The Parable of the Magnetic Tape Hiss

Ampex Multitrack Recorder

Let me tell you the story of the Rishi who found a mouse and turned her into a girl. When the girl came of age he tried to get her married to the sun, but she felt that the sun was too angry. He tried to get her married to the wind but he was too strong for her. He tried to get her married to the mountain but she found him too still. But as they were climbing down the mountain she saw the king of mice running around the foothills. She fell in love with his playfulness and asked to be married off to him.

The Rishi smiled at the play of destiny and turned the girl back into a mouse.
Now let me retell this story to you in the modern context.

When I started off as a young composer, people were still recording on analogue equipment and digital was just making an entry. I was standing on the the shore when the Tsunami of digital technology was ushering in. Soon studios replaced their analogue 8 and 16 track spool
recorders with ADAT machines (which recorded digital audio signals on VHS tape) or on Hi-8 tape machines.

The hiss of the magnetic tape disappeared but somehow for those who had grown accustomed to the analogue sound realised that along with the hiss even life was sucked out of some acoustic instruments like the Tabla. The hiss provided a cushion so that the sound of acoustic instruments sounded warm. This warmth was sacrificed at the altar of clarity and crispness of sound. While the crisp sound was certainly the upside, musicians rued the loss of the cushion of warmth that the hiss provided.

Meanwhile technology progressed even further making tape based digital technology obsolete. This happened faster than the blink of the eye. While analogue technology was there for a long long time; I had seen the birth and the demise of tape based digital technology within one decade of my experience as a musician. Computers took over everything and linear destructive sound editing was taken over by non-linear non-destructive computer technology.

But the mouse in the girl’s body still missed being the mouse so the technological Rishis made a digital plugin that would emulate the analogue sound! And voila!

We were back to emulating the hiss and the warmth of analogue equipment in the digital era! Now we have a lot of digital plugins that will introduce the analogue hiss into a digital track.

This is an image of a tape emulator plugin by 
Softube Studios.

The whole point of digital audio technology was to remove or minimise that hiss. Dolby
even has a patented noise reduction technology. The Rishi who thought that he was doing the mouse a favour by turning her into a girl had to turn her back into a mouse for her own happiness.

To note the advantage, technology has given us a choice and it has consistently endeavoured to do so. But it is still amusing how life will come a full circle.

Finally, here is a song that I recorded early in my career when there were still analogue studios around. Although at that time the multitrack technology was available, I wanted to go back in time even then like the hero of ‘Midnight in Paris’ and explore the times when there was no multitrack recording. Hence I have recorded this whole album in the old style – all instruments and voice of the singer together like a live performance. Only a singer of Pt. Raghunandan Panshikar’s calibre could do that. Do listen and enjoy! 

1 Comment

  1. Bibhas Biniwale says:

    Very interesting read. Technology is certainly becoming obsolete way too fast and it’s difficult to keep up with it. Maintaining media and its various players so that you can keep listening/ viewing the media contents is becoming a costly affair if you want to manage a personal collection, and it takes up so much space too. And all this when newer technology is actually cheaper and more compact! Only if it was quick, easy and cost effective to keep moving all the content to the new media from its predecessors.

    Btw, what do you exactly mean by “…linear destructive sound editing was taken over by non-linear non-destructive computer technology…”?

What do you think?