Thursday, May 19, 2005

Back To Reel-ality

Ladies and Gentlemen...The Revox A77

The pinnacle were simplicity meets sonice excellence. No fancy bells and whistles, just true sound reproduction. Nothing comes close (consumer-wise.) I'd honestly pit ANY cassette deck or CD player against this thing. Of course, I won't deny that I think that it looks cool also - it's quite the conversation piece! It was built around 1974, and once it was overhauled, it could keep up with just about anything out there. With this machine, I record tapes that make most machines balk at; because they just can't handle the extreme frequency response of this thing. They are also very famous for their ability to reproduce low-frequency information very well. I've owned a lot of decks, and suffice it to say, nothing EVER came close. I you are an audio buff like me and you see one of these things on Ebay or at a garage sale, PICK IT UP. There are plenty of resources available for parts and restoration. I think that the Studer/Revox factory in Nashville has parts still in stock - I wouldn't be surprised! Give it a thought.

Why bother?
If you've never had the chance to use or listen to an open-reel deck, you're missing out on alot of the hi-fi spectrum! If you think that it's a dated and obsolete format, consider this - you know that CD of your favorite group you were listening to today? Whether you realize it or not, they probably recorded it on an analog 24-track recorder, and mixed it down to 2-track open reel as well. A majority of artists insist on recording to analog tape, because it has such a warmth that digital does not. Here's why.

Digital vs. Analog - A Comparison
OK, this is for sure going to spark a debate if you happen to be a hi-fi nut. Warning: the views expressed in the following paragraph are based soley upon my personal observation and experience with both types of medium - Use them at your own risk! OK. Ready? Here we go...Press play and let it roll! Mr. emcee, please...

In this corner....Digital

The Pros
Yes, digital - bask in all the glory and awards that have been given to you, you deserve it. You don't introduce hiss to recordings, the ability to edit and do things, such as stretch a recording or speed it up without changing the pitch and vice versa. You also have a much longer life as well. Lord knows that you've made my life in radio so much easier! You also have virtually an unlimited number of tracks that I can utilize. This is heaven, indeed, and I thank you for this.

The Cons...
But, before you get so full of yourself, I would like to point out that you most certainly are not infallible, and are susceptible to tragedy. First of all, you think in absolutes - you are either on, or you are off. With you, there is no in between. If a signal falls below a certain threshold, you abruptly cut it off; or worse yet, you act as if it doesn't exist! Folks who make ultra-dynamic (sorry, Maxell) music don't appreciate this fact, such as classical artists. There are passages that tend to fall short because of this flaw. Sure, you can make more volume steps (also known as "resolution,") and it will fix the problem, to a degree. To the highly trained ear, it can be very obvious (and frustrating!) There is an unintentional harshness that occurs due to the almost non-linearity of the frequency response. Also, another drawback is the recording level. I tend to record everything pretty "hot*" due to my days with analog. However, if you do this with digital, you're in for a VERY unpleasant surprise. The audio clips severely and makes resounding crackles and totally ruins the audio! Once you clip something digitally, forget it. You'd better just start it over. I could go into an even longer explanation, but I think the average person gets my point. Moving on then...

The Perennial Favorite...Analog

The Pros...
OK, so I was a little harsh on my point-of-view on digital recording. Remember, this is just MY observation, not the "law of the land." It's obvious of how biased (no pun intended) my opinion is. For years, I have recorded on analog medium, whether it be cassettes or open reel. I've also listened to alot of LP records (yes, you remember those?) I can tell you this - upon learning how to make excellent recordings with both types of tape formats, the results were quite impressive. Analog is quite forgiving if you overstep the +0 dB mark on your VU meters, provided you don't keep it there, or distortion will set in. However, that being said, there are pleasant "harmonics" produced because of the slight distortion. This is why purists prefer tubes (sometimes called valves) over discreet components. Once again, this could be a debate in itself, but I'm not going to go there. At least not now. Unfortunately, Analog does have its shortcomings, however.

The Cons (this really hurts...)
OK. this was hard to realize, but sadly, analog does have cons. Once again, I won't deny the ease of which digital editing has made my work, to the point of where a kid can do a respectable job. With analog, you use magnetic tape, and of course that is susceptible to wear and tear. Sometimes the stuff breaks, and of course you have to splice it back together. This in and of itself is an artform, practiced by a select few in the industry, nowadays. Actually you can splice it two different ways - at a 45- degree angle (for music) or at a 90-degree angle (for speech.) Truth be told, I mix the two up on a constant basis, as I don't splice much anymore. Another problem is tape HISSSSSSSSSSSSS. Due to the linearity of the recording medium, which has virtually no threshold (and takes whatever you throw at it,) there is the consequence of tape hiss in a recording. Yes, you can use a noise-gate or noise-reduction of sorts, provided that it's set properly. The solution: Do as the early recording engineers did - record everything as HOT as possible - you won't be disappointed. With the aid of a few extra devices (a compressor/limiter, for instance,) you'll get a nice warm fat sound. Upon playback, you will notice that "warmth" that so many audio purists get all mushy about (myself included.) There is also the expense and recent scarcity of the recording medium itself. For a while it seemed that the last remaining manufacturer of magnetic tape (Quantegy, formerly Ampex,) was going under and sold off most of their magnetics division. This was due to declining sales of tape. It is rather expensive as well, but as any tape geek will tell you, it's well worth the cost. Another factor to consider is the 'shelf-life of magnetic medium. It's unfortunate, but it does tend to decompose over time - especially if it's been stored incorrectly. Even if it has been stored properly, it tends to suffer from a phenomenon called "print-through." Over time, the recording tends to "print" itself to the layer of tape below it. As a result, when played back, there is a corresponding "pre-echo" that you hear. An example of this would be on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," when Robert Plant sings, "WAY DOWN INSIDE, (woman) WOMAN....(youuu) YOUUUU NEEEED...) Or take an older tape (cassette or reel) and find a passage between songs, and turn up the volume on your amplifier or receiver. You will probably hear exactly what I am talking about. The sound tends to echo just before the original. You can recreate this in another way, but we're not going to go into that now. Of course you have to take maintenance into consideration as well. These things do wear out, and need cleaning, as well as parts to keep them running properly. This all being said, alot of folks would rather put up with the hassle. Myself included.

Naturally, there are many other factors involved with both types of media; good and bad. I just didn't feel the need to go into them. There are also some similarities - Such as the sampling and bit-rate for digital needs to be at a satisfactory level (44.1khz @ 16 bits nominally) and with analog, a tape speed of 7.5 to 30 IPS (inches per second) needs to be utilized. In both cases, if you use a low value, your recording will suffer drastically. However, if quality is not of primary concern, but economy is, then the lower values are for you. I grew up with alot of tapes recorded at 3.75 IPS; these were meant for parties or just background music. On an 1,800 foot reel, you could cram 96 minutes per side of music. That's about 192 minutes of time on one seven-inch reel! If you step up the larger ten-and-a-half inch reels (which I prefer,) at 7.5 IPS, you can get the same amount; of course the trade-off being the reel size. With digital, you consider filesize as well. In this way, you see that both mediums have striking similarities. It's an interesting point to ponder. And just so you know, I do make regular use of BOTH mediums. I guess you could say that I want "The Best of Both Worlds." Sorry to paraphrase Van Halen, but that's just how I feel. I see that the supply reel is turning faster by the second, and that means we've run out of time for now, but tune in again tomorro........

(oops, tape ran out- there goes the "head-cleaning" leader tape and the tape comes off the reel and starts flapping around until the auto shut-off realizes there is no tape, shutting the machine down. )

Once again, these are my views, and if you choose to comment or criticize, please fire away.

*"Hot" refers to a recording which is at a level that is as loud as possible, with a slight bit of distortion, but not enough to ruin the recording.

A quick note: This comparison does NOT include 8-track cartridges. They should be avoided at all costs, and are a disgrace to the hi-fi community. They are in essence, total pieces of shit! More later on why I hate them...

No comments: