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PAUL FARRER: Unlikely Recording Set-up In Contact

Sounding Off By Paul Farrer
Published January 1998

Did you spot the rather unlikely recording setup in a recent sci‑fi blockbuster? Paul Farrer did...

Not long ago, I was sitting in my local cinema enjoying the excellent Jodie Foster film Contact. I was merrily suspending all layers of disbelief as the ingenious plot twisted and turned from decoded alien messages through to pan‑dimensional deep‑space travelling devices. I was dazzled and dazed by the special effects and in quiet awe at the sheer spectacle of the film — until the scene when we got to sneak a peek at the recording medium onto which Ms Foster and her astronomical team first captured the message sent from the farthest reaches of the Universe. Time‑travel I can live with, dinosaurs reconstructed from dried‑up DNA millions of years old, OK — but any movie that dares to insult my intelligence by suggesting that the best recording setup is a pair of Tascam DA88s perfectly sync'd up to two ADAT XTs really is pushing it a little too far. Clearly the production designer picked this curious combination of formats because they looked good on screen, or perhaps the film's director was somehow obliged under some strange US law not to show any on‑screen favouritism towards a particular recording format.

Whatever the reason, it provoked a series of mind‑expanding questions, and very few answers... Imagine a world where man's only goal was the pursuit of excellence, in all walks of life. The recording studio would be no exception and all of our equipment would be designed with that specific aim in mind. Glib phrases like 'Limited Design Life' and 'Customer Beta Testing' would be things of the past, software would work first time, hard drives would not corrupt at the first sniff of a SCSI cable with a slightly different build spec than the ones it was used to, and we'd all have same recording format. OK, in today's studio there are certain constants already (such as DAT) and we all have the same size of MIDI sockets, but it looks as if the bitter war between Philips' DCC and Sony's MiniDisc has resumed once again, and once again consumers are confronted with the age‑old 'will it be VHS, Betamax or Video 2000?' dilemma. It seems that, as we move further and further down the inevitable digital road, with all the benefits that it brings, we've sacrificed a good deal of invaluable cross‑compatibility to the ravages of corporate marketing men.

I love my digital studio, and I can now do work in an hour that would have taken weeks less than 10 years ago, but ask another engineer to drive the studio, or ask me to move to another studio for additional recording, and it is a serious headache. Why? Because my studio is tailored to fit my needs exclusively, and any other studio I move to might not have the same MIDI gear I use, the same samplers, hard drives, or even the same recording format. According to Darwin (the Victorian biologist, not the Emu multitrack), there is a law which dictates the 'survival of the fittest', and in studio terms this would mean inferior formats being left to survive without mass attention, but is that really the case? Is VHS really the best domestic video format or did it beat off the competition because a large electronics company did a deal with the film distribution companies and managed to get their models into the shops at a great price just in time for Christmas 1982?

Like it or not, we live in non‑compatible times. If you disagree, just ask anyone who has ever tried to go about putting a decent soundcard, hard drive and multiple‑MIDI‑output device into a PC, and then tried to find a piece of software that will not only recognise all the constituent parts within its designated computer host, but will actually do what it was originally supposed to do! Lists are circulated on photocopied pieces of paper about which software programs 'like and dislike' which drives and soundcards, and we hardly bat an eyelid when a major piece of recording software or hardware is shipped six months too early, with a host of operational problems and shortfalls that you just know will be fixed and sorted out by the time version 2.01 is in the shops. Music stores have even given up worrying about it all, and some are practically admitting the whole situation stinks by offering the only safe advice under the circumstances — 'Look, just buy everything from us because we know what works with what.' So much for technology empowering the small studio owner. Where does all this leave us? For a start, a little more 'glasnost' or — dare I say it — collaboration between manufacturers might help to oil the wheels of cross‑compatibility and make for better products. No‑one wants to be buying into exciting new technology only to find it redundant in a matter of months, and I would imagine that consumer worries and jitters are a major cause of concern for manufacturers. Jodie Foster has her sights set on the heavens and she uses both ADATs and DA88s. Homer Simpson, on the other hand, has a Betamax video. I rest my case.