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16-Bit Records, Frozen in Time

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Stevie Wonder's Characters: Frozen in 16-bit forever?Chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably know that the Compact Disc is a 16-bit audio playback medium.  But did you ever consider that some of the actual recording devices used for making digital music (especially during the 1980s) were also 16-bit? Thus, in theory, no matter what remastering and remixing is done, the underlying recording or special effect will always be 16-bit fidelity.  This isn’t always a bad thing, but in some cases there seem to be problems. More on that in a moment.

Back in the day, there was a lot of hoopla on all both sides of the musical fence as labels and artists jockeyed to stay on the cutting edge and cut costs while still striving to deliver hit records to the ever-eager buying public seeking something new and different.

Accordingly, many a music fan today laments the mid 1980s as something of a low water mark in pop music production, a time when virtually every artist had a record out with a “gated reverb” on the snare drum (resulting in that big “pow!” sound you hear on the downbeat) and a Yamaha DX7 digital keyboard. Some records fared worse than others, especially if they used “Syndrums” on the track, earlier electronic drum sample sounds that resulted in a “pew pew” type sound instead of thump, wham, and bam of an acoustic drum.

the_scream_edvard_munchThat said, the past ten years of popular music production trends may have shifted the crown of most easily dated music from the mid ’80s to the 00′s.  Consider the bazillion (yes, ba-zillion!) records made post Cher’s Believe with auto-tuned vocals, which will arguably suffer a worse fate over time than the gated reverb drum sounds.

Not to be too judgmental or anything (who? me?) but, well, I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the this chapter of the music history book is closed and this collective generation of hit makers look back at their legacy and shout out a resounding:  “OMG WTF!?”

But I digress…

Going back to where we started, my little unofficial and certainly un-thoroughly researched theory is that many ’80s records may be frozen in time (if you will), bearing the sonic imprint of the actual digital recording media and processors by which they were created and delivered to the listening public.

Many artists of some stature jumped on the digital bandwagon (including some I really, really like and respect) and issued quite a number of albums made on recorders that, in 20/20 hindsight, will likely never sound a whole lot better than a CD. They were recorded at 16-bit depth with a resolution of no more than 44.1 kHz or maybe 48 kHz depending upon the recorder.

Some of those early all-digital recordings sounded mighty tepid.  True, as engineers learned to work with the new medium, digital recording did begin to sound better. And nowadays, CDs can do a decent job of reproducing some music dependent up on how the recording is made (i.e. 24-bit recording and mastering). But many of those early-to-mid ’80s recordings suffered from a double whammy of wildly dated production tends (i.e. the gated snare) and a (relatively) harsh 16-bit digital recording environment.  I say environment specifically since it’s not just the recorders; it’s also about the related series of processors, new consoles, and probably even some microphones.

Heck, my own old band had to shelve an entire album — after we’d mixed and mastered it — primarily due to early digital processors.  It was a hard lesson to learn. We discovered too late that all of the guitar parts, which our producer had us record through early versions of The Pod, had lost much of the bite along the way. On its own, the recording sounded fine, but when played in a mix against other commercially released recordings from the period, it sounded flat and dull.  Someday, I will re-record those guitars and revive that album.

daryl_hall_dreamtime

In recent months, though, I’ve begun exploring vinyl pressings of ’80s albums, which a lot of people — dare I say the vast majority of us — have only heard on CD.  I have to explain that I specifically stated that I am “exploring” these discs, and not quite collecting them, as not all of these make it into my collection. Despite some of these discs being quite rare now (and that doesn’t necessarily mean they are valuable folks, so don’t get all excited), some just sound so bad I can’t justify taking up the space on my rack when a CD will suffice.

Still, when I have the opportunity (like finding a good condition LP in the $1 bins at Amoeba Records) it’s interesting to check ‘em out and where possible compare them against their CD counterparts.

Big shock: they all tend to sound pretty much like the 16-bit CDs.

The question remains: is there any hope for saving some of these albums for the ages? Some were quite good at their root, despite the digital treatment.  I suspect that the smarter — and larger-budgeted — artists of the time ran analogue as a safety and probably used the analogue basic tracks more than not. Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. still holds up these days and has a nice timeless organic sound for the most part; even “Dancing In the Dark” holds up because the gated snare drum sound is used tastefully — it still sounds like a snare drum played by drummer Max Weinberg (though I was surprised to hear almost no cymbals on that tune, something I never noticed before). Kate Bush’s landmark Hounds of Love still sounds great, even though it used a lot of early digital production elements; the Wikipedia entry for the album says it was made on a 24-track recorder in her home studio, so thus there is analogue warmth soothing the harsher digital edges of the Linn drums and Fairlight synthesizer (early sequencer).

Here are some others I’ve recently revisited with mixed results:

3 Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine by Daryl Hall was one of the worst sounding CDs I bought back in the day, yet decided to keep because the songs were really good. Even a German LP pressing I found recently sounds pretty lame (it didn’t make it into the collection; the CD will suffice even though I rarely play it — the thing always hurts my ears). Daryl: please re-record this album so we have a good version for the ages.

beachboysThe Beach Boys’ eponymous release from 1985 is a another cryin’ shame, because there are actually some decent songs on it.  It marked the (arguable) beginning of Brian Wilson’s coming back to life and has some great tunes (including the opening track, “Getcha Back” by Mike Love and Terry Melcher).  Songwriting wise, there are a minimum of truly cringeworthy moments. The biggest problem in listening to this one is that it was made by producer du jour Steve Levine, who was riding high with hits for Culture Club.

So, there are no live drums on this album, just rhythm tracks made on the Fairlight synth. And there aren’t a whole heckuvalottta live instruments on it, either.  Only the vocals are “real” (if you will).  It’s a testament to the songwriting — such as Bruce Johnston’s sugary-sweet-but-undeniably-well-written “She Believes In Love Again” — that the songs hold up as well as they do. Still, its a pretty stiff recording that could use some human touch.  I am not keeping this one on LP in the collection — the CD will suffice.

paul-mccartney-press-to-play

Press to Play is actually a real good Paul McCartney album, but it suffers from almost ridiculous use of the big drum sound and other period production techniques. I recently obtained a US LP pressing which sounds about the same as the UK-pressed CD did (less the bonus tracks, of course, which is why I bought the CD back in the day anyhow). Still, I’m keeping this one on the LP because you don’t see it that often and it’s got a certain charm.

Characters by Stevie Wonder — The vinyl version’s saving grace is that that intriguing cover art is beautifully printed and many of the faces are embossed. My copy is a promo edition, so I’m not sure if this was commonly released on vinyl back in the day.  Still, the production is so painfully ’80s-flavored, but at least the music is better than the all digital In Square Circle.

No.10 Upping St, the second release by Mick Jones’ fine post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite, was a bit of a sonic disappointment to me at the time, especially in the face of their brilliant first album. You see, that first album broke a lot of ground in its use of sampling and other digital production techniques, yet it maintained a strong sense of cinematic ambiance and warmth, which holds up to this day. The second one left me flat initially, but it grew on me over time; mostly I didn’t like how the album sounded production-wise (well, the stupid hats were looking dumber than ever on this, but that is another discussion entirely).

220px-No10UppingStcoverOut of curiosity, I picked up an LP copy of the second one in a bargain bin recently, and it still sounds pretty harsh to my ear for the most part. The production leaves a lot to be desired — it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a punk band or a teen dance combo. It’s not so much the gated drum sounds (they are there for sure) but more of the thin sound that permeates the whole record.  Was it digitally recorded? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

These are just the tip of the iceberg; YouTube videos of some of these productions follow. What are some of your favorites from the period that could benefit from some serious sonic alchemy? Let us know in the comments section below.

Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio, and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T, and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine, and HomeTechTell.com.  He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees, as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: dialthemusical.com.

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