Perhaps the biggest challenge Holdsworth faces in recording is not in his acoustics or the home recording environment, but in the recording machines themselves, as he discussed at the beginning. To Holdsworth, the issue is not about analog vs. digital, because he's recorded on both and had successful results with both. The real question is the quality of digital. "People think that digital is digital, and it's just not true," he says. "I've rented these expensive digital machines and run them alongside of ADATS, and there's just no comparison. You don't even have to have good ears to hear the difference, it's so astounding. You don't even have to be musically inclined. But people don't understand there are levels of digital. They also think that any digital is superior to analog, which just isn't true. ADATs are great, and I record on them, but you have to understand there's a difference between the converters on them and the ones Apogee makes as replacements for the Mitsubishi machines."
It's the converters, Holdsworth maintains, that make all the difference. Anybody can make a machine that is 16-bit or 20-bit or 24bit, but the quality of the anti-aliasing filters and the A/D-D/A converters is where a world of disparities exist, quality-wise. "I've been fortunate enough to have the machines all right next to each other to be able to hear the difference myself," says Holdsworth. "I've rented all the big machines and have monitored off the multitracks, only to be horrified when I listened to the playback of the two track DAT, or whatever it was. You have to be careful and you have to know that there is a difference. If you think about a Mitsubishi machine that costs $160,000 and that to put Apogee filters on it would cost you another $32,000, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that there's something going on here that you're not going to find in a $500 DAT. That's why I spend so much time on the front end with the mic pre's and the things that I can hear at the source; things I can control. Ultimately, you must have sound together for your own ears and then you can deal with the limitations of the technology. Technology shouldn't be the reason you're recording something or not recording something. It should be because you have something to say, musically."
Do you rent the same machine that the studio uses? I have to use the same format, obviously, but I don't necessarily rent the same machine. But I had such problems with the digital format, I'll never record that way again. What was the problem with the digital recording? Well, I was very happy with the sound but I was really worried with the error-correct scheme. [In digital recording, data is written to several different places on the media simultaneously to insure accurate retrieval. When the head can't read the data in its normal location, it looks for the "backup." The error-correct LED's tell you when this is being done, and to what extent (the more lights, the more searching and interpolating the machine must perform). -ed.] It kept kicking in all over the place. The whole thing is very scary, it's so fragile. So I'm going to go back to analog. When you listen to good analog tapes, like from the Ampex machines, there's no CD on the face of the earth that's ever going to sound like that. It must have been disconcerting to see all the error-correct lights going on as you're trying to record live. Well, I couldn't see the machines when I was recording, and every time we listened back it was fine. It was just when we went to mix that suddenly all the lamps started to light. It makes multiple copies of the data, but it still means that at that point it can't find data that was once there. Have you heard reports of problems? It depends who you talk to. Biff Vincent, the studio manager, is a great guy, whom I've worked with for years, and he's never had any problems, but he says, "If anybody's going to have a problem, it's you, Allan." I just seem to get myself into trouble. Technical trouble just seems to plague some people more than others. I don't know, 'cause that guy can walk into a room where something's not working, and all of a sudden it's fixed. We never could figure out what it is. Maybe you have the reverse karma. Yes, that's what it is [laughs]!
Do you think something’s been lost with the demise of the old way of doing things? Yeah, you always lose something. But you gain things, too. It’s possible to make very high quality digital recordings if you use very high sample frequencies like 96kHz or above. Still, anybody who’s worked on a really great analog two inch tape machine in a studio knows that you can’t do that on a little digital recorder. It’s blatantly obvious, but nobody cares. They’re playing it all over their iPhone!