Home Archive UK-1099-Tape vs Disk

UK-1099-Tape vs Disk

DAVID MELLOR takes a thoughtful look at production challenges that have arisen since the day that tape spun down.

As you know, disk recording offers new opportunities, but with these opportunities come new methods of working. Here I would like to concentrate less on technical issues and more on production. It really is the case that one has to rethink how a recording should be made, and the change in working methods will be as great as when someone (who was it?) first realised that the way to do multitrack recording properly was to separate the instruments out, one per track.

Recording vs. Editing

If you look at a disk recorder, or disk recording system, simply as a replacement for tape (analogue or digital), then you will be able to record in exactly the same way as you always used to. Ancillary tasks and processes may have to change, but recording itself can proceed as before. Inevitably though, the moment arises when someone says, “We don’t have to do it like that, we could just…” And of course you can, with hard disk. So bit by bit, the techniques of hard-disk production get absorbed into your system.

It is conceptually very easy to replace a tape-based multitrack with a hard-disk recorder such as the Otari Radar. Indeed, you could operate Radar’s remote and imagine there was a great big metal cabinet with spinning reels sitting in the machine room adjacent to the studio. While the spinning reels — and scraping flange — always were part of the old analogue tape culture, disks are invisible while in use, to the point where the nature of the storage medium hardly matters. As long as you have the usual transport controls and auto-locate buttons, you are perfectly at liberty to see the hard-disk recorder as a linear recorder, just like tape.

To use a hard-disk recorder simply as a linear recorder is, however, to deny its greatest advantage: flexibility of editing. As you know, you can use a suitable hard-disk system to edit anything to anything, just about. The integrated systems, such as Pro Tools offer very flexible editing, to the point where recording and editing can be in divisible parts of the same process. This is the point at where tape and disk recording diverge conceptually.

All In The Mind

What is difficult to understand is how mentally ingrained this ‘separateness’ between recording and editing becomes. Anyone who worked solely with tape during the years in which they acquired their experience will see recording and editing as totally distinct processes. If you are over 40, perhaps you should re-read the last sentence and consider whether you should start worrying. The young bucks and buckesses currently building their skills in professional music recording have grown up with computers and sound cards, and they see no such distinction. Perhaps they don’t have an ocean’s depth of knowledge and experience yet, but their way of thinking is affecting the development of music recording and production techniques, and music itself.

The total integration of recording and editing is observed primarily in dance music, where the edit comes first, probably trimmed to length and time-stretched, and then placed into the sequence. Doing this the hard-disk way isn’t all that different from the way it was done a few years ago (and still is) using samplers, except that all the audio can be on the disk and you don’t have to transfer it back and forth. There is no need for these processes to remain the preserve of dance music however.

One of the key skills in recording is knowing when something is right. In sampled and sequenced music, no-faults perfection is attainable, and therefore it is easy to know where the target lies. In music performed by humans however, a degree of imperfection is inevitable, and desirable to a certain extent. Knowing when something is ‘good enough’ is a considerable, and often underestimated, skill. On tape, fixing it in the mix is never, and has never been, an option. ‘Bodge it’ in the mix is more realistic. If the performance isn’t there on multitrack, then there isn’t really much you can do to improve it. With disk recording systems however, there is a whole new
universe of tricks and techniques that can massage a take that is almost okay, into a state where no-one will realise that there was ever a problem.

No Problem Guv

This opens up a corresponding set of demands on the producer. No longer does the producer have to rely on his hard won experience to tell him when a take is good — just get a halfway decent take and get the programmer to fix it. The challenge now is to know what is fixable and what is not, and this is a challenge not to be underestimated. With this comes the inevitable rise of the threshold of acceptability; what once would have been accepted ‘as is’, becomes unacceptable — thanks to disk recording and digital technology. Whether this is desirable or not is a subject very much open to debate.

Even since bands realised that they no longer had to get everything right in a single take, the recording process has become ever slower, and ever more painstaking. The recording of basic tracks is still normal, as is the selection of parts of takes for editing, before moving on to the overdubbing. Where a producer might have selected from two or three takes of the basic tracks, if there had been no ‘right’ take, for razor blade editing on analogue tape, hard-disk editing is so convenient that there are few restrictions.

The tempo still needs to be consistent of course, as does the pitch, unless you really want to make your life difficult. But otherwise, editing is so easy, and is almost guaranteed to work. You can use parts from every one of the ten takes. More than this: if a take is great but there is one rogue bass note, or a clash between drumstick and microphone, then this can be edited out or corrected.

Another degree of flexibility is provided in that tape edits always involved the whole width of the tape, and therefore all the tracks (and this is difficult to avoid even editing electronically). Hard-disk edits have no such restrictions, and mix-and-match techniques can be applied vertically on-screen as easily as horizontally.

Remake Remodel

The problem with all of this flexibility is that it opens up such a wealth of possibilities that one’s attention can very easily be taken away from the most important thing — the music. Where there is flexibility there is also doubt and uncertainty, dithering and procrastination, and the desire to take yet another break before making a decision.

With tape, you knew you had finished the recording process when all the tracks had been filled. Since a good producer would have ensured that every track was up to standard, then there would be nowhere left to go, apart from ripping the whole thing to shreds and starting again — or synchronising another multitrack! With hard-disk recording, there is no such indicator. Even if the system has given all it has to give in terms of numbers of tracks, you can always go back and edit something so that it is a little better. This is good in some ways, since you always have the ability to remake a track, in detail or on a grand scale. But someone has to say stop.

The reworking of mixes has been commonplace since SSL invented Total Recall, and it has pushed production decisions down the line into the A&R office (and it’s worth remembering that A&R managers used to take charge of production before producers were invented). The time has gone when a producer could put his seal of approval on a product and declare it finished, true and correct to his artistic vision. The A&R manager now wants to have a say in the process and send the mix back into the studio for ‘improvements’. Fortunately or unfortunately, A&R managers don’t yet realise just how much can be done as hard disk and digital technology progress.


We now store a complete production as a session file on disk, alongside the component audio files. Integrated systems such as Pro Tools incorporate serious mixing capabilities within their software –not yet up to the standard of an SSL console, but the target is in sight. With a conventional console it takes hours to reconstruct a saved mix but, for example, a DAW session can be opened up in seconds, complete with plug-in effects.

However, if the system on which you want to play your track differs in any way, including hardware and software, from the system on which it was created, you will be in trouble –minor and easily solvable in some cases, deep doodoo in others. Plug-in effects are a particular case in point. Let’s suppose you created a mix using version 1.0 of a particular plug-in. At a later date you want to reload the track and play it, but you have upgraded the plug-in to version 1.5. There is no guarantee that the plug-in will work, and even if it does it might not sound the same. This type of problem applies principally to integrated systems with recording, mixing and effects. Standalone hard-disk recorders are less likely to be affected, although it would be interesting to carry out accelerated ageing tests on a reel of two-inch tape, and then on a SCSI hard disk.

Old and New

Technology will progress; that is one certainty. And as it progresses new working methods will be necessary; in the preparation for a recording, the recording and mixing processes themselves, and also in archiving and retrieval of old material. Perhaps the ideal solution is to use new and old techniques in parallel, and indeed this is proving a very popular way of working. The concept of the linear multitrack recorder is long-established, well-understood, and proven to work. This role has been filled by analogue two-inch, DASH, and ADAT in music recording. Now, the likes of the Otari Radar promise to allow hard-disk recorders to take over that slot. With instant access to any part of the material on disk, they demonstrate a significant advantage. As long as back-up to Exabyte or other medium is convenient and reliable, this type of recorder will be a valuable asset in the studio.

Alongside this machine can be a more fully featured editing, mixing and effects-capable hard-disk system, once again the model being Pro Tools. When these are synchronised together properly, then you do indeed have the best of both worlds. When the project is complete, you can archive it as a linear multitrack audio recording. If this doesn’t maximise the advantages of being able to dip into any aspect of the recording and modify it at a later date, as saving the edit data as a session file would, then at least it is a method of archiving that can be relied upon.

In conclusion, disk recording systems as they exist today are some way off perfection, and working methods, both artistic and logistical, have to be adapted to get around some of the problems that arise. A combination of old and new methods and technology is currently perhaps the best solution.



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