Way back in 1992, we wrote the following piece, printed it on 12″ square pieces of card and shipped it with thousands of 12″ singles:
What is the essence of digital recording/reproduction?
Digital recording systems work on the principal of turning a signal into a series of binary numbers, which are then stored for reproduction. This system of encoding averages the input signal to minimize the amount of data generated. It was believed that 44,100 samples per second was a high enough resolution to sufficiently encode any music signal without the listener being able to detect the inevitable degradation.
Analogue encoding systems work by taking the musical information as it is and turning it directly into mechanical movements ~as in the case of vinyl or directly into magnetic modulations (as found on tape) which in the replay stage do not have to be decoded or mathematically reconstructed. There is no trickery involved; what you hear is what you had.
The scientific community has, over the past 10 years, slowly come to the startling revelation, that there are many systems in nature that cannot be broken down or reduced to a set of simple component parts. This realization has overturned the prevailing paradigm of nature which as ruled for the last 200 years. T he death of reductionism has direct implications for the field of audio, and confirms what everybody has been feeling and saying in private for some time about digital music systems; the resolution obtained at 44.1khz is not high enough to reproduce music properly.
The resolution of analogue systems however, depends on the quality of the materials and components used in the audio chain; in the case of vinyl, the resolution goes down to the molecular level. It is millions of times more sensitive than any digital system that has ever been manufactured.
Because digital systems irretrievably reduce the input musical signal to a series of numbers that is insufficient to encode all of the music, there is a limit to how much you can upgrade your reproduction system (hi fi) to obtain a better sound. No matter how much money you spend, the original musical signal can never be retrieved belong the fidelity at which the encoding took place. With analogue recording however, the amount which you can gain is enormous. I he molecular resolution of analogue tape and vinyl facilitate this upward mobility, and even if you don’t choose to upgrade your equipment, the quality of the signal is still preserved in your recordings, if you should ever desire to take advantage of it. Digital denies you this potential.
What’s happening in the studios: engineers reactions
Studio engineers are consistently confirming that digital systems do not measure up under close scrutiny. At a world famous audio mastering facility which specializes in the preparation of lacquers and PQ encoded tapes for CD production, the verdict has been that digital must be treated with extreme caution. At this facility, the production of masters is carried out from many different sources; DAT, Sony PCM 701, analogue tape @ 15ips and 30ips, 1630 U-Matic and Cassette. The Monitoring systems that this studio employs are among the finest in the world, custom built and calibrated by hand by an audio genius. Constant exposure to different kinds of music, heard through an exceptional reproduction system, from different source tapes, has given these engineers the experience to be able to judge audio. Here is the testimony of one of their senior engineers. . .
“There appears to be an unquestioning attitude to digital audio. It is generally and wrongly accepted that digital recorders provide a true to original sound, however there are many variables that can drastically alter the audio signal and there is a widespread ignorance to the various permutations. On the simplest level, one finds that comparable DAT players of different makes have markedly different sounds. The variety of digital interfaces also gives rise to further differences. The idea that a digital copy is an exact copy of the original music is simply not correct. One can look at all of the variables and reach a good compromise but manufacturers still have a long way to go. There is also a growing feeling that the digital sound is conditioning people to accepting the digital sound as the TRUE sound whereas in reality digital systems impart a texture to the sound which is invariably 'restricted' and 'stifled' as opposed to 'open' and 'breathing'. Sound engineers seem to be subconsciously working around the problem, working towards a compromise that 'sounds good on digital'.”
The analogue infrastructure
The knowledge gained in the manufacture and operation of analogue recording systems is invaluable and irreplaceable. Research and development into further improving the near perfect world of analogue audio reproduction has virtually stopped, due to the destructive influence of digital. It is not only the patents and designs that must be carried into the future, but also the personal expert knowledge of engineers, gained over many years, which must survive; knowledge which can never be replaced once lost – the knowledge of what quality to expect from the best possible analogue reproduction system.
Digital computing is only an evolutionary step in the development of computers. There exists today, the working components of a new type of analogue computer which will revolutionize computing, and make digital computing obsolete. With the establishment of analogue computing, all tasks that are now being handled by digital computers will be switched to analogue computers, including the recording and reproduction of music. Much experience has been gained in the field of optical discs. High density optical discs will, without doubt, be a major resource for data storage and retrieval when analogue computers come on line. I he advantages of optical disc storage (when the disadvantages of digital encoding are stripped away) are many; durability, pitch stability, low distortion and track numbering to name a few. When these advantages are combined with the perfection of analogue encoding, we will have a system of playback and recording with a quality beyond all expectations. Such a system however will be of no use to anyone if the analogue infrastructure has been dismantled, and there is no one left who knows first hand what real, true to life audio sounds like.
The mass destruction of masters
For the moment, digital is here with us, and a terrible price is being paid. l he entire history of recorded sound and music is being systematically ‘saved’ into digital formats . . . at 44.1 khz. This disaster is taking place because of the life span of recording tape; the glues that have been used to bind the magnetic material to the flexible substrate of most recording tape have been found to be decomposing, putting at risk most of the master tapes that have been recorded in the last 50 years. In what seemed like a sensible move, all of these master tapes have been scheduled for saving to digital; (also, conveniently, this ties in with the re-releasing of the back catalogues of most record companies onto CD) I. What nobody bothered to tell these companies, is that digital sounds like shit; and so, thinking that they have permanently saved their masters, the record companies are THROWING AWAY their original analogue master tapes. . . to save space. When the penny drops it w ill be too late. All of~our favorite music will be lost forever in a quanitized quagmire of brittle, cold, shitty sound, and for no good reason, because analogue machines could just as easily be used to preserve decomposing masters.
The proper place for CD
CDs are very useful, just as cassettes are useful; they have a place in the audio chain, and should be used and sold; BUT NOT TO THE EXCLUSION OF ANY OTHER FORMAT, and certainly not to the exclusion of vinyl, which is the best mass produced reproduction carrier ever made.
Who’s in control?
You have to wonder how this sham has continued for so long, and of course, we all know who is behind this insane state of affairs. The audio equipment manufacturers have realized that if they design and manufacture the hardware i.e. CD players, mini-disc, l)CC, they must control the manufacture of the software I music) to ensure that their investment in time and R&D pays off. Sony learned this the hard way, with the failure of Betamax; it failed because there was no software available to watch; they tried to push the system, licensing movies from film companies at huge cost, but it was too late. NOW Sony owns Columbia Pictures, and every picture they have ever made, so if they want to launch any type of new hardware to play movies, the availability of software will be no problem, no matter how good or bad the system is; they can even release films on reels of spaghetti if they want to. Sony also own CBS records and the CBS back catalogue. Phillips own Phonogram and A&M. This is a terrible situation, not only because the production of music is in the hands of a small number of giant companies that are also the exclusive manufacturers of all audio equipment, but because these companies are deaf to sound quality, due to their need to launch more and more new playback formats. Mixed with the profits to be made from re releasing hijacked back catalogues, the resulting brew is poisonous; companies that profit from reissuing old music again and again into a never ending stream of different and inferior devices to a public addicted to electronic novelty. GOD SAVE US ALL.
It’s not too late
Most of the engineers and companies involved in the production of analogue recording systems still exist and are working. If we stop the digital disease now, music and sound in all of its intricacy will be saved for everyone. Keep buying turntables and vinyl records. Keep buying cassettes. Boycott any release that is on CD only for no good reason. Make sure that the labels you buy from are not controlled by the manufacturers of music systems. It is the only way we are going to save sound.
A MESSAGE FROM THE PUBLIC SERVICE INFORMATION DEPARTMENT OF IRDIAL-DISCS
Now, in 2009, we read in The Times, the following…lets go through it together shall we?
Young music fans deaf to iPod’s limitations
Many people complain that pop music was better in the good old days. Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen are poor substitutes for the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the argument goes.
Older fans also insist that songs heard through iPods just don’t rock as they used to, compared with the clarity of CDs and the crackling charm of vinyl.
Research has shown, however, that today’s iPod generation prefers the tinnier and flatter sound of digital music, just as previous generations preferred the grainier sounds of vinyl. Computers have made music so easy to obtain that the young no longer appreciate high fidelity, it seems.
This is nonsense. Young people no longer appreciating high fidelity has nothing to do with the ease of getting a hold of music. They do not appreciate high fidelity for the reasons I outlined in 1992.
The theory has been developed by Jonathan Berger, Professor of Music at Stanford University, California. For the past eight years his students have taken part in an experiment in which they listen to songs in a variety of different forms, including MP3s, a standard format for digital music. “I found not only that MP3s were not thought of as low quality, but over time there was a rise in preference for MP3s,” Professor Berger said.
He suggests that iPods may have changed our perception of music, and that as young people become increasingly familiar with the sound of digital tracks the more they grow to like it.
False. ‘Our’ perception has not changed; the human ear is the same as it has been for generations. What has been changed are what young people are used to; they have been inured to the sound of garbage masquerading as music. They think that music IS what comes out of ear-buds.
He compared the phenomenon to the continued preference of some people for music from vinyl records heard through a gramophone. “Some people prefer that needle noise — the noise of little dust particles that create noise in the grooves,” he said.
No one has EVER preferred the noise of dust particles. Clearly this man has no idea of why vinyl and analogue are superior to compressed digital. Noise is something you sometimes have to put up with in order to hear music, which is what you get from a properly operating turntable and amplification system. It is important not to conflate the faults of vinyl playback and nostalgia for the facts about those high fidelity systems. They were and are good because of how they work and the audio chain, not because of their faults, which is why
“I think there’s a sense of warmth and comfort in that.”
is total nonsense. The quality of analogue reproduction is not an illusion; it is real and the emotional response you get from music that is played back correctly is your response to the music, which is being relayed to you faithfully.
Music producers complain that the “compression” of some digital music means that the sound quality is poorer than with CDs and other types of recording. Professor Berger says that the digitising process leaves music with a “sizzle” or a metallic sound.
First of all, music producers and mastering studios started compressing tracks so that when they are replayed over the radio they sound louder and more exiting. Tracks that were not compressed in this way sounded weak and not exiting next to those that had been pumped up, and so there has been a loudness war going on in pop music for a very long time. The only thing that has changed are the tools being used to do the compressing; now everyone uses ProTools to get this job done.
That is one sort of compression.
The OTHER type of compression is the Procrustean Bed type, which all young people are now suffering. As was said in that article from Sterophile, not only are we being subjected to sound that is destroyed by being sampled at 44.1khz in multiple passes from the multitrack down, but then these mangled, sterile tracks are then data reduced by the MP3 algorithms that reduce the file sizes to one tenth their original size, in lossy formats that sound nothing like music.
Some people say that the loss of fidelity is worth the trade off; there is more access to music than ever, it now costs nothing to listen to everything, and you get it the instant you want it.
As far as I am concerned, its like being offered immortality, but with the price being you can never eat food or have sex ever again.
Not such a good bargain is it?
Producers complain that as modern listeners hear their songs through iPods and their computers, music has to become ever-louder to hold their attention.
“Now there’s a constant race to be louder than other people’s records,” said Stephen Street, who has produced records for Blur, the Cranberries and Kaiser Chiefs. “What you are hearing is that everything is being squared off and is losing that level of depth and clarity. I’d hate to think that anything I’d slaved over in the studio is only going to be listened to on a bloody iPod.”
Sorry Stephen, but your productions will never be recorded or heard properly again.
Other musicians have said that compression robs a song of its emotional power by reducing the difference between the loudest and softest sounds. Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine recently that modern albums “have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no thing, just like — static.”
Completely correct Bob.
Ken Nelson, producer of Coldplay’s first two albums, said: “An example of overcompression is the last Green Day album. If you try listening to it from beginning to end it’s hard work. After three songs you need to put something on that’s been recorded in the 70s.”
You NEVER need to listen to a Green Day album. For ANY reason. No matter how it was recorded.
Rennie Pilgrem, a dance music producer, said that he mixed his tracks while listening to them through iPod headphones to cater to the less refined tastes of today’s youth. “To my ears iPods are not even as good quality as cassette tape,” he said. “But once someone gets used to that sound then they feel comfortable with it.”
Cassette is a great format, and if you used it carefully, you could produce some really fantastic sounding masters with it. One of our most popular tracks was mastered directly from cassette, without any attempt to reduce the nose. It rocks.
Advances in technology have often resulted in profound changes in the style of popular music. Music historians point to keyboards in the 18th century moving from the plucked string of the harpsichord to the hammered string of the piano. For the first time, composers could devise songs that got progressively louder from note to note, something that was impossible on a harpsichord.
And yet, the Goldberg Variations are mostly known and loved through piano performances today, not harpsichord, which is the correct instrument for that work. It is the music of the Goldberg Variations that is great; it can be played on any keyboard and evoke its emotions. This is a completely bogus analogy. What we are talking about is the reproduction of recorded music not the technology of instruments.
In the early 20th century, the cylinders on Thomas Edison’s phonograph could play recorded music for only four minutes at a time, something that listeners became used to. Today tracks are still generally about four minutes long.
Well, that was a typically uninformed piece. Still, it confirms what we predicted; that one day, there would be no one left who knows what music sounds like. That day has now come to pass.
If you have any interest in this subject at all, do read the Stereophile article. It really is a nightmarish proposition that you are living in right now, and a most prescient piece of writing.
And who knows what is next? No doubt someone somewhere is working on a brain cap device that will allow a computer to directly stimulate the auditory processing parts of the brain so that ‘sound’ never has to pass through your ears at all.
The fact of the matter is that recorded music is a phenomenon that is very recent, that has not existed for the majority of the history of man and it may even disappear altogether. One thing is for sure, it is not going to remain the same. What I maintain is that you should be aware of what things are, why they are good or bad, what their value is to you and so on. What I am against is someone dictating how things should be for their own interests and not in the interests of music or the people who love it, which is exactly what happened with CD. It was designed and pushed (on the back of lies) for the benefit of companies without any regard for music or the public.