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Is a lack of warmth an inevitable trait of digital recording?

Sounding Off By Dr. Douglas Doherty

Is a lack of warmth an inevitable trait of digital recording?

I see adverts that say "Add analogue warmth to your cold digital recordings.” What does this mean? What is a cold recording? You know — it's that lifeless, sterile quality you get with all digital recordings. Stand well out of range before you say that to a designer of digital circuitry! And what is analogue warmth? It's second- and third-harmonic distortion. You know — the type that makes valve circuitry sound the way it does. Stand even further away before you say that to a designer of valve circuitry! Is anyone else getting a whiff of marketing-speak Eau de Bullshit? Is lack of warmth an inevitable characteristic of digital recording for which there's no remedy?

In the old days, we always kept levels as far above the magnetic tape's noise floor as possible, but below its overload point. With the digital revolution and the eradication of magnetic tape, noise floors apparently became a thing of the past. So no more worries: just give yourself plenty of headroom and then normalise. But — and it's a very big but — lower digital levels mean lower bit counts, and lower bit counts mean less detailed recordings. Follow that with digital signal processing that repeatedly loses bits because it needs to be in real time and you have a recipe that can result in sounds lacking any sense of reality. Couple this with a plethora of low-cost microphones, single‑chip mic preamps, A‑D/D‑A conversion based around a single chip alongside rudimentary analogue interface circuitry, and we begin to approach an explanation for what's going on.

Digital coldness is actually a lack of fidelity. It is not caused by being digital per se, but by a combination of poor practice and low-resolution technology, with expectations hyped up by high‑cost marketing. My butcher recently said to me that if he was to buy cheap meat (which he doesn't), all he would ever have was cheap meat, and all the talking up he could do would never change that. The same applies here but — and it's another big but — low-cost items are constantly being presented as fully professional, and we want to believe it.

At a studio that I managed for a while, we had bought a Lexicon 300 effects unit. We were heavily censured by someone for not buying an alternative Zoom module, because as well as being much cheaper, it also featured reverb and delay. But we had a clearly articulated policy to buy as little as possible for as much money as was available, and though this may sound perverse, it does make sense. Given a choice between two pieces of equipment that cost the same and that basically do the same thing, one with 100 different features backed by fantastic advertising, and one with just two features but advertised poorly, I would buy the one with just two features. Each of those two features has had 50 times as much spent on them as those in the 100-feature behemoth!

Marketing often focuses on specifications, but, like statistics, selective use of spec can provide support for the most unlikely and often inaccurate conclusions. For many years, it has been clear to me that the marketing guys have been hyping up our expectations and damping down our discrimination (take MP3s, headphones and docking stations, for example), to exploit the expanding customer base of musicians who want to record their own music. Behind this lies a blurring of meaning.

What is professional audio? What makes a professional studio? I am aware that some technical standards have been set down to guide us, but many of these have become eroded. Of course, we all want to believe that with only £1000 we can do it as well as a studio where only a single microphone can cost five times that amount. We can't, whatever the adverts say. So is it too late to put back the warmth once it's gone? Yes; added warmth will only ever be pseudo-warmth. But — and this is the biggest but of all — by understanding the reality and ignoring the seductive marketing hype, we can produce material that is really pretty damned good.

If you would like to air your views in this column, please send your submissions to soundingoff@soundonsound.com or to the postal address listed in the front of the magazine.

About The Author

Dr Douglas Doherty is an irritating parent, composer and studio designer. He is also the founder and MD of DACS Audio, and knows far too many jokes.

Published July 2012