEAR the differences will.

I can DEFINITELY tell the difference between 24 bit and 16 bit files of the same material.  If you listen closely, you should be able to tell the differences as well.  Initially these differences may be easier to feel than hear. Granted by the time everything is made into an MP3 for consumers, many of the differences are lost.

I suggest you try to find an old cassette recording of an album that you can compare with a new CD of the same material.  I am sure you will be able to tell the difference, which can start you down the road to developing your ears. 

Digital tools are no different from what has always been here.  EQ, Compression, Delay, etc are all the same as they were a long time ago.  The problem is that the sounds of these effects are certainly inferior to their older analog counterparts.

I really hope you find this email inspiring and not insulting.  The differences are there for you to hear if you focus.  If you do not give yourself and your ears the chance then you will not hear them.

It's not that people need to stop whining, but that people need to stop being lazy and take the time to LEARN the craft they wish to claim as their own instead of pushing a button and letting a machine do it for them. 

I encourage you to listen to the Toku Baba PARADISE CAFÉ mp3 on my site.  That was recorded and mixed with no eq or compression because the mics and equipment I used was SO GOOD that the sound of the real instruments came through clearly enough to be just right 

You can learn to hear these things and work at a higher level than you may be working at now.  I encourage you to try to find even a part time gig at a studio where you will be exposed to the differences...and be able to better train your ears to hear the nuances of the craft.

Thanks for your email,

Bruce A Miller


ON ACCEPTING DIGITAL (written 9/23/06)

Well, it is finally happening.  I am gradually becoming a Digital Convert.  I know, I know – I always put down Digital as not sounding as good as Analog.  I always whine about how in the good OLD days we had well-maintained analog tape machines and consoles in every room and we LIKED IT that way!  I always complain that although we have high resolution Digital Audio most music made in 2006 is at the same standard we had in 1988.

But as of recently, I have become convinced that Digital is good enough for me to forgive it of its short-comings.  I have decided to embrace the lil’ sucker instead of bad mouthing him to his face while actually USING him on a daily basis.

We have become friends.

There are two reasons for this.  One, I have accepted that the well-maintained-yet-affordable Analog studio is now rarer than hen’s teeth.  There are a few places out there I know of, and there will always be enough Analog-heads to keep at least a few places going, but for the most part if you can get into an Analog room you will most likely only be able to afford a few hours of pressured work rather than create in a relaxed environment.

Secondly, I have been consistently happy with the Digital mixes (of every genre) I have been doing in my own place.  I have been happy with the depth and dynamics of the mixes, and happy with the convenience of being able to click my way to an instant total recall.  My clients have been happy too, and even some of my usual studio clients are simply sending me tracks to mix rather than booking a room.