Performance Audio - 40 Years in the Pro Audio Business!
1977 - Ah, what a time to be alive (I'm told). Led Zeppelin was on a record-setting tour after a 2 year sabbatical, Pink Floyd performed the first ever Quadraphonic concert, the first Apple II computers went on sale, and an un-assuming pro audio rental business called Performance Audio was born-you're welcome, world.
40 years seems to be an awkward length of time. It doesn't sound old, yet is definitely not new, but in the tech world, 40 years is eons. In a few short years from 1977 technology would advance from iron oxide scraping across a magnetic tape head, to data being recalled from spinning magnets containing ones, zeroes, and wizardry. We're lucky enough to be living in the age where the old meets the new in a tasteful marriage of sensibility. The pendulum rarely sits in such a happy medium.
I wonder if Steve Wozniak had any idea that his machines were setting the stage for one of the most revolutionary developments in the recording industry all the way back then. I'm sure he definitely didn't foresee scores of audio engineers desperately seeking out remnants of the past to implement with technology's cutting edge, yet here we are. Manufacturers are scrambling to resurrect their products from the past. Clones and copies of classic equipment pop up like daisies shouting declarations of whose is closest to the original as innovation takes a temporary backseat to reclamation. Do I mind? Not yet. Do I crave a new twist? Most definitely. Sorry, purists, but I get bored. Why not marry the best of both eras?
There is no doubt that vintage equipment has a certain sound to it. I, like many, am a sucker for most things tape - I love the sound of tape compression. If you're not familiar with how this is achieved, the tape is deliberately overdriven to 'distort' the sound. We typically think of distortion as harsh and gritty, particularly when we overdrive a digital signal path, but in the analog realm, a little bit of distortion sounds pleasing to our ears. You'll often hear the sound described as 'warm' or 'punchy.' There are plenty of tape saturation plugins available for your DAW that admirably mimic the real deal. This option is attractive to me because not all tape machines are created equal. The unwholesome side affect of our rekindled love affair with analog is that people are looking for any old rickety tape machine they can find with little regard for quality. People have this delusion that analog is synonymous with quality, and it just isn't true. If you're a Pro Tools HD user, I'd strongly recommend looking into their HEAT add-on. It essentially makes your mix session act like analog in that you can 'push' it to that gloriously delicious saturation phase without worrying about maintaining a 40-year-old machine.
Maintaining a reel-to-reel machine can be almost a full time job all on its own. Are you savvy enough to repair your machine when it inevitably fails? Can you find parts? Can you afford tape? Reels of tape wear out, and prices have soared. Are you prepared to spend upwards of $90 for a half-inch reel? What about meter calibrating? Do you know how to bias a tape machine? The procedure is relatively easy, but are you prepared for the time commitment? Do you have a tone reel? No? These are some of the reasons why most studios chose to either replace their tape machines or at least supplement them with a DAW like Pro Tools.
The fact is that both mediums have their limitations. Analog can be noisy, and as we've already discussed, typically requires far more maintenance. Digital, while flexible, tends to have a more 'sterile' sound, and is frustratingly unforgiving when overdriven. Why not use both? Why not blend the old with the new? Well, we're beginning to see that happen with new audio networking tech like DANTE. The future possible innovations are exciting, and with winter NAMM just a week and a half away, somebody out there might just blow us away with something fresh.
1977 was an awesome year for music and technology. As of 2017, the future of recording tech is looking just as bright.