Get Smart: An Audio Engineer Talks CDs

by DGO Web Administrator

In the second of a three-part series, audio engineer Scott Smith, owner of Scooter’s Place recording studio, tells you about the benefits those shiny little discs you may have mistaken for coasters. Or really, really hard little Frisbees.

Why the move from vinyl to CDs?Several things took us away from the LP. It’s not very portable, for instance. The cassette really brought us something new that way. All of a sudden, you could record your album onto something that you could play in your car, or in a boombox on your shoulder. You didn’t have to have a turntable anymore. You didn’t need to know how to work one – all you had to do was know how to push PLAY and REWIND. That’s what was really revolutionary, the idea that music could be portable. We’d figured out that the flat disc was the better sounding medium – cassettes were never very good in quality – but we now knew that we had to make it portable, too. Hence, the compact disc. Smaller, more portable, and most importantly, more durable. I mean, you can still scratch it and ruin it, but it’s a lot more durable than vinyl ever was.

Benefits. CD. Go.It took all of the benefits of the album, and then made it better. First, there’s more length on a CD – which is good and bad – but an album can have 40 minutes of music, and that’s sort of pushing it, while you can get 74 minutes on a CD. You’ve got a medium that does need some care, but isn’t being degraded with each consecutive listen. The quality, the detail, everything is there for every listen. That’s not to say that mistakes weren’t made, because we learn how to work with the medium we’re given.

Huh?Say you’re a chef and you’re using a certain type of flour and water to give you a certain consistency. Then say that suddenly you have to switch to a different brand of flour. Well, now it’s not whipping up the same way it used to, even with the same amount of ingredients. When we record on tape and vinyl, there are ways we work in order to make the sound the way we like it. We go and use the same recording methods for this new medium that doesn’t have the limitations of vinyl and tape, and the resulting sound is harsh. Well, the problem is that transience and magnetism doesn’t work like digital recording. It’s lethargic. It takes a while to get going and to get excited. So you crash that cymbal in an analog recording and it’s “PSSSSSHHHHH!” Crash it in digital and it’s “CAH-RASH!!!” Digital captures everything. So the way you used to record to get those sounds doesn’t work anymore. Those early digital recordings were perceived as, “Oh, that is so harsh!” When the reality is that we had to learn to record differently because we were suddenly able to actually capture what was happening. Cymbals changed. Listen to a recording made in the ’60s and then one made now. Those cymbals sound way different because we capture them much differently. We can still make amazing recordings, and we can still cop the sounds of the old analog recordings, we just have to work differently. My point in all of that being, if a CD is recorded correctly, it’ll sound great, and I really appreciate that.

So you work differently because the CD captures things more clearly?It’s digital, so you have a sampling rate, which is how many times per second (the medium) is taking a picture. The sampling rate of a CD is 44,100 – so 44.1K. So 44,100 times a second, it’s taking a picture of what’s going on. The amount of pixels that are contained within that picture is the bit depth, which, for a CD, is 16 bits, or 16 placeholders. So when I record someone, I record them at 24 bit – a much higher resolution with a lot more information – so that when I shrink it onto a CD, (the information) is all there. One of the funny things we had to relearn is that a lot of the old master tapes made to produce records were used to make CDs. It sounded awful. (laughs) They had to go back and remaster them to get a CD that sounded like it supposed to. The record companies really screwed a lot of things up there. That’s why remasters and reissues are so important and so great. They realized that they were constraining the new medium possibilities with the old medium’s limitations.

Remasters aren’t just a money grab?No, they make improvements on the sonic qualities. Anything in the late ’90s to early 2000s that was a reissue from the early ’80s when the CD first came out, that’s what you want. That’s the result of the record companies saying, “Oopsie!” They weren’t thinking! They grabbed the old master tapes and went at it without thinking, “Now, wait a second. Why does that sound so bad?”

What do you love about CDs?I remember listening to records the third or fourth time and getting that pop or crackle sound and I would just – “ARGH!” – because of the dust and stuff that I knew was collecting in the grooves. One thing that I love about the CD is that every time you put it in the player, it’s the same recording. Remember, vinyl is physical and so each time you listen to it, you’re losing high end and there’s stuff getting on it. But CDs- “AH!” I have CDs that I bought 30 years ago that still sound great. My records? Not so much. (laughs)

Cyle Talley has been trying to come up with band names for four straight days and still has bupkis. If you’ve got any suggestions or if there’s anything you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]


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