But why would I suggest that you might want to archive your older masters on a piece analog tape. Because an analog tape can always be played. It’s about the format itself. Think about this in terms of computer storage. First we had large format floppy discs (5.25″ and even larger ones at the start of the computing era). Then came 3.25″ floppies that stored 400 and then 800 kilobytes. Along came Bernoulli discs and hardware, the ZIP format and more…all have come and gone. It was Steve Jobs that made the bold leap away from floppies and the computing press thought he was crazy. A computer without a floppy? Never.
And those formats were simply the physical formats. We have also seen a progressive improvement in the way the data is created in the first place. At one time PCM at 44.1 kHz/16-bits was the standard. But as we all know, that standard has been improved tremendously over the years to 192 kHz/24-bits (although I personally believe 96 kHz is all you need). And what about DSD as an archive format? After all it did originate within Sony/Phillips as an archive format.
And what about encoding/distribution flavors. Do we want to archive our entire collection of analog sources as FLAC files so the metadata can be included in the files or do we prefer uncompressed formats like AIF or WAV? If you think this is a tough personal decision, just imagine how hard it must be for large record labels. The value of the their companies is largely based on the value of their catalogs. And those catalogs are 2.0 channel stereo masters that are stored in temperate and humidity controlled vaults so that the media doesn’t degrade. Those vaults contain tens of thousands of individual tapes.
About ten years ago, I was asked to consult on the archiving of the Universal Music Groups’ archive located in Carson, California. They had been building a database of their masters and wanted to get some expert opinions on the best format and procedures to use in the conversion to digital. They were aware of the work that Sony and Phillips had done with DSD 64 and also knew about the high-resolution PCM format as well. I wrote a long paper on what they needed to consider in choosing a digital format.
In my extensive proposal, I recommended that UMG transfer their masters to analog tape AND to 96 kHz/24-bit PCM using the best available technology. I made this recommendation after researching and testing both DSD and HD PCM. I was already very familiar with HD PM since I had been recording and releasing my own recording using HD PCM for a number of years…to rave reviews and very positive customer feedback. I choose PCM because an archive should be an exact copy of the source recording and DSD doesn’t provide that level of accuracy beyond the “in band” frequency range. I believe that it’s better to be safe with regards to the ultrasonic debate as opposed to limiting myself to 20-20 kHz.
Remember that archiving isn’t the same thing as re-mastering or otherwise modifying the “sonics” of the original source. It’s a simple process of copying a master tape to a digital and analog backup copy. The analog master was done to preserve the long-term viability of the format (there will always be analog tape machines) and the HD PCM digital format guarantees that you’ve captured every bit of the fidelity in the original source. This plan was actually adopted by UMG and the work has been ongoing for many years. It was the right decision.
You may choose to archive your catalog in DSD instead of PCM. It might be that you prefer the sonic characteristics of 1-bit encoding over the clarity and precision of PCM. But for archiving, don’t you want a straightforward copy without any modification of the sound? I know I do…and so do the major labels. If you want to change the fidelity of your older sources you can always run the output of your new HD PCM digital copy through a box that converts the sound to DSD and then back to analog…these things exist. It’s your choice.
The best format to archive your collection of vinyl LPs or analog tapes is 96 kHz/24-bit uncompressed PCM files as AIF or WAV files. These are universally playable and are in a format that ensures you will be able to play them well in the future.