Dr. AIX's POSTS — 11 November 2015

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As I was driving to my teaching responsibilities yesterday afternoon, I heard a piece reported by Molly Wood on an audio format that you might have thought had gone the way of the 8-track cartridge…analog cassettes. I’d heard that the world had not yet rid itself of this aging format some many months ago and wrote an article of my own on this curiosity. But here was another report on the NPR show Marketplace about a company in Springfield, Missouri called the National Audio Company. These guys made more than 10 million audio cassette tapes in 2014, their biggest year ever!

They sell custom length cassettes to small indie labels, artists, and others in an era when the vast majority of young people are listening to MP3 files on their portable players. How in the world could a format that was current when I was in high school still have any market share? The answer came from National Audio President President Steve Stepp. According to Steve:

“The end users are the under 35 age group. These are people who grew up with the MP3 and earbuds and that’s what they thought music sounded like. And then at some point in time, they listened to grandpa’s open reel tapes or cassettes, or maybe his LPs, and they heard real analog music. And they thought ‘Wow! That’s what music sounds like.’…The retro revolution is part of it, but the second thing is a realization that we really got away from something good when we gave up analog audio. And people now who have heard the two types prefer it.”

I almost had to pull off of the freeway to compose myself after hearing this. It’s more of the same outmoded thinking that claims everything and anything analog is somehow better than today’s digital music systems and files. In all honestly, I would rather submit myself to a 320 kbps MP3 file than suffer through the best cassette playback in the world. Steve may be riding a wave involving audio cassettes but he must not be doing a whole lot of listening these days.

Compact audio cassettes have very poor fidelity due to their very narrow tracks (4 within 1/8 of an inch), slow tape speed (1 7/8 ips), and clumsy transports. With the help of Nakamichi and Dolby, the format was improved but never to the point it competed sonically with vinyl LPs or analog reel to reel machines. I suspect that National Audio Company’s success with cassettes is due to nostalgia, convenience, and low cost.

According to the report, NAC is sales are growing at over 20% per year and 10 million cassettes is a very large number.

I can’t help but think that the under 35 age group would enthusiastically embrace real high-resolution music, if they ever got the chance to hear it. As you know, I make available a dozen of my high-resolution tracks via my FTP site. Following my interview on Leo Laporte’s “Triangulation” show, I’ve received hundreds of requests for those tracks. The feedback has been very encouraging…one listen and you know.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a “binaural” electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art.

As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more.

Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com.

A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, “High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback”. The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(31) Readers Comments

  1. When their first tape sticks and refuses to turn, or wraps around a dirty transport wheel completely mangled, my CD will still sound as good as the first day I bought it. No overpriced record album or mediocre sounding cassette will ever pry it from my hands. No wow and flutter, no rumble, no noise to interfere with the dynamic range. Make mine digital. And hopefully from the real source with no added sonics, EQ. or compression artifacts.

  2. Mark, You know I highly respect you and your work but as mentioned the under 35 market that needs to be catered to for the most part doesn’t listen to the type of music you produce. You would have much more insight on how to appeal to the various popular music markets than I but they ARE being reached by the analog hustlers that we’re missing. Noticed all the various TV commercials lately for whatever products full of youngish people hanging around their living rooms spinning vinyl, it’s the KOOL thing to be involved in. I don’t know how to counter it but it makes me sad that after being involved in HiFi for 50+ years to see this backslide in interest in true quality sound.
    I can only imagine how it makes you feel.

    • I’m not talking about the music I produce. It is possible to bring higher fidelity and surround mixing to commercial music of all types.

    • I wouldn’t over-react to this cassette thing. My daughter and her friends are in the stated demographic. They’re musicians and are focused on writing and playing good songs. They’re operating under massive budget restraints as there is less money in music than their ever was. Some beginning bands are using cassettes because they’re remarkably cheap and it’s “a thing” (e.g. different than what they grew up on, different than what the mainstream is doing, etc.) It’s a curiosity. It’s a form of marketing. I’ve never heard them but I can only imagine.

      Frankly, I would take the interest in vinyl – and even cassettes – as a good sign. Many of these kids have much less disposable income than we did in the past. They graduated college into one of the worst economies in decades but, despite all of the stereotyping (pun intended) I sense that they care quite a bit about quality in a variety of ways. Talk to some hipster bartender who really obsesses about ingredients and mixing a drink and you’ll either roll your eyes or be impressed that he or she gives that much of a damn.

      Relax. It’s not the apocalypse because 28 years olds aren’t buying Audio Research. They’re on a different time schedule. They’ll get to that when their student loans have been paid off somewhere in 2040.

      • Devin, I just find it hard to believe that this format continues with files and USB sticks so easy and cheap.

  3. No question that cassette is a very limited capacity audio carrier.

    But…Back when Mobile Fidelity was making both records and also real-time cassettes from their bank of modified JVC decks, I knew the owner Herb Belkin. One day we started talking and he quietly said to me,” Craig, if you compare the LPs we make to the cassettes we make, you might be surprised, the cassette can actually sound better.” Nothing serious here, just a comment that a person in a position to make definitive statements made to me.

    • I knew Herb and visited Mobile Fidelity more than a few times over the years. I actually traveled to Maine once as well to visit. Cassettes had great appeal for a number of reasons…portable, convenient, playable in cars, and recordable. However, I’m not sure I would say they can deliver more fidelity than vinyl LPs.

  4. Wow, flutter, azimuth issues, tape spewing everywhere, oxidation, having a pencil handy – just some of the woes of the cassette era. Sure, they served us well when the Walkman revolution happened, plus they were a useful recording medium, but beyond that the whole sorry experience of cassette ought to have been one of audio’s more rapidly closed chapters. And yet, here we go again, the magic word analog rears its head and superiority to anything digital is assumed. I’m sure there won’t be the same kind of resurgence we’ve seen with vinyl, but here’s one slice of retro chic that needs nipping in the bud with all speed.

  5. There is something comforting about mechanical effort to reveal a musical performance. The spinning of a disk, the turning of a cassette take up reel, a player piano. That said, it is kind of crazy, I guess convenience and quality don’t always rule.

  6. My Spectral DMC 30S preamp has a tape in, tape out function connected to a Nakamichi tape deck. Of course
    I do not use it for any serious listening. But if I need to copy a radio program or any other source, it is easy to do. I can’t do that any other way as far as I know ? In the 60s, I used to make cassettes for friends on my Philips stereo cassette recorder – talking and tracks from Lps. Many of us used to do that – it was a personal and intimate way to communicate. Where is the digital version of such a facility now ? Maybe we are not interested in personal communication so much anymore.

    • The digital equivalent is even easier…if computer are a central part of your audio experience. I’ve seen entire libraries of thousands of songs cloned on an inexpensive hard drive or USB stick. No more real time transfers for me.

  7. I am under 35. As a 31 year old I did not grow up with mp3s. I grew up listening to cassette tape, vinyl and 8 track.

    I think this explosion of analog is due to people hating how mp3s sound and looking for something else. As they don’t know about high tea recordings or believe that all digital recordings are bad they go back to what they know.

    • Good quality recordings in MP3 format can sound really good…better than cassettes.

  8. I heard that program on NPR and laughed all the way home.

  9. “I can’t help but think that the under 35 age group would enthusiastically embrace real high-resolution music, if they ever got the chance to hear it.”

    Hear what exactly? That’s the problem! If the audiophile world is only going to cater to those who like Mingus and Mozart, there is a big disconnect with the average under 35 year old.

    Couple THAT with the fact that most “high-res” masters are crushed into oblivion, I ask you flat out Mark: How are you going to convince anyone under 35 that high-res sounds better if all your source material is mainly genres of music their demographic doesn’t listen to, or at least minimally, isn’t familiar with? Hint: You’re not.

    That’s why Pono and to a certain extent, HDTracks, are damaging high-res’ reputation in my opinion. They are selling lots of records that the under 35 year old bracket DOES listens to, like heavy metal, but almost none of which is really high resolution in the truest sense, i.e. higher sample rates and bit depths but brickwalled into oblivion. I realize that it’s not HDTracks fault per se, but to claim that these records are the best sounding is just false advertising. Note: I want HDTracks to succeed, I really do, but grounded in science not empiricism.

    Want high-res to succeed? Start at the source. Push modern music that has been produced with fidelity in mind. Educate folks of these younger demographics through the music they listen to. It’s the only way.

    • I wasn’t thinking about the under 35 crowd embracing the musical genres that I’ve produced. I believe it’s possible to make rock and commercial music sound better as well. I’ve only done a couple of electric projects but Carl Verheyen and Blueshead sound amazing and are not typical audiophile tracks. I agree that Pono and HDtracks as well as the organizations that are pushing high-resolution audio are doing more damage to the long term health of the market than good. Too bad.

    • I think the point Alex and I made in my earlier post is that you are a industry insider and we’re looking to you for ideas on how to reach the popular music crowd and teach them that “digital” isn’t the enemy and analog in the way of LP’s and specially Cassettes suck for SQ in comparison to HR digital sources or even decently done CD’s
      HELP, LOL

      • Sal, that’s right! I wasn’t going to say the obvious, but that is exactly what I keep pressing on Mark – he, a long with other industry insiders and prominent audiophiles need to take an active evangelist approach to promoting digital music and high fidelity production.

        What does that actually mean? I’m not 100% sure. Here are a few ideas:

        I think standardizing the definition of high-res and getting at least some percentage of folks behind it would go a long way.

        I think having a “Mastered for High Fidelity” trademark or something of that ilk that vendors like HDT and Pono could use to demarcate recordings that meet a certain criteria would be an invaluable tool to consumers as well. And it would put some pressure on record labels to not submit high-res material that is really upsampled low-res stuff.

        Finally, I think there is a big generational gap in the audiophile world which is why sites like Metal-Fi exist. I’m a big believer of promoting these ideals through the music itself, highlighting the artists and engineers that understand the problem and are actively working to solve it. I realize that metal, hip-hop, and EDM aren’t exactly popular with most audiophiles, but I’d like to think some of you have rocked out to Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden at least once in your life, and would actively support true high-res recordings of these genres.

        On a side note, do you know how bad it has gotten Mark with respect to showing off “how analog you can go?” Here is my report of the recently passed NYAS event: https://www.metal-fi.com/new-york-audio-show-2015-recap/

        Look what one vendor used as a source…holy cow….

  10. * 320 kbps MP3

    320 kbps MPC ?

  11. “With the help of Nakamichi and Dolby, the format was improved but never to the point it competed sonically with vinyl LPs or analog reel to reel machines.”
    I have to disagree with that statement. When I was selling Nakamichi cassette decks that incorporated Dolby C noise reduction, using metal tape, we did numerous “tape vs source” tests – recording from vinyl and from reel to reel – and it was virtually impossible to tell the difference. Later on Pioneer had a deck – model CT-91 – with which I made live recordings that one concert pianist told me were superior to what they were getting from professional recording studios that used Studers. Using a SoundTechnology test system, I measured flat response to beyond 20kHz on Nakamichi decks. Certainly the mass market tape decks had compromised performance, but so do current digital products of that ilk.

    • Dennis, it’s not worth arguing about…I loved my Nakamichi. But the world in general didn’t have those machines and they didn’t use Dolby C (usually B and sometimes they wouldn’t decode the B encoded tapes for more high end). If a pianist ever said that a cassette produced a superior recording than a Studer, the engineers using the Studer didn’t know what they were doing.

  12. Hi Mark,

    I can’t help to think that the pop & rock aesthetics are inseparable from the compressed and punchy sound that they have been fabricated with, and thinking that a wide dynamic range is sort of the opposite of how they should or want to sound. Presentation seems to be tied to the specific musical aesthetics, and being part of the musicality or feel of specific genres and how it is tailored to suit specific sensibilities.

    On the other hand, the analogue discourse seems to be ubiquitous: vinyl and tape for pop, rock, electronica, etc., and DSD for Classical and Jazz, etc.

    I believe the only way to untie the technology and recording techniques and all the post processing (mixing, mastering, etc.) from the music is to have different options of presentation available for musicians to chose from.
    If you could record a pop band, a rock band, a jazz or classical ensemble, etc., in different ways, studio multitracking with the current standards; minimalistic stereo or binaural, multichannel, esoteric dsd and tape, etc., and let the musicians decide, the presentation would not be necessarily tied to the kind of music they record or the supposed target audience and how producers or labels imagine their tastes to be.

    This wouldn’t make presentation less of a tool, but on the contrary, it would for the first time be a tool as such, open to be used as such by musicians in a transparent way, instead of simply imposed or preconceived.

    Before that happens, musicians need to know what is available to them, as opposed to fixed standards or preconceived notions of what we like to hear, and themselves know enough about recording techniques to chose what to try or experiment with.

    We need to get rid of acquired tastes that are very pervasive, and make presentation a tool, not a preconceived flavor or marketing strategy. Recording techniques and presentation have to serve the music, not vice versa. But this means changing a whole mindset and business model, and getting rid of how things have worked so far. Digital technology is in itself the basis for that, but first musicians have to realize that. That’s gonna take a while, but a next book project targeting musicians would be really interesting.

    Cheers!

    • You’re right…but wouldn’t you love to mix a Fleetwood Mac tunes or Mumford and Sons with fidelity in mind. I think it would be incredible and maybe make thing change.

  13. Mark I was wondering exactly what is your position on MP3/AAC? Why do the majority of young people listen to that format. I would actually prefer that they listen to CDs… At least that medium contains information.

    • The masses are looking for good sound…not great sound…and they get it from MP3 and AAC. A 256 kbps file can sound really close to a CD. The problem is further upstream in the creation of the original source tracks.

    • To my ears, MP3 and other lossy codecs such as AAC, strip away as much as 80% of the original audio content. This flattens the depth of the audio image, collapses the stereo image, and eliminates reverb trails. Is all of that information loss worth it in order to sell content at its absolute smallest file form? Surprisingly, I know numerous studio engineers who listen to lossy. Wow.

      • Brad, 80% is way over the actual number. The majority of the damage is to the very high frequencies. A 320 kbps MP3 comes dangerously close to a CD in terms of dynamic range and frequency response. Maybe 80% as much fidelity as CDs.

        • MP3’s by eliminating or deleting information in their compression schemes are by definition and through listening inferior to CD’s.

          The Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG or MP) coding method 3 takes a “snapshot” of the audio signal at 128/kilobytes per second. I believe the CD standard takes the “snapshot” at 1.4/mb per second. That’s 1.272/mb per second more. What happened to that “extra” 1.272 mb of information? Gone forever. That’s not squeezing or compressing a signal, that’s eliminating information. That’s like someone eliminating 95% of your pizza and telling you the result is still pizza that tastes the same (horrible analogy I know, I’m in a rush)

          • Your math is right but it ignores the actual mechanisms that encoders use to reduce the bandwidth of an audio signal. There is data lost…usually at the high frequencies. Dynamics range is not affected. Play a 320 kbps MP3 made from a great high-res recording and then the high-res original…for a few friends. Most will not be able to tell them apart.

  14. I am behind on reading your posts to slow to respond to this, but I had to comment that last summer I was at a baseball game in my home town (farm team for a pro team) and there was a kid there, probably 13 – 14, and he had a Panasonic cassette portable player. The hand held kind like Sony made, the cassette Walkman style. He had the original headphones he was using with this. Adults walking around (and it was blatant) were pulling their attention from the game when they saw this thing and going up to the kid and asking to hold it and touch it, they were showing their kids the thing. It was crazy the reaction this kid was getting, he found it unexpected and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I have hundreds of tapes at home, recorded from vinyl back in the day, maybe I could peddle those somewhere!!!

    • Thanks…my students had the same befuddled look when I showed them my Nagra.

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