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The Agony of A-to-D

No pain, no gain. I repeated it to myself like a mantra; after all, these were improvements to our infrastructure, not injuries or attacks. Still, with each fistful of wires pulled from their terminations—that ripping noise, like hairs under a bandage strip—there was a palpable feeling of loss.

I remember punching down these analog audio connections… could it be 15 years ago? I recall that a kind of Zen suffused it all; a sameness, a phase-aligned rhythm, as each 600-ohm triplet fell in line. Seventy-eight punches for the upper row of each patchbay, the sources; 78 more for the bottom row of destinations. Like tenacious copper vines, the lines I terminated ran through the walls and ceilings and racks and consoles around our workplace, in single wires, tie-wrapped bundles and multicore umbilicals. These spidery tendrils connected us, our gear, our suites, our professional endeavors; and now they lay in heaps on the machine room floor, a bristling pile of trash with no further purpose.

And it wasn’t just audio cabling which fell before the axe of progress. Serpentine strands of coax now littered the floor as well, remnants of a component analog production switcher sold off long ago, and of a host of sync and composite video feeds. Some were colored red, green and blue, a nod to engineering orthodoxy; but odd strands of yellow, black and even purple belied the chaos which gradually overtook those racks with the passage of time. No matter, though—out with the old, in with the new.


Be careful of what you wish for, the saying goes. We wished for cleaner signals, simpler interconnections and fewer patch bays—and that’s exactly what digital audio and video technology has delivered; so why the long face?

For many folks, the digital transition represents fear, uncertainty and loss of control. Aging motorheads recall a time when a peek under the hood of an old Chevy gave you a quick inventory of all twelve major engine components, plus a generous view of the pavement below. For me, digital signal paths are the California-emissions-fuel-injected engine compartment of modern TV. There’s nothing clear and simple about a multiplexed bitstream on coax… it’s all just digital hash. I understood that one measly volt.

But slowly, as the rampant sentimentality fades, the digital upside shines through. Through the magic of multiplexing, for instance, one wire often does the work of many; and dirty patches and cold solder joints are distant memories. Induced hum and timing anomalies have pretty much disappeared, too.

Come to think of it, this is about more than just wiring and infrastructure… it’s about workflow and tools and creativity, too. True, the pile of culled copper is part of the transition, but so is the fiber that shares all our footage among all our edit rooms, and so is the inexpensive 20 Mbps Internet connection that delivers files to our clients within minutes.

After all, we keep saying this is a “revolution”—doesn’t that usually mean that everything changes? That we surrender the drudgery along with the sentimental favorites?


I think the problem is that our revolution, unlike those of military juntas or popular uprisings, didn’t happen in one day; it took 20 years. It began with the first DVE box squeezed over a newscaster’s shoulder—a digital process layered in between analog devices and workflows—and the first Vidifonts and Chyrons. Since that time, we’ve gradually inserted little bits of digital circuitry into the places that made the most sense, returning to analog, in the end, only because we had to.

The abrupt change to digital hasn’t really been all that abrupt after all. Today, at the end of a 20-year-long journey, we’re finally getting around to changing the wiring and the display devices and the transmitters, but we’ve been “going digital” for a long time now. In fact, most of the cut wires I wept over hadn’t actually carried a meaningful signal for more than a year, ever since we hung SDI and AES adapters on our last remaining analog sources and destinations. It’s time to move on.

So… farewell to our analog past and that one measly volt. And hello, once and for all, to the digital present, and all that it portends.

Walter Schoenknecht is a partner at Midnight Media Group Inc. a New York-area digital production facility.