The Great Analog vs. Digital Debate - Jake Belser
There are LOTS of opinions on analog vs. digita recording, so I'll offer some factual information and then share some observations and opinions based upon my career in recording.
As recently as 1998, I could not have imagined making a record without a 2" analog tape machine. By 2000 most records were done 1/2 on tape, 1/2 on computer. As of now, the majority of records are done entirely on a computer.
It is important to note that there is a huge difference between an analog 4-track cassette (the analog tape/playback most people are familiar with) and a 2" 24 or 16 track tape machine.
A 2" tape machine runs at either 15 or 30 inches per second(ips) and has a track width of 1/12" to 1/8" per track, while a cassette runs at 1 7/8 or 33/4 ips and has a track width of 1/32".
People frequently mention the Beatles recording their records on 4-track. While this is true of some of their early records, the 4-tracks they were using were 1/2" or 1" machines running at 15-30 ips--noticablely different from the track width and speed of a 4-track cassette!
These large format machines such as my Otari MTR90 require a tremendous amount of care and maintenance, making their use inherently somewhat expensive. Also, many of the manufacturers of tape machines and their accessories have stopped making parts due to the drastic drop in sales of tape machines. The cost of tape has also risen as the tape manufacturers have either stopped or severely cut back tape production
Digital recording has been around for a long time, the first professional machines being tape-based, and much later, computer-based. There are 3 major factors in digital recording ,(1) the A-D/D-A conversion, (2) the sample rate, and (3)bit depth.
(1) A-D (analog to digital converters) convert the electrical signals created by a transducer (such as a microphone) into binary code which can be manipulated via computer using software such as ProTools. D-A (digital to analog converters) convert the digital binary code used by the recording software (ProTools, in this case) back into electrical signals which can be played back over speakers. The quality of A-D/D-A converters varies widely in different gear, and has consistently improved in general over the last 20 years.
(2) Sample rate affects the highest frequency that can be recorded. Think of sample rates as taking a "picture" of the audio "x" number of times per second, 44,100 pictures per second for a CD.
The highest frequency a digital device can record is 1/2 of the sample rate, e.g., for a sample rate of 44.1 khz, the highest frequency recorded is 22.05kHz. Humans (with very good hearing) can hear up to about 20kHz--so you theoretically shouldn't be able to tell that nothing is being recorded above 22.05kHz (in this case). However, in order to make sure that no frequency above 22.05kHz is recorded, a steep filter (which limits audio beyond a certain frequency) is necessary in the recording stage. That steep filter can cause anomalies in the high end and is the source of much of the analog vs. digital debate. (One of the reasons higher samples rates exist [96kHz, 192kHz] is to allow for a more natural filter and subsequent high end by placing the filter at a higher frequencies further from the audible range.)
(3) Bit depth is another factor in sound quality, and affects the potential dynamic range (potential volume, in a very basic sense) of a recording. Common bit depths are 16-bit and 24-bit. CDs are always 44.1kHz, 16-bit. A 16-bit signal can have 65,536 levels of volume, or a theoretical dynamic range of 96 decibels(dB). A 24-bit recording can have a theoretical dynamic range of 144dB, or 16777216 levels of volume. Real world values are a little lower, about 90db for 16-bit and 112-120dB for 24-bit(or less). Most early digital recorders were 16-bit, but by the late 90's 24-bit became standard. Higher sample rates and larger bit depths take up more space and require more system resources than lower rates.
My observations and opinions:
Some people may disagree with me, but I'm being practical here: I generally want the sound I hear while checking levels to be the sound I hear when I play it back. Most engineers will tell you such an occurence is impossibe, however, I can say without any doubt that the sound I hear coming from digital playback sounds more like the sound I hear while checking levels.
But!! The sound I hear coming off a recording on tape usually sounds better than the sound while checking levels--that is the best way I can describe it.
Recording on tape is the sound of Rock and Roll, and every "classic" album was recorded on tape; adding a distinct character to the sound. From a practical point though, digital is faster and a lot cheaper.
Digital recording is often called "harsh" or "cold." Early digital devices had poor quality converters, and low sample rates/bit depths, which probably contributed to that perception. Modern high-quality gear, while not perfect, sounds pretty good, and is certainly not inherently harsh or cold. Much of the percieved "cold" sound likely comes from the methods and gear used to record. If the engineer adapts the recording methods to achieve the warmth of analog by using gear that offsets the negative effects of digital recording, the results can be quite good (and certainly far from "cold"!).
As far as tape goes, a reel of 2" tape holds 24 tracks and runs for 30 minutes at the slow speed, and costs at least $200. You have to wait for rewind and fast-forward times, you have to change reels, align the machine, and clean the heads. There is also no undo (if you accidentally record over something it's gone forever), a large console is necessary, and storing mixer settings is very complex, tedious, and inaccurate. Further, limited editing is possible, but it requires physically cutting tape. With a computer based digital system you can easily have hundreds of songs with as many tracks as you like, as many takes as you want, and unlimited undos. A computer based digital system also provides vast and rapid editing capabilities as well as the ability to automate and store every aspect of a session.
What to do?
I love recording on tape--I think it creates an atmosphere and workflow that is better for making a great album--but its benefits don't necessarily outweigh the practicality and capabilities of digital recording. If you have a large budget, I think you should record on tape. For everyone else, go digital.
For example, let's say you want to spend $2000 making an album. At Farm Fresh that will get you 4-5 days of studio time. Now let's say you want to record to tape, you will need at least 3 reels-that will cost around $650. So now rather than 4-5 days you only get 3 days!
I would absolutely always recommend spending as much time as you can afford rather than spending that money on tape, unless you really want the aesthetic of recording to tape.
WAIT! There is another option though! If you want that tape sound but don't have the budget, I would recommend recording the basic tracks to tape and then transferring those tracks to the computer. Overdubs would then be done on the computer--this is an effective compromise of tape and digital. At Farm Fresh you can "rent" 2" tape for $100 or buy your own reel for around $220 and use this reel for all of your tracking--(yes you can record over the same piece of tape several times).
Another option is mixing the record on the analog console and perhaps recording the final mix on tape. Farm Fresh has an Otari MTR10 1/4" tape machine that is often used for this purpose. My opinion in general is stay all digital if you want to keep the cost down.
Hopefully this has helped you make a decision, I am happy to record any way you want! If you do want to record to tape I need to know long before your scheduled day, and you will need to pay the tape cost in full up front.