News From The Woods - February, 1993


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published February, 1993

"Tech Talk & The Cold Ethyl Sessions"

It is certainly no secret by now that when using analog recording the medium itself is "noisy." Let's simplify this. If you take a brand new reel of analog audio tape and place it on a reel-to-reel master recorder, then put the deck into "play" and listen to your monitor speakers, you will hear very little noise. Now … send NO signal to the deck (pull out the input jacks if you want to) and place the deck in "record." After recording a few minutes of nothing, run the tape back and play it.

Now turn your speakers up and you will hear tape surface noise. This is the inherent problem in conventional recording. It wasn't really a problem before, because the industry didn't have anything to compare it to. Yes, we always have had tape saturation noise and distortion. It always has been a part of recorded music. You don't hear it as much with rock 'n' roll as compared to classical recordings, due to volume dynamics and guitar amplifiers, but it always has been there, lurking under those quiet music passages and between song selections.

Digital recording, on the other hand, is all done with 1s and 0s. The tape itself is not used to store the actual acoustic sounds being produced; it's used as a storage medium for all those 1s and 0s streaming endlessly on and on. During "playback" of a digitally recorded tape, you are not actually listening to magnetically recorded music. And since digital doesn't recognize anything other than 1s and 0s, there is virtually NO tape noise on the playback. Of course, all tech-types LOVED this! But there has been an interesting side effect, however. Even with all the "bugs" worked out of the digital format, we found that, without the analog "noise," digital recordings were so clean that they tended to sound "cold" and sterile. In A/B comparison tests, the analog recordings sounded "warmer." But we also found that digital was better suited for recording synthesizers and such.

In the recording studio environment, the marriage of the two formats was the ultimate solution. Renowned engineers such as Bruce Sweiden (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, etc.) use analog to record vocals and drums, but use digital for everything else. Since the tape itself loses quality with every "pass," Bruce takes a drum mix and lays it over to a couple of tracks on the digital, then uses the digital tape for the rest of the tracking sessions, thus saving the quality and integrity of the analog tape. When mixing down to master, both the machines are then synchronized together and the session benefits from the use of both types of recording. And speaking of mixdown, most engineers and producers simultaneously make digital AND analog masters for backup and comparison. Companies such as Apogee Sound manufacture special filters used to insert in-line between the sound source and the tape deck to return some of that analog "warmth" to digital recordings.

Which brings us back to DAT question. I can certainly see the benefits of using DAT as an acquisition format for field recording sound effects, sample sources, and live recording of music, but I'm still having a problem with DAT for mastering. Even though it's digital audio, the format STILL uses tape as the storage medium, which means that sooner or later the tape itself will deteriorate with the passage of time. What good are all those clean 1s and 0s if the heads can't read the digital information because the tape is shot? Aye, mateys, there's the rub!

So what will I do? Well, I'm going to wait until the price drops just a little bit more and I'm going to purchase a CD recorder! Tascam, Carvin, and Pioneer (among others) already manufacture CD recorders. CD's recorded on these machines are fully compatible and will play in any CD player. Current prices are around $5,000, but are expected to drop considerably in the next year. That's the route I want to go. Imagine the advantage of handing my client his finished mixes on a CD he can take with him right then and play in his car CD player on the ride home! Plus, the CD will take a lot longer to wear out than the tape-based DAT. Admittedly, the $695 price tag for DAT is much cheaper by comparison and the format is convenient to use with video SMPTE time-code. Still, the handwriting is on the wall for the tape medium. It's just a matter of time, but in the meantime, my "old" analog reel-to-reel is doing just fine, thank you!

Now for some session notes: In October, Dallas-based rockers COLD ETHYL came to Cedar Crest to cut demos for the record companies. They had been recording some in Dallas but were not getting what they wanted. Singer STEVE HARRIS, who had recorded here with another band, kept telling his band-mates about this studio in Arkansas ("Yeah, SURE, Steve…") and finally persuaded them to at least call me and talk about it, which they eventually did. Their idea was to come up to Arkansas for five days and cut six songs. The session progressed so well, however, that we recorded an additional four songs that I chose from their remaining original song catalog.

We tracked and mixed ten songs to master in just five days and didn't even have to rush it at any point. Giving credit where it is due, I must say the guys were well prepared. DAVE KIRKWOOD (drums) and JODY HENRY (bass) held a fantastic groove during the first two days of recording rhythm tracks. As usual, I recorded the entire band "live" with vocals but without guitar solos. Guitarists MITCH SPENCER and QUINTEN HOPE played only rhythm arrangements and we overdubbed the solos later. We kept 90% of all rhythm tracks intact, which made for a very solid-sounding band. We didn't "cheat" much … an extra guitar here or string part there. It was pretty much their "sound." All I did was fine-tune it with them.

Their sound by the way is very "now" - not quite Nirvana, not quite Kings X. A little more boogie, a little more ROCK. Good lyrics … great drums … in-your-face bass … crunchy guitar chops and neat chord arrangements. And lyrics that are sung, not screamed. What more could you ask for?

I always say that the four basic things you need in order to have a successful session are: good songs, good players, good studio, and good vibes. The more "points" you get in each "category," the "higher" your overall total is, resulting in the "HIT RECORD" that everyone is searching for. COLD ETHYL has some good songs and each individual is an accomplished musician. They work on a good vibe, too! Everyone in the band got along great. They kept things light without losing their work ethic. They were confident in their song structures but welcomed new input. During mixdown they gave me complete freedom at the board. They patiently and quietly waited for me to run preliminary mixes and tweak things. They only asked for things in the mix after they were sure that I was ready to roll tape on the next pass. The session was a lot of fun, very productive for the time allotted, and the final mixes verified our combined musical direction.

Since then, several record companies have evinced an interest in the COLD ETHYL tape. For me though, the band's satisfaction with the session is my personal reward … not that I would turn down a record company's request for me to produce their album.

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