16/5/2012 – Sounding Off offering by Douglas Doherty

Is a lack of warmth an inevitable trait of digital recording?

I see adverts that say “Add analogue warmth to your cold digital recordings”. What does this mean?

Q: What is a “cold” recording?
A: You know, it’s that lifeless sterile quality you get with all digital recording.

Stand well out of range before you say that to a designer of digital circuitry!

Q: What is “analogue warmth”?
A: It’s second (or third, depending on your source of information) harmonic distortion, you know, the type that makes valve circuits sound how they do.

Stand further away before you say that to a designer of valve circuitry!

Anyone getting that whiff of Eau de Bulls**t that I’m getting? The smell of marketing-speak over reality?

• What takes the warmth, life and reality out of a recording?
• Is it an inevitable characteristic of digital?
• Can it get put back?

In the old days(!!), we always kept levels as far above the magnetic tape’s noise floor as possible, but below its overload point. With the digital revolution and the eradication of magnetic tape, noise floors were (apparently) a thing of the past, so no worries; give yourself plenty of headroom, then normalise. But, and it’s a very big but, lower digital levels mean lower bit counts, and lower bit counts mean less detail recorded. Follow that with digital signal processing that repeatedly loses (LS) bits because it needs to be in real time, and you have a recipe that can result in sounds that are lacking a sense of reality, life and warmth.

Couple this with the plethora of low cost tackle – microphones, single chip mic preamplifiers, A-D and D-A all on a single 5V/3V chip with rudimentary analogue interface circuitry, and loudspeakers – and we begin to approach an explanation for what’s going on.

Digital coldness is actually a lack of fidelity. It is not caused by “digital” per se, but by a combination of (poor) practice, low resolution/cost technology with expectations hyped up by high resolution/cost marketing.

My butcher recently said to me that if he bought cheap meat (which he doesn’t!), all he’ll ever have is cheap meat, and all the talking up he can do will never change it. The same applies here. But, another big but, we are constantly presented with these low cost items as fully professional, and we want to believe it.

At a studio I managed for a while we bought a Lexicon 300. We were heavily censured by someone for not buying a Zoom module, because as well as being hugely cheaper, it did reverb AND delay. There, it was clearly articulated policy to buy as little as possible for as much as possible. This may sound perverse, but does make sense. Given a choice between two pieces of equipment that cost the same and basically do the same thing, one with 100 different features and fantastic adverts, and one with 2 features and rubbish adverts, buy the one with 2 features; each of those 2 features has had 50 times as much spent on them as those in the 100 feature behemoth!

Marketing often focuses on specifications, but like statistics, selective use of specifications can provide support for the most unlikely (and often inaccurate) conclusions. For many years it has been clear to me that the marketing guys have been hyping up our expectations and damping down our discrimination (take MP3s, headphones and docking stations, and Home Cinema systems for example) to exploit the expanding customer base of musicians who want to record their own music. Behind this lies a blurring of meaning. What is ‘Professional’ Audio? What makes a ‘Professional’ studio? I am aware that some technical standards have been set down to guide us, but many of these have become eroded. Of course we all want to believe that with £1000 we can do it as well as a studio where a single microphone might cost 5 times that amount. We can’t, whatever the adverts say. But, and this is the biggest but of all, by understanding the reality and ignoring the seductive hype, we can produce work that is really pretty damned good.

So to return to my questions:
• Lack of warmth is a lack of fidelity; it is cheap meat badly cooked
• Of course it’s not an inevitable characteristic; buy less for more
• Is it too late to put back the “warmth” once it’s gone? Yes; added “warmth” is only a kind of ersatz pseudo warmth, an overpowering cook in sauce


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