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The Warmth of Analog Recordings

By Abel Greene
(Abel Greene is a music critic & high-fidelity sound engineer, ret.)

Here, in the early part of the 21st century, where we find the digital revolution in full swing and where music easily transfers from CD disc to your computer, iPod , Mp3, cell phone, or any other digital medium that will record and play back sound bits, one might ask the question, why bother with analog recordings at all? To be perfectly honest, all of the original Dario Vanni analog reel-to-reel mixes have been transferred to a digital format in order for you, the listener, to enjoy them—but they are still analog at their source and, therefore, stand unique in both their sonic and historical significance. In this, the artist had no choice.

Anyone who listens today to the crystalline hiss-less, wow- and flutter-less recordings of his or her favorite CD will remark what a major leap digital technology has made in the recorded music world. Yet other schools of listening observe and report that something is missing in many digital recordings. The analog era was the era of the vacuum tube and some claim that over-tone layers, depth of the musical sounds which ensure completely satisfying “sound food”, and some other indefinable characteristics are lacking in the digital recording. Somehow all the reassembled bits transposing from the converter aren’t coming through from the original acoustic recording session. They suggest it is like eating Chinese food, delicious while being consumed, but you’re hungry thirty minutes later. Like many music connoisseurs my age, I am a “vinyl junkie”, an LP record collector and, to this day, I maintain the well-recorded LP record sounds fuller and warmer and more fulfilling than do most digital recordings. However, the gap is narrowing. To my mind, there is no doubt that the technology already exists to bring 24-bit+ recorded sound into the realm of equality with and, perhaps, even surpassing the best of analog reproduced sound. It is simply a matter of time until it reaches the consumer marketplace.

The majority of the Vintage Vanni Series recordings date from the years 1960 through 2000 and, decidedly, are analog, usually recorded on reel-to-reel tape machines at speeds from 7 ½ ips to 15 ips. Inasmuch as these tracks were not made for commercial purposes, but, rather, for Mr. Vanni’s personal use in trying out arrangements for “live” performance venues, the quality sometimes varies. However, one can clearly hear the difference in the analog sound, the spaciousness, warmth, clarity of resonance, and satisfying presence that “sticks” with one long after the last song has been played. This apparent, but subtle, contrast between digital and analog makes the difference in the enjoyment of the performance, all things considered. To be sure, as mentioned above, there are moments when one notices the lack of clean, professional mixes, where tape deterioration has taken its toll, or equalization and reverb might have slight variations. But it is the performance that we are in love with here. So, when all is said, in the end it is what pleases us, what quality reaches us in the voice and performance, how emotionally we are moved, and the eternal mystery, how does this one person move us so? In exceptional talent, there seems always to be some elusive quality, something which transcends all the words, discussion, evaluation we can do; some things simply are.

As an old Englishman who began his musical appreciation life with the wind-up phonograph on acoustic 78 r.p.m. shellac discs, I must share with you the great journey of coming through the age of the wire recorder, 16” inch transcription discs, reel-to-reel recorders, 8-track tape players, cassette recorders, DAT recorders, and, now, multi-tracked digital hard-drive recorders. It has always been the performance that counts. I can listen to Gigli, Bjoerling, Bing Crosby, or Billie Holiday in the 1930s and still get a thrill. Yet I will leave a question with you: was the acoustic process superior because of its sonic flaws? In other words, did the earlier analog recordings “humanize” the performance to the point where we could all relate more closely with the artist? I leave you with that, right in the lap of your mind’s ear and your heart’s barometer. I have heard Dario Vanni sing in every musical idiom he ever recorded in. Only in the operatic and classically-executed Neapolitan songs (“mini arias,” as Dario call them), do we hear the true acoustic voice in its glory, certainly, to my mind, a throw-back to an era that is gone. But I’ll let my colleague Mr. Jason Walker carry the ball from here. Take it from one who has been around the musicologist’s block, this man Vanni is one of the finest singers America has produced. Listen for yourself. A.G.