I had planned to write about a new analog tape machine from Sonorus but a reader comment changed my mind. You can read Dave’s comment and my response at the bottom of the article called “Who’s Responsible?”. He included a link to a page on the Linn Music Store site about Studio Masters. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“A Studio Master download is the highest quality music file available anywhere. It allows you the listener to hear a recording exactly the way the original artist and producer intended it to sound, before it was altered to fit on a CD or squashed down to MP3 size.
Read on for a bit of the history of the Studio Master and for a more technical insight into what makes it sound so good.”
Here’s the link to their article click so that you can read it for yourself, “What is a Studio Master?”
First, let me say that I actually think that Linn Records does a very good job of producing high fidelity recordings and they make some of the best equipment on the market. But whoever wrote the article missed a lot.
The arrival of digital music had nothing to do with convenience as they claim in the opening paragraph. The driving force behind digital music was to improve the fidelity of audio recording. The quality of analog tape with the latest Dolby SR noise reduction system and the improvements in disc cutting had just about reached its pinnacle. There was just no more room for improvement. Existing formats had squeezed all of the fidelity out of mechanical transport systems, analog tape, rotating platters, cartridges and the electronics that stood behind them. The development and quality curve leveled off a long time ago or refinements became so minute that it was time to look elsewhere for greater fidelity.
Engineers and product developers in the R&D departments of the major electronics companies and research universities had been working on converting analog audio signals to 1s and 0s, storing them and then restoring them back to analog signals. There were early attempts by SoundStream and 3M Corporation…and they worked! There wasn’t a soul on the planet that was thinking about having 10,000 digital songs in a pocket-sized player. When the manufacturing and distribution decisions were finalized back in 1982, the 44.1 kHz 16-bit PCM compact disc arrived…the Redbook specification.
I can remember that time and was thrilled at the flexibility (track access), the sound quality and the lack of noise. The first disc that I heard was of a chamber music ensemble playing Schubert…the sound was clear and detailed in a way that vinyl LPs weren’t. And while the use of pre-emphasis and inexperienced mastering procedures did cause some to complain that CDs “lacked all the great qualities of vinyl”, it wasn’t the fault of the CD format. The Redbook specification is more than capable of delivering terrific audio fidelity…much more accurately than analog tape and vinyl LPs.
But according to the article, “CDs were actually the lowest quality music format – even 8-track tape was capable of holding much more information than this optical media.” This statement is just plain false. If it wasn’t wouldn’t we still be cramming 8-tracks into our audio systems? I’ve written extensively on the merits and shortcomings of analog tape (dynamic range of around 10-12 bits PCM equivalent). Linn’s position that; “there were still those that remained firm that vinyl and the original analogue formats just sounded better” is still true today. I simply won’t engage in a debate on the issue of “sounding better” because that’s a very personal decision. To me an accurate reproduction of a selection of music is “better” than something that isn’t.
We got the ubiquitous MP3 format after the Internet happened AND CD-ROMs began to be connected to personal computer around the late 80s. CDs could be ripped, encoded and sent through the net…at 64 and 128 kbps (compared to full CD resolution at 1411 kbps).
The Linn piece continues, “This is when the music really started to suffer, all that chopping and compressing sacrificed even more dynamic range, squashing the subtleties, and adding noise in the holes where there once was music.” I don’t really understand this statement. They’re saying that the digitization process (the “chopping”) associated with PCM audio “reduced dynamic range” (it most definitely did not…in fact, it allowed more dynamic range!) and the psycho-acoustic encoding methods like AAC and MP3 damaged it even further. Not true. I’ll have to write an entire post on these algorithms but I can tell you that they didn’t “chop” thing us even further and they didn’t affect dynamic range. Most of the degradation produced by MP3 and other lossy encoding schemes is in the frequency domain.
“So how do we get back to the place where we left vinyl behind – all that great musicality and almost intangible qualities of the rich analogue sound – but still take the best bits of the new digital world? Step up the Studio Master download.”
In the world according to Linn, we should be striving to get “back to the place where we left vinyl behind”. Ridiculous. We need to be moving ahead with better fidelity, more accuracy and more channels from the production studio to the living room.
I’ll get back to the issue of Studio Masters tomorrow. The last section of the article asks, “Why is Studio Master the best quality?” See you tomorrow.