The current resurgence of vinyl shows that the digital age never did snuff out analog listening. Analog recording methods, however, are effectively DOA. To find that old dinosaur, you might have to trek to the dingy third floor of an apartment building overlooking Ascenzi Square in Brooklyn. Its name is MetroSonic Studio, and its owner of the past 25 years is Pete Mignola. A veteran of the recording industry, Mignola acquired top analog recording equipment over the years as studios he worked for went out of business. “I know all of the equipment in here intimately,” says the middle-aged Mignola as he points at the mixing board behind the studio’s soundproof glass. “There isn’t a piece of gear in here that I can’t fix. I’m as much a technician as I am a musician.”
Though the shift to digital in the recording industry has happened in the last quarter century, Mignola’s profession has always involved keeping up with technological innovation. In the mid-19th century, phonoautograph machines used a horn with a diaphragm, fixed with a stylus, to scratch sounds onto a rotating cylinder. These were quickly replaced by phonographs, which improved upon the earlier model, and by the end of the century, the graphophone represented the pinnacle of this mechanical recording technology. In the mid-1920s, experiments in electrical recording resulted in transcription recorders in which electrical signals were delivered to an electromagnetic cutting head to produce a louder, more defined recorded sound. Magnetic tape recording was experimented with and refined through the 1920s and 1930s; by the mid-century, it was the choice recording medium.
Mignola cut his teeth in the era of tape technology, which started off in a simple stereo two-track format, but eventually moved to multi-track recording, with the ability to overdub and layer music. “Guys were recording music back in the ’50s when it was all direct to two-track and there was no multi-track. I’m positive that when they introduced multi-track, all of a sudden these guys were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” says Mignola, half jokingly. “A lot of people got out of the business at that point.”
Tape recording gave way to CDs and digital instruments in the 1980s, and experimentation with digital audio workstations gave way to the rise of ProTools and Cubase in the early ’90s. What was once a physical process had become a series of 1’s and 0’s in a computer. These interfaces allowed engineers endless recording possibilities, and have evolved to record pristine audio (64-bit audio at sample rates of up to 192kHz). Near-perfect sound quality and the ability to edit tracks with surgical accuracy made digital recording the medium of choice for nearly every professional studio. Analog engineers cut tape with a razor blade to make edits; in the digital realm, it’s a simple as clicking a mouse. “There’s a level of precision that you can accomplish with digital that’s almost expected now,” Mignola says.
With the ease and exactness of digital recording, studios that edit magnetic tape have become niche, to say the least. On the whole it’s faster and easier to produce digital recordings (meaning: better for the bottom line), so most all studios have switched into computer-based production. And yet artists from Mark Ronson to Moby to Anthrax have chosen to record at MetroSonic, where Mignola ignores the past three decades of technological development. What seems like a lack of basic sense has everything to do with the style of production that working with analog gear brings.
“At the end of the day, I believe more than anything else, what people are really hearing is the production aesthetic,” say Mignola. “Right from the beginning you have to know what you’re doing with your project,” he says. “You have to be able to play from the beginning of the song to the end of the song.” When musicians record in an analog medium, they have to have their craft together. Tape is expensive, and artists can’t rely on endless edits.
The demands placed on engineers who record in the analog medium are very similar to a photographer shooting with film. There’s no faking it — you have to understand exposure and composition (or, for Mignola, crossfades and overdubbing), and the results speak for themselves. “Analog for me makes sense because I understand how tubes work and how tape works, and I can manipulate it and fix it and work with it. It’s friendly to me,” Mignola says. “Digital, while I understand the theory of it, the circuitry is impossible. The software is beyond impossible.”
Modernity hasn’t just changed the technology, it’s changed the job. “Computers and digital technology have created a world of operators, of programmers, not engineers,” Mignola says. “The reason that we were called recording engineers is because the guy sitting here actually was an engineer. To be able to sit here and work the gear, you had to know how this shit worked,” says Mignola. “You had to understand electrical engineering.”
The reward for this hard work and understanding of “outdated” technology is a sound often described as “round” and “warm,” a direct opposite to the exactness of digital, which can be harsh and edgy. Of course, all recorded sounds are an approximation of the real-life thing, but analog sounds tend to evoke more emotional responses. “There’s a three-dimensional quality to it and you can forget it’s coming out of the speakers,” says Mignola.
In the best analog recordings, the texture and dynamics connect with listeners on a visceral level. The discrete signal path in an all-analog studio has a distinct sound, but what listeners hear is just as much about the engineer as it is the electronics. “There are very specific production techniques that are imposed on you,” says Mignola. Endless tracks and edits aren’t available, so conscious decisions have to be made through the process: Was it a good take? Can any tracks be merged and consolidated? What is the exact edit or effect that’s needed? These parameters, and the decisions they guide, give the backbone of the analog sound.
Mignola is a member of the last generation of engineers who can edit tape. Only a small percentage of engineers are choosing to learn analog production techniques. Listeners born in the mid-1980s and 1990s have grown up only listening to CDs; listeners born at the turn of the century are most familiar with MP3 audio. With a listener base familiar with mainly digital (and compressed) music, little market value is left for the consumer of analog recordings.
“We have been rendered irrelevant,” says Mignola. “It’s nice that people are buying vinyl again. I hope that continues,” he says. “I know there’s definitely a limit to this. Nobody’s giving up their fucking iPhones.” The most Mignola can do is cling to a simple question, which he asks while gazing into the recording studio that represents his livelihood. “How does it make you feel?”