Pass the Salt, Please

Although we in the audio and music industries do our jobs out of our love for music and sound, we still need to earn a living. To do that, we must market
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Although we in the audio and music industries do our jobs out of our love for music and sound, we still need to earn a living. To do that, we must market the products or services we have to offer. The marketing process, however, can often transform a truthful statement into something more sweeping and less accurate.

In a recent article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about the staying power of vinyl records, writer Joel Selvin stated that "Records sound better than CDs....Engineers use words like warmth or bloom to describe what records have over CDs." Selvin cites "the mastering technology [that is] used to transfer analog recordings to digital" as another weakness of CDs.

I think we can all agree that the sounds of analog and digital media have a qualitative difference between them, but you'll hear more than just warmth on vinyl LPs: let's not forget about ticks and pops, surface noise, wow, flutter, and distortion from record or stylus wear. Aside from that, I've seen many more vinyl records than CDs become unplayable because of warping or wear. In fact, I may be lucky, but the only unplayable CD I ever owned only needed to be washed, and then it played fine.

As for Selvin's comment about mastering, vinyl mastering is so arcane that megaproducer Arif Mardin told me in a recent interview (see "Diva's Choice" in the September 1999 issue of EM) that in the 1960s, problems with mastering vinyl caused Atlantic Records to start mixing kick drum and bass in the center, a convention we now take for granted.

Clearly, Selvin's statements regarding vinyl were sweeping because they were intended to grab the reader and sell newspapers. After all, the title of his article was "The Vinyl Victory." I suppose it is a victory of sorts that vinyl has maintained a niche market rather than disappearing altogether.

Another example of an exaggerated marketing claim can be seen in Digidesign's recent "Is Tape Dead?" promotion. We can agree on the company's basic point: that hard-disk recording is viable and affordable for many more applications than ever before. I've used hard-disk recording literally every day for years (mostly Pro Tools, more recently MOTU 2408), making albums and soundtracks for film, TV, and games.

But the folks at Digidesign are too smart to believe that hard-disk recording is superior to tape in every application. Tapes are still much cheaper than disks, and tape machines crash less frequently (and cause less damage when they do crash) than a computer-based system-not to mention that it's much cheaper and easier to add tracks with modular digital multitrack tape recorders.

If I were to multitrack-record every night of a band's three-month tour, for example, I wouldn't use a hard-disk system unless I had a fat budget. On the road, I'd have an easier time recovering from a broken ADAT than a failed hard-disk system.

But admitting that about tape doesn't sell Pro Tools systems, which is, after all, Digidesign's business.

Even EM is sometimes vulnerable to the need to assert broad "learn everything about this hot topic from our article" statements in order to sell magazines (although we do try to avoid doing so). We know that you can't learn everything about a topic from just one magazine article, but sometimes things get pretty darn competitive on the newsstands, and we succumb.

The point is, the same caveat emptor that you hear in other industries also applies to our own: take all statements with a grain of salt, and closely examine them from all sources. Except me, of course. I'm always right, and I never lie.

Larry the O is a sound designer at LucasArts Entertainment. He has been doing "method" sound design for the upcoming anime feature film Vampire Hunter D, which is to say that he's keeping vampire hours. (This was written at 3:30 a.m.)