Dr. AIX's POSTS — 03 December 2015

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What do you think when you read this from the Wired piece on the J-Corder repurposed Technics reel to reel machines?

“This modded R2R sounds so good it’s used in professional recording studios. Whether listening to the best master dubs, making party mix tapes, or recording needle drops to preserve precious vinyl, the J-Corder is analog magic.”

I think the writer doesn’t have a clue about the world of audio recording and reproduction. Sure Steve Hoffman has one in his facility (although I’ll wager that he didn’t pay for it and that if given a choice he would opt for a real professional deck.) “Analog magic?” Admittedly, a good analog dub or original source can sound terrific. However, it’s a quality of sound preferred by some but it not as good as it gets. And it’s way too expensive to even consider IMHO. Especially, when you can process a great PCM digital recording to emulate the “quality” of analog tape. I wrote about this a few weeks ago when I discussed the “vintage tape” mastering tool from Izotope.

If passing a digital recording (CD or DVD or high-res file) through an analog tape machine results in “analog magic”, then I’ll be happy to provide this as a service to anyone that loves the sound of analog tape but can’t afford the high price of admission. Send me your digital master and I’ll send you back a file that went through an analog stage. Specifically, I’ll play back the file or disc using my Benchmark DAC2 HGC and record it on my Nagra IV-S recorder (which is a major step up from a prosumer Technics 1500 deck with or without the J-Corder tweaks), and then capture the output back to 96 kHz/24-bit PCM digital.

I’ll actually do this process on one of my favorite high-res tracks and post it on the FTP site for you to review. Stay tuned.

While digging through Jeff J-Corder website I was fascinated by the answers in the FAQ section. Here are a few of my favorites:

When asked how an old technology like analog tape could rival current state-of-the-art systems, the response is based on anecdotal feedback from attendees at the CES and RMAF. The “music coming from a J-Corder tape deck sounds much better than many of the other sources at the shows, including other tape demonstrations.” It’s certainly possible that attendees that venture into a room full of old analog gear and a signal path full of vacuum tubes are predisposed to liking the sound of analog tape. Just like that people that are hip to the advantages of high-resolution PCM digital flock to rooms like the one that Benchmark, Dolby, Oppo, JVC, DH Labs, and AIX Records assembled at the AXPONA Show last year (which I’m hoping to repeat in 2016).

With comments like this from AXPONA attendee David Hinshelwood, “I want to thank you for the most memorable musical experience that I have ever heard at the recent Axpona show. Well…hearing is believing!!! Nothing in my 50+ years in audio reproduction has impacted me the way your recordings did.” Or my personal favorite from Andrew Quint of The Absolute Sound magazine, “The audio was quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format.” Those formats include analog tape BTW!

Another question asked if making a recording to analog tape doesn’t degrade the fidelity of the original source? And the answer defies electrical and acoustic reality, “No it doesn’t. Believe it or not, it will actually sound BETTER. I know it doesn’t seem possible but hearing is believing. Once you hear the beautiful sound of tape you will choose tape over the original source every time. It is hard to believe but true.”

It is hard to believe because it’s simply not possible and certainly not true. An analog copy decreases the dynamic range (by 3 dB) by increasing the hiss across the entire bandwidth and reduces the frequency response too. Do we think these compromises are good things? Forget about the subjective bias that Jeff has towards the “sound” of analog tape…the facts speak for themselves. An analog copy will never sound as good as the original source. It may sound different and be preferred by those that like the effects of analog copying, but it’s not improving the fidelity.

There should be “analog tape” DSP modelers built into every DAC so that analog advocates can get the sound they want without all of the problems associated with analog reel to reel…most notably the expense. I just went through the process of duping a whole bunch of tapes. The results were spectacular…but the hi-res PCM originals beat the copies hands down.

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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.

(17) Readers Comments

  1. “An analog copy will never sound as good as the original source. It may sound different and be preferred by those that like the effects of analog copying, but it’s not improving the fidelity.”

    Sorry but that is just not true. Yes, there is a lot of hyperbole in the article and a nauseating amount of self promotion but the point about recording HiRes Digital onto 2-Track Analog Tape is not. By all accounts it sounds better, smoother, stronger, and better staged than the sometimes narrow, clinically sharp digitally sampled sound. Oh yeah, it also adds an incredible amount of fire to the life of the music, just try it with an electric guitar solo. It cannot be denied. Many have experienced it. Not sure why you are strongly resisting this notion but if you want to argue about dynamic range let’s talk about clipping and human hearing thresholds, including pain, and if you want to talk frequency range let’s talk about the range of hearing and the harmonic content of music and if you want to talk about SNR let’s talk about how a few dB won’t make a bit of difference especially when measuring with single tones at low levels and last but not least if you want to talk about tape hiss let’s talk about new formulas and recording at high levels.

    Sorry Dr. Aix but you are sounding more like a broken vinyl record than a HiRes affectionado. It seems you want everyone to adopt your narrow definition of HiRes or hit the highway. Unfortunately the reality is many do not agree and there comes a point where you are doing a disservice to the cause of HiFidelity Sound. For instance, I notice you never have anything good to say about the Pono Player yet they have probably done more to introduce the masses to the world of HiRes. Oh, I forgot, it’s not HiRes by your definition and therein lies the problem. As I said, others do not agree as it looks like it was just awarded Product Of The Year by Sterophile Magazine, something which should get full coverage on your HiRes website.

    Thank you for listening even if it wasn’t in HiRes.

    • How can you possibly make the claim that reducing the dynamic range, adding hiss, and experiencing all of the issues associated with analog tape is an improvement to the fidelity of the original digital source? It’s like saying black is white. I accept your own preferences for analog tape and the sound it produces but contradicting a straightforward fact is nonsensical. Following your logic and that of Jeff at J-Corder would mean that each successive copy would continue to improve the sound of the original. But a first generation copy lowers the dynamic range by increasing the noise by 3 dB…copy it again and you’ve lost 6 dB. If you keep going the next round is another 12 dB down. This doesn’t like improvement to me.

      A bona fide high-resolution digital file copied to analog tape will exhibit less fidelity than the original PCM master. Denying this obvious fact is denying electrical engineering science. If you like the resultant sound, you’re expressing your opinion not the facts contained in the specifications.

      “By all accounts it sounds better, smoother, stronger, and better staged than the sometimes narrow, clinically sharp digitally sampled sound. Oh yeah, it also adds an incredible amount of fire to the life of the music, just try it with an electric guitar solo. It cannot be denied.” By all accounts? I’m one of those expressing a preference and therefore you can’t say all. Can you not understand that your claimed group of all is merely your personal opinion (and other analog advocates) and not based on the measurements of fidelity? It can and should be denied because it’s simply not factually correct.

      I want consumers to understand what they’re getting when they purchase what they believe is a “high-resolution” audio component or file. If everything ever recorded qualifies as hi-res, then what’s the point of trying to advance the science? Apparently, we were already living the high-res dream back in the 50s.

      Regarding Pono, if you’ve been reading these posts for any length of time you would have read that I do regard the Pono player as a solid piece of engineering. Is it state-of-the-art? No. Does it equal the JAS definition for high-res audio. No. And Stereophile Magazine giving it an award means nothing in the overall scheme of things.

      The problem lies with Ponomusic, which falsely…and by their own self admission…is reselling archived analog recordings in high-resolution bit buckets for premium prices. Pono has done more damage to the cause of better sounding music and high-resolution than good. Saying they have a catalog of over 2 million high-resolution files when the major labels acknowledge that they’ve only made 5000 albums available as high-res transfers, is an outright lie.

      You can certainly cling to your personal preferences but I’m done arguing about analog vs. digital with you.

  2. Reading about the merits of running a digital source through an analog tape machine is like listening to the benefits of trickle down economics espoused by today’s young Republicans. If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance baffle them with BS. You only need to convince a few suckers to ignite a spark of factual infantism.

    • People can like what they like…even in politics.

  3. There’s just two schools of listeners out there Mark as I’m sure you know. There are those of us (a minority) that prefer the sound of real live music reproduced as accurately as possible. But sometimes Hi Fi done this way, for many reasons, can have an edge to it. A brightness that a professional like you is probably best equiped to reccognize the cause of. Sometimes I suspect the microphones are the worst offenders, on the other end we know for sure the speakers are the weakest link in the accuracy chain.

    Then there is today’s “Audiophile” community that is in love with a euphonic sound. Easily accomplished in many ways. It thrives in the subjective group of “damn the measurements, blind tests don’t work, it sounds GOOD to me” cult. Sadly this approach has all but taken over High End audio and so easily infects newcomers to the hobby, (I hate to call it that) because euphony can be very attractive and addictive. Bummer.

    Sometimes I tell them to get off the “Recommended Component of the Month” club and just buy a good pro DSP parametric equalizer and tweak the sound to any bend that makes em happy.
    Maybe you should market some form of ProTools for the consumer that would allow them any manner of plugins to create their very own audio nirvana.

    • Very good points Sal.

    • I think the really big problem is that many audiophiles have no idea what real music actually sounds like or what real instruments sound like (and yes there are many recordings which stray away from the natural sound, but there are also many recordings which try to get as close as possible to the live event) these audiophiles therefore end up relying on magazines and web sites who tell them what they think they should be listening for. Unfortunately, hi-fi magazines and web sites have their own commercial agenda and are not in the business of education.

      A little bit of history: from what I remember of the time, the empiricist view of hi-hi stem back to the late 70’s early 80’s when amplifiers began to be produced with vanishingly small amounts of measurable distortion yet, in some cases, sounded awful – it was later discovered that the large amounts of negative feedback which was being used at the time caused large amounts of odd harmonic distortion, which is particularly objectionable to listen to. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding of why a piece of equipment measured well but sounded bad led to the magazines of that period to espouse an empiricist viewpoint (that good measurements did not guarantee true high fidelity); once that particular genie was let let out of the bottle it would not be put back.

      Also, I’ve said this before, some manufacturers pander to this empirical approach (Naim are a good example) by making claims to sonic improvements to their cables and electronics by introducing, as part of the manufacturing process, techniques (such as shaking cables x number of times) which have no engineering or scientific basis. Naim are a top quality manufacturer of analogue electronics (they also do digital but that, in my opinion, is another story) and they are that good because they apply well-established engineering theory to their products, not because of the empirical rubbish.

      It’s time we left the empirical approach of the late last century behind; if something behaves in an unexpected manner despite measurements, then that’s a subject for engineering/scientific research, not idiotic dogma.

  4. I read the article and just rolled my eyes-full of hyperbole. I posted the article in a hi-fi/hi-end community on Google+ along with your response.

  5. What do I think when I hear audiophiles argue including those who manufacture or provide services for other audiophiles, even those with some actual knowledge? I think they are ruled by their emotions, not by cold analytical thinking even when they are right. They have an intense passion for their ideas right or wrong. I on the other hand see these as just machines. And while I like some machines better than others, I can’t really get my juices flowing over them to the point of ecstasy or anger.

    The facts are clear. Take two of these analog tape decks or any two analog tape decks for that matter and dub copies back and forth and it won’t be too many generations before the signal has obviously faded eventually to the point where it is so weak as to be indistinguishable from the noise, in other words it will be gone.

    Do the same with digital recorders and it would not be surprising if the thousandth generation is indistinguishable from the original. That’s just the way it is.

    BTW, this souped up restored and fancily decorated Technics 1800 tape deck is no professional machine. Looking at photos of the parts in the restoration menu it’s clear that this is hobbyist grade gear. the telltale signs are the plastic brake shoe, the brake design, and the lightweight casting used as the frame for the rest of it. One characteristic of professional equipment is ruggedness to perform reliably under constant heavy use and abuse. You can put lipstick and a wedding gown on this pig but it will still oink and stink. You can’t make it into a professional machine although professionals may be forced to use one in a pinch when better equipment isn’t available.

    Can the electronics be better than the original? It would be a sorry day if after 30+ years of advances in electronics it couldn’t be. At $26,000 this is some sort of joke, someone’s crazy dream. Can he sell any of them? You know what they say, there’s a sucker born every minute. People are also buying into Pono-graphy aren’t they?

    • The noise of an analog copy increases exponentially with each copy. Buying a Technic deck is a mistake…you’re getting ripped off.

  6. I had an Akia 4000DB RtoR years ago. It was great for making lengthy mix tapes or recording my dads band. That’s pretty much where it ended. I miss that old beast for the fun of it but certainly not for the fidelity. I think anytime people tout the ‘benefits’ of old technology there is a healthy dose of nostalgia in the mix. Some folks just can’t evolve!

    • I finally tossed my Wollensack after hauling it around for years.

      • Wollensack, LOL, Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in years.
        Had 3 r2r decks back in the day. My first a Allied/Knight KN4035 mono 7″ deck.
        Later I upgraded to a Allied/Knight KN4310A stereo 7″ deck. Then some years later,
        I got a Pioneer RT 707 stereo 7″ deck, what a beauty they were, made my Hi Fi look so
        professional. At the same time also belonged to a Columbia (I think it was) tape of the
        month club, where they sent me a new pre-recorded 7″ stereo tape. They must have been
        high speed dubbed cause as I remember they all sounded very rolled off on the top
        compared to my LPs. But those were THE DAYS. LOL

  7. I remember making mixed audio tapes from my CD collection onto VHS tape, just to see what would happen. They sounded better to me than cassette tapes did and they cost a hell of a lot cheaper than an open reel did at the time.

  8. ‘There should be “analog tape” DSP modelers built into every DAC so that analog advocates can get the sound they want without all of the problems associated with analog reel to reel.’

    Absolutely. Every modern receiver should have analog tape, LP 33pm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm DSP settings built in, including parameters for needle-wear, dust, warp, etc, to give analogophiles the vintage sound they desire. There’s nothing wrong with preferring the crummy media of yesteryear.

  9. Mark,

    I completely agree with your views on High Res Audio and do realize that if the original source material wasn’t recorded in High Res, is it truly High Res?

    With that being said, I have noticed on many of the older recordings (a good example is Van Halen – 1984) from HDTracks.com; these albums at 192/24 are not brick-walled like their CD or iTunes counterparts. I detest albums that are loud for the sake of being loud. So for me, I absolutely love having access to these albums with better dynamic range then their CD counterparts from the 90’s or 2000’s. It seems like a majority of the time, when many of those classic albums from the 70’s or 80’s were remastered or remixed, the record companies brick-walled the albums. So while there might not be a benefit by converting it to 192/24, I thoroughly enjoy listening to a non-brickwalled album versus the brickwalled CD or iTunes counterpart that was remastered during the 90’s/2000’s.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Thank you,

    Michael

    • I agree with you. When a new mastering is done…things can potentially sound better. It’s hard to know which albums will benefit from a more relaxed capture and mastering.

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