Analog versus digital recordings
I don't know if you ever wondered or observed that the sound quality of the 70s & 80's has a depth, an authenticity, some say a human feel, to the music which seem to be lacking today. Well, I have and it has been bugging me for some time. I always thought it was my own bias for the rich lyrical, instrumentation and superior skills of the musicians of that era until I did some investigation myself and made some inquires from those who own music studios in Dominica.
Many studio owners have long moved from analog to digital citing modernization, the 21st Century upgrade and the ease of doing recording and mixing ensuring a cleaner more precise product. But isn't it this very easy and clean sound that cause the music to sound less authentic and void of the heartbeat thud of the bass that some are accustomed to?
Recently, I was listening to Bob Marley's music and the 'Coco sec' album of the Midnite Grovers followed by recent recording from Jamaica and of that Cadence group when it really dawned on me; hence this article. Without tweaking the balance of the music set I was listening to I immediately observed that the bass, often called the heartbeat of the music, was so much more pronounced and had greatest depth from recordings done as far as the Seventies. The drum rolls and off beats presented a natural response to the vocals of Bob or Chubby which one cannot get from the drum machine. I also observed that nothing comes close to real horns.
The short-cut or accommodation of drum machines, saxophone or bass riffs on the keyboards, it would seem, is what takes away from the authenticity. Plus there is auto tune and all sorts of vocal enhancers in these modern studios that mediocre musicians and singers cannot replicate live on stage.
In Dominica, for instance, we have about 15 recording studios; most, if not all, are digital. At least two owners who have upgraded confessed to me it was all in the name of modernization and they are still wondering whether the sound they get now is superior to what they once obtained with their analogue studios. It would therefore seem that most modern studios have sacrificed some quality for efficiency.
For instance, in the Seventies most musicians in the region recorded with the entire band and so if one mistake was made everything had to be done over. However, with the software today and the use of multi- tracks, each instrument can be recorded separately.
In fact one does not even have to be in the same location to record because files can be imported and exported via the computer. Musicians you have never seen or met can accompany a singer and vice versa. The musicians of the 70s and 80s had to be experts in their craft as precision in the studio was paramount because time meant money since studios charged hourly rates. Now most charge per track/ song where one has the luxury of doing 10 and even up to 100 takes as perfectionist Michael Jackson was known for doing, until he was satisfied it was done right.
It is true to say with the plethora of studios all around the island very few producer are competent musicians but are better technicians and can manipulate off key notes and beats/rhythms to meet expectations of the youth. It is also true to say that producers who boast of recording studios can be described as creating demo records in demo recording studios since most can't really produce the sound that will be accepted on a regional market, with the exception of two or three.
Still, I wonder whether for old-school guys like me it might just be something nostalgic about the Motown sound, the bass and drums of Chubby and Henry, the rhythm guitar of Julie Mourillon and keys of Fitzroy Williams, the blend of the Wailers or the mastery of Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson's vocals. If it is then why on a four-track studio Burning Flames was able to bring out their greatest hits and are unable to replicate the same on 24 and 36 digital studios today? Why it is Calypsos by King Hurricane, Brotherly Brothers (on portable mini-studios), the early recording of WCK or the Birdie had so much depth and vibes compared to what obtains today?
Could it be that our ears are tuned in differently? Or recording now is just about the commercial element, hence based on the market expectations, not much time is spent on the balance of lyrics or capturing true musicianship and harmonization on vinyl, CD or jump drive. If not, then, there may just be something about these less complicated, non-digital gadgets which is responsible for the warm, human sound that so many cherished yesteryear.
Steve Guttenberg, a high-end studio salesman in the US probably best states the argument:
"I'm an analog guy, but I'd admit that analog's distortions, speed variations, and noise/hiss makes it less by-the-numbers accurate, but digital sound can be cold, hard, and uninviting. So on one hand you might say analog's distortions are part of its appeal, but if that was all there was to it, why so many analog lovers like higher-resolution."