Lost Skills

Some skills are not so much lost as replaced by others. In this case, I’m thinking of audio recording. I used to record a lot, mainly actors and theatre SFX, and greatly enjoyed it. In times past, which is where I belong, people like me would use open reel tape decks both in the studio and on location. They were very well engineered and a joy to work with. The power they produced when rewinding and fast forwarding was amazing. You could feel the draught on your face.

There weren’t so many portable open reel machines, but they were good. You could tape an interview on location, edit it with a splicing block, razor and chinagraph pencil, and the edited version was of broadcast quality. The leader in the field was Nagra, wonderful machines but expensive. If you didn’t have that kind of money you could always use a Uher. They were excellent too and cost a bit less.

Although a few people used open reel decks in the home they were by no means common. For two reasons. The first was size: they tended to be large and heavy. The second was the fact that the user had to thread the audio tape from the full spool to the empty spool to start recording or replaying – and taking the correct route to get there required a little knowledge and a modicum of physical skill. Oh, and did I mention leader tape?

So these ‘problems’ were addressed by manufacturers having an eye on the mass market, Phillips, for example, and they came up with the audio cassette. The audio cassette was, and still, is very small, so the machine used to record on it or replay it could also be small. And they went down very well with the public at large since these neat little audio cassettes came ready spooled. At a stroke, the hassle was removed!  As a result, cassette machines really took off. People could be seen jogging along pavements with their Walkmans and they became a standard feature of cars for many years. But the price paid for this user-friendly miniaturisation was a big reduction in recording quality (explained in a note below).

In fact, the real cause of the loss of open reel recording skills was not the audio cassette but the rise of the computer, which allowed us to dispense with tape altogether. We have now moved from the analogue era (tape) to the digital (computer recording and editing). The program I used at work was Pro Tools, which was and still is a sophisticated recording and editing package.

So, what’s it to be: analogue lor digital? When I recently suggested a solution to an audio problem it was soon pointed out to me that my solution involved straying into the analogue domain. This was true, but with it came the assumption that digital is inherently superior to analogue. It’s certainly superior to the audio cassette format, but is it superior, say, to an open reel machine recording at 15 inches per second? I don’t think so.

You could argue that a good analogue recording gives us the whole wave where the digital recording gives us samples of it. So many that we almost have the whole wave, but it can never give us the wave in its entirety. So how is that better? And it’s worth pointing out that we all have analogue ears!

Where digital recording scores, though, is when it comes to editing, as the previous clip showed. Lifting part of a recording and relocating it is easy, stretching the on-screen representation of the wave to find a precise edit point is easy, deleting part of a recording is easy.

And these are just three examples of how wonderful it is to edit using good software. There are many more. But there is a downside. With on-screen editing it is possible to make a singer or an actor sound much better than he/she actually is. I know because I’ve done it.

So, as technology develops, we replace old skills with new ones because it’s the obvious thing to do and we old timers are left on the shore watching the tide go out. But that’s OK. We can live with that.

Note on Audio Cassettes

One thing cassettes cannot do is make recordings of broadcast quality. There are two reasons for this: the width of the tape and the speed at which it passes the record/replay heads. The size of a cassette tape is determined by the size of the cassette. The width of the tape is only 0.15 inches (3.81mm). This narrow width has to accommodate four tracks – the left and right channels of Side A and the left and right channels of Side B. And here we meet a misconception arising from the use of the word ‘Side’. All four tracks are actually on the same side of the tape because audio tape is only recordable on one side.

As if this isn’t demanding enough, each of these four tracks has to be separated, otherwise the listener would experience crosstalk – two tracks being played at once and one of them might be heard backwards. In short, very little tape is available for each track. So let’s come up with an idea which makes this bad situation even worse. The tape crawls past the heads at a mere 1 7/8 inches per second. The result is noise, because too much information is being crammed onto too little tape.

Compare this to an open reel machine using one or two inch tape passing the heads at 15 inches per second. Here there is ample room for the information being recorded, it is no longer crammed onto tiny amounts of tape and there is no problem with noise.

Noise reduction systems were designed deal with the cassette noise problem. The best known of these by a long way are the various versions from Dolby Laboratories, founded by Ray Dolby. They are very ingenious, though to my ear the results, while far less noisy, don’t quite correspond to the original sounds being recorded. But few people buying a commercially recorded audio cassette of the Grateful Dead have ever heard the original so they aren’t likely to notice.

 

 

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