Making digital audio sound analogue: Will my idea work?
I'm currently in the process of writing a film designed to look like it's from the 1980s, and I'm currently thinking up ways to work on the audio design for the film.
In order to make my film sound like it's from the 80s, I've spent a lot of time working with audio distortion filters on my computer (which I no longer have) and trying to simulate an analogue sound, as though the audio was recorded on tape, just like the old days. Unfortunately, the filters I had didn't work as expected, and I learned it was very difficult to process audio to make it sound "fuzzy" but also still very clear. Then I came up with the following idea, and I'm curious to learn what you guys think.
Basically, my plan is to obtain several 60-minute cassette tapes from Wal-Mart, and a tape recorder. Using an external shotgun mic attached to a boom pole, I'll record my dialog directly to cassette tape, and then using a tape-to-PC deck I'll transfer the audio to digital mp3s. But before I transfer them, I'm going to spend a few days (possibly weeks) wearing down the tapes by playing them constantly until they've been slightly degraded. I'm also going to do this for the music. It's my hope that this will give me a more analogue "feel" to the audio, and hopefully it will help give the impression that the film is, unquestionably, from the 80s.
With my camera I'm still going to record audio digitally, and while I'm spending a few weeks wearing down the audio tapes I'm going to use the digital audio as a reference so that I can still edit the film together. Then when the tapes are ready, I'll simply dub over the purely digital audio with the analogue transfers. And wah-la, a soundtrack that sounds "old but clear" will be born!
Do you guys think this is worth it? I personally think it is, and I'm really curious to know if anyone has ever done anything like this before.
What you ultimately want is as much control over your audio as possible. The way you are proposing to record with cassettes means that you relinquish that control. On location record clean production sound using current technology, then "worldize" when you need to; take your clean recordings and re-record them onto cassettes or whatever. This gives you control over the amount of "distortion" or degradation you desire.
I've had some luck degrading sound quality using plug-ins. It's a combination of EQ, bit-crushing, distortion algorithms, and a noise/hiss track.
BTW, 80's films from Hollywood actually sound pretty good. Many of the high end mics used today were available then or are upgraded versions of the originals; I have mics that are 30+ years old that sound great. Production sound was recorded to Nagra reel-to-reel machines, or, in the later '80's, were recorded to DAT. (Nagras are still highly prized for sound fX recording, mostly for weapons and other loud sounds.)
Could you give some examples of the distorted audio to which you are referring? I've found that bad or noisy audio was a result of bad film copies, transfers, etc., not initially bad sounding audio.
Production sound was recorded to Nagra reel-to-reel machines, or, in the later '80's, were recorded to DAT. (Nagras are still highly prized for sound fX recording, mostly for weapons and other loud sounds.)
The sound recordist for my last feature - shot in 1994 - used a Nagra 3. Amazing machine.
I just watched the Clint Eastwood movie Hereafter and saw that they'd used one as a prop in one scene. I shouted out, "Nagra!" and my wife gave me that look...you know, the one that says, "You're such a dork."
I watch a lot of movies from the 80's and I think the audio sounds pretty good. In my own opinion I think your audience will get the same 80's feel if you use normal audio. Do they even sell cassette tapes anymore?
Well, like a good sound designer told me, the fact is if it doesn't plug into USB or start recording with a press of one button with no further attention, most people don't even think twice about using a Tape machine.
The fact is, I constantly go out and record sound effects and voices with a Nagra machine simply because it does sound better than any of the digital recorders (to my ears anyway). Some people won't even try it because it's TAPE. The trick is, I record it onto the tape and then transfer it all into Pro Tools and it still sounds awesome - and you get the best of both worlds.
One of the main reasons I want to try my hand at engineering my own analog soundtrack is that I want to see what it was like to edit things together back in the old days of cinema.
In my opinion, the old days of cinema had more talented people working to create amazing films than today. Digital tools make things too easy, and it takes away from the creative ingenuity that the pioneers of film had to figure out. If I could, I'd be shooting this movie on actual film as well, but that's way too expensive at the moment. But I can do that with audio for pretty cheap (cassette tapes at Wal-Mart are less than $10 for a pack of 10 tapes), and while they may not be the *best* quality, it will give me that analog sound I very much want to recreate.
People are no more or less talented now than at any other time in the film industry. What you are seeing is the availability of inexpensive camera and audio gear allowing absolute beginners (and complete morons ) with no experience and no mentoring to make films. Although it allows a lot of dreck to be made and a huge number of undeserving egos to become over-inflated, it also allows truly deserving folks who otherwise would never have had a chance the ability to make films and to learn and to grow.
There is nothing immoral about using the current technology, and there is nothing sacred about "old school" methods. What I and other old farts like me do bemoan is a lack of appreciation for the history of our art.
As much as you may want to use old school methods they will actually end up costing you, if not financially then in time and frustration. I definitely don't miss editing with razor blades, and I don't miss waiting for tapes to rewind. I don't miss limited audio tracks and tape hiss. I don't miss racks and racks of outboard gear and running the seeming miles of cable to hook it all up and tracking down hums and buzzes. I work faster and more creatively. And I still use a lot of the old school methods, because it works and nothing better has come along.
Always keep in mind that technology is only a tool. Your vision and creativity is what makes the film, not the tech toys.
Last edited by Alcove Audio; 03-23-2011 at 09:07 PM.