Zen of Recording

Stranger on a Train

Analog versus digital. For musicians and studio types, that comparison usually brings to mind all manner of technically related issues, from audio fidelity to portability, data, and media storage. One might as well be talking about fishing as music, when considering the lures, lines, and sinkers employed in its “capture and release.”

Think of the water. A gentle stream with subtly brilliant shards of sunlight glistening off its surface. The sound of it gently splashing over rocks and pebbles that have been smoothed and rounded by this very process, over a great deal of time. The constant movement of soft, malleable water somehow succeeds in transforming solidly stubborn, rigid rock. Not with technology or with tools, other than the smaller silt and gravel light enough to be caught within its current. Even these tiny granules were once part of much larger stones and boulders of granite. Monolithic monuments of feldspar and quartz.

“All of these cuckoo clocks are mechanical,” said my friend Wolfgang the other day, as I surveyed his living room’s collection of antiquated time keepers. “Except for that one: That one is quartz.”

Gotta love that German accent. “Is it electric, then?” I asked.

“No, but it does use a small battery.” He might have said “schmall.” I don’t think so though.

“Hmm.” I paused in contemplation, “How does it perform in comparison to the mechanical ones, in terms of accuracy?”

“See for yourself!” he exclaimed. I looked around and noted that each of the roughly half-dozen clocks were set to exactly 5:17.

In modern quartz clocks, there is a tuning fork-shaped quartz crystal oscillator that vibrates at 32,768 Hz. A simple chain of digital divide-by-two stages results the 1 Hz signal needed to drive the watch’s second hand. My math shows that we arrive at an actual frequency of 0.83984375, meaning by extension a typical quartz clock or wristwatch will gain or lose 15 seconds every 30 days, which is just about the same amount of time we just spent considering that concept.

Chicka Tan! Chicka tan tan chicka chicka tan Tan chicka Tan!

The offbeat but deliberate rhythm loop that emanates from where the Amtrak Surfliner’s wheels somewhat disagreeably meet with the rails somehow cuts through the mists in the midst of my “cuckoo” meditation, harkening back through the water and the stones to a telephone conversation I’d had with Mike Metlay, editor of Recording Magazine, a couple weeks earlier.

“So I assume you’re coming to AES this year?”

“To what?” I asked, somewhat ironically. I mean… I knew that the Audio Engineering Society had an annual tradeshow/convention kind of event and that judging from the drool-worthy pictures of new products and technologies splashed across the pages of music publications each fall season, there was some pretty cool stuff to see and talk about. But it was always in New York City.

“It’s in L.A. this year, ya comin’?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see that iconic locale in its full autumn colors, but it always seemed such a great deal of time and expense for seeing something or someone that I’d probably catch up with at the NAMM show in January anyway, but I told Mike I’d see him there and started working out my travel plans.

The idea of driving a minimum of six hours, with even less time than that to spend at the event itself seemed unenticing and had prompted my girl Patricia to wisely suggest I take the train from Old Town, San Diego to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. The AES show was at the L.A. Convention Center (next door to the Staples Center) just a couple of miles from the train station so as a bonus, I also got to take my first metropolitan subway ride! A few stops and two blocks later, I was walking onto the exhibits floor and realizing I had totally been missing out all this time.

At first glance it looked a lot like NAMM, the booths filled with folks asking and answering questions, as computer screens dazzled and speakers radiated. Being the audio engineer that I am, I listened… rising above the dull murmur wasn’t a presence, but an absence. An absence of carnival-barking artifice, of vendors trying too hard to sell their products while offering little in the way of significant evolution or innovation, but mostly it was the palpably felt absence of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Hardly any guitars. Or amps on 11. Or the maddening cacophony of multiple drum kits being concurrently bludgeoned. Overall there was definitely less Sam Ash in my monitor.

I was certain that as a direct result of that, the stars came out. Not of the current or used-to-be rock star variety, though. Not the center-stage magazine cover end-users that endorse this manufacturer’s product or that one’s. These were the legions of smart guys that are endlessly tinkering with circuit boards and soldering irons or the coding of software emulations. The thinkers and dreamers that dare their splendid minds to contribute to music in a way that transcends the comparatively simpler math of words, chords, and melody. The creators and improvers of the tools and toys that aid all of us in the pursuit of creating and capturing music:

The Nerds.

These are the shapers of stone flowing through our collective stream of technological consciousness, developing ever-deepening tool kits and skill sets for artists and engineers alike. We stand upon their substantial shoulders every time we hit Record.

The coming months will bring a host of product reviews in this column that will collectively stand as a testament to their collective commitment.

Next year, I’m going to New York!

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, mastering engineer and recordist. www.kaspro.com. More info on AES at www.aes.org

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