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The End of Analogue – Is analogue multitrack recording dead? (part 2)


Digital Advantages

I don’t think anyone is in serious doubt anymore that digital recording
is better than analogue. Some people will say that analogue has its own special
sound which is certainly true. These people probably also prefer vinyl records
to CD and black and white television to colour. I would say that while it would
be nice to have these old sounds available in an effects rack (along with the
gritty distortion of optical sound on film), it is not appropriate – unless
you specialise in the musical styles of a bygone era – to apply them to everything
you record. 16 bit digital audio is a much more transparent information channel,
even if it’s not perfect yet. By the way, if you want to see how bad some
digital convertors are, record a sine wave tone onto your DAT and slowly reduce
the level to zero. Now play the tape back, and as the tone diminishes, increase
the monitor level to compensate. If the convertors are good then you will hear
a noise building up which is smooth and even in character. On cheaper machines
the noise will be harsh and gritty – not very nice at all. If the sine wave
itself starts to become harsh then the convertors are not as linear as they
ought to be. You’ll probably hate digital after you try this!

Even when working at its best, 16 bit recording is not always ideal. One day,
digital recording will be 24 bit and very close to being absolutely linear (free
of distortion within the 24 bit limit). When that day arrives we’ll probably
rediscover analogue and apply all the techniques learnt along the way to create
an even greater argument! For now, 16 bit digital audio is considered perfectly
good enough for domestic stereo listening providing all the bits are used. But
16 bits are not quite good enough for mixing to stereo in the studio because
you have no margin of error – it’s virtually impossible to get full value
out of that very last bit and drive the signal all the way up to 1111111111111111
without going over the top at all. 16 bit multitrack is definitely not good
enough because each time you double the number of tracks you mix together the
noise goes up by a theoretical 3dB. This means that sixteen tracks of 16 bit
recording will mix together to give the equivalent of 14 bits, in the worst
case situation. The signal to noise ratio of the mix would in theory be 82dB
rather than the 96dB (in theory once again) of each individual track. So to
be compatible with 16 bit stereo standards, a sixteen track digital multitrack
machine should record to 18 bit resolution.

It should be evident that sound quality-wise, digital recording is not perfect.
But even so, I would still confirm my absolute certainty that it’s a damn
sight better than any current analogue format other than Dolby SR noise reduction
used on machinery of a full professional standard. This last option can give
16 bit digital a fright, but only at a very considerable cost. As I shall be
pointing out shortly, a digital multitrack recorder with A to D and D to A convertors
of reasonable quality such as the Alesis ADAT is easily superior in sound quality
to narrow gauge analogue machines such as the Fostex G and Tascam MSR models.
It’s not the fault of the analogue machines or their designers, it’s
just the way things are.

David Mellor

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David Mellor