The Analogue Conundrum

Times change, they always do, and technology moves on or does it?


I was flattered to be asked to address the Danish AES in Copenhagen a decade ago and was definitely not worthy to share the platform with Bruce Swedien, a true great of our industry.

The topic under debate was the future of analogue technology and my thesis was simple – irrespective of the merits of analogue recording technology, the audio future will be determined by the business models of the manufacturers, not the consumers, and on that front, I believe I’ve been proved right. Increasingly the needs of the user are limited by what manufacturers choose to offer. The market is now dominated by mass-produced, machine-manufactured audio solutions with built-in redundancy. Today’s audio business-model apes the computer world…this year’s expensive interfaces and software will be next year’s junk as users are urged, or sometimes forced, to invest in the latest all-singing, all-dancing, all-crashing models. So what if the sales-weasels now verbally trash the expensive DAW they launched in a blaze of hyperbole two years ago in order to flog the new version? So what if the expensive software and plug-ins their customers own can’t be used with the latest software? And so what if the new release sounds worse than its predecessor? Progress is everything. Or at least it is for the manufacturer.

In this Brave New Audio World, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen an increasing number of audio professionals searching out previous generations of technology in a desire to reproduce the audio quality and human interface of the golden years of recording, those four decades between nineteen-fifty and nineteen-ninety before Big Brother exercised a stranglehold on technology.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. Part of the digital story has been the democratisation of the recording process. A professional recording rig now lies within the financial reach of many if not most aspiring producers, although it’s a myth to say this is a wholly new development. Indeed, Tascam moved the recording goalposts in the 1970s with their excellent 3340/80-8 four and eight track tape recorders. (UB 40s first multi-million selling album was recorded and produced by Bob Lamb on a Tascam eight track as were many other records in the 70s and 80s, proof that superb songs, performances and care are the key ingredients in great recordings rather than technology.)

There are many upsides to the digital age – speed, convenience, cost, size – but there are just as many hidden downsides, not the least of which is a prevailing belief that a naff song or a poor performance can be bodged by editing and programming. Sorry guys and girls – it can’t. But irrespective of any debate about the means of production, one thing is generally agreed – analogue equipment is altogether more musical and aesthetically pleasing than digital and for those who care, really care, about the quality of the soundtrack to our lives, analogue rules. Full stop. Sadly, though, as with burgers and cheap plonk, the mass market doesn’t give a toss in an age where quantity, price and convenience mean more than quality and long-term satisfaction is all too often dismissed as the preserve of cranks, tree-huggers and eccentrics.

So this splodge of verbal invective is aimed at the prickly underbelly of the audio world, those (like me) for whom music is the food of life rather than a background drone to a computer game or television advertisement for toothpaste or payday loans.