Analog vs. Digital- We respond to T-Bone Burnett…

A few examples of Analog and digital products NOT arguing ;)
A few examples of Analog and digital products….just hangin out together- no issues here!


I recently came across an article/interview with T-Bone Burnett where he was speaking his mind about digital technology. Some of what he said struck me hard, and interested me enough to read the whole interview (rare) and then I sent the article on to my crew, asking for their opinions. Now I know the whole analog vs. digital debate has been done to death, but I feel like some new interesting points have been brought u, especially by my younger guys. Below is the most “pertinent” section of T-Bone’s interview (whole article can be found at-http://m.hollywoodreporter.com/earshot/t-bone-burnett-silicon-valley-652114), followed by the ensuing email conversation between us guys…

what T-Bone says-
“I’ve been A/B-ing equipment for 50 years now, and I’ve gone with the best sounding technology at every juncture. We still use analog tape as our storage medium, because it’s the most durable, reliable and highest quality storage medium we have. Digital is terrible. It’s not archival, because it’s turning over every 10 years at the longest. People who were working in ProTools6 five years ago can’t even access their masters anymore. None of the plug-ins work; nothing is supported. So you’re working in a very impermanent medium. Which is cool if you don’t care. When I started out, I didn’t think we were working in any kind of permanent medium. If I had, I would have worked a little harder, I can tell you that! When I started this just about 50 years ago, I didn’t think anything that we were doing would be around by now. Now I’m concerned that everything will be around that I’m doing! [Laughs.] So there’s different stakes.
Also I think that with every new technological development that comes along, we have to ask ourselves, does it make us more human, or does it dehumanize us? Certainly digital sound has dehumanized us and it’s taken away so much of what we hear, without telling us. We have better stuff in the iPhone now to make records with than when they were converting all these beautiful analog records that were made over a century. The switch was made way too soon.
Just pure electronic music, the sine wave is not interesting to me, the simple, primary tone. Every note you hit on a piano has every other note in it at some volume, so it’s a very complex sound. With a computer, you hit a note, and it’s just that note. And it’s sad. [Laughs.] Computers are pathetic. I feel sorry for them. They have no feelings. They have no soul. That’s why they have emoticons.”

Jon Says- What do y’all think?

Tony Says- Honestly my opinion on that is that digital may be different and in some ways, make what people used to do to record 10x easier, but with that it comes with infinite possibilities and parameters for, pretty much… anything. The transition to digital was annoying because the only thing that stood out to engineers was the convenience of not having to do the whole process of tape. Not many people understood how deep and far these programs can really let you go, and I think that’s what gave it all a bad rep. Because it’s not like you can’t have hybrid systems if you want analog sound… analog hasn’t died completely, you could do anything with it! Not to mention make music from your house not even knowing anything about music! But now as new things come out and people are more open minded about it, people are beginning to use it as a new art form and take the digital process one step further. At least that’s what I’m trying to do! -Cheers

Jon- Good points! I think that the low price of digital is why it was so quickly embraced and then just as quickly backlashed against, once people realize that the sound quality wasn’t quite there yet (with digital) until about now (in my opinion). I remember making the switch to digital (ADAT and Cakewalk Pro Audio 6!) from analog (2 and 4 track tape) very well; around the late nineties. It definitely made my input and track count rise, while my “sound” and attention to tracking (and playing correctly) suffered immensely. Now, it’s ten plus years later and I have no NEED for tape at all. I do understand what T-bone is saying about the constant switching of formats and the de-humanizing sound of MIDI- but that was happening as early as those “player pianos” from the 1800s!
It all makes me think of a classic quote from one Dave Pensado. He said- “Show me a format that an engineer doesn’t like, and I’ll show you an engineer who doesn’t know how to use that format” ;). Anyone else?

Tony- I totally agree, with the quality in mind I can just picture older dudes who were recording in the 60’s and 70’s who were so used to this long process of tape, trying out digital, doing what they are used to doing, and not getting the same results, and then hating it forever. I really believe that it is a totally different process that can be just as tedious as tape but not only can you make it sound like tape, you can make it sound like whatever you want, you just have to adopt a new process and I think a lot of stubborn old timers are refusing to change what they’ve been doing for 30 yrs. and its giving it a bad rep. The younger generation, however are moving forward with it quickly and its exciting to be on that train.

Jon- For sure! If I spent hundreds of thousands of $$$$ on tape machines, consoles and analog outboard, and then found out some kids could get the same amount of tracks at home, for only a few hundred $$$- I wouldn’t want to make the switch or acknowledge it either! I WILL say that some of the younger engineers who didn’t get a chance to use the “bad” digital products (such as DATs, ADATs and older DAW setups) won’t realize that they (advertisers/product companies) were saying the same thing back then, as they are now- that digital sounds just as good as 24-track Studers running through 500K$ British consoles- bullshit!
Having seen the whole thing (digital’s entrance) happen, I do think that there are still many merits to analog, but digital is by far superior when it comes to ease of operation, cost and compatibility with the outside world. I think that in my “perfect world” we’d be able to track drums, bass and the other main elements to tape (using “CLASP” and probably a 16 or 24 track), but do all editing and “extra” overdubs within pro tools. I would love to be able to hit tape at varying levels, in order to compress and enhance the signal chain on the way in, but then be able to turn it off during mixing. There’s something so awesome about tape compression and its hard to really emulate that with a plug-in. Having the drums and vocals ever-so-slightly limited/clipped allows for later EQ, compression and other effects to just “happen” without much thought. The 1:1 trick on the Distressor feels and sounds very close, and i could see getting a few more tape-emulating pieces of analog gear to make our place that much closer to a true tape studio.
As you know already, I think we have a great “hybrid” mix setup and I wouldn’t change much about that, other than to get more/better converters, better stereo make-up gain pres, more analog stereo buss comps to choose from and perhaps another Rolls “Folcrom” or two so that we could have more like 24 stereo stems, rather than the 8 we have (which work fine). I couldn’t even imagine how annoying it would be to have NO computers in the studio- especially these days, when everyone expects us to “fix” their crappy performances. Tape just isn’t economically feasible to most. The fact that Slate’s VTM, UAD’s Studer A800 and Massey’s “Tapehead” tape plug-ins sound soooooo convincing also debunks any deep-rooted want for a tape machine- they’re too much work!

Abe- I can understand how someone who grew up with analog audio may feel like the transition is missing the life of music because it takes everything they have worked so hard to perfect and master and stuffs it into a box where someone can click a button to get “that tape sound”. If you run tape and go through every precaution to ensure a flawless recording process, the labor brings you closer to the music and it feels more rewarding than using a plug-in. It’s just a different medium. The digital age didn’t fuck things up, it’s when it’s used improperly that people think it’s all garbage.
I grew up with digital music production and never had to make that transition from analog to digital. The digital age has allowed me to experiment with my recording faster and cheaper than I would imagine with analog gear, and for this, I am grateful. I believe this is all about what “it” does for you, “it” being the music and the process. From an analog engineer’s perspective, I can see how new digital audio can seem lifeless, cheap, and almost like cheating, because the process they were used to took so long to master and provides a more rewarding experience. But from my standpoint, I feel privileged to operate a more affordable and efficient system that allows me to create and capture ideas easier. And it still sounds badass! This is rewarding for me.

So…what do YOU GUYS think?