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The Analogue Renaissance (part 3)

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Analogue tape as we know it has been around since the 1940s and all recordings
between then and around 1980 were made using analogue technology. After that
date, an increasing number of recordings have been made digitally, but by no
means all – not by a long way. This brings me to an important point. The sound
of popular music is the sound of analogue tape. The sound of analogue tape is
the sound of recorded popular music. While not subscribing to that hokum about
the medium being the message, which couldn’t be any more plainly untrue,
the intrinsic sound quality of analogue tape is an integral part of the sound
that all of us, even teens and twentysomethings, recognize and accept subliminally,
and we accept it as wholeheartedly as the diatonic scale that is the basis of
Western music. So what happens when you record popular music without the benefit
of analogue technology? You have to find a way of substituting for it, and why
else are valve microphones so popular; why has there never been a better time
to buy a distortion box, valve emulator, psychoacoustic processor – whatever
you might call these things that are simply not necessary when the recording
is made onto analogue? One could argue that the reason why many feel that digital
sound is hard on the ears is because it doesn’t correspond to their mental
model of what a recording should sound like. And it is going to be many years
before digital technology has replaced analogue to the extent that the majority
of people (who are of course yet to be born) develop their mental model in the
digital mould rather than the analogue. Let me give you an exception that, in
the true sense of the word, proves the rule: classical music. Classical music
is universally recorded digitally, and sounds better for it. And the reason
why classical music sounds better on a digital format? Because our mental model
of the sound of an orchestra, and the individual instruments of which an orchestra
is comprised, is based on hearing them acoustically (and people who have never
heard these instruments acoustically never come to appreciate classical music
anyway). If you accept that digital is really more accurate than analogue, and
has fewer distortions, then it is really the most appropriate medium for classical
music, and all other types of acoustic recording.

Lastly, what about the die-hards? Some people just can’t bear to be parted
from their analogue technology, and why should they? Most people, when they
see a classic car in the street, well-polished and maintained to possibly better
than new condition, say, “Wow, look at that” as their head spins round.
And just for a moment they wish they were driving that car rather than their
Volvo-badged Ford. Same with analogue. For many purposes, digital is simply
more practical, whatever you might think about its sound quality. But how many
heads turn for a passing digital recorder? None, I feel. It is of course a normal
part of human development for the young to sneer at the old for the strange
ways from a bygone era they cling to. And as the young themselves age they realize
how silly such an attitude is. It is no more acceptable for a young person to
sneer at someone who is older for wearing a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers
than it is for the senior person to comment unfavourably on the younger’s
nose ring. Likewise with recording technology, we may enjoy a few jokes and
a bit of banter – but if someone really wants to use analogue, well why not?
We are all human beings and we have the right to pursue personal fulfillment
in our own way.

David Mellor

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David Mellor