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Your Music on Film (the eBook for aspiring film composers) - New Music (recent compositions mixing the acoustic with the electronic) Lecturer at the NFTS - BBC Composer 1973 to 1998 - Early Compositions (Music for Collectors) - Still to Come (the writing)

January 20, 2012

Looking Back, Keeping Your Balance

Was analogue really better than digital.... that depends

Way back amongst the jack cords, the vinyls, the hums and the buzzes, when tape hiss enveloped everything you did, things had a physical presence. You stood in a room full of bits and pieces, some of which made good sounds, others just good trip hazards, hoping that in this 'take' nothing would fall off, and that the man next door wouldn't start using his lawn mower and add an unwanted drone to your recording. Your audio life was lived on the edge, making use of whatever was to hand.

Howell and Ferdinando recording 'Alice'

For example, in 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' from the 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' album of 1969 (yes really 1969),  we used everything lying around the studio, including an old telephone receiver, seawash effects played off an old gramaphone, speeded up voices for the oysters, and some early reversed sounds achieved by turning the tape upside down and playing it backwards.  Pretty rough, but clearly a good time was had by all!

Much later Dr John Chowning, the inventor of FM synthesis on a visit to the Radiophonic Workshop, talked to us about the need for a sense of effort in synthesized sound, to avoid it becoming just glitz without substance. No problem, Doctor, just go back to the old ways; to the dirty tape heads, the edits held together with sticky tape, the feeling that maybe you should have stuck to the desk job after all, or just played the harmonica.
H&F's Vintage Site
Despite all the obstacles, there was something special about that era, the sense that once you had the idea, there is a good chance of being able to hear it, however roughly. Everything that made a sound was at your fingertips. It is tempting to suppose that it has always been the case but sadly there was a period when our means of expression was severely limited, and many people were often frustrated because their subtle ideas were being compromised by a lack of facilities. 

The digital revolution was sold to those who worked in audio as a great new dawn. The end of tape hiss alone would convert millions, but this new era was not all plain sailing; it brought with it many baby and bathwater related problems. For example, it's difficult to believe now but for several years there was no digital ring modulator; that would mean no Dalek voices, no end of episode stings, no electronic music as we knew it.  We wanted to be enthusiastic digiphiles, but our toys had been taken away from us. I'm no great supporter of plugins when used as an alternative to recording the right sound from the start, but a world without them, that world of early digital audio, was a barren landscape.

How times have changed. Enter a bright new era where everything is possible. I have as much on my laptop as the Radiophonic Workshop had in twelve rooms; but the ideas still need to feed the machine....

Listen to the excerpt above from a new piece of mine, 'Yours Today'. Plenty of digital manipulation at play here, as well as the wonderful plugin module 'The Mouth' from Tim Exile and Native Instruments.

Here's the spoken version of this post with the examples included