Dr. AIX's POSTS NEWS — 17 May 2017

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I read a guest editorial called “The Emperor’s New Server” at the Absolute Sound’s website today written by Jonathan Valin. Steven Stone posted the link on his FB feed and I couldn’t resist. You can check it out yourself by clicking here. It never ceases to amaze me how thoroughly uninformed some audio writers remain in the face of what by now are established facts regarding digital vs. analog recordings. Do they just write this stuff as click bait?

Here’s the essential paragraphs”

“No matter what the bit rate, no matter what the digital delivery system, you simply cannot ‘sample’ the continuous-time sound of instruments or vocalists, turn it into discrete-time numbers, and then turn those discrete-time numbers back into instruments or vocalists without losing some of the very continuousness of presentation—the dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres—that is the very breath of musical life.

Yes, I’m aware of all the real advantages of digital audio in dynamic range, greater frequency extension (at least in the bottom octaves), lower noise, higher resolution, etc. over analog. But I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one. It doesn’t—even when the LP is mastered from a digital file!”

I’m not sure where to start in parsing the statements made in the preceding paragraphs. The opening salvo in Jonathan’s attack on high-resolution digital audio alludes to some imagined failing of a system that Shannon and Nyquist firmly established as losing no information from source to output. That’s right. There is nothing lost in the conversion from analog waveforms to samples and then back to analog waveforms. Is a digital system perfect? No, certainly not. But the “dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres” are all there. In fact, they are more there in a well made high-resolution recording than the best piece of vinyl on the planet. Jonathan just prefers the sound — the imperfections, distortions, harmonic inaccuracies — of one format over another. And he would have us accept HIS standards of measure, personal taste, and assessment as universal. I sincerely hope not.

The second paragraph acknowledges that in all of the metrics of sound capture and reproduction, digital audio has “real advantages”. He’s right and the partial list of advantages (there are many more) that he enumerates guarantees that the digital recording will be more accurate to the incoming analog signals than the same signals mastered to a spinning piece of vinyl.

So here I am with a very straight face telling Mr. Valin that I — and many thousands of my AIX Records customers and those that have heard my demos — prefer the absolute musical mastery, in his words “the breath of musical life” that is captured without equal by a high-resolution PCM recording. Analog has its place in the history and to appreciate those recordings in their native format is laudable. I have no problem supporting vinyl LPs for those recordings originally released in that format. But since the arrival of new high-resolution audio tools and distribution formats in 2000, there should be no going back for new productions. Anyone seeking sonic accuracy, emotional intensity, immersive music listening should avoid working in the analog domain. If, on the other hand, the goal to preserve the “mojo” of the past and craft recordings that emulate the “classic” sound of our favorites, then analog tools, processors, recorders, methods, and vinyl LPs are the way to go. There’s room for all aesthetics.

I started my label AIX Records to demonstrate that it is possible to engineer and produce recordings that exceed the fidelity of compact discs and vinyl LPs. I’ve been successful. However, merely showing what’s possible doesn’t necessarily translate into a model for the rest of the music industry. Even artists that I’ve worked with and who were amazed at the sound of our collaborations have returned to the tried and true methodologies that they’ve used for years. It’s curious but true.

My goals were met. I would put the same challenge before any interested music fan. If you were to come to my studio and experience Jennifer Warnes singing her rendition of Mickey Newbury’s song “So Sad” in high-resolution, 5.1 surround, I can pretty much guarantee that you would leave needing a tissue. It’s unlike anything you will ever hear in any other format.

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As readers and supporters of this site, I would like to ask you to help in bringing awareness to an innovative product that a close friend of mine is developing that makes use of binaural sound projection. I’ll get into more details over the next few posts, but the YARRA 3DX speaker array that he’s about to launch on Kckstarter is a remarkable technology and worthy of support. Imagine the immersive, “you-are-there”, quality of binaural with the intimacy of commercial tracks without the need for headphones and you’ll start to understand the revolutionary nature of this product. We need to develop a healthy email list prior to our launch. If you or someone you know is interested in a smart sound bar (and subwoofer) that can deliver immersive, 5.1 surround sound for games, music, home theater and more for less than $500 (with an opportunity to get up to 50% off during the campaign), then please visit the site and sign up. We promise never to spam you or distribute the list. I really think they’re on to something truly disruptive. Again please visit, YARRA 3DX.

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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.

(21) Readers Comments

  1. Hi Mark, so sorry you had to endure this. Having made a perfectionist LP from a live to two track recording on an Ampex ATR-100 running 1/2 ” tape at 30ips, I actually do know what happens to the signal over analog generations.

    Big signal compresses and softens the HF on the original recorded tape, and the mid-bass response is usually up a bit from head bumps. When the tape is transferred to vinyl, that very same euphonic coloration takes place. That’s what he is used to and prefers…his sonic comfort zone so to speak
    Clean digital audio is unquestionably more truthful. But for some, it’s just like the Jack Nicholson movie,”You can’t handle the truth.”

    We just had a big vinyl event at our store, around 200 folks, Rob from Mo-Fi and a number of vinyl religionists. The energy in the room transcended sonic shortcomings… this vinyl thing has two sides. One is the preference for the easier listen as above, but the real item is the ritual involved with vinyl, no such ritual occurs in the digital audio world. Ritual is essential to human beings. Take it away, and something happens… That IMHO, is the score.

    • Hey Craig. I get the vinyl thing and have experienced sessions with advocates of analog systems. I agree they can sound really fabulous and the ritual aspect is important. I chafe when I hear people like Jonathan Valin insist that it’s “his way to the highway”. It was especially interesting to see him acknowledge that digital system are better at everything that we measure BUT it somehow fails his ears. Maybe his ears are the problem. It’s all good as long as it reaches you heart and brain.

    • Not to mention the time domain non-linearities of magnetic tape recording/playback.

      With regard to the AS editorial, I think Sagan said it best: “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

      • Analog tape and the rest of the systems that we used over the years were wonderful and sounded great BUT they pale in comparison to what is possible today. I love the quote…I may borrow it for the book.

        • You’ll have to ask Sagan. Bring a ouija board.

  2. Is there any chance of obtaining the recoding of Jennifer Warnes

    • I sincerely wish that I could make this recording available. It is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve every produced AND that’s she’s ever done. But she refuses to let me release the album in spite of the fact that it’s finished and ready to go.

      • Terrible shame I have been a fan for years such a lovely voice have all her albums

  3. Thanks for the heads up Mark. I went to that article and posted my disdain for the perpetuation of such incredible ignorance. What sort of idiot knows so little about his chosen hobby, yet has no idea how little he actually knows? Likewise, how can someone who runs an audiophile web magazine know so little?

  4. I like it when JV writes:
    “I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file(*) and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one.”

    Where am I supposed to do this? None of the “high end” stores in my area are set up to do a demo like he describes. Even if they had the proper equipment, the listening rooms are way less than ideal for that kind of challenge. The only way I could accomplish his dare would be to purchase the analog and digital systems he describes. Oh, wait a (self-inflicted head slap) minute, that’s what TAS is all about.

    At least your “counter-dare” includes an offer of a demo at your studio – which I’m sure would impress even more than you can convey in print.

    * Read the quote carefully. Is this really a trick challenge? Just what is a “well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file”? What does “turned into” mean? Is he really talking about rips of LPs instead of true hi-res digital recordings?

    Maybe he should talk to Robert Harley about getting a dose of MQA:)

  5. Mr Valin is the resident vinyl head and ultra expensive audio reviewer at TAS. As such, most if not all of his equipment is on open ended loan from the manufacturer. He has a $100K turntable that he plays with that he didn’t pay a dime for. I wouldn’t accuse him of bias but there is an incentive to say nice things about it. Most audio reviewers don’t know much about the technology they write about. There is an assumption that analog media have infinite resolution that is nonsense. Vinyl resolution breaks down at a bit less than CD resolution due to imperfections in the surface of the vinyl that can’t be fixed. The difference between analog and digital at the resolution limit is the nature of that breakdown. An analog photograph has a resolution limit too. Looked at under a microscope you can see the granularity, it just has a different structure than the digital granularity. Sound recording is no different. There is a vinyl guru at that other magazine that travels with digital recordings dubbed from his vinyl rig to play for people as a demonstration of the superior sound of vinyl. He doesn’t seem to understand the paradox. Clearly he likes the added harmonics and reverberations added by all that mechanical stuff vibrating. I enjoy playing my LP’s. Many of them sound very good. I think an LP from the 50’s mastered and pressed when the tape recordings were new is going to sound better than a “high rez” transfer made today from a 60 year old tape. This isn’t a vinyl versus digital comparison, it is a new tape versus old tape comparison.

    • Thanks Robert…I’m on your issue this weekend.

  6. I find this whole analogue vs digital argument totally tedious as it seems to be overlooking the basic point that the music we listen to has all been converted from sound into something else in order for it to be actually recorded. You cannot capture music by opening a jam jar and then quickly closing the lid, it has to be changed into something else – bumps in wax, electric current or zero’s and ones. This idea of some kind of purity via vinyl is ridiculous and i played the stuff for the first 21 years of my (so far) 51 year life. It has its own district quality (“sonic comfort zone” sums it up perfectly) and if you like that great but please don’t pontificate to others that it is the only true playback format.

    • Well stated. Thanks for the comment.

  7. “Do they just write this stuff as click bait?”

    Well there is that but above it all is the almighty $ buck.
    I know this comment will ring a bell with you,
    “Because it’s good for commerce”
    From the manufacturers of the vinyl tech gear to the people involved in High End print media and websites, and many others, just about anyone with a financial ore in that water has gotten on board. The boom in very expensive vinyl gear (even inexpensive) is putting a lot of either $ money or job security in their pockets. Look thru the pages of TAS and Stereophile and count the large expensive advertisements, same for the major audiophool websites.
    How dare you try to tell the truth about analog recording and playback! Your shooting the goose that laid the golden egg.

  8. I’m getting to the point where I doubt the sincerity of writers like Valin. Along with that of the editors who vet such writings. Somewhere along the chain the article has to pass through the hands of someone who knows 0’s from 1’s, but they are all quite happy to let it slide — every single time. At some point, it ceases to look like ignorance.

  9. Hi Mark,
    I recently downloaded an “expensive ” hi-res 24\192 album which is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. It is a new recording that was recorded direct to disc (vinyl) and tape at the same time. Whilst I understand the EQ used for vinyl, I expected the hi-res file to be taken from the tape feed (that is to say flat..no eq.) No such luck, what I have is an inverted doughnut.
    Thanks Mark for your efforts.

  10. Dear Mark,

    You are right. Jonathan Valin is a complete idiot! He is out of our time! He lives in another archaic planet!

    • Ron, I never called Jonathan Valin and idiot. He’s certainly not. His attitude towards analog and vinyl LP is not uncommon among audio writers. It’s OK for him to offer an opinion on such things but he and I depart when he asserts things that are clearly not true.

  11. Perhaps Jonathan should compare the best analogue video recordings ever made to the best digital video recordings now made; perhaps he will prefer the look of analogue video tape to 4k or 8k at 60p.

    • Dave, this is brilliant! Although, there are directors and DPs that prefer the look of 35 mm film over digital at whatever resolution. Again, it’s a matter of personal taste. I do find it interesting that even hard core analog film fans, use digital post production methods. They’re OK with the conversion to numbers and then back again.

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