They had come from all over the city.
They’d come through the traffic and the rain, wearing Dolby Surround Sound T-shirts and windbreakers with “Electrical Workers Local 180” on the back. Some had gotten there early and waited outside, clustered against a cold San Francisco night. Some had come late. But they were all here now, 70 strong, all ages and sizes, pilgrims packed into Coast Recorders, talking shop, guzzling soda, and jonesing for a throwdown. They were a motley horde: a gang of sound engineers, music producers, union members, and audio junkies from all over — diehards every one. Like a cockfight. Or a cage match. They maneuvered for position and the studio anteroom swelled with their anticipation.
You see, mano a mano duels like this didn’t happen often. Coast Recorders and the Audio Engineering Society had promised the recreation of a battle played out daily on the technological and economic frontlines of the audio industry. Tonight, Old School would meet New School. Rocky would slug it out with Drago. That’s right. Tonight, analog would square off against digital.
Ring the bell. It was time to get it on.
In the back of the building, in the Bill Putnam-designed recording studio that had hosted Joe Satriani among others, the engineers at Coast scrambled to hook up the mics that would simultaneously feed the live sound of a rhythm section into both a Neve console and a Power Mac G5 running Pro Tools. With the instruments miked in parallel setups, the audience would be able to toggle between analog and digital in the control room and the mastering room. It would be “a tasting” of both styles, they said, trying to de-escalate the conflict.
“We want to give people a chance to see the two approaches side by side,” said the estimable Paul Stubblebine. “This isn’t a showdown. We’re not trying to prove a point or create a winner or a loser.”
Standing on a chair beneath a Ray Charles statuette and a toy replica of Nipper, the RCA dog, Stubblebine looked, for a moment, like a general trying to rally his troops. Despite his disclaimer, he did have something to prove.
“We have a whole generation of young engineers who’ve grown up with the computer and assume, without thinking it through, that it’s always better to do it on a computer,” he proclaimed atop his perch. “But everything is much faster the old way.” The incessant tweaking allowed for in Pro Tools lengthened production time, Stubblebine said. “From a studio standpoint, digital is a way to fill more studio hours,” he said.
So it seemed. It had now been two hours since the first gearheads piled into the studio. They were restless. One of them fiddled with a pair of headphones he’d stashed in his backpack. Another jawjacked about MP3s: “You’d have to pay me to listen to them!” In a dark corner, a twitchy fellow munched on a hoagie and muttered into his chest. There might not be a winner or loser tonight, but there’d sure be some action.
Finally, they were ready to rumble. Stubblebine descended from his chair, and the first wave of listeners lined up, stamping their feet and preparing to storm the bowels of the building. The recording studio loomed at the far end of the hallway, a room full of light wood and sharp angles. The engineers had turned it into a bristling forest of microphones. Everything from vintage American condensers to the latest Swedish dual membranes had been strategically angled over the instruments (drums, bass, piano, guitar). A group of local musicians would do the honors.
The old-school mics would feed into a 60-channel Neve V3 console with onboard preamps in the control room where Ben Yonas, a producer and Coast co-owner, would officiate. All the compression and EQ would be done in the Neve, which was hooked up to a giant 600-lb EMT 140 reverb plate at the front of the studio, and an old Studer 827 24-track tape machine in the control room. The sound coming through the Genelec monitors would be from the Studer’s repro heads.
On the new-school side, the mics would run into Millenia HV-3 preamps, then Genex A-to-D converters at a 24-bit, 96 kHz sample rate before going to Pro Tools HD in the control room. To produce a range of effects similar to the old-school setup, Yonas would use only a few basic Pro Tools plug-ins.
Introductions over, the first group of a dozen people crammed into the control room. The Neve twinkled with light. The Studer’s needles bounced as the reels spun and the two-inch tape wound through the heads. All chunky buttons, knobs, and brushed metal, the old-school equipment looked powerful and venerable, avuncular even. It dwarfed the room’s computer, which felt like a cheap toy in comparison. But the computer was no flyweight. It was doing the same work in a twentieth of the space. Inside, it was probably digitally laughing. If it could be programmed to talk trash it would say this: “Hey, fool! I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch and was in bed before the room was dark…. Hey sucka! Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round…. Hey, you know what, sucka?! You know how the world works? It works like this: Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” And then, just maybe, in a heavy Russian accent after a suitable dramatic pause: “I must break you.”
In the recording studio, the band launched into “Between the Sheets,” the 1983 Isley Brothers hit. Yonas cranked up the volume. The bass came through, rich and plangent. The song had been sampled so often everyone had heard it, but no one could place it.
“Are we hearing the old-school sound or the new-school sound?” Yonas asked his audience.
Silence from the gallery. The bass flooded the room. It felt warm. Warm meant analog. But maybe it was more tepid than warm. Tepid and crystalline and digital? Or warm and earthy and analog?
“No one wants to guess?” Yonas said after several seconds.
No one did. Either this pack of experts had turned meek or none of them could tell what they were listening to.
“Digital,” Yonas said, disappointed.
The audience exhaled. Yonas pointed out the sibilance from the new school overhead mics, then switched to analog and cocked his head to listen to the RCA 44 kick in. The iconic rectangular ribbon microphone, evocative of big band and WWII-era broadcasters speaking fast through cigarette smoke, prompted a lot of sighs from the audiophiles. Between sets in the studio, they approached it carefully. They ogled its grille. They marveled at its class.
“Formidable,” someone called it.
Nat Koren eyed the 44 as he moved slowly through the studio. He looked it up and down. Studiously. He cast an eye over the other gear, bending down over the snare drum and sniffing the Shure SM57. Koren glanced at the Altec 21D on the piano. Then he paused. “As far as a shootout is concerned,” he said, “it’s apples and oranges.”
There were too many different microphones running at the same time, said Koren, who works for Hungry Ear Sound and does theater sound design for the San Francisco Opera. Choosing a winner between analog and digital tonight would be like scoring a bout between fighters in different weight classes with different styles fighting for different titles. Impossible.
Although almost all the mixing and processing in Koren’s line of work had gone digital, he had a confession to make. He leaned close. “I’m still a fan of analog,” he said. “It’s more pleasing to listen to over the long term.”
THE LOWDOWN ON THE SHOWDOWN
They emerged from the studio and careened around the front room. Some looked spent, others energized. They clustered in groups of three and four and relived the evening’s action. Dave Peck stood against the back wall wearing a satisfied grin.
“This wasn’t definitive, but it was fun,” said Peck, an engineer at Euphonix. “Plenty of scientific comparisons [of analog and digital] have been done, but this wasn’t one of them. It was more to illustrate the differences if you recorded the same band 25 years apart.”
Like Koren, Peck, who prefers working with analog, said the number and diversity of microphones, along with the crowds in the listening rooms, made a winner impossible to determine. Apples and oranges?
“More like apples and pork chops,” Peck said.
But see, there was a winner because his broadside was, fundamentally, bad news for the old school: In a broader sense, a no- contest decision is tantamount to defeat for analog. For the sound that Stubblebine calls “more expressive and more dimensional” to stay relevant, it has to overpower the more affordable competition. That hasn’t happened. Instead, the inexpensive computer — compact, available to the masses and utterly lacking in respect for its elders (“Hey, fool! The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life!”) — has forced both the analog pros and the studio system to knuckle under.
“It’s a philosophical dilemma,” said Jim McTigue, the vice chair of AES and the head of electrical engineering at Euphonix. “Everything goes in circles.”
McTigue shook his head and brushed back a strand of his long white hair. “Where are the real bits? The golden ears?” he wondered. He was lost in thought now, adrift in nostalgia. “I started working when sound was king. Now technology is king.”
Everything goes in circles.
Back in the control room, McTigue hovered over the old Studer. He’d tinkered with these machines for more than two decades and could estimate this one’s age by looking at the serial number. Mid-80s. McTigue crouched down. Gently, he put his hand on the Studer’s side. He checked its levels. His hand lingered. McTigue grew up in Queens and studied karate. He knows a thing or two about fighting. His uncle was the light heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Tonight, though, in the struggle between old and new, between heart and head, McTigue was just a man in the corner of a desperate underdog. If he’d had a towel, he might have thrown it in. But the band was playing again, and the funk music swelled, and it was time to go to work.
No one even heard the final bell.