As illustrated by the smooth gray line, a
sound wave is a continuous, unbroken
event. In digital audio, sounds are sampled
at various points, as shown by the
red line. These samples are used to create
a representation of the original wave.
Over beer and cheap Mexican food with
Masa Fukudome, a Grammy-winning
engineer and musical partner-in-crime, the
conversation turned to tape-versus-digital,
a topic as interesting as watching paint dry.
Masa is so old-school that his email address
contains “longliveanalog.” Analog is warmer,
bigger, more musical ... blah, blah, blah.
I’ve heard it all and I’m telling you, the
horseless carriage gets you where you want
to go quicker. Computers work fast and
they’re accurate, clean, quiet, and cheap.
Tape lacks all of these qualities. However,
Masa made an interesting point that forced
me to rethink recording: He argued that
tape machines don’t work better, musicians
work better with tape.
Before I reveal Fukudome’s theory of
recording, let’s review the differences: In
theory, analog should sound better. Drop
a pencil on the floor right now. That click-ick-ick-ick you hear is one continuous
sound wave. Digital, by virtue of its nature,
contains breaks for each sonic change, be it
pitch, volume, or whatever.
Jonathan Strickland, a senior tech writer
at HowStuffWorks, explains the consequences
of chopping up a sound wave like
this: “Some audiophiles argue that because
analog recording methods are continuous,
they are better at capturing a true representation
of sound. Digital recordings can miss
However, digital technology improves
every year as digital devices use higher
sampling rates. Although I don’t have the
science to back it up, I think of digital
recording a bit like a TV or video screen.
Enlarge a TV or video image and you’ll see
that images are actually composed of dots
or pixels, yet our brain is able to fill in the
missing parts. A digital recording of a sine
wave may not look like its analog cousin,
but our brains fill in what’s missing. Unless
a recording is truly terrible, most of us
focus on the music, not on the subtleties of
For most of us, the quality of a recording
doesn’t matter because we listen with
bad gear. About 90 percent of my music
listening takes place in the worst possible
environment: the stock radio in my 1994
Mercury or MP3s and YouTube videos
blasting from my laptop computer’s cheap
speakers. It must not sound that bad
because I listen to music all the time.
So, if digital is easier and cheaper and few
of us can tell the difference, why does Masa
Fukudome argue that analog remains the better
way to record? Because musicians are more
focused and involved when working with tape.
About seven years ago, I was recording
to tape at Bayou Studio in Nashville
doing some made-to-order tracks for a TV
show. The producers specified that one
section needed to contain 13 hits spaced
roughly one second apart to correspond
with a montage of 13 still photos. For some
reason, our bass player—who will remain
anonymous—had a difficult time playing it.
After about five takes, he asked, “Can’t you
just fly in part of it?” To which the engineer
replied, “Sorry boys, you’ve got to be able
to play to record here.” We all got a good
laugh over this quip, but secretly marveled
that musicians have devolved to the point
where playing well isn’t necessarily required.
Back in the days of magnetizing rather
than encoding, we would rehearse, then
track. Once we got a good take, everyone
would pile into the control room and quietly
listen while making copious notes on
our charts. We would talk over arrangement
ideas, and then track and re-track as a band
until we had a great ensemble performance
that was basically done. We would then add
overdubs and do any fixes. Because punching
in and out with tape lacks the surgical
precision of Pro Tools, solos were more
likely a performance then a composite of
lots of little licks and phrases.
These days, I do most of my recordings
alone, playing to drum loops and building
tracks. When I do a band session, the
process is completely relaxed. We talk it
through, make suggestions, blow down
a decent take, and then everyone schleps
into the control room for the playback.
But nobody really listens like they used to.
Rather than focusing on what they played,
people talk about movies or the industry. If
something isn’t right, the engineer can probably
fix it. For solos and fills, I find myself
compiling the best of three or four takes.
Although this method cuts out all the wrong
notes, it doesn’t make for a cohesive part.
We get more ear candy, less flowing melody.
Last night I listened to the Stones’ Sticky
Fingers, a quintessential example of a band
cutting live to tape. Hearing this album
was like watching a cat fall off a roof, awkwardly
spinning upside down, then at the
last moment landing on its feet without a
scratch. The Stones would speed up, slow
down, and careen dangerously around the
beat, but they all grooved together. It felt like
rock ’n’ roll. In Keith Richards’ autobiography,
Life, he described their torturously long
recording sessions, cutting take after take all
night until it felt right. I don’t know if musicians
who were raised recording in the digital
world could have that same work ethic.
The analog generation knew how to
make music. What you heard on record
was actually played by real people. The
gear they used for recording doesn’t really
matter. I think that may be why Joe Walsh
titled his new album Analog Man. I use to
think analog guys were silly, preachy, and
perhaps delusional, but ultimately, I get it
now. Digital audio not only breaks for each
musical change, digital recordings tend to
be a compilation of many tiny performances
that are manipulated and flown around a
grid. Analog captures continuous sound—a
performance committed to tape. Musicians
commit to their sounds and parts, rather
than getting them close enough that an
engineer can make them perfect.
Perhaps the most pragmatic approach
would be to combine the spirit of analog
with the efficiency of digital—capture a committed
performance with a clean digital system.
Let’s settle for that because none of the
studios I use today still have a functioning 2"
tape machine or remember how to use it.
is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star
, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.
John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger