a new one nears the finish line

Today I've been listening to the reference discs that the masterer, John Golden, sent me of my forthcoming cover album of Street-Legal. It's been an exciting day! It's true that the near-completion, shiny-mastered-mix, too-late-to-do-much, bask-in-the-memories phase of any project brings on a glow, and true that it fades quickly. Nevertheless.

The soft lacquer on a vinyl master bears playing only a few times, so you pick a couple promising environments and listen as hard as you can. I asked Gerald Dowd and Robbie Gjersoe, who both play on the record, to use their turntables, and, as for mine, I went to the audio shop for a new needle and a tone-arm recalibration. I noted the locations of a handful of soft pops and other surface noises, so I can see if they appear on the second listening at Gerald's or Robbie's place. I was happy to hear no s-distortion or other indications of groove-cramming or careless craftsmanship (and with side lengths of 14:27, 13:58, 13:09, and 10:22, there'd be no excuse for that stuff).

I was disappointed with the vinyl representation of my last two albums, which were the first and so far the only two albums in my career to appear in that format. In fact, one of my main motivations in doing this current record -- a semi-experimental reversioning of a 1978 Bob Dylan record that echoes approximately arrangements and approaches I used at my Monday-night residency a couple years back -- was to have one release I could point to in my life that had no audiophilic compromises. I don't view my catalog as a big hot mess of compromise (and if it were, I'd be loath to admit it after blowing a small fortune through the years on boxes of Quantegy tape, fancy-pants studios, and hoity-toity masterers), but, along with a number of tracks across several releases that were recorded on weird formats (one track on Very Best is from a cassette, and I defy you to tell me which one!), most of the catalog was released on CDs and MP3s, and the fraction that's on vinyl is suboptimal. I had a strong desire to create something that, as a listening experience of depth and seductiveness, would ring the bells. This translated to three on-the-ground guidelines. I'd remix or retrack as much as I felt necessary, to the point of practical unimprovability or mental exhaustion. There would be some analog component pre-mastering. And the finished thing would be available only as an LP, denying many potential listeners their preferred medium but assuring me that my efforts and expenditures wouldn't end at earbuds and laptops.

One and three are self-explanatory, so let me give some of my opinions about analog (such a nauseatingly sacred term anymore) in record-making. They're opinions I've arrived at slowly over my time in the game about how and whether to use tape, cost vs benefit, that kind of thing. Since I'm no specialist or audio engineer, rather the kind of person to whom audio engineers dispense information in the tone registered nurses use with late-stage Alzheimers patients, I'll gladly concede at the outset that my opinions aren't privileged, scientifically subtle, or highly fine-tuned. If you have different opinions -- based, I hardly need add, on knowledge, experience, and reasoning -- I'd be delighted to hear them, since I'm almost always delighted to have my opinions challenged and refined.

I started making little recordings of myself, at home and in the occasional "studio," in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1986, when I came into Steve Albini's orbit, that these issues first entered my purview. I put the word "studio" in quotes because, then as now, some of the places I went to record were in people's houses, and some of the people were more hobbyists than men of the guild. Steve's tracking area was in his basement and his desk was two floors above, so there was an aerobic benefit to recording there; and if you liked unemployable freaks and exotic pornography, you could often feast your eyes on the one consuming the other while passing the first floor. In 1986 computers were coming into use at recording sessions (though I didn't know about it), and sound signals had been encoded in storage devices as numbers since World War II. To guys like me, making modest-budget music in urban hipster studios, digital was still pretty far to the edges of the picture, but lurking ominously there, like the oboe theme in Peter and the Wolf

Steve was, and remains, the fiercest and most eloquent partisan of analog recording in my acquaintance. Working with a small array of other badass audio engineers over the next dozen or so years, I learned that they firmly and monolithically opposed the aesthetics of digital. (With Steve it only began at the aesthetics.) The resolution was poor, and though bound to improve, would never reach infinitude. The absence of noise was a little unearthly. The gear was ugly and the recording platforms quickly obsolesced -- and when they did, what would become of the music stored in those DATs and discs-of-the-day? That music hit the ear in a way that was hard-to-define but harsh, and, at best, you might react as I did after seeing Unsane last week: intriguing, but it doesn't exactly top Vertigo. The pool of people transmitting these biases to me was, to be sure, small and unrepresentative; the guys that were orgasming into their lab coats experimenting with onsite classical recording, I did not intersect with. And so it was that I came to accept the doctrine of analog superiority, for much the same reason that I accept that the earth's temperature is warming, or that c is the maximum speed of matter -- it was the consensus of learned experts.

Lending credence to the learned experts was the fact that they could blindly and unerringly discern from which medium a given recording had originated. A happy memory of mine is playing a track from my Johnny Paycheck tribute for the first time for Steve Fishell of Sugar Hill. The playback was on CD; the recording, though it had begun its life on a RADAR (random access digital audio recorder) machine, had gone to tape for mix. The song I played Steve was an exciting dramatization of drunkenness and debauchery by Neko Case, but none of that seemed to register. "Tape," he sighed, entering a gentle ecstasy; "there's just nothing like tape." Boy, that's the A&R man you want!

I, however, couldn't always tell when costly tape (it's currently $320 for a reel of multitrack) was or wasn't used, on my records or others'. And I wasn't at all certain that the number of my listeners who could tell -- most definitely including the snobbiest and loudest audiophiles among them -- couldn't easily round to zero. Listening very critically, I guess I could tell 70-75% of the time; but is "very critically" necessarily the way you envision or prefer anyone be listening? Those $320 boxes, along with those other boxes of 1/2-inch, sum up to about $1500 in a typical recording budget of mine -- in the neighborhood of 10% of the whole budget. That added cost, not always prohibitive but certainly large, is one point against tape, and another is the sound and implicit standards of the marketplace these last couple decades -- that is, listeners' ears are increasingly adjusted to digital sounds, and evidently contentedly. 

It's really interesting, thinking about it now, how little has changed since 1986. Digital software is still reconfiguring and updating constantly, vinyl is still here and unevolving and pretty popular, the best engineers (as far as I know) still adore analog, and most of the best studios are still keeping their Stuters around and in shape. In audio recording nothing has come along that quite compares to wide magnetic tape and polyvinyl acetate for rocking the house and soothing the ear. As you read this, United in Nashville is pounding out platters as they did in the 1950s, on giant earthshaking pressing machines made in New Jersey in the 1920s. If a Bell Labs nerd from 1945 landed magically in Blackbird or Third Man or Electrical today he could get right to work and no questions asked. Analog sits serenely atop its perch, unimpressed by Moore's law.

Not that computers are going anywhere. The first time I came into contact with them in a recording session, I quickly came to hate them with all my heart. It was an extreme position, based on working with an engineer who monitored his work visually not aurally, which the flaming screen tends to demand. I thought this doltish -- certainly the musical outcome of this John von Neumann-ish way of recording a band, with amplifier heads taken from their cabinets and placed 30 feet down the hall, was limpdick -- and considered the assumptions underlying his methods a grave danger to all artistry. My records following that session (Let's Kill Saturday Night13 Hillbilly Giants and Couples In Trouble) were, by purposeful design, all-tape-and-no-bits affairs. (No buyers bit, either, ha, ha!) But as time went by, I found myself working alongside non-music engineers more, in commercial studios, and here my own assumptions were pushed into the limelight. These fellows were doing wondrous things with a mouse and keyboard that could be done with razor blade and tape only very time-consumingly if at all. The fact that ProTools didn't sound good had kept me from appreciating its radical resources. In the new era you could multitrack infinitely, store and recall mixes at your pleasure, edit more wantonly and complexly and seamlessly than ever before, experiment by move and reverse-move, change pitch and time and location of individual events and waveforms, and so on. The previously laborious or impossible was suddenly cheap and easy and, if you didn't let yourself get beguiled by possibility and choice, fast. All of this was of course a big "duh" to anyone who'd been keeping up, but eye-opening to one who had resisted computerization and so was several years late to the game.

My position, then, arrived at 15 years ago and held since, is that analog is for sound and digital is for tools, and that -- although I've done decently using just one or the other over the years -- the ideal in contemporary recording is to wed tape and software. I love to comp and, when necessary, to tinker with what I consider the DNA of the music (pitch and time) via digital. The mixing platform is whatever the engineer likes, and, while I love Albini's no-automation all-hands mix sessions for the principled care they encourage and for taking the stress off the eyes, I'm entirely at ease with in-the-box mixing at this point. So where does analog enter the process? My opinion, which may outrage the cognoscenti, is that it doesn't much matter, so long as it enters somewhere. It's the exact opposite of the axiom that one drop of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar: going to tape anywhere in the chain will have an improving effect. For Gone Away Backward and Upland Stories we recorded and edited on a computer then dumped onto multitrack tape for mixing. For the Street-Legal cover record we did everything onscreen but submitted files to the masterer that had been printed on tape. I've not done it, but friends who have tell me that recording onto tape then digitizing to mix works nicely, and I believe it. A confused metaphor: digital is glass, analog is butter. One offers transparent functionality, the other a singularly beautiful taste that, while you can cook good meals without it, there's no exact substitute for and perhaps never will be.

As for vinyl, I've always felt that it's the best-sounding format, and that to get very worked-up over it is silly. CDs sound just fine. Anybody that can't bear CD sound quality is a big baby or a crazy person. However, CDs are either fast-disappearing or gone (I have so much trouble keeping up; the line between "disappearing" and "gone" is very thick for an old person), and so we're left with sound files and vinyl -- an efficient medium and a quality medium. These last two vinyl adventures of mine have been educational. The realm in which acetates are made, molded, and pressed is ablaze with quirks and interest. Much of the interestingness is economically based. Most of the people making LPs are small-order boutique sellers like me, but it's the same plants handling our orders and those of the big-money players alike, so that our deadlines are apt to be distant and indeterminate. The market for vinyl as a whole isn't big enough that the record-issuer has very many competitors to choose from. Until it grows significantly there will surely be, as indicated above, a lot of aging machines in play.

Cultural factors add some small coloration to the manufacture of LPs. The people that turn the digital files into lacquer masters are epicurean, white-robed, science-besotted savants. They answer to a master -- excuse me, a masterer -- who, like Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, is pleased to personify royal standards in a setting ever-sliding into brainless lassitude. The people at the pressing plants, to stick doggedly with the analogy, are like Bligh's merry crew of shirtless savages. If you take issue with some feature of the lacquer reference, you may receive from the mastering lab a patient explanation, spiked with hard-to-avoid jargon, of why it is you're not really hearing what you think you hear; the equivalent conversation with the pressing-plant denizens will get you a meaty middle-finger salute. Okay then, I exaggerate; but my advice is to choose a vinyl masterer with great care and to bone up on the subject before getting into the ring with him. Choose the pressing plant with like care (though there's not much choice), and forget about having much say after that. From the hour the plant receives the acetate, your chief remaining resource is prayer.

One of the surprising bits of knowledge I got on my first foray into vinyl manufacture was side length. 15 minutes is nice, 20 is starting to ask for trouble, and 24 is the outer edge of the possible. The narrower the grooves need to be, the worse the record sounds. When I learned this, my mind went straight away to Abbey Road, each of whose sides is well over 20 minutes. "Those old records don't sound as good as you think they do," one masterer friend told me. "These masterers are full of crap," was the judgment of another friend, who works as an artist but dabbles heavily in sound engineering; "they don't have the knowledge of the previous generation, and they hide the gap with theoretical assertions such as 'sides can't exceed 20 minutes'." I can't be sure how much credence to give either of these, and they might both be true. Listening to lower-weight records from the 1970s I can see the masterer's point -- while there's a lot of conditioning that makes it hard to dislodge the idea that it's great-sounding music, an unbiased and fresh listen might say otherwise. But in support of the other point, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it: "Her Majesty" sounds just fine.

I cite that one specifically because it's a quiet song at the close of an over-twenty-minute side. Sound quality is harder to maintain as the circumference of the disc tightens ("quality" as determined by things like lack of distortion and maximum low and high frequencies). The masterers suggest that you avoid closing a side with a quiet song. They also suggest you not end a side with a very loud song. How do you like that? It would make a nice experiment to empty your shelves so that only the records you thought sounded best remained, then to separate out all the records that had soft ballads or clangorous epics as side-closers (come to think of it, Abbey Road's second side essentially had both, with "Her Majesty" as brief as it was), as well as all the records with sides longer than, say, 17 minutes. Would you have any records left?

Such a rabbit-hole. After finishing the last mix on my present record, I thought that I might avoid this particular heartache of side-lengths and loud-and-soft. The cost of making a two-record package was tough for me to consider, since it practically ensured that I'd lose money on the release. But...I'll add up the times and see, I thought. If the total time is longer than 48 minutes, or 24 minutes per side, I'll think about editing 4 minutes off -- or losing the money and making the extra LP. If it's 48 minutes, or a little under, I'll gird myself for some back-and-forth with the mastering man, and get out my little prayer-book. As it happened, the running time was 54 minutes, and I didn't have the heart to chop off 4 minutes of music -- that's so much! I committed to the extra LP and the expenditure. My kingdom for 4 minutes.

Well, today's sweet pill took some edge off that bitter one. My record has a lot of quiet on it. I love quiet as an element in music more and more, by which I mean not only soft playing and low signal but no signal: silence. Side one opens with a contemplative improvisation between me and Robbie Gjersoe. Side two starts with a long song on which my Collings is the only non-vocal instrument, and along with that austerity, there are brief silences here and there in it, where I stop the strings and things just hover. The grooves are wide, the circumference too, and I can't tell you how happy it made me to hear the absence of sound in my headphones, midsong at a pretty loud volume. The last song, on side 4, is decidedly clangorous. I detect no volume loss or quality reduction. We'll see what the other turntables say.