IF THE history of recording stays true to form, we are about to embark on a new era, another quarter-century of new techniques.
So much progress has been made in the past twenty-five years that one wonders how far the technology will take us. The explosion of computer development and automation in industry in general will have its effect on our record business, and the silicon chip is not going to be ignored in the future recording studio. Digital recording is already here and working. It is still crude and expensive, but it tells us the way we are going.
With our present systems, making a record is rather like making a movie. The tape is the medium (like film) which receives an imprint of sound, which is recorded and replayed. Because the sound is an imprint, it suffers from similar defects to a photograph - distortion, lack of clarity, background noise, tape hiss and so on. It can never be a perfect reproduction of the original. Digital recording is another matter entirely; it is a literal duplication of the original. Computer technology has given us this new system. How does it work?
Most people know that computers do very simple sums extremely quickly. They store information which is either yes or no. Your little pocket calculator is capable of solving incredibly complex problems which would take a human brain ages to work out, but in fact it works very simply (though-very fast). If you want to multiply 17 by 32 it will in fact add 32 17s together - at the speed of light.
Digital recording essentially breaks sound down into numbers, stores the information in a memory bank and re-assembles it when it is replayed. If you were to take a magnetic tape at any one point, you would not get anything very useful from it. But if you take a cross-section of a computer recording, like cutting a tree across the trunk and examining its rings, you can look at it and find out exactly what is happening. In a segment of sound lasting, say, 1/50,000 of a second, every frequency in the spectrum has a particular volume level; 30 cycles might have 58 decibels, 150 cycles might have 62 decibels, 2500 cycles might have 79 decibels, and so on. And, if every frequency were scanned, its volume accurately measured and the information stored, it would be a simple matter to recreate these frequencies in the same pattern.
Now, think of that particular segment as one frame in a cine film. If the same process were repeated very quickly
- in this case 50,000 times every second - and the results played back, you would not know that it was not a continuous sound: just as the human eye is tricked into seeing as one continuous image the twenty-four new pictures a cine film flashes on to the screen each second. In effect, the original sound wouid be rebuilt.
Digital recording is not recording in the normal sense - it is analysis and re-structuring; making a template and building an identical image. Therefore, because recording tape is not used in the ordinary way, we do not suffer from its disadvantages. There will be no hiss, no distortion, no cross-talk between tracks. (Tape is used, of course, but only as a computer uses it - merely to store binary-coded information.) Nevertheless, we will still be able to do all the things we do now - and more. We will be able to allocate the sound from one particular microphone to a particular section on the computer, and tell it, 'I want that sound kept separate.' You can add sounds ad infinitum. At the moment, this new system is linked to the kind of analogue recording desk which exists today. Only the tape recorder is digital. But its real value will come when desks are specially designed for digital recording.
Automation has been with us for some time. We installed m our AIR studios in London the very first Neve automated mixdown desk. Unlike the other systems in operation, NECAM (which is what Neve christened it) not °nly ^ remembers all the movements of the faders, but Physically moves them when asked to reproduce the mix. To watch it at work is rather like seeing the invisible man in the studio.
It works wonderfully well. I believe that we shall see a new design of desk which will contain everything that a studio needs. There will be no need for a separate tape machine - the desk will incorporate the terminal to the computer, which will not only store the recording information but do many other things besides. It will edit; it will mix one set of sounds with another. It will copy other sounds. Suppose you wanted to reproduce the type of echo used on an old Elvis Presley recording. You would play the record on your terminal and instruct it: 'Remember the echo on voice, and give it to me on the recording I am making now.' It should be able to do that by calling up the right sequence of extra frequencies, without any need for an echo chamber of its own.
Another great advantage will come from its speed of operation, as users of pocket calculators will understand. Even with modern techniques, a lot of time is used in running magnetic tape to and fro. With digital recording you will be able to go to wherever you want on the recording almost instantaneously.
What else is waiting for us in the future? Well, obviously video records will be as common as sound records are today; the record producer is going to have to become a visual as well as an aural maker of images. The disc played by a needle will soon become archaic; discs will still be made - but they will be scanned by a laser beam, which will eliminate the surface noise, pops and crackles that one gets in present-day discs. And of course with the high-quality sound will come a superb colour picture. Such systems already exist, even if they have not reached the wide market-place. There is even an ordinary record turntable which can be operated by cordless remote control - you can order it to skip certain tracks on a long-player if you don't want to hear them. You can sit in your armchair and tell it, 'Play tracks one, three and nine, and then go back and play track four' - and I do not think even H. G. Wells thought of that one!
Video-recorders are becoming normal domestic appliances. Soon there will be plenty of pre-recorded video-cassettes of popular films and plays, and eventually prices will fall to make the video album a truly economic proposition. But of course with laser technology and the allied invention of holography it will be possible to have video recordings in 3D. A three-dimensional projected image, rather as R2D2 gave us in Star Wars, is well within the bounds of possibility for our coming quarter-century. At the moment holography is only possible in monochrome, but it cannot be long before full-colour transmission will be developed.
These are just some of the changes I foresee. For the rest, it is anybody's guess. I dare say that if, on my first day at EMI studios, back in 1950, I had been told that I would be using twenty-four tracks or more on a computer-automated mixing console to make a high-fidelity stereophonic record, I would have raised at least one eyebrow. Of course, there has been rapid progress in all fields of technology in this last quarter-century, but few have known the transformation undergone by the record industry. Nor does the speed of change seem to have faltered. It so happens that all my children, Alexis, Gregory, Lucy and Giles, enjoy making music as well as listening to it. And if my crystal ball could tell them what will be available to them twenty-five years from now, I dare say their eyebrows, too, would be raised. It's all theirs!