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Jack Endino Newsletter 2.7 (11/1997)


Hi - still trying to get into another technical newsletter but I'm working so hard that I don't want to think about that stuff right now. The band I'm working with right now, The Day I Fell Down, are amazing and so pop they'll rot your teeth (but pretty rocking too). So here's a few things you might find of interest.

You may not have heard about a group of record producers in England who got together to form a loose association called RePro, not exactly a producer's union, more of a loose industry association designed to lobby for various things and be a central clearinghouse of info. Some producers in the US have decided to get together and try to form the Music Producer's Guild of the Americas (MPGA). Those involved include Ed Cherney, the Dust Brothers, Phil Ramone (head of N2K if I'm not mistaken), Tony Visconti, Don Was... not exactly greenhorns, these guys! I'll probably join as soon as I can find the time to fill out the forms. The address is ... [2002 NOTE: MPGA no longer exists, it merged into the "Producers & Engineers Wing" of NARAS, see www.grammy.com -- JE]

On the technical side of things, here's something we did with The Day I Fell Down to save some money. It doesn't at all originate with me, but I can tell you this spreading practice is putting a lot of downward pressure on the big studios' rates! There's never a good time to explain SMPTE time code, but I'll give it a brief go ... you may have heard the start-up noise that your modem makes; that's what digital numbers sound like when converted to audio. Imagine a similar digital "noise" that is basically just a stream of numbers like a clock, just counting seconds, milliseconds, etc in real time, but digitally, sounding much like that noise your modem makes. You have a generator that makes this noise, and you can set it like a clock, press the "start" button, and it generates this "clock pulse" as a horrible screechy-sounding audio signal, starting from the time you told it to start from and counting. Other machines can "listen" to this noise ("time code") and convert it back to numbers in real time. (OK, you engineers can skip this, this is for everybody else.)

Ever since the seventies, when people wanted more than 24 tracks, they would synchronize two tape machines. The first roll of tape would get this "time code" recorded (or "striped" as we say) on one of the audio tracks (so you only have 23 left to record music on) starting from whatever number you want, say 00:00:00 (hr/min/sec... let's not talk about "frames" right now) at the beginning of the reel, and recorded all the way to the end of the reel, which at 30 inches per second would be about 00:16:33. It's much like the absolute time numbers on DAT tapes, or any digital format really. Put the same time code on another reel of tape, put it on another tape machine, and with the right additional equipment (a "synchronizer") you can get the two tape machines to play their tapes in perfect synch, absolutely locked together as though you had one big 48 track machine. (46 really, because the time code uses up two tracks.) The synchronizer listens to the time code from both machines, and one is designated the "master" and one the "slave"; you control the master machine by hand as usual and the synchronizer auto-controls the slave machine so it is playing, stopping, and rewinding in unison with whatever you tell the master machine to do. Digitally speaking, the tapes both now have actual "numbers" physically "marked" on them, and if they matched once, they can always be made to match exactly again. The nice thing about this is that the process doesn't care where the master time code signal is coming from; I could have some time code recorded on a cassette (well, very carefully recorded 'cause they suck) and actually have a huge 24-track machine slaved to it ("chasing" the time code).

With The Day I Fell Down, we had an indie band with an indie budget and major-label ideas. They had tons of backing vocal harmonies and layered guitars to do; it was obviously going to take a lot of time. To save on studio bills, we went into Ironwood Studio "B" here in Seattle and cut drums, bass and some guide guitar tracks in a few days. We cut a few more guitar tracks at Hanzsek Audio, and then we "striped" the 2-inch 24-track tapes with time code. Then we took a couple ADAT machines (small digital 8-tracks) and made a submix of the drums, bass and rhythm guitars onto a few tracks of the ADATs, and as they were being copied to the ADATs, simultaneously copied the time code track to one track of the ADATs. Now we had two sets of tape with the same music and the same time code, and we could synchronize them. So... we took the ADATS to a very reasonable home project studio (Abel-X Productions, owned by the very capable James Ramos, who assisted on the entire project) and recorded vocals and overdubs there for several weeks, saving thousands of dollars.

At the end of the process, we took the ADAT tapes back to the big studio where we had decided to mix it, syched the machines up again, and transferred the new ADAT tracks over to the two-inch 24-track tape alongside the original drum and rhythm tracks. Once transferred back to analog, these tracks lost their "digital" quality and sounded completely fine, and we didn't have to mess with the ADATs again, the whole album existing now on the two-inch. We could have used more tracks and kept the machines synchronized - no limit on how many tracks you can get with ADATs, 'cause they synch easily with each other - but I wanted to end up in analog domain (for other reasons, aside from the fact that 24 tracks is plenty, thank you very much...)

So... we spent over 6 weeks recording and only paid for the equivalent of about 3 weeks of studio time. And hey, I didn't think of this, plenty of people are doing it these days; the only limiting thing being analog "purists" (like I used to be) who think digital is completely unacceptable and is doing something to the sound. As I've said in earlier newsletters, it's what it DOESN'T do that is more important than what it does. In some ways and for certain types of sounds, digital recording is a mirror. Copy it over to analog and you'll have trouble distinguishing the sound from something that was recorded to analog in the first place. The only time I might mistrust this process would be with very high-frequency material like drums and cymbals; analog has a much higher frequency response (up to 28 KHz) than digital (20 KHz) and I don't like the way cymbals and hi-hats sound on ADAT machines, but for guitars and vocals this works great.

That's it for now, I'll have a ton more stuff next time, assuming I get some time off in December. There's some technical stuff happening in the biz I've had my eye on, and I'll have to let you know how your music-listening, TV-watching, and computer-using future is being PLANNED for you. (Hint: nobody asked you!)

'Til next time,

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