June 12, 2017 - Robert John Hadfield
Compromising Quality for Convenience
In the world of media this has never been more obvious than it is today.
Although most people aren’t familiar with 2 inch audio tape, just about anything you listen to from the 70s 80s and most of the 90s, was recorded on one of that format. It was the industry standard for professional recording for nearly three decades. And it’s still considered by many to be the ultimate media for audio quality. But digital recording is so much less expensive and convenient, people have moved almost exclusively to that. But even the Foo Fighters went out of their way to record one of their recent albums on the 2 inch 24 track format.
What made the 2 inch tape format such a big deal? First of all, it had the capacity for 24 tracks. In other words you could record 24 different things, instruments, voices independently on this tape. It’s called multi-track recording. Although you can’t see it, a 2 inch audio tape is literally divided into 24 different areas. And each of those areas is called a track. And the sound engineers could then manipulate the sounds on each track individually. Not only did it sound better, but everything was more flexible. For example, you didn’t have to record everything at once. Bands could start by recording the drums and bass, then go back and add the keyboard, then the vocals, guitar, etc., up to 24 different things. Even each drum in the drum set could have its own track. Multi-track recording was great for mistakes too. If you messed up your guitar solo on a certain track, just erase it and record it again.
And the 2 inch width of the tape ensured there was plenty of surface area for the magnetic signal on each track. And not only was there plenty of surface area in the width, this was true for the length too. These 2 inch tapes recorded at up to 30 inches per second or ips. In other words, one second of music used almost a yard of this tape. The faster the tape turns, the higher the quality. the slower a tape turns, the lower the quality – you are packing the magnetic signal into a smaller area the slower the tape runs. You probably experienced this yourself with video tapes. If you recorded on a VHS, the 2 hour SP setting looked much better than the 6 hour EP setting where the tape was turning much slower.
But even though these 2 inch tapes are generally considered the top in quality, digital recording was just too convenient for this format to survive. To start, a reel of 2 inch tape cost over $200! And to make matters worse, because it spun at 30 inches per second, you could only get a little over 15 minutes of recording on each tape. So with a little luck, you could record up to three songs. To put that in perspective, if you are recording digitally onto a hard drive, a 1 terrabyte hard drive might cost $50 and you could probably record every song you write the rest of your life.
But beyond that, a good 2 inch tape machine could cost over a hundred thousand dollars, and a high quality studio mixing could cost the same. So just getting started with professional audio recording during that era, using this format, could be a quarter million dollar investment. And although modern digital tools are much more convenient, at this point, we really haven’t improved on the quality provided on by 2 inch tape. You could argue that we’ve matched it, but that’s about it. As a matter of fact, companies even make software plug ins for digital audio recording that mimic the “warm” sound you get from 2 inch tape.
Technology has changed everything in audio production. An average computer, a decent microphone and an analog-to-digital converter and you have everything you need for professional recording today. The purists will argue that we have compromised quality for convenience and price. And although this may be true on paper, I tend to think it was a good compromise.
Digital audio recording is the great equalizer.
When the record companies ruled the world, only musicians with serious financial recources could get their music out to the masses. And generally, these were the bands and musicians that were chosen by the record companies. So the music choices presented to us were often the result of nepotism or luck.
Today, the only thing holding a musician back from getting his/her music to the world is ambition. A kid in his basement can literally compete with Hollywood. And I love it. In the end, I believe we as consumers of music, movies and art will all be the beneficiaries of beauty that would have never been ours.
I personally spend thousands of hours recording on 2-inch audio tape, so it does provide some nostalgia for me, But this is a case where the trade off of quality vs convenience is a no brainer.
Watch our new video about 2-inch tape on YouTube - https://youtu.be/EBUQk1vaVnA