The Flip Side of Digital...

The following was submitted as a letter to J. Gordon Holt, in response to his Editorial "Digital Revenge," in issue #53 (August 1982, Vol.5 No.6). We are publishing it as a guest editorial, because the writer is one of the few audio people whose judgement we respect who disagrees with us about digital's merits. The feeling, it would seem, is mutual.Ed.

Dear Gordon:

Although we have had a few chats over the past years I can't really say I know you. Nevertheless I identify with you in that we are both pioneers in our respective fields, and have put up longer than most with the vagaries of recording and reproduction. This letter will deal with your recent comments concerning digital recording and our future.

I applaud your efforts to resist the trend toward outright rejection of this new storage medium. To see digital sound dismissed out of hand probably irks you the same way as the audiophile's rejection of anything other than moving-coil cartridges bugs me.

Your editorial suggests two things: One, you have had it with trying to find truth in the plethora of ever-newer-and-better systems to play a record. Two, you are tired.

Quite possibly, you have installed more pickups in more tonearms, measured more RIAA curves, moved more speakers, and tried to evaluate more preamps and amplifiers than any one man in the world. Undoubtedly you have confirmed, in the most conscientious manner possible, that Brand B (1972) was clearly better than Brand A (1966), and that Brand C offered more musical integrity than Brand B, and have finally been thrilled with Brand L (1982). Then, by some quirk of fate, you have had the opportunity to compare Brand A with Brand L and were shocked to find that you preferred brand A, thereby suggesting that, not only were you wrong over the last 16 years, but possibly you could have been more productive and happy operating a McDonald's franchise.

If you see any truth in the above scenario, then you have seen the truth as I see it, ie, true progress in audio is almost nonexistent. I have heard 20-year–old master tapes that are positively intimidating in their excellence. The only area of true progress lies in the performance of phonograph cartridges.

On occasion, I have had to evaluate a piece of playback equipment that I hoped to use and rely on for critical analysis. It is time-consuming, taxing, frustrating, and generally fruitless. The thought of having to do this year in and year out, and the responsibility of committing one's conclusions to print, are things I would find overwhelming. Particularly if I cared a damn about being accurate, whatever that is.

For you, the promise of an all-digital system is that it would forever end the search for some consistent way to play a record. And for me, it would eliminate the even more difficult task of trying to press a record that isn't virgin garbage.

It should be pointed out that all of the recognized tests for an amplifier or preamp do not even scratch the surface of what is really going on with them. If they did, there would be no need for a JGH to report on what they sound like. But my ears tell me that the digital recorder is not even in the same ballpark as our old enemy, the analog recorder—not for the overall purpose of retrieving music in a musical fashion. And most certainly not in the aspect of accuracy. I am sure that the acceptable storage of analog material by digital means could be accomplished now, but the necessary format, cost, and complexity would bear no resemblance to today's digital recorders.

Obviously, great improvements could be effected with the format being used today, much of it in the analog area, but audio's resistance to change makes me doubtful of that happening. But today's digital recorder is unique in the history of recording. Although measuring better in some parameters than any other storage medium, it is unprecedentedly bad in some other areas.

The same contradictions are apparent in the aural perception a digital's idiosyncrasies. I have been present at some digital master-tape playbacks where, while some listeners were thrilled with the sound, others were literally diving for the exit. Unfortunately, I have usually been at the head of that latter group.

To those who are sensitive to the anomalies of digital, their final analysis is not that it is a worthwhile compromise but that it is unacceptable. To me, it is a complete failure and, as burnt-out as I am, I couldn't look to it as a way out of my frustration with the infamous mechanical disc let alone the benign analog tape recorder.

As you know, my main profession and source of income is from the Mastering Lab, a commercial disc-mastering facility. Many albums are being produced today that are mixed to a two-track digital format, and in the near future, multi-track recorders from Studer, Sony, MCI, and Mitsubishi will join the 3M machine to hasten the industry's conversion to digital. Producers of $150,000 albums don't feel very comfortable working with someone wearing a Sheffield Lab "Stop Digital Madness" T-shirt.

I shudder to guess at the amount of money I have lost through my inability to figure out how much information the designers of these digital recorders deem to be musically significant. Fortunately, in Los Angeles there has been a stampede to ½-inch 30ips analog tape (almost back to the original 1948 format of the Ampex 200) as the storage medium of choice.

The increasing rejection by audiophiles of digital is being paralleled by recording engineers, and with the availability of the Digital Audio Disc (the PCM-encoded Compact Disc), the intervening analog disc will soon be ruled out as the reason for digital revulsion. As CDs become available, you will ultimately come to one of two conclusions: either all the recording engineers have gone bad or there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

While this pot brews down, I taking a vacation. And so, my friend, should you. A long one for both of us. Maybe a McDonald's franchise wouldn't be such a bad idea for both of us.—Douglas Sax