Copycode: Diminishing DAT Alvin Gold Listens to Copycode

Alvin Gold Listens to Copycode

I put a question to my Japanese hosts toward the end of a particularly impressive traditional meal: What status does traditional Japanese music have with the Japanese themselves? In all the several days I had been in the country, I had heard barely a note of Japanese music, whether on radio, television, or even back at the works when we were having hi-fi gear demonstrated.

The answer was monosyllabic and instantaneous: "None." OK, there's probably a tinge of Oriental inscrutability about this answer, but it really does seem that Western (read European/American) music has just about taken over completely. This situation holds for the background relax-and-spend music they play in shopping precincts as much as to the stuff they pay to hear in their concert halls—and everything in between as well. Even Japanese musicians seem to express themselves largely through Western styles of music.

Anyone who knows anything about Japanese culture will probably be able to make some sense of this phenomenon, which to my Western sensibilities seems quite inexplicable. Could it be that this apparent disenchantment with their indigenous musical culture lies at the root of the row that has blown up over Digital Audio Tape? Westerners have complained for years that the Japanese treat recorded music as fair game for home copying; and their industry is, after all, hardware- rather than software-oriented. Maybe they just don't understand the role of music in the West, where the market is very much driven by the recorded-music side of the industry.

Record companies have a perfect right to get angry at the wholesale and continued piracy of their product, and I think most people are sympathetic to this. But there appears to be a great deal of resistance to the ineptness and arrogance they display in the process, and there is disagreement about the scale of the problem, and its cure.

There's the language, for one thing. The industry talks rather pompously of intellectual copyright. Phrases like this stick in my gullet, given the increasingly formula-ridden and wholly synthetic-sounding product that clutters 90&#150l95% of the charts.

But this is nit-picking. What really upset me most was the first press demonstration given in the UK—indeed outside the US—of Copycode, the savior of the record industry in its epic battle against unscrupulous copyright pirates. That, at least, was the unspoken agenda of the press conference, held under the aegis of the IFPI—the International Federation of Phonogram and Videogram Producers (no, I'm not sure how they get the IFPI acronym either).

The demonstration was held just weeks after the US senate subcommittee dealing with the DAT issue had its first Copycode demonstration, which by now you'll have heard all about from other sources. I thought at first we were to be treated to another such futile exercise, using another Barbra Streisand track or something equally compressed and manufactured-sounding, where almost nothing that could be done to the music would have made any difference. But no; they used some solo piano and a Beethoven symphony recording whose genus I couldn't begin to guess at. It's what they did with the music that was interesting.

The way I heard it, the demonstration was rigged, but in subtle ways and perhaps not deliberately. They used a reproduction system based on some fairly disgusting, though outwardly respectable, PA equipment (no names, no pack drill) in a cinema-like setting. I had secured myself a seat near the front and on the line dividing the widely spaced loudspeakers. I was too close to notice what Hi-Fi News's Barry Fox noted from near the back—that the house PA system had been left switched on—by accident I accept—but I obviously wasn't close enough to get any stereo soundstage. What rolled out of those speakers had an anodyne character and the consistency of treacle, and for all intents and purposes the soundstage was homogeneous—like very wide mono.

Even so, the controlled A/B tests showed that the Copycode processing was audible. What could not be determined was which—of the Copycoded and non-Copycoded fragments—was which. I couldn't, anyway. The sound was wretched both ways and the differences did not seem entirely consistent or musically worthwhile. We were asked to say which was which, and, not surprisingly, no one was willing to commit themselves. Not, I fancy, because differences were inaudible, but because no one could ascribe a value judgment to what they heard. Yet the chair couldn't resist drawing attention later in the same conference session to the fact that "no one could tell the difference" in defense of their proposition that Copycode was "inaudible."

There's one more thing I forgot to tell you about this meeting, which was attended by something like 250-300 press people from all over Europe. I met only one other member of the specialist hi-fi press (Barry Fox apart), an acquaintance from Denmark. Maybe he had received his invitation from another non-hi-fi invitee, as in my case. I can only suppose the hi-fi press was deliberately excluded in favor of the comparatively tame music press. And when I say tame, I mean it. This was the only press conference I have ever attended where the chair was repeatedly and enthusiastically cheered when it made its more strident points—more like a revivalist meeting than one attended by what should have been a skeptical, critical press. At times I felt I was an unwillingly member of a lynching party. That worried me as much as what the IFPI proposed to do to recorded music.

Make no mistake about what they want—and demand. Despite protestations to the contrary, they desire nothing less than the complete capitulation of the DAT makers. What they want is what they know they can't have with any other form of software, or any other method of recording audio. The argument they made at the press conference was that recording in the digital domain from CD to DAT is different in kind from any other recording activity, such as making DAT copies of records, or cassettes of CDs. Why? Because such recordings sound perfect. As producer George Martin put it: "The awesome thing about digital taping is that it isn't just taping, it's cloning. However many copies you make, the product is just as good as you get in a studio. Home taping will become a nightmare for producers because it will put us out of work. Not just people like me, but all the young and enterprising people trying to make a go of it in the business. They will be stymied by DAT unless there's a control on it."

Someone asked why Copycode wouldn't be extended to other forms of software. After all, there aren't even any DAT recorders out there yet, but there are trillions of cassette recorders and zillions of discs and whatnots to copy. But no, DAT is to be treated quite differently from other sources. Could this have anything to do with the fact that CD is the only source guaranteed to run at an accurate enough speed to keep the Copycode notch where the recognition circuitry expects to find it?

Of course it could, and this points to a possible way around Copycode—altering the pitch of the signal by the necessary 5% (or greater) amount, which in principle could be done with digital electronics without altering the tempo. Such circuits are already available as effects units, and could be coupled with a reconversion on playback if required. Copycode's backers are trying to get EEC and US law to prohibit circuitry designed to circumvent Copycode. However, such a (hypothetical) circuit could be promoted as a pitch-change module, for example to bring recordings back to concert pitch, or to allow users to play along with their pianos. At the very least, this would help show the absurdity of enforcing such a law.

CBS will make Copycode encoders available to other record companies at manufacturing cost, and will allow free access to the technology to anyone who wants to build proprietary Copycode-style circuitry, as long as it remains compatible. It's also production-ready, or so we were told. Yet in response to questioning, it turned out that the Copycode circuitry we listened to at the demonstration had "some" phase-correction circuitry, and this was not how the system would be marketed.

It was the answer to another question that revealed just how unready the supposedly market-ready Copycode really is. Was CBS using Copycode to protect its current catalog against the day when suitably equipped DAT recorders will be made available? "No" came the reply. Why not, if it can't be heard, and if it is ready as you claim? "We will not use Copycode until there is an international agreement on its use." No amount of pressure changed the answer. I have to confess this made no sense to me at the time; it wasn't until after leaving the meeting that I twigged the obvious: CBS must be afraid of adverse public reaction to Copycoded recordings. Even, we must assume, to unannounced Copycoded recordings.

In my humble opinion, CBS should put up or shut up. If digital-domain piracy is truly in a different league to analog piracy, why not leave it to the DAT recorders themselves which won't even record at 44.1kHz (the two I've just been using certainly won't—of which more anon?). Perhaps the IFPI can press for sampling-rate converters to be made illegal. All this will mean that only analog copies can be made, even if the signal is stored in digital form at each end of the process. At least then digital-domain copying would be stopped, and the inevitable decline in the sound quality of compact discs would be arrested. There are limited enough quality margins there to begin with, God knows.

Philips has even proposed a more sophisticated version of the CD subcode system, which would allow users to make a single digital copy from CD, but which won't allow daisy-chaining of recorders. Otherwise we are going to be left in the absurd position where we can make recordings, even digital ones, from records and tapes—with official sanction gained through having paid a levy on our blank tapes. At the same time we will be prohibited from making a simple DAT cassette copy of our own CDs to play in the car. The law would be an ass, would be seen to be an ass, and would surely fall into disrepute as a direct result.

With Copycode in existence, I must assume no one will have the chutzpah to press for a tape levy on DAT cassettes, so copying onto that format would be levy-free. Imagine the fuss if someone tried to put a special compensatory levy on blank DAT cassettes which can only be used on Copycoded recorders anyway! Or maybe the music industry really would like to have its cake and eat it.—Alvin Gold