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Getting the best possible recording

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How to make sure you're getting the best possible recording

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

Back when I was testing one of the first digital audio recorders to reach this country, a decade ago, I learned firsthand—or, rather, first-ear – about the Expectation Syndrome.

In essence, it goes like this: You usually hear what you expect to hear.

In other words, if you think something is going to sound good, it generally will. And if you think it will sound bad, nobody will be able to convince you otherwise.

I was excited about digital sound, and the recorder I was using was incredible—or so I thought. I had set up an elaborate testing method, and was able to switch instantly from an expensive open-reel recorder to the digital recorder. Each one was playing back the same sounds, which I had recorded live a few minutes before.

The highs were high and the lows were low, and the middles were right there in the middle. I was in heaven.

And then, after an hour of bliss, I had my comeuppance. I noticed that I had wired the switch on my comparator (that's a comparing machine, if you will) backwards. Each time I'd thought the sound was better, I had been listening to the older, non-digital recorder.

Ever since, I've had a love-hate relationship with digital sound. And I've come to respect analog audio even more.

Analog is what your cassette deck is. Digital is what CDs and DAT recorders are. Eventually, no doubt, digital sound will be The Best Thing Ever, but right now the jury is still out.

You can take advantage of this technological hiatus by using the latest blank cassette tapes whenever you make important recordings. Audio cassette tapes have steadily improved over the last five years or so and so have cassette decks themselves.

The important thing is to match your tapes to your recorder. It's easy. All you need is some white noise—the hiss that you get in between FM stations.

You may have to turn off the muting switch on your receiver or tuner to be able to hear white noise. (The name comes from the fact that, like white light, white noise has all the frequencies in the spectrum mixed together. Truth to tell, it's actually "pink noise," since some frequencies are stronger than others, but that's a subject for another column.)

Press the record button and the pause control on your cassette deck and turn down the recording level so that the white noise just barely makes the meters light up. If you have actual pointers on your meters, they should be set to about -20.

Turn off your deck's Dolby circuit (you'll find the switch is often labeled with a "double-D" symbol, with one of them facing backwards). Then start your recording. Let the tape run for 10 minutes or more.

Rewind the tape and play it back, switching back and forth between the original white-noise sound coming from your receiver or tuner and the recorded version.

The next part is very important. Make sure the two sounds are at exactly the same loudness level. If they aren't, your ears will be fooled by a tendency of human brains to favor louder sounds over quieter ones.

Chances are you'll find the recorded version duller or brighter than the original. If so, try another type of tape or another brand, doing the same thing over again. Repeat the process until you have found a tape that gives an accurate playback.

Of course, when you make regular recordings with the tape you've chosen, you'll want to switch your Dolby circuit back on. Regular Dolby, called Dolby B, cuts tape hiss by 90 percent and trims distortion by the same amount. Dolby C does even more.

The same approach works if your deck has a dbx circuit, too. The idea, in all cases, is to allow the noise-reduction circuits to employ true mirror-image restoration of the all-important middle and high frequencies on playback.

Try it. You might find a few extra years of enjoyment in that analog recorder after all.

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