analog beauty in a digital world
November 7, 2012 11:55 PM   Subscribe

This video on the beauty and fascination of analog media is from the PBS Arts tmblr OffBook
posted by Isadorady (15 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How are cassettes cheaper than CDRs? Is it that a bunch of cassette recorders are cheaper than a bunch of CD burners? But that seems odd, and I can't think why else cassettes would be cheaper.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:13 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like the glitchy aestetic of certain types of analog media, especially visual ones, like VHS. But the whole "more intimate relationship with music" and whatnot leaves me completely cold. How is that a cogent argument? It just seems like an assertion to me. It would be exactly as convincing (that is, not at all) if it was reversed and people said the same thing about digital.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:33 AM on November 8, 2012

When I can depend on digital for straight photography, then I feel more free to experiment with film. I like the possibility of "errors" that he describes when shooting film, and the way you can manipulate those errors. Of course I can simulate scratches across a picture in Photoshop, but it's not nearly as satisfying as ---after years of carefully keeping negatives free of lint and dust in static-free sleeves --- scraping the negative on the ground, grinding it into the cement with my shoe. Creating a house-shaped void on the final print by scraping off the emulsion on the original negative with a safety pin. Holding a lighter underneath the negative and moving around the heated emulsion on top.

I found a roll of film in my parents' garage and loaded it into an automatic 35mm camera, which I shot while visiting San Francisco with my family. Evidently my mom forgot to develop the original roll because the prints came back with double exposures: the Golden Gate bridge and my brother, age 6, outside his tent at a Boy Scout camping trip.

I didn't mind that my vacation pictures got messed up because I had taken other ones with my cell phone and a point-and-shoot digital camera. So yeah, I like being able to choose film with the safety of falling back on digital if needed.
posted by book 'em dano at 1:30 AM on November 8, 2012

I totally get using analog, semi-obsolete media as a way to do creative work. It's a choice, it's legitimate, there are effects and looks that are hard to reproduce any other way.

What I don't get, I guess, is the fetish for analog delivery formats, like vinyl records. There's no creativity in playing a vinyl record instead of a CD or MP3 (unless you're a DJ, perhaps). There's no advantage to delivering your music on cassette tape instead of a burned CD or a downloadable MP3. That's what tips over into meaninglessness for me.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:56 AM on November 8, 2012

It's easy to mock these people, and that was my initial knee-jerk reaction. But my arguments against them would just be my value judgements compared with their value judgements. I would also be a hypocrite, since I still use photographic film, still use a fountain pen and so on.

I appreciate enthusiasts for still being enthusiastic about things. I don't want anything to die out, no matter how "obvious" is that they're useless relics. How many times have things pretty much died out and then come back again? Vinyl is the class example of that.

Judging how much of a faff I'm currently experiencing to set up my modern home server to digitally stream music and videos around the house, there is a lot to be said with still being able to physically pick up a CD and put it in the CD player and pressing play.
posted by milkb0at at 3:17 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a really conflicted set of thoughts on the subject.

On the one hand, I thank the Lord above for Photoshop and digital cameras. I understand a lot can be said about developing photos in a darkroom, but the relationship I have with my digital photography, both on set and in post, is both deep and supremely intimate.

On the other hand, I use to be a DJ, and I set that aside right around the time that (I think it was) Panasonic came out with some really sick CD turntables, and far before everyone was using their laptops. I can tell you that having a vinyl collection is like having a pet. You care for it, you make sure it's ok, you take it places and you show it off to your friends. The vinyl I have held on to is rare and I always have it with me, because I still have an emotional connection to it and treat it as a piece of history. Meanwhile, I wipe my iTunes library and start fresh every six months.

What is interesting about the analog world is that the deterioration itself is a kind of art, and how that doesn't apply in the same way to digital objects. I don't fully understand why or how this is. Why are shitty VHS tapes more nostalgic than perfect digital movie files? Why is Instagram and its vintage-mimicking filters so popular? Why do photographers like myself add things like light leaks and paper textures to their photos in Photoshop to make them more interesting? There is an undeniable richness there.

What's also interesting is how in the analog world - and I'm not quite sure how to phrase this but - you make errors and that leads to progress. There is a graceful degredation. Which is to say, a corrupted digital file is just completely fucked. But a skipping record or a broken mixer can lead to a crazy new technique that we then embrace as an advancement. Same goes for photos - hell, look at all the sepia filters and lomography tutorials out there. These color treatments are actually compromises in the technology of "objectively capturing what is seen by the eye," and yet there are a million and one filters and tutorials out there showing you how to achieve these effects.

Ultimately, it is hard to argue that digital technology compromises human creativity - I mean, how could this be. Our tools today are greater than they ever have been. And yet, where is our Mozart? Generations past have produced towering works of art of undeniable quality, and more often than not I find the popular music of today sounding like garbage. All I can say to that is - maybe our brains glamorize the past by only remembering the great things that happened, and discarding the mediocre. I know that when I go see a shitty movie and say to myself, "Man that was a shitty $100 million movie. Why can't they make them like they used to?" that I'm totally forgetting all the shitty stuff and remembering only the classics. Those are my two cents.
posted by phaedon at 3:28 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah the cassette thing I totally don't get at all. Basically, I feel like the only argument you can come up with is: "Well, I refuse to produce something that is digital (MP3 or CDs) and darnit, pressing vinyl records is expensive, so I'm going to have to just resort to cassettes I guess." Basically this guy's arguments of getting something out there cheap and overnight only make sense if you live in a world before CD-Rs and MP3s.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:48 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I guess this is related to the popularity of "glitch" in electronic music and the like. You can totally do an aesthetic of decay using digital video files, it's just a different kind of decay: compression errors from transcoding with lossy codecs. Perhaps that, too, will disappear as bandwidth improves, but that still leaves digital production errors of other sorts, like the messy compositing in REM's Aftermath making it hard to tell exactly what parts of the frame were put in after-the-fact. (It also features the deliberate use of MPEG blockification.)
posted by LogicalDash at 4:31 AM on November 8, 2012

The thing I like about analog media is the graceful degradation. It used to be that if a TV channel wasn't coming in very well, you'd just get a little static but you could ignore it. Now you get hiccups and pauses. It's non-linear and therefore much harder to filter out mentally.

Furthermore, this is a inherent feature of analog. The entire difference of analog vs digital is the linearity (shading values between 0 and 1) vs non-linearity (either a 0 or a 1, no in-between). The only way to fix digital's inherent non-linearity (when it needs to be fixed at all, which I freely admit is hardly ever) is basically to build a linear, analog system on top of digital.
posted by DU at 5:16 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My old film professor is the one talking about film!!!! (He's the one interviewed with a red background). He's fantastic, and makes a lot of films himself using analog methods.
posted by theartandsound at 6:19 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Vinyl LPs often sound better than digital releases not because of any inherent advantage of the format (although that is true vs. MP3) but because of the choices that were made when using the media. 33 1/3 LPs were created to see how good sound reproduction good become. CDs and compressed digital formats were created to see what would be “good enough” quality to go along with the convenience of offered digital. Unlike most vinyl releases, today’s digital releases often have extremely compressed dynamic range in order to make them sound louder and work better on $2 ear buds. Robbing music of dynamics is just awful, and mixing for the lowest common denominator playback path is really sad. Further, the artifacts of digital bit rate compression are insidious: things seem to sound good at first but you just get fatigued listening --- it doesn’t pass the “just one more song” listening test. All of that said, I don’t have any particular attachment to the “physical” media aspect of vinyl and I do love the convenience of digital. I just don’t to want to give up sound quality and emotional connection to my music to get it.

As for film vs. digital cinematography: with very rare exceptions I don’t know anyone who would prefer to shoot digital instead of film for cinema. But the numbers are just overwhelming. For Example: we’re finishing a smallish indy film right now. We shot 60 hours of digital files (Arri Alexa) which cost $1,892 in hard drives (triple back up) and $10K in dailies processing = $11,892. Had we shot 35mm film – as we all wanted to – then 60 hours = roughly 324,000 feet of film * $1.40 for stock and developing = $435,600 + around $33,000 for dailies = $468,600. $11,892 vs. $468,600. Yikes. So as you can see, even if we cut back on our shooting ratio the numbers are crazy compelling. Again, I have no particular attachment to the physical aspect of film, but motion picture film has a natural beauty in the way it reproduces colors, contrast and grain that digital has yet to match. Digital is certainly cheaper but not necessarily better.

In summary there are + and – tradeoffs in analog vs. digital media. I just think we should be more honest about what those are.

Edited to add: one could also make an argument about the archival value of analog vs. digital media. Witness that we can play an LP from the 1950s or look at a film from even longer ago with no problem. Think we’ll have the software available to play todays’ digital files 20 / 40 / 100 years from now?
posted by Dean358 at 7:10 AM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Joakim Ziegler: But the whole "more intimate relationship with music" and whatnot leaves me completely cold. How is that a cogent argument? It just seems like an assertion to me. It would be exactly as convincing (that is, not at all) if it was reversed and people said the same thing about digital.
I'm not a vinyl lover/snob/audiophile myself, but I have played my fair share of records. I have a couple boxes of records in the closet that I keep meaning to copy onto the computer. CDs were for rich people when I was a teenager. I thought Elion Paz did a pretty good job of explaining how the experience differs from modern formats.

There's a fair bit of ritual involved in playing a vinyl record. You flip through the records until you're inspired by something. You pull it off the shelf, marking the place where it came from. You pull it from the sleeve, you find a place to put the sleeve down for now. You have to handle the record carefully, you have to think about what you're doing a bit. You must hold the record in a certain way. You line it up on the turntable's spindle and flip the turntable on. You may get your record brush out and give the record a little dusting; you may even spray it with cleaner first. You set the needle down on the surface and hear that thunk, then the first bit of surface noise - distinctive, memorable sounds you don't hear anywhere else. As the record starts to play you may take a look at the hugely reproduced album art.

Many of these steps are accompanied by distinctive smells as well, which is a powerful memory maker and memory trigger. And perusing a large collection of vinyl lends itself well to real, in-person social interaction.

MP3s have none of that stuff. In fact the elimination of all friction, of ritual, is the entire point of their whole ecosystem (iTunes, iPods, etc). And it's arguable that the focused and interactive nature of the playback equipment discourages social interaction. Who hasn't seen a group of people ostensibly out in public "together" but in fact all focused on their individual phones/MP3 players/tablets etc.?

I have often speculated that it's the surrounding ritual, and the gestalt of the entire listening experience, rather than the sound of the format itself, that is vinyl's main attraction for audiophile vinyl snobs who eschewed digital formats for so many years. They would admit that CDs had less background noise and distortion but protested that CDs sounded clinical or un-involving.

Some of those audiophile vinyl snobs eventually invented or purchased rituals for CDs, like cleaning them obsessively, marking up the edges with green ink, mounting the players on special surfaces or feet to "stabilize" them, etc.

I think that the phenomenon of using some sort of mini-ritual to clear your mind, to get your head into the right place to really pay attention to and to really enjoy a thing is probably real. If you look, you will find such mini-rituals among connoisseurs of all types.

I guess you could argue with the "more intimate relationship" word choice, though.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:27 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a word for the odd retroactive terminology of someone saying, "There's so much pixelation that goes on with Super8?"

( There's another weird media thing going on that there's a cut in the middle of that sentence, so I'm not certain how much to ascribe this terminology to the original speaker, or to a virtual entity the editor created. )
posted by RobotHero at 8:08 AM on November 8, 2012

"And yet, where is our Mozart?"

A composer friend always tells people who ask that, "He went through your schools."
posted by Twang at 1:24 PM on November 8, 2012

Asking why people prefer vinyl to digital is sort of like asking why people prefer live shows to recordings.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:56 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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