NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published March 31, 2014
I have finally settled in with the knowledge that analog recording as a mainstream technology has taken a back seat to digital, and is now relegated to the history books as a "boutique technology", only to be used for those diehard fans that can afford analog technology today. The cost of tape, maintenance issues, and "old school" engineering are largely being thrown away in favor of auto-tune and cut n' paste, and the ever popular UNDO button. I saw this coming five years ago and although I hated giving up my newly acquired British Soundcraft console, I realized I was backing a dying technology. I bit the bullet, sold the big and beautiful analog mixing desk and it's 3.5 floppy CPU "Automated Mixing" features. In one fell swoop I downsized from a 24-input, 16 buss recording board with its classic VU meters to a tiny little Mackie 1640 analog/digital hybrid with a footprint less than half the size of the heat-generating Soundcraft TS-12.
The decision was not an easy one to make, because not only was I downsizing my gear, but I was making the move to mixing "in the box" (on a computer). No longer can I simply grab a knob in real time and make the magic happen, causing the hair to stand up on my clients arms with delight as some new sound emanates from the mix. It took some adjustment on my part to get used to watching a waveform on a TV monitor instead of consulting a 2" VU meter. But now that I AM used to it I realize the waveform method is much more exacting. I can instantly find a passage in a song and go right to it, instead of playing the track on an analog multitrack tape recorder until I find the same spot. Finding presets or tweaking presets in software takes a little more time and effort, but it's worth it when you learn that every single setting will be forever memorized in the workstation's project file. I can open up a year old mix and everything will be exactly as it was back when we spent so much time setting up the mix.
This entire changeover (for me) has taken about three years of constant and steady use. That sounds like a lot of time but in reality it really takes that long to brain switch from one method of recording to a completely NEW method of recording. Raw analog audio does not sound like raw digital audio. Recent improvements in microphone pre amps have removed most of the "cold, harshness" of digital 1's and 0's. One of the main reasons I waited so long to make the transition was because I was waiting for the new Mackie audio technology to start using better mic pre's in their mixer. When they introduced the 1640, with its Perkins "British" EQ and Onyx mic preamps, I was one of the first people to order one. As apprehensive as I was, the little mixer proved to me that it was all it was supposed to be. The EQ section was very close to what I had in the Soundcraft, which was a very musical sounding equalization engine. But the most critical component of the mixer IMHO was the microphone preamps. I did a lot of homework and research into the ONYX mic pre's, and I must say I was not at all disappointed in their performance and quality. The 16 mic pre's that come in the 1640 are actually SUPERIOR to the older mic pre technology that was present in my Soundcraft. The Mackie affords at least an equal amount of headroom and the unity gain going into my computer was spot on 100%. The ONYX mic pre affords as much quality and reliability as many high-priced boutique pre's on the market today. That is an important factor when you understand that the only link between the microphone and the recording software in the mic pre. It can make or break your recorded track.
So I've been enjoying my new found love for digital recording for almost five years now, and I am starting to look down the road to the future of recording. What is coming down the road? How soon will it be before the next paradigm shift? Am I investing in a soon-to-be-obsolete technology (again)? What will the new formats be and how steep is the learning curve?
After recently reading an excellent article on this by John La Grou (Tape Op #100), I have come to the conclusion that the entire industry and recording methodology will probably shift and in much shorter time than I had considered.
Let's start with some of the numbers presented by Mr. L Grou concerning "predictable trends": We're learning that virtually every technology has followed a similarly predictable growth spurt.
Since 1990, the cost-performance efficiency (CPE) of wireless devices has doubled every 7 months. The CPE of video display technology has doubled every 18 months. The cost of transistors has halved every 16 months. Since 1970 Dynamic RAM has doubled every 18 months. In 1995 I had four audio and video drives (Total 26GB) in my system for a combined worth of just under $2,500.00. Today I can buy a 32GB flash drive in a bubble pack at the checkout at Staples for $25. That pretty much says it all right there.
In the beginning of the age of recording, the total dynamic range that could be achieved in recording in 1890 was around 25db. By the 1930's we had improved dynamic range to 35db. Analog magnetic tape advancements in the 50's gave us 60-70db. The early Digital Age in the 70's and 80's ushered in a dynamic range of 90db. Today we are capable of achieving 110-115 db. That's an increase of 90db over the past 100+ years. And the end result? "Volume Wars", where every recording has to be louder than the last one. With all this dynamic range you'd think we would have a large soundscape to work with, and yet when you watch TV the commercials are louder than the programs. I have to watch a movie while holding the remote in my hand, ready to turn it up for quiet conversation scenes and turn it down for the action sequences.
Looking ahead now to the next forty years, let us consider the next two generations of audio engineering: The largest markets in this area are gaming, film, television, and military applications. Therefore, the market will be driven towards these areas, and the trends will be towards a number of new emerging technologies. A big buzzword will be "gesture control", which is using hand gestures in front of a screen that will interpret to a feature set of tools designed to run processes or commands. Gestural controls are already available on many laptops and mobile hand devices. Future advancements will mean gesturing in a 3D space, complete with hand flicks, angulars, single finger moves, and different kinds of swipes and taps. Free-air gestures may completely eliminate the need for a mouse in the future. Speculations are that free-hand gesturing technology will double every two years. By 2025-2035 sophisticated, high-resolution, free air gestural control will be a mass-produced commodity.
Looking now at visualized and localized audio, this area will be heavily dominated by gaming, movies and military, which should speed up the trajectory of this technology. A simple set up of two audio speakers in a room will not be able to complete with the 3D audio model presently being expanded. I do not believe this technology will move in the direction of more speakers, because the consumer shuns that notion (remember "quad" audio in the 70's ? - it died before it was even explored properly). However, new advancements made by Dolby Labs and others are pushing the envelope of just how wide you can project stereo sound in a 3D environment. Using phase cancellation and EQ techniques, it is possible today to create 5.1 sound in headphones, using just two channels of audio. Full-coverage headphones (not just ear buds) have exploded into mass consciousness in just the last few years, thanks largely to people like Dr. Dre who created the Beats line of over the ear phones. Popular culture is becoming increasingly conditioned into accepting "cans" as a primary method of consuming audio.
Over the next 20-30 years sound-field production and design will be one of the biggest growth areas in pro audio. 3D will enjoy a growth rate of doubling every two years and will be a major feature when designing future microphones, headphones, speakers, amplifiers and audio software. And according to Mr. La Grou, by about 2040, on-ear audio should rival, or exceed, the subjective performance of today's best audiophile rooms and room speakers. Within the next 6 years common commercial music will be routinely mixed in full 3D sound. THAT will certainly change the ways and means of current recording techniques.
And what of visual displays? The future appears to be head-worn visual displays (not unlike the current Google Glass prototypes). This is a TRUE paradigm shift. If there were only one takeaway from our brief look into the future, it should be this: We are moving from a hand-held device culture to a head-worn device culture. Most of the major manufacturers of mobile communications devices (Samsung, Motorola, Sony, Microsoft) are already in development of head-worn smart devices. Some of today's gaming displays, like the Rift, use unrestricted head-motion tracking technology in its 3D dual-screen head-worn device. It is said to already be a fully immersive virtual-reality experience. Comprehensive video display cost-performance efficiency since 1980 has doubled every 18 months. By 2035 immersive visuals will be at least 10,000 more powerful than today.
We can see that the era of virtual audio/video post-production is not that far off, and in some way has already begun. In the next couple of decades all of these technologies will converge into a single pro audio application. As this happens the way we record, edit, mix and master audio will radically change. By 2050 every single piece of hardware we currently use throughout the entire recording chain will become historical curiosities. We probably won't even have a mouse or a "tv screen", and the hardware-cluttered production studio - with all it's cables and cords - will be a quaint memory. Trend charts suggest that by 2050 head-worn audio and visual 3D realism will be virtually indistinguishable from real-space. Microphones, cameras, and other front-end capture devices will become 360-degree spatial devices. Post-production will routinely mix, edit, sweeten, and master in head-worn immersion. Studios, as they are known today, will no longer exist. All of the functions of a recording studio will be accessed remotely and wirelessly using a head-worn audio/video virtual reality. With the technology, the engineer can place themselves in virtually any environment, indoor or out - and still have all the tools he can muster at his virtual fingertips. Armed with just a suitcase, an engineer can travel anywhere, record with perfect confidence, and then mix the entire session while flying back home on a commercial airliner. With almost unlimited processing power our future production tools will allow us to call up a visually and musically correct symphony orchestra in any concert hall of our choosing.
About the only thing I worry about is what all this technology will do to music as an art form? Today's popular music has been twisted, bastardized, and morphed into some new form of entertainment. It used to be about the talent. Today it's more about the performance and the package than the message. Music, as a social medium of communication, has given way to a corporatized commodity. Today's youth is a culture of instant gratification. Music has been cheapened to the point of downloading it for free and then throwing it way after one listen. Will our future notions of "art" resemble the forms of art we cherish today? Only time will tell, and time is a commodity I am running out of. For me, I doubt if I will embrace the "latest fad" as I used to, always trying to keep up with the competition. Here at Cedar Crest Studio, experience counts for the main reason I continue to get work. My clients know they are not coming here for the gear, they are coming here for the ears, and for the years of experience I bring to the table.
For those of you just starting out in a career in audio engineering, it is indeed a brave new world. Analog experience is not even necessary these days, but you will undoubtedly encounter your own paradigm shift in technology in the next thirty years. The digital pipeline may not change much, but the tools you use to manipulate and record sound may be as radical as my transition was from analog to digital.