Archive to DSD? Big Mistake!

James Tanner of Bryston pinged me the other day regarding a discussion on their forum about DSD and specifically about my writings on the topic. I think a lot of DSD advocates see me as the “enemy” to their beloved format. Far from it…I’m unabashed about my preference for PCM (and I’m not alone) AND I have gone to great lengths to explain why I believe PCM is a superior format, but I’m not anti-DSD. I must admit that I really don’t understand why anyone would choose to record in the DSD format but I do recognize that there are consumers that like the “sound” of DSD as being more analog like. OK fine, let’s move on.

One of the links that was in the Bryston AudioCircle thread was to an article by Dr. David Robinson of PFO from 2006. This places the article smack in the middle of the format war between DVD-Audio and SA-CD (Sony gave up on DSD a year later). David is a big fan of the SA-CD format AND is currently pushing the format for digital downloading. I’ve talked about that.

The article was entitled, “Ok, enough of this PCM/DSD Crap”. In it he chastises SONY for their handling of the SA-CD format and the lack of availability of professional DSD systems. I remember this period. He’s right…you couldn’t purchase a professional DSD system at the time. As a studio or label, you might be able to get one for free…if you agreed to issue DSD/SA-CD recordings. Many labels took them up on the offer…Channel Classics, for example.

But he also acknowledges that the SA-CD format at the time was made up mostly of material that had been through a PCM stage. His words, “Frankly, my experience says that the vast majority of commercial SACDs travel at least part of the way through PCM land on their journey. So you may think you are really listening to DSD when you cue up an SACD, while in all probability, you are not.” Now remember this is 2006. I don’t believe that Dr. Robinson would offer the same analysis today.

As for me, I would really like to know how many “pure” DSD recordings there are. By “pure DSD”, I mean releases that were actually recorded in DSD (pick whatever flavor you want…DSD Wide, 64, 128 or 256) and never left the DSD format on their way to your player.

There are around 6000 SA-CD titles, I would bet money that less than 1000 of them are “pure DSD”, which means that the vast majority of SA-CDs aren’t! It kind of makes me wonder why audiophiles, DSD equipment designers and certain writers are so smitten with the format. How many have actually heard or tried to produce a “Pure DSD” project?

The core of the article is stated near the end. David advocates for exactly the process that he previously acknowledged lacks the tools to be a viable professional format. In italicized, bold letters he says,

“Record/preserve it in DSD and then, who cares?

My concern is that we get every possible historical recording archived to DSD as soon as possible, AND that the artists (both performance and recording) can and should make DSD the authoring medium of choice, REGARDLESS of what happens to it subsequently.

Sometime, in a far distant time, in a galaxy far, far away, those DSD master recordings will be re-examined by people with taste, insight and capability, and then finally we (or our distant descendents) will get to hear them as they truly should be.”

BTW It’s now been 7 years since that article and we’re still waiting for SONY or anyone else to offer tools to record, post and release a native DSD project. The best that’s been provided is the DXD format, which as we know is “marketing” term for PCM!

I guess if you believe that DSD is capable of greater “resolution” and sonic accuracy than high definition PCM, you might take that position. I don’t’. The notion of DSD being the ultimate “archival” format is in keeping with Sony’s original concept, but even to imagine that recording engineers and record labels would consider switching to DSD for their productions or that they would transcode everything to DSD for long term storage is ridiculous. They would sooner archive their masters to high quality analog tape…and some actually are!

Maybe those that record and produce in native DSD can archive in that format and those of us that are convinced that PCM offers a better and more universal container for long term archiving can go that way.

For me it would be like storing all of the world’s magnificent imagery using only 16-bit color. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between 65K colors in their palette vs. 32-bit images, which are exponentially more accurate. But I feel better knowing that my audio is in the biggest digital resolution bucket that I can get.

We’ve already acknowledged and I know David Robinson agrees, that it’s not the delivery format that matters anyway…it’s the skill and experience of the people behind the production. But heaven forbid, the professional world would start using DSD to make new recordings or to archive all of the historical tracks of the past.

The whole question of analog or DXD as archival formats comes to mind. Perhaps we’ll talk about that in a future post.

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.

6 thoughts on “Archive to DSD? Big Mistake!

  • July 12, 2013 at 7:35 am
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    Hello Mark,

    I am following your daily posts and read some of the past posts as well. I understand and agree with your point of view about the converting PCM or Analogue recordings into DSD. Doesn’t seem to make sense and as proven by you and your graphs, the addition of all that extra high frequency schmutz is destroying originally good recordings.
    That all been said. I own around 80 SA-CD’s . among them the whole Mahler Symphonies set recorded by the SFS and MTT. The liner notes mention that all the symphonies were recorded and mastered in DSD. Do your concerns about the DSD format also apply in cases like this, or do you think the resulting files are also pure High-definition?

    Thank you for your time

    FL

    Reply
    • July 14, 2013 at 7:05 am
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      Frank, I know the SFS recordings very well. My production company has done a lot of work with them on their DVDs and Blu-ray titles. They are high definition and that’s why I have made them available through iTrax.com. However, our downloads of these files are PCM at 96/24, which captures all of the frequencies and dynamic range of the DSD masters.

      These would be examples of files that I would consider for DSD downloads on iTrax.com. They sound wonderful! If I was to do the recordings myself…I would make different choices and they would be different. That’s the nature of producing and engineering any project.

      Reply
      • July 14, 2013 at 11:30 am
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        Mark,

        I just checked the iTrax site and found my favorite Mahler No.5 and even in surround! It has to be a sign that my DVD-Audio/SA-CD player broke down yesterday. Doesn’t want to recognize any disk. Now I have to get those Mahler and other works from iTrax.
        Keep it up.

        Frank

        Reply
  • July 12, 2013 at 9:03 am
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    Hi Mark,
    Thanks a lot for your daily chronicle. Always very interesting and entertaining !
    To comment on this post, the http://www.sa-cd.net site is listing today 8728 SACD titles out of which 1611 are original DSD/DXD recordings. Not a lot, I agree.

    Reply
    • July 12, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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      And, since DXD is PCM, if you eliminate them, how many of the 1,611 are possibly straight DSD?

      Reply
  • July 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm
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    I just replied to a contributing writer at the TAS sound that is doing a piece on the emerging world of DSD downloads and since I launched an operate iTrax.com, he reached out to me with a few questions. I took a careful look at the sa-cd.net site and went to the tab of “DSD/DXD” titles.

    You’re absolutely right! Why would the SA-CD.net site lump the DXD files in with the native DSD files. I know that all 2L’s releases are (or have been done) in PCM (knowing that DXD is a code name for PCM to keep the DSD crowd happy…are they really fooled?) and they have well over a hundred releases. I looked at a random sampling of the titles and would estimate that 200-300 are not DSD on that list.

    As I wrote to the author of the upcoming DSD download article, it looks like less than 16% of the total of DSD recordings are actually DSD recordings. Maybe 1400 are PURE DSD…but I think the number is actually a lot less. Many companies don’t talk about their production methods.

    Reply

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