Dr. AIX's POSTSVinyl

Ultimate Format?

I received my new copy of the Absolute Sound magazine the other day, the October issue. I don’t spend a lot of time reading through the audiophile publications but I do enjoy reading the letters to the editor and the editorial page. Robert Harley’s editorial is entitled, “The Ultimate Format?”, which made it a must read for me. Could it be possible that there’s a new format that I haven’t heard about? Or perhaps Robert would pronounce a winner in the HD PCM vs. DSD debate. None of the above.

It turns out that he tapped a variant of vinyl as the “ultimate format”…another respected audio journalist moving forward while looking in the rear view mirror. I understand that Robert is paid to write editorials that amuse, information and please his readers AND the advertisers and at least he wrote the title as a question, so there’s really not foul here. He casts aside analog tape, one of the current darlings of the audiophile crowd, and postulates that direct to disc is the ultimate format.

How about we do a quick survey of consumer audio formats? Following a roughly chronological sequence, we have 78 rpm lacquer, 33 1/3 vinyl LPs, analog tape, cassette, 8-track, compact discs, direct-to-disc LP, miniDisc, digital compact cassette, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, SACD, MP3, AAC, FLAC, AIF, WAV, DSD (more soundfile formats), Pure Audio Blu-ray and Blu-ray (I may have left out a flavor of two…but this is a reasonably complete list).

I don’t think it would be too difficult to create a matrix or chart that would list the advantages and disadvantages of each of the formats listed above, but let’s focus on a couple….analog tape and vinyl LP.

We should all be aware that virtually all of your favorite “classic” LPs were originally recorded on analog tape. Even if they were captured directly to 2-track stereo from the live mikes, like the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, the fidelity of a well made analog master can be dramatically better then a vinyl LP pressed from that master after it has been subjected to the machinations of the disc mastering engineer (we talked about those things the other day). I have even started writing about the RIAA curve.

Analog tape can best vinyl LP in terms of dynamic range, channel separation, speed accuracy, frequency extension and more. But the usual production chain involves several generations, which diminish the quality of the sound. The “flat master” mix tape is then EQ’d specifically for vinyl and diminishes the quality even further because of the limitations of the vinyl LP format.

So in 1968 Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga (and Doug’s brother Sherwood) decided to track an entire album side directly to a disc mastering machine…a lathe that cuts the groove on a piece of lacquer. The music would go from the microphones straight to the groove with none of the intervening tape stages. Sounds promising right?

As I’ll show tomorrow…it might be better than normal vinyl but it is still vinyl.


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.

5 thoughts on “Ultimate Format?

  • Chris from Lafayette

    “another respected [audio] journalist moving forward while looking [in] the rear view mirror”. . . Excellent – and SO true!

  • Marcel Sereboff

    When people ask themselves what the best audio format is they allow their vision to be clouded by nostalgia. If it was really about audio quality, the analog guys would almost universally be advocating tape.

  • Analog has analog problems, digital has analog plus digital problems.

    • Admin

      Every format has problems. It’s the magnitude of those imperfections that matters. When you say that digital has “analog problems plus digital problems”, it should be made clear that the analog problems of tape and vinyl are orders of magnitude more damaging than the “analog problems” associated with digital AND that the digital problems pale in comparison to analog problems. If you love vinyl and analog tape…great. But both of those formats are no able to reach the potential of high-resolution PCM audio.

  • Ron Rohlfing

    Thanks for telling the truth, Mark, even if your views aren’t fashionable with the boutique audio crowd who slavishly follow the fashionistas of the two main magazines. I hope to make your blog Required Daily Reading!


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