At the end of the film The Year of Living Dangerously, Mel Gibson’s journalist character Guy Hamilton is forced to flee Indonesia during the 1965 revolution. He’s almost stopped and arrested at the airport but manages to distract the officials with his fancy Nagra III recorder. As baffled soldiers clumsily unspool tape from the reels, Hamilton eases out the door and makes his escape.
And watching this, all I could think was, “What are you doing? Are you crazy? You’re leaving a Nagra behind!”
All this comes to mind because of the recent death of Stefan Kudelski, who in 1951 invented what many consider to be the best piece of audio recording technology ever.
His passing has been largely ignored by the mainstream press in this country, but believe me, we audio grayhairs are dragging out our old photos and sharing memories of what it was like to use, if not to own, this fabulous device.
About 30 years ago my colleague Robert Malesky and I took a borrowed Nagra to the Maryland seashore to record ocean waves for a New Age audio relaxation cassette.
[The box to the right (facing me) is one of those fancy digital converter things … I was trying out the new technology along with the old.]
For over half a century the Nagra was the ne plus ultra of field recorders for film, radio and television, and it’s still in use in many places around the world. Stefan Kudelski won plenty of awards, including four Oscars and two Emmys, so I don’t need to add my pitiful encomiums to the list. But I do want to step back a moment and consider what these fastidiously-engineered, aesthetically beautiful and technologically precise recorders can teach us about audio today.
Although Nagra did (and does) produce digital recorders its principal fame rests on its analog machines. And its product was all about refinement: Nagra strove to enable engineers to make the best possible portable analog recordings.
That’s analog in a nutshell: perfection. How to make the analogy between waves in the air and the storage medium as nearly, perfectly, identical as possible.
Digital, on the other hand, is all about approximation. We have an ingenious method of converting waves in the air and storing them as numbers, so we count ourselves successful as long as our approximation sounds good enough.
The pursuit of perfection is expensive: a new Nagra IV-S would set you back $1,700 in 1971 dollars. That’s a little over $9,600 today!
Digital is much cheaper because the cost of “good enough” goes down constantly as long as Moore’s Law lets us make solid-state technology that’s simultaneously more powerful and less expensive. So you have digital audio recorders that are “good enough” available for under a hundred bucks!
But I predict that, forty or fifty years down the road, there’ll be little of the nostalgia for today’s digital devices that we’re seeing for the Swiss masterpieces of Stefan Kudelski. I was lucky enough to have used one, to have touched the exquisitely chamfered metal, marveled at the action of the modulometer.
To quote another film, 1981′s Diva, ”C’est un Nagra. C’est suisse, et tres, tres precis.”