Is Old Technology More Interesting Than New?

Someone on one of the Gretsch guitar forums that I belong to recently posted the question of whether or not old technology is more interesting than new. As a disclaimer, I must confess to being somewhat of an enigma when it comes to technology. For instance, I use solid state pedals in front of my old tube amps, but my days of playing solid state amps have long passed. I feel so strongly about the use of tube amps that it’s not up for discussion. If someone else wants to use transistor amps, that’s fine, but I’ll never be convinced to start using them again. On the other hand, the new solid state pedals being made by small ’boutique’ operations really are exciting; the most recent acquisition being a hauntingly atmospheric and cool reverb pedal by Earthquaker Devices called, the Ghost Echo.

State of the art recording technology is admirable and can accomplish sonic feats that tape cannot. But….at some point during the recording/mixing/mastering process, it gets compressed, meaning that the silence, or space between the sounds is removed. Logic would suggest that silence has no effect on the sound, but music is largely about the interaction between sound and space, on micro and macro levels. We perceive it in a variety of ways, usually difficult to explain objectively. Some of the usual comments upon hearing a good quality analogue recording are, “It sounds so warm”, “It sounds like the orchestra is in the room”, etc. Analogue recording almost disappeared for a while, but there is a reason why it has returned, at least to some extent. One studio in Great Britain called Sugar Ray’s, has gone back to using 1950s gear and recording methods, starting with one mic.

Analogue recording automatically brings the engineer/producer and the musicians into a very different environment compared to digital recording. Getting everything right at the source places a level of responsibility on the musicians and the engineer/producer that is demanding in ways that digital is not, where there are easy fixes, edits, almost endless possibilities for manipulating everything from pitch, to rhythm & timing, sound, etc. What I find satisfying are the possibilities for marrying the two technologies, which seem to work very well. For example, a few years ago we recorded in a great studio to a hard drive. When they mixed, everything went through an old Neve console and the sound warmed up remarkably. Recording to tape and then removing tape hiss digitally also works well. Using old recording technology and equipment creates a different relationship among everyone involved in the process.

Is old recording technology more interesting than digital? In my opinion, yes, but I really understand very little about digital technology. What I do know is that engaging with the old stuff is a very different experience, and assuming that the quality and level of skill and artistry are high, it sounds….. well….better, if warmth, sonic depth, and individual character are still a paradigm.

Fly fishing is something that has been with me since childhood. For a while, as with solid state amps, I used the latest fast and light graphite rods and the disk drag reels that can stop a sixteen wheeler, but I seldom catch a trout over 12″, and what’s the hurry? Most of my reels were made in England in the 1950s, and the engineering is so good that they will last for many generations. The slowness of the fiberglas rod seems more attuned to the movement of the creek and the cadence of the trout’s casual rise to the surface to take a hatching mayfly. The beautiful silk windings on the old fiberglas blanks were often done by women, by hand, working for local companies that were not plugged into multi-national corporate entities, when life was just a tad slower. Yes I’m a romantic, guilty as charged, but that old technology connects us to a time when life, even if only in our minds, was more forgiving. Time was slower, and the spaces between could be felt, contemplated, savored…….

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of old technology that I can think of, is that, like silence, it is truly subversive.