Sonic Attitude

The article starts with, “Everyone’s talking about the great speech T Bone Burnett gave as the keynote address to AmericanaFest yesterday”. I read the speech and I read the interview he did with Billboard magazine recently. You can link to the speech with by clicking here and the Billboard article here.

T Bone Burnett is famously against digital recording, binary coding, and state-of-the-art digital processing. He produces his recordings using analog tape and he’s not alone in adhering to yesterday’s technology. He said, “I’ve been A/B-ing equipment for 50 years now, and I’ve gone with the best sounding technology at every juncture. We still use analog tape as our storage medium, because it’s the most durable, reliable and highest quality storage medium we have. Digital is terrible.”

He hasn’t “gone with the best sounding technology at every juncture”. He’s gone with a format that delivers the particular sound that he cherishes — and clearly it works for him. I certainly can’t claim that he hasn’t had tremendous success producing first-rate artists and creating unique soundtracks for film and television project. His production of the soundtrack for “O Brother Where Art Thou?” is absolutely gorgeous — but not because of the fidelity of the recording.

It’s interesting to read the two different articles because on the one hand he blames the failure of the music business on “binary codes” and yet he uses the tools and techniques of digital production for the television scores that he composes. Maybe the sound of television isn’t worthy of the “best sound” like his record projects. Or perhaps he uses a different set of tools as the circumstances demand. That would make sense.

The music industry can produce and release great sounding music on a variety of formats — if they want to. In reality, those who record and produce recordings don’t care very much about the fidelity of their records. They care a whole lot about the sound quality of the drums or guitars.

The new Brew Media studios here in the AIX building are finally finished and operational. The wiring of the patch bays and the final testing of all signal paths were completed just a few short weeks ago. And the room is booked solid for the next three months. A French band has taken up residence in the studio and is building their new album track by track using a variety of analog and digital equipment. They decided to record at 44.1 kHz (“Because going any higher is a waste of space…no one cares!”) in spite of the fact that the owner and chief engineer set up the first session at 88.2 kHz. They are using 24-bits but the signal path from each microphone passes through a preamp, equalizer, and compressor on its way to the analog to digital converters. What Pro Tools is getting — and preserving — is exactly what the producer wants. The recording medium in this case is doing its job.

Just like T Bone, all that matters is the final sound that comes out of the speakers. The group actually sought out an independent engineer to sort out the problems they were having with the drum sound. What was his solution? A little duct tape on the drum heads, some additional tuning — and more dynamics modifications with compressors.

The commercial music business and the people that create the recordings — including respected musician/engineers like T Bone Burnett — simply want a familiar “warm” sound. If analog tape gets the job done for T Bone, then more power two him. But I wonder what he would say if he heard John Gorka, John McEuen, or Albert Lee from one of my AIX albums. My guess? He wouldn’t like the clarity, detail, or lack of distortion — qualities that work for me but don’t work for him.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

12 thoughts on “Sonic Attitude

  • Rodrian Roadeye

    A little duct tape on the drum heads.

    Yup! Solves everything. Stuff never ceases to amaze. LOL

  • Carlo Lo Raso

    I often wonder if what some of these die-hard analog evangelists object to when they say they hate digital recording is the inherent lack of distortion in the playback. Most of the “warm-ness” that these guys like in the sound is most likely even ordered harmonic distortion. The same thing that make many people like tube amps over solid state for example.The thing that I never quite understood with music producers is that, if you are trying to sculpt a particular “sound” then do it with the instruments and the effects tools, why do it with the recording medium? Although I am a visual artist by trade and not a musician, it seems to me that I’d want the most accurate recording method available to capture and play back exactly the sound that I’d worked so hard to create.
    I remember reading that Frank Zappa loved the transition to digital recording because there was no more tape hiss. He would hate hearing it in the quiet passages of his music or if it had built up over multiple over dubs with analog tape.

  • Dean Mindock

    Myself, I want the real thing or the closest to it I can get. A ‘warm” sound is okay for background music as it does not invite the ears to dig into the sound, To get real sonic enjoyment/entertainment I want all the veils removed from the musicians’ performance on its way to my listening room. I bought electrostatic speakers to replace my old motion coil drive speakers to remove a veil. Using audio recordings and home playback equipment that were created so that all the fidelity/reality of the live performance is there at my speakers’ input to “wiggle” the air is what I am aiming for. If going into the binary/digital encoding realm is what is required for the original whack on a drum to make it to my speakers, then so be it.

    • Admin

      There is a sound to analog machines just as there is a look to film cameras. Producers and directors has know this and want to take advantage of these qualities.

  • “We still use analog tape as our storage medium, because it’s the most durable, reliable and highest quality storage medium we have”
    As you said Mark, the sound quality might be debatablle if your looking to create a certen sound.
    But durable and reliable, analog tape? Are you kidding me.
    Might a well say a 1952 Chevy is more durable and reliable than a 2016 Impala, That’s just rediculos.

  • I can relate to and even agree with much of what is said in that speech.
    But I simply fail to understand how the sentence: ‘Digital is not an archival medium.’ fits in there.

    If T was true to himself, he should – after chopping some logs to keep him warm – just be sitting on the porch strumming a steel guitar. Maybe he should get a bike in orden to do some local gigs.
    Recording in all-analog equipment requires a power outlet – electric power (regardless of how that was created in the first place) is technology – and thus (if T was consistent) associated with the devil.

    I like what T has recorded and was involved in as a producer, but the schizophrenia in what he is doing in his real life makes me sad.
    An example: If you go to the Homepage of his protege band (the Mini Mansions), find the newest album and click on ‘stream’, you are redirected to the Spotify app (if you have that installed).
    Of course we should use technology today (including recording and distributing digital), because we can benefit a lot from it. You must relate to the circumstanses, that you are in – there is no getting around that!

    T would do best in combining his admirable (recording/producing) skills with genuine modern digital technologies. But he probably has no clue how to do that.

    T – wake up for heavens sake!

  • Jose Carlos Mendes

    In my opinion, one big differentiator between all analog and all digital would be the workflow. The way things are done with tape ‘forces’ a different mind-frame. Here in my studio, I have no doubt that not having access to easy editing and pitch manipulation would change the producers and musicians attitude regarding the recording.
    Having little experience with tape (not that I am young just entered the game later in life), I prefer hybrid recording all-analog to converters, minimum editing in PT. Analog summing for mixing.
    There is however a noticeable diference with all-analog and all-digital sound-wise, but this is just a matter of taste. Coming from IT, and having used tape and disk for storage, I can say that disk is safer and longer lasting than tape for various reasons. Not even mentioning that conserving digital arquives is the only way (as yet), to conserve with absolute accuracy, because it can be replicated with no loss of integrity.

  • craig allison

    Unfortunately, this has become like politics: each side manages to make a highly plausible case which the other side refutes completely while propounding what is to them an airtight stance. I think at the very least we should remember that the majority of digital,(low-rate,compressed files,) does sound terrible, but CD is quite satisfying when it is done right end-to-end. Similarly, everyone complained about vinyl quality in the last couple of years before CD.Now, it’s somehow morphed into a Valhalla medium. Mark, you and I are past this particular discussion. Best to you,Craig

  • Soundmind

    Perhaps the “failure” of the music business today is not due to the recording medium at all. In the past there have been successful recordings in every era with many different technologies. Perhaps the real reason is that the underlying truth about what passes for music today is that it simply stinks. The problem isn’t the quality of the process but the quality of the product. I cannot think of even one recording I know of in recent decades I’d listen to for free let alone buy. You can put lipstick and a wedding gown on a pig but it still oinks, grunts, snorts, rolls in its own excrement and smells very bad.

    • Music today doesn’t stink. That’s your opinion based on your own preferences. I love a lot of music produced in the past several decades. The Avett Brothers, John Gorka, Peter Gabriel, James Taylor and hundreds of other releases. You have a very narrow window for music.

      • Soundmind

        Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say it is, it’s also in the ear of the beholder.

        How lucky we are to have the internet and Youtube. I listened to about 4 or 5 songs of each of the groups, singers you mentioned. I’m sticking to my guns. If anything my opinion has only gotten worse. As luck would have it, strange things pop up in my house. I’ve somehow got James Taylor’s Greatest Hits on both CD and vinyl. Don’t ask me how I got them, I certainly didn’t buy either of them for money. One day the vinyl might just become a cake plate. Anyhow, several seconds of each was about all I could stand of any of it. To each his own. If that was all there was to music, a boombox would be overkill for my audio equipment needs.

        I’ve taken a one year leave from listening to music. I don’t know why. It’s been about 6 months since I even turned the equipment on to see if it still works. Anyhow I think I’m going back to listening. There is a lot great beauty out there, at least for me. Here’s an example. It’s my favorite recording of this piece and IMO the performance of a lifetime. I’ve heard various recordings of it for over 50 years but THIS is the one. Mark, don’t you wish you had been there to hear it live and record it? I don’t think the composer himself could have milked it for anymore. Warning! Don’t listen to this if your attention span if 5 minutes or less. This takes nearly 45 minutes.


        • I love classical music as well as well done folk acoustics and rock n roll. If James Taylor doesn’t work for you, we’re just going to have to disagree. His songs, voice, spirit, and recordings are sheer bliss. The Rachmaninoff concerto is a masterpiece as well…although I’m not thrilled with the recording. Too far away for my taste.


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