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Interview | Manufacturer By Paul White
Published July 1996

There are now more recording media and data storage formats than ever before. Paul White catches up with Pro Tape's Richard Symons, to discuss the role of tape in a multi‑platform future.

Richard Symons is a partner at Pro Tape, the well‑known West End recording media supplier, which puts him in a very good position to monitor trends and feelings within the recording industry. I started our interview by asking for Richard's impressions of how the market is responding to digital technology.

"People entering the market are going for ADATs or DA88s, or in some cases they may have a MIDI system plus some kind of direct‑to‑disk system, mastering to DAT, but once they find some success and start working with outside record producers, and certainly with a record company, they tend to move up to analogue 2‑inch tape."

Is this a matter of sound quality, or is there more to it than that?

"I think it's more for the sound quality, but you can't say it's superior — it's just different. And there's the reliability factor. Both 8‑track digital formats are great because of their low cost, but dropouts do happen, especially if it's a long project and you do a lot of shuttling, dropping in and out, and so on. They've done very well in the live recording field, but even then, the top‑end professionals are more likely to use open‑reel digital or open‑reel analogue machines if they have the choice. The new high‑output analogue tapes let you record using more level than with standard tapes, which means you get closer to a digital signal‑to‑noise performance, while retaining the benefits of the analogue sound."

It's true that there is a perceived difference between the analogue and the digital sound, but it's probably also true that analogue recording is about as good as it's going to get, whereas digital formats can still be developed a long way from where they are now.

"But would you want anything better than some of the analogue records you've got?"

Not from the sound quality point of view, but digital surely has numerous benefits: the signal on tape stays unchanged once it has been recorded, you can make accurate clones — which you can't do with analogue — and digital systems can give you true gapless punching in and out.

"So you're happy with the sound of analogue, but not with its versatility from an editing point of view. I totally agree, and digital technology should improve with time to give us the same quality. I'm just waiting for that time. Also, I'm not sure how big a problem high‑end loss and additional noise from copying and bouncing is on 2‑inch tapes, though on smaller formats you might worry about it. Digital has a very clear advantage if you're editing or cloning material, and track bouncing is quieter, but then not too much bouncing goes on at a professional level. There's a technical paper doing the rounds which says that to make digital audio work acceptably, you need a sampling rate of 256kHz, and if that's the case, it's going to be a long time before it becomes practical because of processor speeds — not to mention the data storage requirement. At the moment, you can get an album (stereo) onto a 1Gb drive sampling at 44.1kHz, but that would go down by a factor of about six."

On Borrowed Time

One of the things you've spoken to me about before is the fact that analogue recording equipment and media is designed specifically for that purpose, whereas most digital technology and media is borrowed from some other market area. For example, ADATs use video tape. Is this a major concern, or are we merely benefiting from the economies of scale?

"It is a concern. Take 8mm tape. It starts as a camcorder tape, you soup up the tape formulation and the electronics so you can get more information onto it, and out of that grows Hi‑8 and a data storage format. Finally it gets bastardised into a digital 8‑track, so now we have a professional audio format which evolved out of a consumer video camera format.

"The pro audio business is very small, and as you've probably heard, 3M have pulled out of tape sales altogether. If you look at their professional tape sales, they are very good, but seen as part of their whole tape business, which includes video tapes and audio cassettes, it's really a very small part. Professional audio will always be insignificant compared to consumer formats, which makes it impractical to develop media specifically for pro‑audio recording, with the exception of the top end. On the other hand, because consumer formats are cheap commodity products, the running cost of any system that uses them is very low and there are lower hardware development costs.

There's a technical paper doing the rounds which says that to make digital audio work acceptably, you need a sampling rate of 256kHz, and if that's the case, it's going to be a long time before it becomes practical.

"The downside is that none of it is really professional — even DAT is, strictly speaking, a failed consumer format, and if it had been designed from the start as a professional format, it would have been far more robust. Even digital U‑matic uses a professional video player. Audio is always the poor relation, and the main difference in use between a consumer product and a professional one is the out‑and‑out hammering the pro gear is designed to withstand. You can soup up the hardware all you like, but the ultimate limitation is with the format itself. With DAT, DA88 and ADAT, you're squeezing a massive amount of very important data onto consumer formats and then expecting them to perform to professional standards in a professional environment. I suppose what I'm saying is that I'd like to see a digital format designed from the ground up, in the same way that 2‑inch analogue was. You look at what the pro user needs — let's say a 256kHz sampling rate with 24‑bit resolution — then you build a format around that requirement, instead of looking at available mass‑produced technology and then adapting it as best you can."

Format Future

How will your business be affected by the way in which hard disk is becoming more popular for recording and editing work? This is another example of technology developed for one market area being used for audio work, and just one of the problems that came up was that of thermal recalibration, where hard drives would interrupt the audio flow during playback to calibrate themselves.

"We supply information‑bearing media, so as long as people want to store information, we will supply whatever is needed."

So if, in 10 years, we're recording onto holographic perspex cubes, you'll be selling them?

"Yes! But I think there's still a lot of life left in analogue tape, just for esoteric reasons, the same as there is in valves. Look how well Tony Larking is doing with his valve range. And a lot of that is down to the way digital audio sounds.

"Two‑inch tape is in a slight decline but it's still doing very well, and part of the credit must go to the high‑output tapes [Ampex 499, BASF 900 and 3M 996], which can be run at 30ips with no noise reduction to produce unbelievably good results. Quarter‑inch tape has almost totally lost out to DAT, except in the areas of location recording for film, while half‑inch soldiers on as the superior stereo mastering format. Studio owners tell me that when they ask an artist what they want to master on, the answer is almost always DAT — until they hear an analogue half‑inch master. It sounds unbelievably good. It's still quite worrying that they have to sell people the idea of mastering onto half‑inch as well as DAT."

One thing that worries me to some extent is that as new technologies emerge, we're ending up with a huge proliferation of formats, not only in tape, but in removable digital media such as Zip drives, Jaz drives, the various SyQuest cartridges, and so on. Do you see this as being a problem area?

"I think that probably keeps us in business, to be honest. What concerns me more is the reliability of the new formats — for example, the Zip disks have a lifetime guarantee, but what does that mean? As yet, they haven't been around long enough to prove that they're up to the task. Our society is becoming increasingly dependent on information, and manufacturers are exploiting that very effectively, giving us immediate access to a whole world of it. I'm just very concerned about how much attention is being paid to the longevity of the data we create, use and store. History gives us the best sense of perspective we can ever have, and we need to preserve it as a means of measuring how we move forward, learning from our mistakes, and even just enjoying a past era. That used to mean preserving films, books, art and artifacts, but in the completely digital near future, how much will be retrievable just a quarter of a century down the line?"

Back To Backup

Most people are now familiar with the benefits of hard disk recording and editing, but of course the big problem is where to back up data. What are the professionals doing?

"They're using tape streamers of some sort. We're selling a lot of Exobyte, with data DAT a close second. Optical disks are also great, but the cost is still too high for most people and the capacity isn't there. A 1.3Gb optical disk costs around £50. Of course, that will keep coming down, but at the moment, the tape‑based systems are still the most cost effective. The better Exobyte systems have a read‑after‑write facility, so they won't go on to writing the next bit of data until they've confirmed that what they've just written is OK."

Studio owners tell me that when they ask an artist what they want to master on, the answer is almost always DAT — until they hear an analogue half‑inch master.

Is CDR a useful archiving medium?

"Well, it is susceptible to heat and light, but the truth is that we really don't know. You can do accelerated ageing tests on all these media, but the only way to really find out what will happen is to sit around for 10 or 15 years and wait. We see guaranteed archival figures varying from 10 to 100 years. I wouldn't want to guarantee 100% data integrity for much more than 10 years with CDR."

Does this mean that there ought to be more boxes for checking the error rates in media so that we know when it's time to clone?

"Some studios have that facility, and certainly you can get error printouts for U‑matics, but yes, we have to build up a backup mentality where digital data is concerned, and we have to store the media with respect. Tape gets taken for granted until there's a disaster.

"Last month, a big production house who use a SADiE hard disk editor and store the end results to DAT were having terrible problems with data errors on DATs, but they can't pin it down to one machine. They'd check the playback at their own studio, send it to the BBC, who also checked it on receipt, then when it's been transmitted, there's been a major dropout. Sometimes it's happened in the studio and it's been the only copy — completely random. If you're relying solely on DAT and you don't have a backup, you can lose a lot of work in one go. It means that you can't always be 100% confident that your work is intact, so if you're making a CD master from DAT, you really need to sit in and listen to every second of it as it goes across, to make sure it's OK."

To put things in perspective, most people manage most of the time without any problems. I've used DAT since it first came out and I've had few problems that couldn't be traced to either a faulty tape or machine incompatibilities. The same with ADAT — I can't remember ever having a dropout while using the recommended tapes, though I have had clients who've brought in recordings made on other S‑VHS tapes and some of those have thrown up serious errors. I would imagine that one cause of reported ADAT errors, at least from home users, is using the same tape over and over again. If you do that with a video tape in a video recorder, you eventually get sparkles or a fuzzy picture, and I imagine the audio equivalent is an increased error rate.

"I don't want to be alarmist, but because we're selling media day in, day out, we get a broad overview of the problems with the stuff. Naturally we don't get every customer calling us up to tell us that the stock they've been using has been great — we only get a comeback if there's a problem, so that's what tends to stick in your mind. And you're right that re‑using old tape is a completely false economy. Enthusiasts think nothing about spending thousands of pounds on equipment, then they'll spend years cycling around the same £20‑worth of tape. In fact, forget £20 — they'll come in and look at two different brands of ADAT tape, one of which costs a tenner and one of which costs, say, £11, and you can see them standing there trying to decide which one to buy!"

And this goes right back to the guy with the cassette multitracker — you should always use a brand new tape for every session, and it should be the right type of tape. But how many people do that?

"It's amazing that the thing we store the information on gets so little respect. I've been on the other side, and when you're trying to decide whether to buy five reels of 2‑inch tape and you have to choose between 456 and 499, the difference in cost comes to about £50. But at the end of the day, it's your recording. It shouldn't be a question of 'what's the cheapest I can get away with?'. The question should be 'What's the best I can afford?'."

Life After Analogue

It seems to me that the life of the medium used for storage didn't change for the better when we switched to digital. While some analogue recordings have suffered from so‑called 'sticky shed' syndrome, there are still playable analogue tapes made decades ago. By contrast, digital tapes such as DAT, or even removable hard drives and writeable CDs, tend to have an estimated life span in the order of 10 years.

"Certainly with DAT and the smaller formats, 10 years may be all we can expect from them. If you want to keep a stereo master intact for as long as possible, it needs to be on a minimum of quarter‑inch, or preferably half‑inch, analogue tape. The sticky shed problem only afflicted certain types of tape, and even then we can't be certain how carefully all of it was stored. People can be very careless about how they store tape — all the effort goes into the creative process, then the master DAT gets stuck on a shelf.

"It's amazing that the National Sound Archive can still get recordings to play back that were made on wax cylinders as long ago as 1904. Somebody actually took the machine into the jungle to make ethnic recordings, but I'm prepared to put money on it that if they'd gone out with a DAT machine, we wouldn't be listening to the original recording now. You might say that we don't need to listen to the original because we can clone it, but that only stands up if you can make the copy before the original degrades and starts dropping out. So you'll replay the DAT and at the slightest hint of dropout, you'll make a copy. That's fine, but by the time you've realised there is a problem you've lost some data already, and who has time to check all their old recordings? The irony with the National Sound Archive is that they're transferring all their material to DAT.

"The basic problem centres on the fact that we're using less and less space to store more and more information. In ancient Egypt, a full stop carved into a block of stone would have occupied a three‑inch‑square space for a single bit of information. Five thousand years later, even though the edges have been rounded off by the elements, we can still read it. Nowadays, an optical disk of the same dimensions can store 230 million bits — which is an amazing leap — but you've only got to mishandle the disk by leaving it in the sunlight or next to a heat source, and you run the risk of losing some of that data. Of course, this is using two extremes of information storage technology, but I hope it illustrates the point."