News From The Woods.17


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published February 1, 1998

"Mine's better than yours"

The other day I overheard a conversation between two engineers over which was better, digital or analog recording. One guy was extolling the virtues of how much "better" digital technology was over analog, while the other fellow was defending analog recording vehemently. On another front, I am on an internet users group dedicated to the Video Toaster/Flyer video computer system. A recurring thread within the electronic posts lately has been film vs. video. Defenders of film were flaming about the "look" of film being superior to the almost antiseptically clean and "lifeless" look of video. Proponents of video returned the salvo by pointing out that video was much faster, cheaper, and easier to manipulate. The arguments go on and on.

What I can't for the life of me figure out is the constant babbling about which is "better". These people all seem very intelligent to me, but yet it eludes them to consider the merits of both as opposed to the constant grousing over which is "better". Why not just recognize the advantages of each format and use BOTH?

"Heresy", you say? "Blasphemous", you cry..... Well, read on.

Let's take a look. First, let's examine the digital vs. analog controversy in the audio community. Before we begin I must point out that we're talking strictly about audio. This argument does not cover video. Video is a different animal altogether, so we'll assume (for the moment) that digital video is superior to analog since, other than the lack of tape dropouts and video noise sparkles there doesn't appear to be any noticeable difference in picture quality when comparing master tapes shot in a professional format. So, on to audio:

There is a noticeable difference when comparing digital audio to analog audio. Digital is often described by engineers as being "cleaner", "smoother", "silkier" . Analog descriptions are usually "warmer", "fatter", "rounder". While digital does afford more headroom, similar results can be achieved with analog using a higher-output recording tape and dbx or Dolby noise reduction. The main difference is that with digital you can make many passes over the tape without signal loss, while with analog you tend to wear the sound off the tape with more passes, particularly in the high end.

Champions of the digital industry are attempting to put the analog "warmth" back into the signal chain by using tube processing, which , with the proper amount of saturation restores some of the tonal harmonics "missing" from digital recording. Y'see, back in the days of recording to acetate discs (records) we had surface noise created by the needle running along the grooves set in the plastic. Later, with the advent of recording tape, we had the surface noise of the magnetic tapes being pulled across the tape heads. So, through the years our ears have become accustomed to this surface noise. Our brains do not discern this from the sound of the music itself. Thus, when we hear digital, without its surface noise or any other sonic footprints, the music is perceived as "too clean". It sound a bit antiseptic. For years engineers have been trying to tell the public that this is a GOOD thing as the stark reality of the music being reproduced is all that is being recorded. However, it has become apparent that most listeners (the record buying public) are still yearning for some of the "feel" of those long-gone recordings with all their inherent noise levels, inadequate bias, and who knows what else was being recorded along with the music.

This has created an entire cottage industry of companies developing tube preamps, tube microphones, tube limiters, and tube processors. After all the years it took solid state to overcome the has-been tube,tubes are back in again, baby! It kind of reminds me of the guy who spent YEARS taking distortion out of guitar signals and amplifiers. Then someone in the 60's came along and invented the FUZZ BOX. Go figure!

But why is analog gear still being manufactured? Because engineers in the know don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. They know that although digital is here to stay and is a superior format in many ways, nothing sounds quite like good old analog tape, so they utilize both technologies. Drums and vocals in particular just sound "warmer" recorded to analog, so they do that. Then they dump a reference mix of the basic analog tracks over to a digital multitrack and build the tracks on digital. When they're done they sync the digital and analog tape machines together and create the master mix with BOTH formats. Using the digital tape during overdubs and waiting until the mixing stage saves wear on the analog tape, therefore it's "brand new" at mix time.

Now, on to the "film vs. video" argument:

Film uses light and film emulsion technique to produce a picture. The film, once exposed, has to be processed and developed before you can actually see the images, either on a photograph or moving images projected at 24 frames-per-second onto a screen. By its very nature, film has a "grain" to it. It looks "alive" on the screen, all wriggling and squirming around with pulsating colors washing all over each other on a second by second basis. With the proper lenses it can be projected and blown up to just about any size.

Video, on the other hand, uses electronic capture technology. It records light onto magnetic tape and scans it back across a moving playback head onto a cathode ray tube (TV set) at 30 frames-per-second. Video tends to look "clean" and distinctly "hard", and is usually confined to a box no larger than 21". An exception would be large-screen TV's and Television projector systems. The end result is still the same...... A steady glow of images projected out from the box toward the viewer.

We're talking apples and oranges here, folks. How could one be "better" than the other? Video engineers have for years been trying to emulate the "film look" with the video format. Why? If you want it to look like film, shoot it on film. If you want it to look like video, shoot it on video. If you are going to project something on a big screen, use film. If you are going to show it on a TV set, use video. Video looks just great as video. It doesn't have the resolution of film, but it has a look of it's own. I don't think video can really look like film. Nor do I think it should. Video does not have 35mm resolution, but film is more expensive and needs to be processed before viewing. Production companies doing corporate, industrial, and sales and training programs switched from film to video, mainly because of cost. Film cost kept getting higher and video equipment kept getting cheaper. If I had a film camera I would probably use it for a desired effect. If I was doing a feature movie release and shot it on video, how many companies would be willing to distribute it for me? Not many. Maybe that's why they still call it a "Feature Film".

The bottom line and the reason for this article is this. Maybe it would be better if everybody would stop arguing about which is better. Whether it's film and video, analog and digital, or one type of software over another. They each have their own unique properties and strengths. Rather than parading around saying "mine's better", perhaps we should all work together towards finding a common ground where the sum of the parts creates the total perfect medium.

I Solicit your comments,

Bob Ketchum

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