From Analog to Digital

Photo credit: Hernan Piñera via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Hernan Piñera via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.

Did we lose anything when we transitioned from analog to digital? Learn about the Jedi skills old radio DJs had to have to spin vinyl on the radio, and meet a man who’s found himself trapped in a digital world and learn what he does to escape. Featuring Rick Adams and Craig Crane

Music used in this episode

"Blues to Lose" by Dominik Hauser
"Scratching" by Dmitry Lifshitz
"Small Memory (Instrumental)" by Mint Julep
"Twilight Still (Instrumental)" by Mint Julep
"Colorbloods - Instrumental" by Brooke Waggoner
"Desert Vista (Instrumental)" by David Swensen
"Doin' That Thing (Instrumental)" by Soul City

View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story behind the transition from analog to digital.

When you put a record on, you have control over the needle and how the recording plays in a completely different way than with your phone and digital files where you just hit play. You had to lovingly place a record on a turntable and carefully set down the needle.

Rick: You really had to take your time with vinyl. If you dropped it, there would be this terrible ripping sound and you potentially ruin permanently your most sacred songs or somebody else's to that matter. You really wanted to take the time and put it down properly.

That’s Rick Adams.

Rick: I’m a Broadcaster, Producer, Writer, Performer…

And a Radio DJ just as radio was going digital. We’ll get to his story in a minute, but first let’s go back a bit. To 1931 when they began to use vinyl for recorded music. It was tough, light and sounded great. Vinyl records were used by soldiers throughout World War II and became widely used after the war.

Rick: There’s something really beautiful about that “whaboom” as it drops into a valley of audio. And these grooves, so ridiculous on either side, left and right, that recorded this audio and even though you sort of logically understood what it was about it, it didn’t make any sense. It was magical, how the heck does this work?

Vinyl is made from dinosaurs and pieces of dirt and decomposed plants , so it's alive.

It does sound kind of alive. There’s just something about taking one out, dusting it off, and setting it up to go. But, if you were a DJ, you had to be able to start at any song on the record.

Rick: You would take your finger, you'd find the beginning of the track and then you would rotate the disk for about the sort of third of the size of the disk to the left, so they would move back to give yourself some speed. When you push the button or open the fader and you're talking, it would hit speed and you wouldn't get this roar, you just get this “baaa” straight into the beginning of the track.

It was a point of professional pride to be able to do this just perfectly.

Rick: Amongst DJ, it's all about timing and you know again, total nerd pride and Jedi skills. It's just like how do you push the button, get the music playing and just after you played the jingle on the cart machine so that it hits absolutely perfectly. There was some artistry about that. It was quite exciting and it would add to the stress level the job, but it would keep you on your toes.

I can imagine, but stress is a part of a lot of jobs, right? Like Craig Crane’s...

Craig: I work in the visual effects industry, servicing films from studios such as Marvel, Disney, Warner Bros. We laser scan every set, every vehicle, every location used for filming so those area can be enhanced, demolished, have creatures walking through them…

But for Craig, records offer a way to relax. He describes himself as an analog man trapped in a digital world.

Craig: The more we've become digitized, I can't function the way I do professionally without a digital environment to work in. It's only a matter of time before we ourselves become digitized. In the last 2 or 3 years, I've started to miss that analog hands-on approach to everything really, from how we communicate with people, with how we create.

Living and working in a digital world began to take its toll on Craig.

Craig: I was desperate to try and find a way to decompress from all this compression that's around us.

But then, one day, going through some old boxes, he came across a walkman. Not only did it still work, but it sounded amazing.

Craig: It was the past just reaching out and grabbing me and pulling me back. I remember where I was when I made that tape. I remember what shops I bought the records on that I'd made that mix tape with. It was just total recall. Not only that, but I was listening to the sound, and what really surprised me was that I was actually listening to entire tracks rather than swiping across, next track, don't like that, next track, next track. I was actually listening to this entire cassette.

That's when I just started thinking, "You know what? I can't remember the last time I actually just sat down and listened to 90 minutes of continuous music on an iPad or an iPhone or an iPod." Then that was the genesis of this mission that I am currently on now.

Craig was working on a bunch of films at once and desperately needed some down time.

Craig: It was almost as if I was meant to find that box of tapes and that old Walkman.

The journey started from there. He became obsessed.

Craig: I decided to hit eBay, get a cassette deck, get all my vinyl cleaned, and I just started making tapes. It was a fantastic time because these records I hadn't touched for a good couple of decades. As soon as you put the needle on to that disc, it just takes you back. It takes you back to some fantastic memories.

Then he found that something interesting began to happen. Find out how this simple rediscovery changed his life, after the break.

[music out]

MID ROLL

[music in]

Craig Crane lives, and works, in a digital world. When he rediscovered his record collection, He started re-buying vinyl copies of albums he purchased on iTunes to recapture that analog sound.

Craig: The digital online version, yes it sounds ok, but as soon as you do and A/B comparison, the analog source is going to always win hands down in my ears. So I’m not telling you or anyone listening to this that analog is better for them, I just came to a point where I decided it was better for me.

In addition to missing the sound of vinyl, he missed the thrill of the search. The challenge of digging through trophs of records to find just the right one. Acquiring music had gotten too easy. He wanted to be out there hunting. He also found that the way music is being prepared for the web isn’t appealing to him.

Craig: The digital compression that's used for mass market appeal, such as streaming platforms, iTunes, it's compressed to the point where it's just a facsimile of its former self. It's stripped of all its warmth. It's stripped of all the ingenuity that went into how the original album was produced.

After he discovered how much more he enjoyed the sound of music playing from a record, he decided to challenge himself. He would only listen to analog music for an entire month. This eventually led to his project and website, Analogue October.

Craig: I spend all of September just making tapes. 1st of October, I put a sticker on the back of my iPod that basically just said banned for 1 month. I set about. Day 1, totally loved it, day 2, day 3, day 4, and as I got towards the end of October, I had a trip planned to New York for a Marvel film. We were going to be out there for 3 or 4 weeks capturing buildings as reference for an upcoming film.

Packing for New York, he faced a dilemma. Stick with his analog experient for a while longer, or switch back to the iPod. He went for the analog and packed his walkman and 30 cassette tapes. Craig: I just made sure that I packed a bit more carefully than I would normally.

He had a blast walking around Manhattan with his walkman, headphones, listening to his cassettes.

Craig: It was very interesting seeing people's reactions as well. It was bizarre. People I thought would look at me like, "Hey dude, have you not heard of the iPod," but a lot of people would actually come up and say, "Oh my, I've not seen one of those for years. You got to let me have a listen." As soon as you put the headphones on, they're like, "That's tape?" Yeah. They don't remember tape ever sounding that great.

The Walkman still seems to have a very fond place in people’s minds. Maybe because it was a monumental shift in the way we consume music. It paved the way for all the mobile music devices that followed. I asked Craig what he had learned from making this change in his life.

Craig: I was in a very dangerous position where I was not switching off. I was pulling 18 hour days, 20 hour days, 7 days a week, not taking vacations. What I have learnt from this process is that if you want to sit in your lounge with your headphones on and your feet up, and put a record or 2 on, and make a few tapes, you're allowed to. I was really on the verge of just pushing myself too hard. That little cassette that I found in that box, who knows. It may even have saved my life.

Does analog sound better than digital? It’s completely a matter of taste. But, was there something we lost when we went to digital? Absolutely. We lost the rituals that prepared us to listen. Spending hours at a record store, ready and eager to discover something new. We lost the excitement of flipping through bins of albums, pulling one out and deciding if it was worth the commitment.

Once we gathered our collection, we lost the journey of going through a shelf of albums, pulling out the one that sparked a memory. Remembering who you were when you first laid eyes on the artwork. The smell of the paper, the dust, the excitement of finding a bonus track at the end of an album. It has less to do with what sounds better and it has so much to do with the quieting of our minds to listen and enjoy the experience.

We lost that moment right before the first track played. Where we were fully invested in the experience of music.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble and Stephanie Wilkes. It was sound designed and mixed by Kenneth Gilbert and Colin DeVarney.

We’d like to thank Rick Adams and Craig Crane for speaking with us and Pocketknife for doing our website and Mast for the fantastic artwork. Check it all out at 20k.org.

If you find yourself on Facebook or Twitter, follow us at 20korg and say hello.

Thanks for listening.

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Kelly Nowels

seattle, Seattle WA, United States