Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Lost Era

I have been around the audiophile block a few times following its meager beginnings in the era of the monophony to its stellar accomplishments in stereophony. During this time (roughly from 1955 to 1985) I have observed many changes - creative comings and fads fading - and even proven technologies fade like dying echoes in a concert hall. Many of these proven technologies die because of the NIH ego of electrical engineers (Not Invented Here). It is sad since much about the current high end is a rediscovery of old ideas.

For example, who of you can recall the home 1/2" video tape recorder wars of the early 1980s? For those of you who cannot, it was a time when video recording standards had two camps: one with superior video quality (Sony's BETA) and one with longer recording time (JVC's VHS). Guess which won? The one with longer recording time. Sales of the lower-quality 2/4-hour tapes somewhere were on the order of 20:1 and BETA lost the battle; consumers decided who would win with their dollars.

A huge lesson was learned in the industry that people wanted convenience and not quality so - badda boom, badda bing - along came the digital compact disk. Insisting on a size (a diameter of 120mm) the CD physical size was born (whatever CDs would be, they must also be playable in a single-DIN slot in an automobile). And assuring at least an hour of playing time, the math was pretty simple to determine sampling rate and word size given these requirements. Leveraging off of this VHS-BETA lesson seemed to be an assured success - give the public what it wants and compromise higher audio quality - and so it was.

There was no reason to use a 16-bit word or a 44.1kHz sampling rate other than that was the result of how much digital data space was available (640Mb). (See to understand the complete specification). A larger word size and a higher sampling rate could have been used, but then the CDs playing time would be shorter AND with the lesson of the video tape wars was still bouncing around in the heads at Sony, no one wanted to make this mistake again.

So the digital age settled on this 44.1kHz/16-bit standard and in 1982 the Red Book era was born. Mastering studios all around the world eagerly jumped on this new standard and soon analog productions fell by the wayside. Skyrocketing sales despite high prices (albums were about $5 and CDs about $15) resulted and the recording industry underwent a transition that locked us into the Red Book format for decades to come.

But an interesting thing happened along the way: people started listening to the music and hearing the faults in the playback approach to the Red Book standard. A few artists insisted on simultaneously recording analog and digital versions to assure that - in the future when a new standard arose - their efforts would not be "lost." At the time, no one could foretell if any improvement could be made to playback this format simply because it was brand new. But I digress since playback improvement is not the point of this entry.

Those who did not do this were literally locked into a format that had zero hopes of ever  appreciating the full sonic benefits and nuances of a performance. Those who did this were shunned and considered radicals being put down by the vast majority of the engineers and artists as silly or weirdos. These radicals were indeed the saviors of the high-end.

But those who did not indeed were proved to be wrong. Today, there is a resurgence in analog recording and playback and many artists demand much higher recording rates than the Red Book standard. Someone once asked me a related question: What is an infinite sampling rate and word size called? ANALOG!

On the surface, this question is very telling of the issue since any digital sample is by definition an approximation limited by its word size and sampling frequency. While this approximation is closer to the original with higher-resolution recordings and better Analog-to-Digital Converters (ADCs), they are still approximations and still prone to errors. Even digital clock jitter and similar artifacts are reportedly measurable and audible in both the recording and playback equipment.

As the last of the analog recordings were abandoned, a day came that no one was recording with analog gear. Digital mixing consoles, digital signal processors, digital recorders, and the like took over the industry and before long, the only way you could get an analog recording is to do one yourself. I know that people will argue  measurable errors do not translate into audible errors and from the objective position they are correct. But those who listen subjectively disagree even though these same people cannot consistently tell which is which in a double-blind test. While it is easy to dismiss such subjective claims as unfounded, the numbers of those forming these subjective complaints are growing.

Regardless of who is right, one fact remains: ever since the last analog recordings were abandoned, all of the performances recorded in the Red Book format can never sound better than they currently do. While playback improvements can make the Red Book recordings sound better, they cannot by definition be less error prone than a digital recording of higher resolution. One day in the near future, audio will undergo the same transition that HD video is now experiencing with UHD (1k to 4k). This means that an entire era of recordings will always be locked (lost) in this limited format and one day the audio industry will look back at this era as one of tedious but necessary growing pains. Are those who pooh-pooh subjective listeners wrong? Yes, because one day in the future the standard will change.

So what can be done? If the current digital era will one day be viewed as archaic and lost, what can be done to plan for this inevitable obsolescence? Simple: record in as high of a resolution possible knowing that even it will one day be viewed as inadequate.

The high-end is constantly evolving, undergoing improvement, and experiencing change. But that does not mean we should rest on our laurels in any given standard or achievement. We should insist on Constant and Never-ending Improvement to push the state-of-the-art forward, to make it better, to make it more realistic. After all, isn't that what the high-end is all about? I would rather have someone look back and say "They did their absolute best" rather than have them say "They did what made sense at the time."

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

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