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What If Digital Had Come First?

George Petersen • Editor's NoteMarch 2020 • March 11, 2020

Among other things, there is one clear distinction between recording and sound reinforcement engineers — and it’s the analog/digital divide. Although it doesn’t really apply to everyone, there are certain generalizations that crop up on regular occasions. Recordists tend to look at products like microphones as investments, often praising some vintage model they’ve been using for years, and sing a gentle lullaby before tucking it into a velvet-lined box for the night. Live engineers tend to look at mics as expendables — along the same lines as gaff tape, Sharpies and batteries — to be sent out into the rough and tumble world of live performance where they (eventually) will be destroyed and replaced.

It’s not that we as live engineers want to treat gear badly, but there are inherent realities such as forklifts, lift gates and the occasional drunk musician — that eventually spell doom for even the best-built gear. Along those same lines, live sound does not have a fixation for vintage gear. Recordists may covet the sonic thrill of an early Neve or API console, but from live users, the nostalgic appeal of working with a Yamaha PM3000 or an AVID D-Show is pretty much non-existent. Just who wants to go on the road with a bunch of JBL W boxes or a truck full of Altec A-7s? Amps with 75-pound linear power supplies may be worshipped by audiophiles, but as for me, I’d rather be loading Class-D stuff on my next gig.

Given that premise, what if we visited an alternate universe where digital was a 150-year old technology and we were just beginning to see analog for the first time? Here’s a visit to the “Analog World” section at an upcoming tradeshow…

The Analog Console Booth: We enter to the sight of a 160-channel board. With a 1.25-inch-wide fader strip per input, that’s more than 16 feet just for the inputs, so with the master section, this baby is 20 feet wide. The rep goes on and on about its great analog sound, but it leaves me filled with questions about truck space, lost venue seating and how the heck am I gonna reach from EQ’ing the kick drum in input #1 to tweaking an FX return some five yards away? And loading show files for fast festival changeovers, playbacks for virtual sound checks or tweaking monitor mixes from an iPad? Fergedaboudit!

The Signal Processing Booth: Hearing some lush, dense ambiences, I poke my head inside. I love this sound! The rep says it’s a plate reverb and points to a shiny, metallic 9-foot enclosure. Something that size must contain thousands of presets, but no, it only offers one sound, it weighs 450-pounds and doesn’t travel well. Instead, I go check out the rackmount stuff, which at least is more compact. I need some Pultecs, LA-2As and some Fairchilds for my next tour, but these rack versions are huge, also fragile and cost more than my car — and that’s for just one of each. I need these on 28 different inputs!

Analog Recording Booth: My artist loves the sound of 2” analog tape, so I gotta see this up close. Wow, that sound is thick and phat, so I gotta try this on my next tour. But a single transport is the size of a washing machine, weighs 450 pounds and only records 24 tracks. And a 2,400’ reel of tape only lasts 32 minutes at 15 ips and costs $150. I could easily buy a terabyte drive for that kind of cash and record the entire tour!

Analog Snake Booth: Just the sight of a 200 foot, 52-pair copper snake mounted on a huge wooden spool on a trailer and racks of splitters was enough for me to be content with my fiber and Cat-6 audio feeds. Enough of that!

Vinyl Record Booth: Needing a rest from the pro side, I check out this new release format. They’re playing music from a gargantuan 12” disk. It sounds great and something that size must contain the entire history of recording. But no, it only holds 23 minutes per “side” and you have to flip the disk over in the middle to hear the rest of the performance. Of course, the disks are fragile and subject to damage from warping or scratching (the record labels probably love that part) and can only be used in the home — playbacks in cars or listening while jogging is impossible.

Suddenly, a repeating marimba riff wakes me from that nightmare. It was my iPhone, which thankfully saves me from lugging around a separate cell phone, pager, PDA, digital camera, compass, road atlas, GPS, alarm clock, camcorder, pocket calculator, flashlight, memo recorder, MP3 player, guitar tuner, GameBoy, RTA and lots more. Maybe this digital thing isn’t so bad after all…

For George Petersen’s video intro to the March issue of FOH magazine, go to https://fohonline.com/fohtv/video-of-the-week-preview-of-march-2020-foh-magazine/

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