In which a die-hard analogue man with a serious open reel tape habit discovers a digital elephant in his listening room… and is forced to dismount from his high horse and listen!
If you’ve been following my ad-hoc musings here or on social media, or if our paths have crossed out there in the real world, then you’ll doubtless know that I’m a feverish fan of open reel tape and all who sail in her. Frankly, the fervour of a mid-life born again Christian couldn’t hold a candle to my tape devotion, and the rate at which I’m amassing a (very wonderful) collection of both tapes and machines on which to play them is equalled only by the steady of erosion of my bank balance!
As a result, in recent years I’ve had the good fortune to discover an increasing number of companies (bona fide, legal) who are catering for, and contributing to, the growing revival of open reel tape. At last count there were more than 20 and their modus operandum broadly falls into two camps – more on which below. But what I hadn’t counted on was the introduction of digital processes into a world that I had taken to be – much like me – resolutely analogue.
You know those screaming headlines you see on the front pages of the gutter press… that’s what my head was doing: “DIGITAL???!!! ON TAPE???!!!” We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Two camps: the ‘re-releasers’ and the ‘labels’
Of the 20 or so companies currently issuing music on open reel tape, most fall into one of two camps (and a couple can be found in both).
Those in the first camp (let’s call them the ‘re-releasers’) focus on buying the rights to old analogue recordings and re-releasing them as master copies. Examples include Horch House, The Tape Project and Analogue Productions by Acoustic Sounds.
Those in the second camp (let’s call them the ‘labels’) are essentially small, specialist music labels making their own original recordings of contemporary artists across a range of genres and issuing them as one-to-one copies of the master tapes, often alongside other formats (vinyl, digital). Notable examples include Open Reel Records, Opus 3 and STS Digital (yes, it’s a curious choice of name).
Personally, I’m a fan of all of the above and have multiple wares from both camps in my collection. To the ‘re-releasers’, I’m indebted for allowing me to hear some of my all-time favourite albums at a level of quality I never dreamed possible and which have reduced me to tears of joy on many an occasion. But of course the rights to many of the real greats don’t come cheap and so I doubt we’ll be seeing authorized copies of the likes of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ any day soon!
However, it’s the ‘labels’ who’ve really surprised me and earned an unexpected place in my heart. Yes, the artists they’re recording are generally lesser-known, but are they lesser? No! Okay, so there might be the occasional ‘acquired taste’ but by and large, we’re talking about artists across a wide range of genres who really deserve to be heard. It’s always great to discover new music and to be the one to share it with your friends. Let me tell you, it’s even better when the quality of the recording is beyond sublime! Almost without exception, behind the ‘labels’ are people who really know what they’re doing and who do it superbly. Recording engineers and music producers par excellence.
But then I discovered that some of them were doing something I hadn’t bargained for. Having set out my stall in what I thought was the most analogue field out there, I was very surprised indeed to find evidence of digital goings-on. Obviously I had to investigate….
Analogy Records: from digital recordings to analogue tapes
Imagine my excitement when, a little while ago, I discovered Italian Analogy Records, a label which, rather than selling master tape copies, offers us music lovers an actual master – as high ‘upstream’ as you can go: the first stereo mix-down from the multi-track recording. Wow, I thought, as I pictured a 24-track recorder laden with 2” tape, running into the mixing desk, my personal record producer at the controls as they run off my very own original master tape. But then my rational mind returned to the helm and I realized that’s probably not quite how it is! Intrigued, I made contact with Analogy Records’ main man, engineer and producer Roberto Vigo. Vigo enthusiastically explained that, as with pretty much every major record company out there, Analogy Records records digitally.
Talk about an elephant in the room! To say that I didn’t initially share his enthusiasm would be an understatement. Surely the whole point of a return to open reel tape is to recapture everything that was and is great about analogue. Why would anyone committed to open reel tape as a format want to record digitally? And, more important, once I got around to listening to an Analogy sampler, how come I found it sounded so damn fabulous?
Look, it’s all very well getting on one’s high horse about analogue. Like the cadaver of ‘El Cid’, I’m on that horse. I love analogue, no question about it and I will defend and support it to my last breath. But – and – that doesn’t stop me listening to and enjoying digitally recorded music, which even I have to admit is getting better and better all the time. So okay, prejudices parked to one side for a moment, what are Analogy Records all about and what can they tell me that might persuade this analogue addict to open his mind and wallet to a new hybrid format?
In which I dismount from my high horse and climb aboard the elephant…
Based in Genova, Italy, Analogy Records’ owner Roberto Vigo is a recording engineer and music producer. He also runs Studio Zerodicci but these days Analogy is his main business – and it shows; you can see the investment that’s being made there. Analogy has a very interesting artist portfolio indeed. No B-list classical and jazz here. Instead, a genuinely interesting selection of contemporary world / folk / jazz which, digitally recorded or not, tempted me enough to dive in.
My first acquisition was the excellent Analogy Records sampler album. Right away this revealed that Analogy’s sound is superb and the music really is very interesting. These are artists who deserve a place in my music collection, regardless of recording format.
My first firm favorite was the Elias Nardi Group, an ethnic jazz / folk concoction featuring the oud, flute, viola d’amore a chiavi, bandoneon and a fretless six-string bass. No doubt about it, I had to buy the full album. The music has a very Middle-Eastern flavour which I love.
Next on the ‘wish list’ are two Italian folk groups: Ligurani, featuring accordion, pipes, whistles, bass, and playing great up-tempo folk dance music, and Red Wine, featuring banjo, lute and guitars with a finger-picking style and a wonderful energetic, uplifting vibe.
“But it’s digital!” the voices in my head clamour. Yes, the master tape that I’m playing is produced from a digital recording, that’s true. However the more important question is, does it sound amazing? The answer is yes, without any shadow of a doubt!
The next question that comes to mind is, does it sound the same as analogue? And this is where things begin to get interesting. My answer is no, I really don’t think it does. But my answer comes with qualifiers, since the only way to be 100% sure of this would be to compare an analogue recording made in tandem with the digital one. But then there’s no way that the analogue recording would survive the production process without changing dramatically… because therein lies one of the key reasons that recording engineers and record producers turned from analogue to digital recording.
While analogue recordings of small-scale, simple set-ups are relatively easy, once you get into complex productions – the sort of thing Quincy Jones was doing with Michael Jackson, or George Martin with the Beatles – then it gets very, very complex. And extremely expensive. In the digital domain changes can be made much more easily and it’s an awful lot less costly. Again, does it sound the same? No, not to my ears anyway. But who’s to say that it should? Yes, I personally love the analogue sound but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s de facto superior. The more important question is, do these high quality digital recordings sound good? Hell, yes. Do they sound very good? Absolutely. Do they sound superb? You bet!
‘DAA’ – a new hybrid
“To me it’s not really about analogue versus digital as such,” Analogy’s Roberto Vigo explains. “Like with any artistic medium, you choose your format and process carefully according to your intentions for the content. So I didn’t overtly set out to create this new hybrid of digital and analogue processes and formats. I had a vision of the sound I wanted to create and then I explored the best way of achieving it.”
Whether intentionally or not, in do doing Vigo does seem to have created a new hybrid (I certainly hadn’t come across it before), which he simply refers to as “DAA” – digital recording / analogue mixing / analogue mastering.
He unpacks this a bit more for my benefit. “In the early days of CDs, it was all ‘AAD’. Recording and mixing were still analogue-led, with digital processes only entering the frame at the mastering stage. Then as the digital world moved forward, it became almost entirely ‘DDD’ – digital all the way.”
So why ‘DAA’ now? “Again, it goes back to having a desire to create something and then working out how best to do it. As an engineer and producer, you’re always thinking ahead at the recording stage: what do I want to be able to do next? That ‘next’ informs how you record. I have very clear ideas of what I want to achieve in the mixing stage and the fact of the matter is, that’s only possible if I record the multi-track digitally. But once we start mixing, for me the best way forward is analogue. My preference there is to use a tube (valve) line mixer. Converting the digital multi-track recordings to analogue one by one before mixing them really adds something to the sound. The individual instruments seem to interact more naturally. They’re more separated than they are in an all-analogue chain (‘AAA’) and also more coherent than when digitally mixed. And of course, the best format to deliver the end result is master tape. No doubt about it.”
I can’t argue there…
Format versus skill
So how about we turn our attention from the whole analogue versus digital debate towards a different, and perhaps more significant, marker of quality: the recording engineer.
Each recording engineer comes with his or her own set of skills and most have some kind of ‘signature style’. Roberto Vigo is no exception and I’d say his style is more Quincy Jones than Marco Taio or Jan-Eric Persson (of Open Reel Records and Opus 3 respectively). Both Taio and Persson excel at recordings using simple but skillful microphone set-ups to capture great music played by top-drawer musicians in superb acoustic spaces – with stunning results (see my previous open reel ramblings where I’ve already waxed lyrical about several of their exquisite tapes).
Vigo’s productions for Analogy, in contrast, are lush, complex and layered, not unlike like those big-budget pop records from a couple of decades ago which have stood the test of time and earned their place in the hall of greats. In fact, some of Analogy‘s productions really did make me wonder if I wasn’t listening to something from one of those ‘greats’. As it happens, I was… Vigo trained under such luminaries as Eddie Kramer, Andrew Scheps and Al Schmitt, no less! Turns out Schmitt is not only a personal friend and mentor to Vigo, he was also responsible for recording the album ‘Kaleidoscope’ by Andrea Celeste, which is another recent addition to my tape collection (and will no doubt be the subject of a forthcoming ramble).
If it’s good enough for Al…
Here’s Al Schmitt on the question of analogue versus digital recording:
“Digital quality just gets better all the time. It’s so good now and so much warmer than it used to be. We’re able to really capture the quality of what the musicians are playing.”
“I think you can record a saxophone player on tape and record it on digital at the same time, and today the quality is so good it’s hard to tell which is which. I don’t think there’s that much of a big difference any more.”
Well, if Al Schmitt says so, then who the heck am I to argue?! (In case you’ve been asleep at the wheel for the past few decades, Al Schmitt is the most successful recording producer of all time with more than 20 Grammys to his name. Modern production credits include the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Madonna and Michael Jackson among many others. Rewind a few years and those credits include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Jefferson Airplane to name just a few. So this is a man who clearly knows what he’s talking about.)
That’s not to say that analogue recording doesn’t still have its place, and a very important one at that, thankfully. Al Schmitt again: “I just did a Bob Dylan record and a Neil Young record on analogue and I just loved it, it was so much fun. But the problem today is that a two-inch roll of analogue tape is almost $500. With Dylan we used forty rolls of tape. Forty! At 500 bucks a reel that’s a lot of money. Most artists can’t afford that and a lot of the record companies won’t put up that kind of money. Bob Dylan pays for it himself. Neil Young pays for it himself. Because that’s what they want.”
Me too, Al, me too. But now maybe I want it as well as rather than instead of….
Drop the dead donkey?
Okay, so I’ve climbed off my high horse and I’ve embraced the elephant in the room. Is it time now for me now to drop the dead donkey? Is the whole ‘analogue versus digital’ debate becoming something of an irrelevance?
Well, if I’m honest I’m not quite yet ready to let go of defining myself as an analogue kind of a guy. But, thanks to Analogy Records, I am willing to be rather more open to the possibilities offered by digital recording.
My personal view is that I can hear when a recording has been made digitally. But I’d like to think that I’m now less likely to get into a heated debate about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. My experience has shown that it can be either, or indeed both, and that there are many other factors to consider.
And my conclusion? Digital recordings are different. Not better, not worse than analogue, just different. And diversity, in my view, is always going to be a good thing.
The fact is, you can do different things in the digital domain. There’s enormous potential and the creative possibilities are almost endless. The lush, beautifully polished production, the smooth sweetness… technically, it can feel like you’re listening to perfection. Meanwhile an all-analogue production, when done well, has a breathtaking in-the-moment realism that’s all the better for knowing that the moment can never quite be replicated. Both, at their best, are utterly captivating. Both can be works of art. And so this analogue man, while still faithful to his first love, is open to embracing the high quality end of the digital world. And while I shall no doubt continue to observe, explore and comment on the differences between the two, I will, if you don’t mind, have both. As my mother was fond of saying, I do like to have my cake and eat it.
One thing I can say with confidence: both digital and analogue have never sounded better than they do now. Or, to be more precise, they have never had the potential to sound as good as they can now. Which means that these are exciting times to be a music lover and audiophile. Very exciting indeed.
Find out more and view the complete Analogy records catalogue at www.analogyrecords.org
Text by David Denyer. Images courtesy of Analogy Records. Al Schmitt quotes courtesy of Roberto Vigo.