Analog vs. Digital: And the Winner Is ...

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Krist Novoselic's column on music and politics runs every Tuesday on Reverb. He writes about the music he's been listening to every Friday.
I started recording music in the analog paradigm. Back in the day, on the way to the studio the band would stop at the store that sold reel-to-reel tapes and buy this necessary raw material. Analog recording tape is a roll of plastic that's covered in an emulsion that reacts to a magnet--the recording head--to capture sound. If you listen to CDs of analog recordings, you can actually hear the tape noise. This little hiss is the sound of the tape dragging along the head. It's a physical thing.

We dug out the original analog tapes while compiling the Nirvana box set, With the Lights Out. Looking at the stack of tapes on the table, it struck me how much they looked like artifacts. The interns at the studio, people who came of age in the digital era, told me they got a kick out of seeing the mishmash of old formats. The more tracks there were on a tape, the wider the reel. There were skinny four-track tapes, meaty eight-tracks. The boxes holding the thick 24-track looked like old books. We had to call around town to locate the various machines that could play the tapes.

We plugged the machines into a computer to make high-definition digital copies. Once the music was dumped into the program, the tapes themselves became actual artifacts--they didn't have a use anymore. We would hardly choose to mix the music off the tape machine. My God, who wants to wait for all the back-and-forth of the rewinding and forwarding? That takes something like a minute, and can try one's patience much like watching the download time bar on a computer monitor.

The old tape couldn't handle this kind of workout anyway. Over the years, the emulsion starts to fall off the plastic tape, and the reel turns into a sticky disc. It's horrifying to think that the original recording of the music is so vulnerable. If the sight of a table full of tapes is archaic, you have to see Jack Endino hunched over a reel, slowly moving a hair dryer over it. He's baking the tape to get the emulsion to stick. Once warmed up properly, the reel is put on the machine and the music is preserved forever in the digital realm. And you're happy for this after you see the brown tape gunk stuck to the tape head on the machine. The tapes should be thrown away, but now their fate will be to pass through the hands of music collectors who aren't even born yet.

Is the debate between recording formats still going? You know, the argument over which is better, analog or digital. Some like the warmth of analog, while others say that high-resolution digital has a dynamic sound, and without the tape noise. A friend of mine is going to make his next record on tape, just to do something different. Shaking things up a little can be good for the creative process. You can edit with tape. But instead of clicking and dragging with a mouse, you actually cut the tape with a razor blade and reconnect it with another part with adhesive tape. You can also record over bum notes or change musical parts. But this is a little more labor-intensive, and I can see how it can impact the recording process.

Good music need not be perfect.

I got to thinking about the process of recording while listening to the new M.I.A. record /\/\/\Y/\. (Yes, the vinyl!) This work is a creature of the digital era. Jack says this kind of music is vertical, while analog recordings are horizontal. I still need to comprehend what he's saying, but all I know is that MAYA rocks.

It's a journey of beats and manipulated sounds. Arulpragasam's vocals are heavily processed. They're bold with echo chamber, auto-tuned sonics. This record moves like a tall instrument of mayhem--and perhaps that's the vertical part? I don't know, but I like the music.

So who wins the debate between digital and analog? Neither side. It's about what works for you as a musician or a listener.

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