By Ed Thompson
With the bankruptcy of Quantegy, the last American manufacturer of magnetic tape, analog is dead. I just read its obituary in the February 10th issue of Rolling Stone. It’s about damn time. I’m surprised someone didn’t pull the plug on the life support machine years ago. Why? Because digital is better. Bold statement and I know. I’ll soon read scathing emails from “true believers” who, like Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Lou Reed, or a colleague from north of the border, say that analog is “warmer” and has more “soul.” That may be. But, unless you’re in a soundproof room, with very high end processing on ultra sensitive studio monitors and have ears trained to hear certain frequencies, who’ll notice? Joe and Jane Listener? Not likely.
Let me describe an average morning at the Thompson Radio Ranch. The radio/CD/alarm clock jars me to consciousness at precisely 6:30 Central Standard Time. The snooze alarm does it again exactly ten minutes later. At 6:45, I ooze out of bed in time to see my 16-year-old head to class at Abraham Lincoln High as I turn on the local news to see “traffic and weather together.” By 7, Katie and Matt say, “Good morning,” and I’m turning on the shower. At 7:15, I’m finally s, s, and s’ed in time to see my wife, Amy, dressed and chasing the four and the two-year old in a nearly futile attempt to ready them for their day. At the same time, I get the baby into the car seat and hopefully, we’re all out the door by 7:30.
At 7:30, we’re in a stock minivan with a stock radio and stock speakers. Then, and only then, do we turn on a radio. Depending on who drives, we juggle between news/talk, sports/talk, kids, or country. (In our vehicle, the one who drives chooses the station.) Ten to twenty minutes to daycare when we unload the little ones and then it’s another twenty minutes to work. Strangely enough, once I am at work, I rarely have time to listen to the radio (except between the hours of 11am and 2pm Central time but, I digress). However, my wife does and here’s how. She uses it as background noise, as ambience. Everyday people don’t listen radio the way we do. They’re living their lives, doing their jobs, or thinking about whether to hold off making the mortgage payment for a couple of days until their paycheck is deposited, and I’ll wager that the members of my family are pretty much like most families in how they use radio.
I’m a writer and a performer. I’m not a technician. I know a few things about frequencies and limiting and other scientific terms. I also know that music recorded digitally has considerably less noise than music that was recorded on analog tape. But, when I get a call from a client about the sound of their spot, it’s usually to ask, “How come the music seems too loud?” or to say, “the voice sounds a little muffled.” I have yet to hear a client ask if I could do something to “warm up” the voice-over?
In 1981, when I first broke into radio, I had very primitive production facilities. If I needed voice over music, I grabbed an instrumental music LP from the library and hot mixed it right on to the cart. If I made a mistake, there was no editing. I started all over. If I had sound effects, I had to find them ahead of time, dub them in order of appearance onto another cart and hit record. It wasn’t until I moved to a larger market that I got to play with a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. I thought I had hit the big time. CDs had come out by then, but we still had to play them in real time onto the tape. Doug Collins, Michael Kaye, Ron Eichsted and Tim Dillon taught me how to mark and cut tape. I learned well enough to get the prime assignment of producing the soundtrack for the 4th of July Fireworks Show. I started in May. I made the last edit on July 2nd. It was some of the best work of my career, and it is still something of which I am quite proud. But, do I miss how we did it back in the day? What are you? Nuts?
If I had the tools that I use now to do what I did back then, I would have had the fireworks project done over a weekend. I would have been able to rip the music from CD or download it from the net and edit it precisely, beat for beat. I would have been able to copy and paste bits here and there to make transitions from song to song so much smoother. I would have been able to save the session as data to a CD or transfer it to my jump drive and take it home to do whatever tweaking was necessary before I burned the final audio onto a CD. That’s why digital is better than analog. That’s why digital will always be better than analog. It’s damned efficient, and in these days of radio groups with up to eight stations in a cluster, efficiency is what keeps the paychecks coming.
This week an AE came down with a late order. Nothing new here, eh? The instructions she sent down said to use previous sessions to get the information we needed to create the new spot. It’s 3:00pm. The new spot starts at midnight. Now, I could bitch and moan and remind the AE about the deadlines which she already knew. But, in the time it would have taken me to call her, leave a message on her voicemail, and hope she’d call back, I did an X-1 and Visual CD search of the data archive, found the session I needed from September of 2003, edited the old dates and inserted the new ones, I had the new spot mixed down and ready to run. I’m not talking about a simple voice over music. I’m talking a full-fledged-over-the-top concert spot with at least six hooks, effects, and voice-overs. Elapsed time, 16 minutes.
Some would ask, “Where’s the soul in that?” I would reply, “What does soul have to do with it?” I’m producing a radio commercial, not a symphony. If I had had to reproduce that spot in analog, I would not have been home in time to tuck my children into bed…and where’s the soul in that?