Tim de Paravicini: King of Tubes Page 2

"One example is that Stereo Sound award on the wall behind you, for the EAR 859. Curiously enough, I sold more 859s in Japan in that year (1995–96) than all other valve amplifier competitors together! I think that was a wonderful statistic. The modern equivalent of that is the EAR 834p phono box, which has sold very well all over the world.

"One of the measures of what I've tried to get is how much changes hands on the secondhand market. What is the brand loyalty? That, to me, is important, even in the pro audio market, where some competitors have come along and copied the ideas I've put out, cheapened them. They'd sell a stack of them, but then you'd very quickly see the secondhand pages full of them!"

I commented to Tim that, although hi-fi can be a bullshit business, you can't bullshit pro audio customers.

"No. It's a tool to them, it's not a frivolity. And they're not going to suffer fools gladly. Home hi-fi, well, you can go back even 50 years and there's a lot of product that was cheesy, and came and went.

"In South Africa I'd been in and out of doing pro audio, in the form of PAs and peripheral studio equipment. In Japan, I hardly touched any pro equipment. The nearest I got to that was forming the tape club at Lux. We had 40 people who had open-reel tape recorders, and a mixing console and a splitter box. We would go and rent a hall and hire musicians and record some music, so that everybody went home with their own master tape. And everybody clubbed in and put in...well, in today's terms, £50 to £100 a time, a relatively small amount, but when you amassed it together with 40 people, you had enough money to pay the musicians.

"Because the Japanese aspire to have the best quality. When I came back to England, I couldn't convince people about master tapes: 'Oh, if it ain't a Linn turntable, it ain't good enough' sort of thing. I was confronted with people accepting a record as if it was better than my master tapes! And it's not, I'm afraid.

"But, as I say, when I came back to England I had to face the competition. I chose not to try and fight them head-on, but to carve my products the way I felt they should be.

"I was a consultant to Michaelson & Austin at the very beginning, and I worked for a company called Tangent, which made loudspeakers. I was responsible for trying to develop an amplifier and active speakers under a high-end badge for Tangent, which was called Moonlight—an embarrassing name! I got back into professional audio equipment here in about 1983, when I met some people from studios who wanted some stuff, and I designed a disc-cutting system for Island Records.

"I know that I can make vinyl sound better than it ever does, because I know what all the limitations are in the cutting electronics. It wasn't just the amplification, it was the approach to the concept of dealing with the feedback on the cutter heads and everything else. Neumann and Ortofon and the others had all followed the same avenues, and I just said, well, I'm going to look at this with a fresh sheet of paper and see what I can do to tackle the problems.

"That system cut quite a few Number Ones. If you cut vinyl properly, it will sound virtually indistinguishable from the master tape. That's the ultimate aim of what I'm trying to do: to preserve the sound as closely as possible all the way through. And Mobile Fidelity have got the current version of the concept at their place in California.

"I've been lucky to do tasks for people like the Pink Floyd. It's equipment that has to stand the test of time. Does it sound any good, or does it destroy the sound? Does it hold the integrity of what they're after? And so on. My compressors, for example, make controlling the level easier, without it sounding as if you have crushed the life out of the music. And of course in the studio you have to modify the events, because you are trying artistically to produce an end result. If you're recording classical music, it's a slightly different ball game than pop music—but pop music is meant to be an electronic artistic event, and there aren't any rules! And it's mentally more stimulating.

"But with home hi-fi, the fire's never gone out. I still want to do something better than anybody else. That was the whole motivation from the beginning. That's the competitive nature of it. And the business side, the money side of it, was secondary to producing something of quality."

When CD arrived in the 1980s, Tim de Paravicini was among the first to explain the shortcomings of the new format's sound quality by pointing out that existing analog media were superior when analyzed in terms of sampling rate. He argued then that a digital medium would need a much higher sample rate than 44.1kHz (and a higher bit rate than 16) to match the resolution of analog tape or vinyl. I asked him to explain this again.

"Well, the quick nutshell of it all is this. An analog microphone we all understand, and a valve or transistor amplifier is linear in its working range. On a vinyl record, when you are cutting an acetate, there is no modulation or chopping it up—you are down to the molecular level of the acetate to store that information. It's a totally random but very minute-resolution storage system.

"When it comes to digital, it's how to operate it, how many bits we devote to it, and the sampling frequency, as to how we store that information. The original digital system of CD, with 16 bits and 44.1kHz sampling, was what the mathematicians deemed to be the minimum acceptable to human hearing for so-called hi-fi. They never looked at all the artifacts and all the problems. And they never did enough analysis of the human hearing mechanism to realize that we don't stop hearing at 20kHz—people can discern and detect sound up to 45kHz. We have, as I say to people, an equivalent risetime of 11 microseconds in the hearing mechanism. And the ability to resolve detail in those digital systems wasn't quite good enough.

"In analog, you can change the thing and keep on aspiring to perfection without a compatibility issue. With digital, once you change any parameter, you've got a compatibility issue. Now, you can record on ProTools at 24-bit/192kHz, but it's not compatible with CD. I did my own summation—and this is from 20 years ago—that if we did 384kHz at 24-bit, we'll have a system that will resolve on a par with the best analog. That's the holy grail. And the problem, for the computer people, is having the balls to go that whole hog.

"At the moment, they are going the opposite way. Digital radio came along with a promise of perfect sound forever on the radio, and the BBC made all sorts of spurious claims using what I'd call not-true comparisons; for example, showing that they could drive a car around and digital would sound better under certain circumstances.

"FM, when it was designed in the late 1940s, had a dynamic range of 80dB potentially, and FM has the linearity of an analog system, because the equivalent sampling frequency is around 108MHz, which is huge, and gives an extraordinary resolution. And then they come along with a digital system that is only 13 or 14 bits, and 32kHz sampling.

"And now, with digital radio, even Radio 3 [the BBC's classical-music and arts radio station] has been cut down to 160 kilobits per second. They've now abused us, putting on more and more channels of poorer quality on digital radio. What is the purpose? It's not high quality! They don't care any more about quality, that's the saddest part. Whereas, with stereo and FM, the original aspiration was towards quality. With the BBC, back in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a relaxed quality in listening to Radio 3, for example, or Radio 4. But as time has gone on it's been mutilated. And now Radio 3 is processed until it's not very palatable.