Sola Levels: What Are They?
The term “sola” (from Latin) means “of its own nature.” A sola level is a type of magnetic tape that contains all the tracks of a music file and allows to play it back without any additional hardware or software. The concept was first introduced in the 1970s when magnetic tape technology was still new. Today, most modern digital audio workstations have built-in sound cards with a variety of sample rates and bit depths. These include 44.1 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz and 192kHz formats. When these formats are played through such devices they produce sounds that are not exactly like the original recording material because of differences in the way the human ear perceives frequencies at different volumes and pitches. To compensate for these variations, some manufacturers use special effects processors to add various sonic enhancements to the recorded material. Such processing usually consists of several steps, each one of which adds a little something extra to the sound. For example, if you were listening through a pair of headphones while playing back a CD player at normal volume levels, you would hear nothing but static and hum. When you increase the volume on the player, a bit of dynamic range is added, and you are able to hear the music much better. This process is known as “dynamic range compression” and involves altering the volume level of the quietest and loudest parts of the material to bring them into the same range so that they can all be heard clearly. However, each time the sound is processed in this way, a little something extra is added to it. In the case of music, this added something extra is called “colored” or “equalized.” It does not sound natural and tends to make instruments and vocals sound a bit fake. Most people do not even notice it, but recording engineers have long recognized that such manipulation is undesirable. The way most professional recordings are made, many instruments and voices are captured at different volumes, which is then equalized into a final mix that brings everything into the same frequency range. The goal is to achieve a recording that sounds as natural as possible and does not have an exaggerated bass or treble response.
This is where sola levels come in. Created by a company called Cheetah Marketing, sola levels are magnetic recording tape that is used to transfer original recording material into a format that can be played back without the loss of dynamic range.
On the face of it, this might seem like a futile exercise, but there is a growing awareness among music fans that equalization actually “colors” the sound and makes it less enjoyable to listen to. In addition, music lovers are increasingly demanding that the sound be as close to original master recordings as possible. There have also been advances in audio technology that enable people to enjoy a much wider range of sounds than what they could hear thirty years ago on their old “quad” or 4-track tape decks. A good example of this is the 5.1 surround sound format, which was created in order to offer movie fans a more realistic listening experience in movie theaters.
A number of recording artists have taken advantage of sola levels in order to offer their fans “pure” recordings, but it is still a relatively obscure process. You won’t find sola levels at your local Best Buy or Target, so you’ll have to order them on-line.
Expect to pay about $70 for a reel of tape, which might seem like a lot at first. However, reel to reel tape doesn’t go “bad,” even after 30 or 40 years. And after you listen to a sola level tape, you’ll never want to listen to a “colored” or “equalized” tape ever again!
Much like with CDs, there is a loudness war going on in the recording industry. Most major artists try to one-up each other with how loudly they can record their songs.
The idea is to get your music as loud as possible while still making it sound good. This used to be done with vinyl records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and CD’s. Nowadays, most mastering engineers over-process modern music so that it will sound “better” when played on expensive car audio systems or on inexpensive earbuds and laptop speakers.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about sola tape is that it should NOT be played at high speed. The tape should be played at exactly one revolution per minute (RPM).
For this reason, it is best to use a turntable rather than a cassette deck or reel-to-reel machine.
The other thing to keep in mind about sola tape is that it requires special sola cassette tapes or records. Some people have tried to play sola tape at the wrong speed on purpose in order to hear what the music sounds like when it’s missing all of its low end and high end frequencies, which results in a rather “odd” sound.
Once you go sola, you’ll never go back!
Battles of the bands
Bands were no longer judged by how good they sounded at truck stops or county fairs. They were now going to be judged on a much larger stage and a much more discerning crowd.
Sadly, most bands weren’t ready for this type of pressure. Also, since most bands didn’t have a lot of expenses, they didn’t have a lot of money to put toward fancy equipment like drum sets, amplifiers, and electric instruments.
Sources & references used in this article:
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- A GENERAL INDEX to Volumes I to XXV (1889-1913) (RG Aitken – Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1913 – JSTOR)
- Cassini at saturn: Huygens results (DM Harland – 2007 – books.google.com)
- 10. SOLAR ACTIVITY (ACTIVITÉ SO LAIRE) (F Moriyama, P Simon – researchgate.net)
- Volume 19-Issue 4-January, 1910 (RT Staff – 1910 – scholar.rose-hulman.edu)
- DOE I NASA CONTRACTOR REPORT (OH COLUMBUS – osti.gov)
- Bibliography for the Fourth Quarter of 1969 (AH DELSEMME, DC MILLER – Icarus, 1970 – Elsevier)
- SAO/NASA ADS (null) Abstract Service (HC Spruit – adsabs.harvard.edu)