Q It Up: There are several recording media available to us these days. Which one do you master to and why?

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95by Jerry Vigil

This month’s question to the RAP Network is about mastering and archiving media. There are several recording media available to us these days. The question is, which one do you master to and why? Perhaps you plan to switch to another medium soon. If so, why? The most  popular right now seems to be DAT. But what about MiniDisc?  Even CD-R has become cheap enough to consider. Massive "digital delivery systems" provide hours of storage time on hard disk. Do you master to these systems? There's the popular Iomega Jaz drive with a gigabyte of storage on a removable disk. Perhaps you master to two tracks of an ADAT or other digital multitrack tape format. What is your preference and why, and where do you think we're headed in this area? (And if you're still mastering to analog tape, don't be afraid to admit it!)

We had quite a few responses to this month’s Q. Thanks! With that, we were able to get a decent little survey of what people are using for mastering and archiving media and what they hope/plan to switch to in the future. The hands down winner for current mastering medium was DAT with 25 mentions. CD-R was second with seven mentions, MiniDisc and 8mm tape each got four mentions, and analog tape (yes), VHS, Zip/SyQuest/Jaz disks, and the drives of digital delivery systems brought up the rear with three or less mentions. For media choices people would consider or actually have plans to go to, the winner was CD-R with seven mentions followed by MiniDisc with four, DVD with three, and CD-RW, DAT, Jaz, and digital delivery system drives came in with one or two mentions.

Obviously, this is not a huge sampling of the broadcast production industry, but it’s clear to see that DAT is well entrenched, and CD-R is gaining popularity. Here are several of the replies received:

Paul Kinsman/CHOZ, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada: MiniDisc. I'm the ONLY audio producer here at an FM/TV combo. It started as a way to improve our TV audio. (Recycled agency tapes are becoming scarcer with the advent of DCI.) TV line-ups, "Movie of the week" promos, "between show" squeeze-back promos, locally produced TV spot audio, and voice-overs for the TV news department were the first things mastered on MD. Not only is the format easy to use for the TV Master control guys and gals, newsies, etc. to use for playback, but the local audio quality for TV is now pretty damn good (dare I say "best in our market?"). So I said to myself, "Duh, I should be archiving radio stuff on these MiniDiscs." I do, and I love it. I master to the server but always dub back onto MiniDisc for storage.

David Witz/Sounds Serious, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: We master from the Roland DM-80 direct to DAT--cheap, quick, and as semi-foolproof as any other medium. Three caveats: It makes sense to start your program material at least one minute into the DAT; any DAT longer than a 60 invites tape tension and breakage problems, especially on lower-end DAT machines; and not every DAT machine "talks" to every other DAT. My Sony's recordings play back fine at 90% of the studios that receive them, but the other 10% get bursts of digital noise.

Dave Foxx/Z100, New York: Well, since I'm an admitted total digital-dork, my storage/mastering system of choice is 8mm tape. Up until I made the switch to an Exabyte tape drive, I was dumping everything onto DAT. But, since it's a totally linear medium, all I ever really had time for was dubbing over the final mix. Doing DATA backups is also tedious, at best. CD-R seems like a cool idea now that decent slugs are running around two to three dollars apiece, but once you master there, it's really FINAL and can't really be altered in any way without re-mastering later to a new CD-R. Another choice was CD-RW, but the technology is still young (mostly borrowed from MiniDisc), and when I tried using CD-RW, I got a lot of crashes. True, you can re-write to one, but before you do, you have to erase what was on there to begin with. So, you're essentially in the same boat as CD-R. Mini-Disc is the same, with the added detriment of using data compression schemes which degrade audio quality. (I swear, I can hear the difference.) Jaz drives are cool, but the medium is still VERY expensive. Massive digital delivery systems, as big as they are, are still limited in the amount of space available. Eventually you either have to dump archived material, or off-load it somehow to another storage device. That pretty much leaves 8mm tape as my alternative. With Mezzo software (about $900 by Grey Matter Response), I can run a full backup IN THE BACKGROUND, while I'm working on a session. Once I've finished work, after another minute or so, the tape pops out of the drive, and I am totally backed up. A few days later, when the PD decides he wants another version of the same promo, I can restore the session I worked on (at any stage in the process, not just the final version). Then I can alter it any way needed and have the newest version backed up all at the same time. It's kind of like putting another bookmark in a session every time I save. Whenever I need to return to a certain stage of a session, it's always there for me. And the bottom line is VERY attractive. At about $18 per cartridge (112m in bulk), I can store up to 7Gb on each tape, as opposed to 1Gb for $89 on the Jaz drive. If my work ever exceeds 7Gb, Mezzo is smart enough to create multiple tapes and keep track of where everything is on all of them in one updated directory. It's really the only logical choice for long term storage and retrieval.

Laurent Eveno/Bel Air Productions, Paris, France: We mostly use DAT when it comes to transfers or dubbing, but our clients choice is 95% CD. It's clean, already cued up with tight starts, and it doesn't have tape reading problems after many plays like the DAT has (noise, distortion...). NO, we don't consider MiniDisc for the moment, although French broadcasters have already been using it extensively for over a year. Our voice talents, on their part, supply us on DAT, CD, or ISDN. I may also point out that we came across a CD replication problem very recently. One of our voice talents sent us tracks on a CD-R. He made the recordings, played it again before shipping to check, then when we played it here, it was totally blank. This mystery remains unsolved.

Craig Jackman/CHEZ-FM, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: I master to DAT, partly by preference, partly by lack of alternatives. I master to DAT because: 1) It sounds MUCH better than my reel machine at 15ips or 30ips. 2) DAT is a much more compact medium to store. We used to store 8 months of work at a time on reel. Now we store almost 2 years in way WAY less space than the 8 months on 10" reels. 3) I suppose that I could master to VHS HiFi or chrome cassette (with Dolby), but the PNO ID numbers make searching for past work easier. 4) DAT tape fits into my budget much better than reel tape. 5) Most projects that I work on take too many tracks to master to 2 channels of ADAT. Although, mastering to 2 channels of ADAT is a great thing. It's automated! If you are not 100% satisfied with the mix, go back and punch in to mix it. The other tracks are always in sync, and your faders would be in the same position. Given my choice and the right equipment, I think I'd prefer to master to 2 tracks of a DAW, stored onto a JAZ drive or ADAT, just to keep the whole of the project together. Another choice I would consider is a CD-R. Since I don't have a DAW with JAZ or a CD recorder, the point is moot. I would not master to MD. My initial exposure to MD came in a demo (in my studio) with the Sony tech rep for eastern Canada. The sound of MD just does not do it for me. In a blind test between the CD source, a Sony MD, and my Fidelipac Dynamax DCR-1000 floppy disk recorder, each one could be picked out every time. The DCR uses apt-x 4:1 data compression vs. MD's 8:1 ATRAC compression scheme. I make no claim to have the worlds greatest ears, but the MD was just blatantly obvious! After my past experience with the hard drives failing on a regular basis, I would not master to a DCI-type system either. I would cry if months of work went to magnetic heaven with no way of getting it back. (I do some stuff that only winds up on 2-track and never sees the multitrack). Given what some stations have to use, I would use whatever is there--DAT, reel, cart, cassette, or VHS. Just make it sound the best you can for your station.

Don Lawler/Target Marketing, Memphis, Tennessee: I just recently bought a Sony MiniDisc and love it. I was the first studio in Memphis to use DAT and have used it for years. Some of the earlier masters have had drop out problems and I've even had tape get eaten. When I saw a MiniDisc recorder for only $299, I had to try it. The first thing I recorded on it was a 90 minute Christmas musical with full orchestra. The quality and ease of use are great, and you can't beat the price. The cheapest portable DAT machine costs over twice as much.

Don Hoffpauir/Red/Lane Productions, Baton Rouge, Louisiana: For mastering, it's hands down DAT--higher sampling rate and small media size. As far as how the audio is distributed, well, as an independent production studio, my choice is not always the choice of my clients. My personal preference is to send out on DAT or CD. With CD-R media at a buck-fifty, it's really competitive with analog tape, box, and reel for dubs over 4 minutes in length. And with a recent mishap with an overnight delivery service fresh in mind, a CD would not get erased in transit. To transport audio between local studios, I regularly use Zip, Jaz, and DAT, due to the fact that I can rely on the media being returned. However, I do traffic some audio over the web to out of state studios. The process involves converting the WAV audio file to an MP3 file (MPEG II layer 3). This process compresses a 10+ meg WAV file into a <1 meg MPEG file for quick up and downloading. Within 10 minutes, a commercial can be made available worldwide.

Carl Grant/Carl Grant Productions, Mount Vernon, Missouri: The obvious choice is Jaz for short term storage and CD for long term storage. Jaz is portable, re-recordable, durable, and features fast transfers with direct access (remember the DAT backup). CD-R is durable and long lasting with direct access and fairly fast read speeds. Of course, it is not re-recordable, unless you opt for the re-recordable CD's which are not as compatible due to lower laser reflectivity). Another good advantage to CD-R is it is the lowest priced storage medium per megabyte (at under $2.00 per 650meg). CD-R's are now reliable; because of modern software and advancements in hardware, buffer underruns (Coasters) are a thing of the past. CD-R is a thing for today. Tomorrow (next 5 years), we'll be talking DVD. While DVD has a better storage capacity, its real advantage will be with audio (not data files) with higher bit rates. But if data is all you're storing for the long term, CD's will be a low priced, high quality choice for many years to come.

Dusty Rhodes/2FM, Dublin, Ireland: I master everything onto MiniDisc. When the disc is full, I make a copy on DAT and file both away. Some people say the quality from MiniDisc is not as good as DAT, but I can't hear a difference. Apparently the experts say MD is 99.5% as good as DAT! The main advantage of MD over DAT for me is random access. Having to push the "Skip to Next" button on the DAT is too time consuming, especially if your looking for track 99! As for hard disk, I keep anything that might need working on at a later date on the HD, or if that gets full, I'll transfer some projects to Zip disks to free up space. Once a project is definitely done with (i.e. promotion is finished etc.) the only masters I keep are on the MiniDisc/DATs.

Stew Herrera/KLOS-FM, Los Angeles, California: I master to DAT, but I'm anxious to transfer my masters to a CD-R. One reason is because of a horror story I heard Joel Moss tell about how some of his master DATs had begun to deteriorate. I guess after a few years, the composition of the tape itself begins to degrade, and the data literally disappears from the tape. I don't know how soon it's going to happen, but I really don't want to find out. My masters are my life's work, irreplaceable. In fact, I should probably keep two masters, since they're so precious.

Hal Knapp/HSK Productions, New York: I use SyQuest removable EZdrives for any material that I might want to go back to the session and change, like commercials, sweepers, etc.. I purchased the SyQuest drives a few years ago when removable media just became cheaper. It was either the Zip or EZdrive. Well, the Zip was too slow for real-time audio work, so I purchased the SyQuest. I have three of them, one on each of my two systems at home, and one for the road. I occasionally take material back and forth to work with the EZdrive. It holds 135Mb which is good for a couple spots or a promo.  The Jaz drive will be my next purchase. It's very compatible with Protools and has vast storage. I just have to buy three of them at one time to keep compatible, not to mention, all my SyQuest discs will have to be converted. I use CD-Rs for material that’s determined unchangeable. Commercials, jingles, sweepers for Backtrax USA (80's retro show) are mastered to CD-R. I keep them as Sound Designer II (SDII) files for easy drop-and-drag use with Protools. My assistant is in the process of converting all my sweep effects library CDs from audio to SDII files for easier loading. I also have a rack full of DATs that hold original source material and songs used in my work. These are slowly being converted to either SDII files or audio, depending on the material.

Greg Williams/WMC AM/FM/TV, Memphis, Tennessee: Mastering Format: DAT, Otari DTR-7, since 1993. The amount of ease a DAT tape provides in the storage of, and search for archived spots continuously amazes me. In the 5 years I've mastered onto DATs (preferably the Maxell Professional 124 min.), I've been able to retrieve crystal clear productions with NO FEAR of tape disintegration or phasing. I've perfected the art of split-track mastering as well, using the DATs. Music on one side, copy on the other has saved my rear enough times for me to swear by this method, if I were allowed to swear.

Donnie Marion/104 KRBE, Houston, Texas: When we make spots or promos, we master to DAT. It goes on the DAT this way: complete spot, voice track, music/sfx bed. We switched over from mastering to reel-to-reel tape about 4 years ago, and I’m on commercial DAT #68 today. Until just a few days ago, I hadn't thought about mastering to anything else (like CD). We have only one CD burner in the station, so with 2 production rooms, going all day, somebody would wind up staying late to master to CD. Now we have two different digital production systems in the station, Sonic Solutions and Pro Tools. To take advantage of that technology, I archive spots on 8mm data tape using something called Exabyte. I can restore a session/commercial in just a few minutes and make changes to a spot with all the original stuff from the spot. Years ago, we looked at MiniDiscs and corporate said "no." There hasn't been a decision about when KRBE will begin to use one of the big storage systems for spots and music, but if there was enough room, and I could learn to operate another computer, that might be a good place to keep the 10101s.

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