CD: A Lie Repeated Often Enough Becomes Truth Page 2

Doug Sax on CD:
We've never had anything for the home like the Compact Disc before. Using digitally coded pits read by a laser, it achieves noise-free reproduction without wear. Although less than 5" in diameter, it can contain over one hour of uninterrupted music—and that music will have an impressive dynamic range with a full frequency response.

CD is the first new storage medium of any viability since the compact cassette, and its parentage is indeed the same, the ever impressive Philips. Unlike the cassette, the CD has no ability to record.

Its impressive list of features would seem to guarantee success. All the discs are compatible with all the players, regardless of manufacturer. The incompatibility mistakes of four-channel reproduction are not being made again.

Launching a new storage medium for the home is an enormous task. The investment in Europe and Japan has been prodigious. The CD claims to offer "perfect sound, forever," there by automatically satisfying the demands of both the high fidelity and audiophile markets. As production increases and the costs of both players and discs come down, the CD is slated to replace the LP altogether.

The only question left for me to decide is whether to retire immediately or try to hold an a few more years, inasmuch as one company that I head is an audiophile label and the other is concerned solely with disc mastering.

One can understand, then, that I have watched with more than casual interest the unprecedented promotion for the CD. The traditionally noncritical audio magazines in the United States have been positively drooling over the merits of the CD. This created a demand for the player months before they even went on sale.

Recently, CD players and discs have become available across the country and, for the first time, all have the opportunity to compare its performance to the rhetoric surrounding it. I was most interested in popular product with which I am familiar. I certainly didn't expect perfect sound; nor do I feel the CD needs anything more than very good sound to succeed since its other advantages are so obvious.

But what I have heard on many players, and on more discs than I would ever care to listen to again, is mediocre sound, sound that is often unappealing and fatiguing. Many engineers who have auditioned the CD have had the same reaction.

I have been on record, since I first heard a digital master tape, that there is an enormous price to be paid, in musical terms, for the noise-free performance of digital. Although digital storage is not my cup of tea, I nevertheless have a great respect for how well a professional digital recorder performs. I can hear obvious virtues that could easily please some of the people all of the time.

No such respect can be engendered by the CD, however. A handful of cheap chips and a few "inaudible" digital generations have eaten at its heart and soul. Its performance no more resembles a professional recorder than a production Chevrolet matches a NASCAR racer.

The CD is going to force the consumer to come to grips with the problems of digital technology, first because the CD is the worst presentation of that technology, and second because all the music heard from the CD will have these digital colorations even if the master tape was recorded in analog form.

In Los Angeles, the recording capital of the world, the storage medium of choice for over 90% of all commercial albums is analog.

For the last four years, manufacturers and magazines have answered negative responses to digital recording with sentiments that state, "It is the fault of the LP record. The LP cannot handle the information that is stored on a digital master. Wait until you hear it in a pure digital form."

The CD has only been out in limited quantities for two months, and already the high-fidelity magazines are receiving complaints about its sound, complaints that are generally aimed at the commercial product that is the backbone of our industry.

The answer in essence says, "Since the CD replicated the master tape, the faults lie in the engineering. Engineers are going to have to use better microphones and less EQ to satisfy a medium as revealing as the CD." That's a lot of BS! A lot of good sound is being lost and a lot of unmusical sound is being added between the master tape and the finished CD.

That's my opinion, and also the opinion of Bernie Grundman, A&M's renowned disc cutter. Eventually the buck will have to stop where it belongs, on the shortcomings of the CD system itself.

Who has approved these discs before they went on sale? Some of the commercial discs appear to have been altered from their original concept. It seems that someone with no taste or knowledge of the music has "improved" on the original. In many cases, a vital process has been eliminated—the participation of the producer and engineer. I find it amazing that, after a fortune has been spent to develop and market a new technology, producers or engineers are rarely involved to insure the musical quality of the finished product. The ultimate sales potential of the CD will be determined by word of mouth, and the word on the street is that it is a big disappointment sonically.

In evaluating classical recordings, the British audio press noted for performing critical listening tests, has recently published reviews that are scathingly unfavorable. Some reviewers cited an inability to listen to the CD for any length of time. Listening to a complete disc was usually beyond their perserverance. No characteristic could be more undesirable in a music storage medium.

If one believes that good promotion, many desirable features, and the absence of noise will justify the CD system, then its future should be fine. But I believe that we are offering music, not silence, and an audio player with a disc price of $17.98 has got to offer more. It has to offer the one thing that the CD is struggling with—excellent sound that is accessible to all.

The last thing our industry needs is a new format that offers half the sound for twice the price.—Doug Sax