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Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

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Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Ariosto » Sun Jun 09, 2019 1:50 pm

On Monday (10th June) on Radio 4 at 4:30 pm there is a programme about how analogue may be preferred over digital. Looking at the programme website it would appear that some people (or at least the programme makers) think that background "noise" and some distortions, as well as tape editing, all add a certain "something" to the sound.

My own (somewhat biassed) opinion is that what I have heard and read so far, makes me think that it's all BS and they just want some excuse to make a radio programme about it. "Let's all go back to LP surface noise and tape hiss and that's all part of the great sound of the 1980's and before," seems to be their mantra.

The programme may be interesting however, just to hear the arguments, and I will be listening at some point on iPlayer.

I'm sure there are lots of opinions on SOS and I'm equally sure they will surface quite soon. I'm trying to keep an open mind, but finding it a bit of a challenge! Personally I prefer silent backgrounds to interviews, and music recordings, and hate added "effects' to dialogue, including distracting music (muzak) unless it has a real relevance and is mixed well, which often it is not.

We had the transition from 78 records to LP's which was wonderful (around 1956) and then in about 1983 the transition from LP's to the silence and dynamic range of digital, and I for one wish never to go back, even though the old tape machines (which I still have) had ertain visual magic about them.

Any strong opinions regarding this subject?
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby blinddrew » Sun Jun 09, 2019 2:51 pm

My strong opinion is that, whilst there are clearly certain pleasant effects that can be obtained by using (or emulating) tape saturation, there is a huge proportion of absolute nonsense spouted on this topic by lots of people who have even less knowledge on the topic than I do! ;)
Starting with, but not limited to, the whole 'stepped waveform' thing. :headbang:
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Jun 09, 2019 4:58 pm

Ariosto wrote:... it would appear that some people (or at least the programme makers) think that background "noise" and some distortions, as well as tape editing, all add a certain "something" to the sound.

I think noise and distortions _can_ add a "certain something" to the sound, just as film grain can add a certain visual something to a programme/film. But it's all about the context and the nature of the noise/distortion involved.

The important point is that such contributions were inherent (to varying degrees) in analogue systems like vinyl records and couldn't be removed. With digits we have the option of adding desirable noise/distortion only if we want or need to...

But appropriate musical distortions have always been considered beneficial, and some static background noise often preferred to total silence in some contexts.

I'll listen out for the programme, though. Could be interesting.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Mike Stranks » Sun Jun 09, 2019 5:25 pm

I heard an extended trail for this a couple of days ago.

Seemingly the whole production process from start to finish will be done using non-digital technologies - tape-cut editing and multi-tape machines mixing down to the final (tape) master.

By initial thought was, 'why bother?' Been there. done that, got the T-shirt. Yes; of course we produced perfectly acceptable programmes and were able to edit (almost) as tightly as we can today using ITB technologies. But the fuss and faff to produce the programme compared to how we do it now means I for one would never go back. For radio the listener won't care - they just want an enjoyable, coherent programme. But maybe it's a history programme about technological days gone by... :)

The 'Gillards' are BBC Local Radio's equivalent of the Oscars. The have a national bash where there's a bit of a show before the awards are announced and presented. A few years ago there was an excruciating segment where the newbies had to edit a piece using tape and blades and the oldies used ITB technology - probably 'Radioman'. Of course the oldies won hands-down. All it proved was that the new way is easier, faster and more accurate - which the seasoned hands knew anyway.

That said, it was a wonder to behold an experienced person editing tape... reels rocking to and fro, chinagraph marks, the flick of the tape into the block, slice-slice with the blade, some dexterous joining of the gap and the quick application of the editing tape. Almost quicker than you could comprehend.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby blinddrew » Sun Jun 09, 2019 6:00 pm

Mike Stranks wrote:That said, it was a wonder to behold an experienced person editing tape... reels rocking to and fro, chinagraph marks, the flick of the tape into the block, slice-slice with the blade, some dexterous joining of the gap and the quick application of the editing tape. Almost quicker than you could comprehend.
Something I love to watch but I'm glad I will never have to do! :D
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Ariosto » Sun Jun 09, 2019 6:23 pm

I used to edit audiobooks for the blind (when I had time) in the late 1970's.

Copied to reel to reel and then edited - what a huge and frustrating job. i got pretty quick at it - but could not contemplate ever doing that again. Editing my own recorded audiobooks now is so easy. I've just almost completed a 20 chapter book which will be around five hours duration and it's taken three weeks and that's not even doing more than two hours a day recording and editing on about five days a week. It would have taken twice as long to do that with cutting and splicing.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sun Jun 09, 2019 6:55 pm

Mike Stranks wrote:I heard an extended trail for this a couple of days ago. Seemingly the whole production process from start to finish will be done using non-digital technologies - tape-cut editing and multi-tape machines mixing down to the final (tape) master. My initial thought was, 'why bother?' Been there. done that, got the T-shirt.

Yep... But we stopped editing on tape over 30 years ago now, so there's an entire generation of radio producers calling the shots now who have never made programmes on tape, so its probably all a bit of a romantic mystery for them.

Added to which, the best programmes made back then were so much better than so many today, naturally, ;) and that must be because they were all analogue, right? :headbang:

Maybe this programme should have used analogue typewriters for the script just to complete the fantasy! :lol:

I'm still a reasonably competent tape editor but, compared to my former colleagues at the height of their game in 1980s and early 90s, atrociously slow! Watching a skilled radio Studio Manager at work was mind-blowingly impressive.

Health and Safety requirements would probably outlaw the practice today! Exposed cutting blades left lying about on tape decks with fast rotating spools, operated by people wearing ties? Lethal! We'd probably be told to fit covers over the reels and wear chain mail gloves.... :lol:
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Ariosto » Sun Jun 09, 2019 7:33 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:
Added to which, the best programmes made back then were so much better than so many today, naturally, ;) and that must be because they were all analogue, right? :headbang:

Maybe this programme should have used analogue typewriters for the script just to complete the fantasy! :lol:

Love that!! Yes, they were so much better at programme making then, even if the technology was hard work.
Hugh Robjohns wrote:I'm still a reasonably competent tape editor but, compared to my former colleagues at the height of their game in 1980s and early 90s, atrociously slow! Watching a skilled radio Studio Manager at work was mind-blowingly impressive.
Yes, it was very impressive, they had a whole programme edited just about as the session ended. Maybe just finishing off the last splice as you entered the control room. (Or fishing out that up beat semi-quaver accidentally thrown into the waste bin and hurriedly attaching it again - as the wind player who had got to the control room first and heard a replay had just pointed out!

Hugh Robjohns wrote:Health and Safety requirements would probably outlaw the practice today! Exposed cutting blades left lying about on tape decks with fast rotating spools, operated by people wearing ties? Lethal! We'd probably be told to fit covers over the reels and wear chain mail gloves.... :lol:

Yeh - we are wimps these days - can't get away from the rules - even though these rules do protect us from ourselves.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby James Perrett » Sun Jun 09, 2019 9:09 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:I'm still a reasonably competent tape editor but, compared to my former colleagues at the height of their game in 1980s and early 90s, atrociously slow! Watching a skilled radio Studio Manager at work was mind-blowingly impressive.

I had to edit some tape the other day and I was amazed at how tedious it seemed. I've only done a few intensive editing projects in my time but I'm sure I used to be better at it. I've been in sessions with a skilled editor when I've seen them mark the tape, move it to the block and then almost instantly the splice was done.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Sam Spoons » Sun Jun 09, 2019 10:45 pm

Ariosto wrote:Yeh - we are wimps these days - can't get away from the rules - even though these rules do protect us from ourselves.

Happy with H&S rules that protect us from others but rules that protect us from our (rational) selves are a step too far IMHO......
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Sam Spoons » Sun Jun 09, 2019 10:47 pm

James Perrett wrote:
Hugh Robjohns wrote:I'm still a reasonably competent tape editor but, compared to my former colleagues at the height of their game in 1980s and early 90s, atrociously slow! Watching a skilled radio Studio Manager at work was mind-blowingly impressive.

I had to edit some tape the other day and I was amazed at how tedious it seemed. I've only done a few intensive editing projects in my time but I'm sure I used to be better at it. I've been in sessions with a skilled editor when I've seen them mark the tape, move it to the block and then almost instantly the splice was done.

I could edit tape with a razor blade (¼" and ½". 2, 4 and 8 track), I was very slow but got the job done back in the day. Mostly it was just leaders and such like though, tape was far too expensive for us amateurs to cut up 'willy-nilly' :blush:
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby MOF » Mon Jun 10, 2019 2:54 am

Tape wasn’t exactly cheap and digital technology allows the storage space required to be a fraction of the space required for tapes.
I did enjoy editing tape but wouldn’t want to have to do it now, random access and non destructive editing plus no tape hiss are definite pluses.
I used to find dubbing sessions to be tedious; my sound supervisor would ask me to get “door slams” for example and then I’d have to lace up two reels of the relevant sound effects on the two available machines and play them, then wind them off and put on other examples from the library until the “right” effect was found to copy onto a track on the multitrack dub’ tape (often the first one I’d played so I’d have to lace that one up again).
What was particularly satisfying was “gashing” an old tape to end up with just the spool, you forced the editing blade through the layers of tape and it all fell into the bin. Happy days.
Oh did I mention the smell of fresh tape? Mmmmm, as addictive as vinyl.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Mon Jun 10, 2019 9:49 am

MOF wrote:What was particularly satisfying was “gashing” an old tape to end up with just the spool, you forced the editing blade through the layers of tape and it all fell into the bin. Happy days. Oh did I mention the smell of fresh tape? Mmmmm, as addictive as vinyl.

Ah yes... :D
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Arpangel » Mon Jun 10, 2019 10:05 am

Well, if people like noise and distortion "all the time" then that's easy. Hang on! is it?
How much would a modern tape machine cost? To get good FM reception you've got to climb on the roof, wrestle with an aerial, and a good FM tuner won't be peanuts.
But we get used to things, I hated CD for ages, it clearly was a joke compared to vinyl, anyone could hear that. FM too, was lovely, digital sounded awful, but as usual I adopted these new things and got seduced by the convenience of CD and the more reliable reception of DAB radio. It's not about ultimate sound quallity in a lot of mediums these days, it's all about being seduced by convenience, and ease of use, and having less "stuff" around.
The BBC used to use the Coles 4038 microphone a lot for R4 presenters, when they stopped using it people actually rang in asking why the sound of R4 had changed, what had they done!
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Kwackman » Mon Jun 10, 2019 10:11 am

Arpangel wrote:FM too, was lovely, digital sounded awful,
Wasn't FM distributed digitally? Nicam? From (a hazy) memory, it wasn't even 16bit?
Could be wrong though.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Mike Stranks » Mon Jun 10, 2019 10:16 am

Kwackman wrote:
Arpangel wrote:FM too, was lovely, digital sounded awful,
Wasn't FM distributed digitally? Nicam? From (a hazy) memory, it wasn't even 16bit?
Could be wrong though.

I think I remember reading a HiFi News article in 1969 (!) about digital distribution of BBC FM. But as it was 50 years ago I could be mistaken... may have got my years muddled!
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Rich Hanson » Mon Jun 10, 2019 10:30 am

I remember finding a book in the college library in the late 80s which had a chapter on the distribution to transmitters of FM. In 13 bit companded digital.
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Mon Jun 10, 2019 11:06 am

Kwackman wrote:Wasn't FM distributed digitally? Nicam? From (a hazy) memory, it wasn't even 16bit?

Yes. The first 13-channel digital PCM link was introduced to feed the Wrotham transmitter in 1972, and used a 32kHz sample rate and 13-bit A-D conversion. It was subsequently rolled out to all the national FM transmitters by the early 80s.

That system evolved into NICAM3* (later known as NICAM 676 to differentiate it from the NICAM 728 system used for digital stereo TV transmission in the 1990s).

NICAM3 also operated with a 32kHz sample rate but the A-D moved up to 14-bits.

As before, only 10-bits are actually transmitted in five level-dependent ranges. So quiet signals get the full 14-bit quantisation (the top four** unused bits are reinserted at the D-A without degrading the signal), while the loudest signals are truncated to 10 bits (without dither!). The system relies on a combination of noise-masking and pre-emphasis to hide the resulting noise-floor modulation.

Lots more detail here: http://www.audiomisc.co.uk/BBC/PCMandNICAM/History.html

*NICAM is an acronym for Near Instantaneous Companding and Audio Multiplex

The Audio Multiplex part refers to the system's inherent modularity which allows combinations of 2, 6 or 24 channels. The Companding part refers to the sliding 10-bit transmission system, and the Near Instantaneous element is because the compander's sliding level scale setting is decided in 1ms increments... so 1ms of audio has to be gathered and analysed before the coding range is set for that block of audio.

**That's an oversimplification of the actual processing... but it gets the idea across more easily!
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Kwackman » Mon Jun 10, 2019 11:09 am

72? There were some very clever people in the 70s!
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Re: Analogue versus Digital - Radio 4

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Mon Jun 10, 2019 11:21 am

There were! Apollo, Concorde, Harrier jump-jets, digital calculators ... and much more besides.
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