Good Digital/Bad Digital - A Walk Down the Bumpy Road From Analog to Digital

by John Dodge

There's good news and bad news about the new digital workstations and cart machines. The good news is they're digital, with all the sound clarity, speed, and editing flexibility that comes with recording in that domain. The bad news is they're computers. They crash. They catch viruses. They whine (at least their hard drives do). They're capable of weird behavior that not even their creators quite understand. And they're mysterious as voodoo to the average person. You used to be able to work on your car, remember? Today your car is a computer on wheels, and you need an electrical engineer to keep it running smoothly. Same story with your digital studio. Let's hope neither of them crash. One thing's for certain though, in a "better, cheaper, smaller, faster" world, digital recording is here to stay. More and more want ads for Production Directors read "digital experience required." So let's consider the pros and cons and look at what we gain and what we give up when we work in this brave new digital world.

At WCRB in Boston, we jumped from '70s technology right into the '90s -- from a bunch of mid-line Otari analog 2-track machines to a video-based digital 8-track with mixdown to DAT. After demo-ing several systems, we chose the Session 8 by Digidesign. This is the California company which pioneered digital audio production with their Sound Tools and Pro Tools systems designed for pro audio and video post production applications. The Digidesign people must have realized that they could tap the mid-level of the market -- home studio recording musicians and broadcasters -- if only they would strip a few bells and whistles from their fancier programs and offer a "new" program at a price point not too far from what you'd expect to pay for an analog 8-track. The strategy worked and the Session 8 is selling briskly for both the IBM and the Mac platforms. We use Session 8 with a 21-inch color monitor and an IBM clone running on a 486 chip. The processing chip's number determines how fast your machine operates - the higher the number, the faster the computing. 386, 486 and now 586 (Pentium) chips for IBMs and 68020, 68030 or 68040 for Apple's chips.

You may be asking yourself, "Why go to digital when I have a perfectly good 4- or 8-track in the studio?" I'll tell you now. It's Freedom. Power. Unleashed Creativity. The real benefit of digital recording on a digital workstation lies in editing. You can slice, dice and arrange your tracks with a few keystrokes. You get instant access to anything, anywhere on your hard drive. You can bounce, copy, and stack tracks to your heart's content with no apparent loss in quality -- everything sounds like first generation. You have the ability to perform "nondestructive" edits, meaning you don't cut anything, you don't lose anything, you just rearrange "pointers" for the computer. That means virtually unlimited freedom to experiment. Because all your decisions are reversible, the anxiety of commitment is removed from the editing process. And seeing a graphic representation of what your ear is hearing synergizes your senses and makes editing more accurate and more fun. Don't underestimate the fun part. And this for the GM: you get all these creative advantages at a good price these days. The cost of digital is falling because every new technology's price goes down once competition shakes out the playing field.

You do have to give up certain things when you go with these goodies. There's a learning curve to the simplest digital program or system, so even guys who "don't do manuals" will do them this time. I have yet to hear a producer who didn't begin this digital journey by chafing "Gimmee a blade; I can do it quicker the old way." But soon you're whizzing around the screen performing magic you wouldn't have dreamed of in your old analog world. Many programs try to make the change more comfortable by emulating the old work models, like giving you an on-screen "mixing console," but they all require that you do things differently than you used to. Some people have a problem with that. And again, keep in mind, these are computers. If you don't have line conditioners, surge and spike protectors, uninterruptable power supplies, and other electrical prophylactics, your unit won't be protected against the erratic rise and fall of A/C power. (You didn't think electricity was actually stable, did you? Ha! Ha! Ha!) Your system could freeze up. You could lose your session. You could alienate your clients and ruin your whole day. Then there's file fragmentation. If your system can't handle fragmented files, it'll let you know in its own special way. But it gives you an excuse to yell out cool jargon to your engineer like, "Hey, Dude! Time to defrag the gig!" And another thing, you're used to suffering from ear fatigue after a six-hour session. Now you can easily suffer eyestrain and carpal tunnel syndrome. You have to take regular breaks on these machines or you go cross-eyed.

But it's well worth what you have to endure for what you get. Go for one of the high-end units like the Orban DSE-7000 if you can. But start by getting a demo on every digital production unit out there. Lots of reps will even loan you one for a week so you can use it in your natural environment. Check out The RAP Workstation Network and call around to see who likes what and why. I really enjoy our Session 8 now that I know my way around on it. And our production team has spent enough time with the program to start making really impressive spots, promos and presentations. More complex, more compelling. And the clients think the visuals are sexy.

Then there are digital cart machines. The one we chose was "Digicart" from 360 Systems in LA. This is an all-inclusive cart machine in a box -- all your commercials, promos, beds, bits and sounders go onto a large hard drive and you access them on one front panel. It's very convenient not to have to walk back and forth from the rack with a stack of carts, occasionally spilling them and swearing at the top of your lungs. Instead, you just dial up spot numbers, hit enter and play, and your whole stopset runs in sequence while you take a break. Digicarts are great in the production studio, too, because after recording a message you can adjust the start and stop time, the levels, fade in/out and more. It's another 2-track tape machine, only better. You can sequence bits of audio that'll play back as tightly as any tape splice, only with digital clarity.

To be honest, though, it hasn't been exactly smooth sailing with Digicarts. We had some problems in the beginning. Three different times power to our unit was interrupted, and the entire contents were numerically scrambled. Spot #12 followed Spot #345 which followed Promo #36. Once, during a routine back-up procedure (computer law #1: regularly back up data), our overnight guy accidently erased the entire hard drive. That's right, Sales Managers, no commercials. Design-wise, it was a little too easy for him to do, I thought. Oh well, I'm told that no new software is trouble-free. Finally, after we got our local audio rep into the customer service loop, 360 Systems began to address some of our problems, and we're now experiencing generally a smooth operation.

So, it's two steps forward, one step back in the Digital Revolution, but every new technology has its shake-down cruise -- goes through its growing pains. By historical standards we're still at the very beginning of the "digital age". After all, the tape medium stabilized decades ago. But digital's strength and potential for growth in today's radio production environment is formidable. And its takeover is inevitable. It'll put tape where CDs put LPs, right in the retro bin. It's exciting to be at the forefront of a new way of working and creating. It's exciting and sometimes frustrating. Jump in now if you can, but remember, if you want to work at the cutting edge of technology, better lay in a stock of Band-Aids!

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