(DDD) Dire (Digital) Straits

In October of 1982 my own little corner of the world got a bit more musically interesting when my neighborhood was finally hooked up for cable TV. This strange new medium had been around for a while, we kept hearing about how cool it was with all those channels, but the far end of the San Fernando Valley was one of the last areas in L.A. to actually get wired and connected.

For the first few weeks I would see adds for MTV. Now that sounded pretty good to me but for what seemed like ages all I could get was lots of fuzzy pictures and buzzing audio. Finally it was “officially added” to the line-up and I then proceeded to spend nearly every waking hour seeing all the music videos I had heard so much about. The first one I ever saw on MTV was Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills.” Not a bad way to begin at all.

Coming in about a year after MTV’s launch it was still early enough that they were polishing their format and constantly introducing new videos as they became available, they were also still commercial free at that point so you would have to deal with the occasional, “dunt, dah-dunt, dah-dunt, dah-dah-dah-dunt” with the strange astronaut guy floating around the screen for a few minutes here and there but then it was back to the VJ’s and the videos.

As MTV rapidly changed how the popular music industry worked and how new bands were promoted it was inevitable that someone would parody the whole thing. What no one expected was that it would be a major band with a major guest vocalist to put it all over the top.

I’m talking about Dire Straits “Money For Nothing.”

Bridey has already covered the “song” so now I’ll cover the music.

Starting with a full boatload of synthesizer sounds, Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher are battling it out for keyboard supremacy as Terry Williams goes to town with some increasingly larger and larger drums, “Money For Nothing” certainly is out to get your attention. Way off in the back you can hear Sting using his best falsetto to sing what was then the MTV tag line, “I want my MTV.” After the intro nicely climaxes Knopfler’s guitar starts with a kind of familiar sound. Only it sounds like it’s in a box. (Perhaps a TV?)

Lead Guitarist and band leader Mark Knopfler wanted a different sound for his guitar on this song and even went as far as asking ZZ Top’s lead guitar player Billy Gibbons how he got his sound. Gibbon’s later said that Knopfler did a pretty good job of it as he hadn’t told him a thing. That sounds right to me as well. The influence is there but not really the sound. It’s cool and crunchy but it really is its own thing and that’s not bad at all. Knopfler is such a fine player and also a perfectionist in the studio and on-stage whatever sound he comes up with is going to be good.

When the actual verse gets going John Illsley’s bass slides in smoothly although fans of Dire Straits earlier albums know that things are different from what the band had done before. For 1985′s Brothers in Arms album Knopfler had essentially replaced the entire band from the earlier days. Clark and Illsley had been on the Love Over Gold album which also happened to be the final Dire Straits appearance of founding member and one of the most emotional and perfectly timed drummers of all time, Pick Withers. With the addition of extra keyboard player Guy Fletcher and new drummer Williams the whole dynamic of the band changed to a fuller although sometimes overblown style.

Brothers in Arms was one of the first albums recorded, mixed and mastered in complete digital format. Because of the limitations of digital recording at the time it also has an effect on how the music sounds. Most musical recordings in 85′ and for quite a while thereafter were still recorded on the old reliable 24 track two inch tape reel to reel machines that had become the standard in the business in the early 70′s. After the recordings were done the mixing would still be performed on a 1/4 inch two track reel to reel. After that they would finally master the recording into a digital format.

This matters. A lot.

When recording with the trusty 24 track tape machines you could run the recording volume onto the tape at a very high level. The meters go from infinity, which is, (in theory anyway,) silence-or no electrical signal, (in audio terms they are  pretty much the same thing and I don’t see a need to elaborate. It would get dull fast,) then at the top of the meter is zero (0). In analog this does not mean you are truly at the top. Kind of like the Spinal Tap amplifier, it goes to eleven.

In other words when you set a recording level on a tape machine and you want to get a huge warm sound or a distorted crisp sound you actually overdrive the tape levels. For that really cool guitar lead you might be running the tape at +8 over 0. For a vocal you usually stay below the 0 level but even that is not a rule, it’s a preference depending on how you want the track to sound.

In digital recording, especially in 1985, zero was death. Anything that tickled the meter at zero would produce incredibly loud pops, crack noises or screaches that would drive you out of the studio. (Hopefully before the outrageous noises blew your wildly expensive studio monitors.) So the technical challenges that are always there in the studio have been doubled by this additional new problem.

For those readers that have been around long enough to have bought a CD from the late 80′s all the way to the late 90′s, pop it in your CD player adjust the volume to a comfortable level. Take a look at the back panel of your old CD. Somewhere in the credits there will be a little three letter logo near the old digital audio logo. It usually would say something like (AAD). That would mean that the recording and mixing was done on the standard tape analog format and that the mastering was done digitally. If it was marked (ADD) it meant that the recordings were analog but that the mixing and mastering were in a digital format. (Brothers in Arms has a (DDD) marking). Then go and get your newest, latest and greatest CD from AC/DC and throw it in and hit play. Step back and cover your ears. It’s going to be so much louder than the early Cd’s that it’s usually quite painful if you don’t readjust the volume, down…

To be on the cutting edge of the new medium required patience and great amounts of experimentation. You had to almost relearn the whole process. The fact that twenty-five years later Brothers in Arms is still a beautifully recorded and mixed album that holds up well, and still offers a few surprises here and there is a testament to how hard Knopfler and his crew worked on this album. Most of the recording issues they were facing had never been properly addressed as the technology was still so new. These days the volume issue of instrument recording much less mastering doesn’t even really come up. It’s easy now.

In 1985 it was a monumental task and the results speak for themselves.

About Pete

Pete is a professional-musician-with-a-day-job based in California's Inland Empire, as well as a veteran sound engineer in the studio and for live shows. He's been a lover of classic rock since back when it was known as "rock" and has in more recent years developed a country habit as well.
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2 Responses to (DDD) Dire (Digital) Straits

  1. Michele says:

    All I can really say to this is thank you
    it brought back a lot of memories.
    I like Dire Straits, there has always been something about them….
    I had a friend explain and demonstrate the differences in recording once
    this was a welcome refresher course.

  2. Skipper says:

    I don’t like the song much, but the detail on the recording process is cool — digital is always supposed to be “better,” and you don’t think about what might have gotten lost.