RMAF Day 2: An Analog Approach To Digital

There’s a mad scientist on the second floor of the Marriott Hotel at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest…and this morning I managed to pry myself from my sales table and visit Room 2006. A couple of friends independently suggested that I visit James Lee McDaniel and find out what he’s doing. Ron came by and dropped off copy of the 36 paper the Instrument Quality (the name of the company) provides.

The basic idea behind his new development is the use of math to store vector representations of analog audio waveforms…using digital computers. What does that mean? I relate it to the difference between Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I do a fair amount of graphics and have my students recreate a corporate logo using vectors…bezier curves…instead of individual pixels. That could be applied to audio waveforms too.

In a photographic image, each pixel displays an individual “picture element” of one single color. Millions of these pixels comprise a photo. With simple graphics like logos, it is preferable to use vectors…or mathematical representations of lines, curves, and colors…instead of pixels. Vectors can be infinitely scaled whereas a fixed resolution pixel image cannot.

The same thing happens with fonts. A font is made up of a series of complex formulas that describe the geometry of the letters and numbers. It’s not until you rasterize the fonts into pixels that you fix the resolution…and avoid having to include the font with your document when you want a printout.

James McDaniel is taking the same approach to representing audio waveforms. Think of the groove of a vinyl LP as the waveform that needs to be captured and reproduced. The shapes are not that different than the curves and lines of a fancy font. Can math be used to describe those undulations with 100% accuracy? Yes, it is possible. But it takes amazing amounts of computing power and storage.

I asked James to give me a guesstimate about how much data is required to accomplish his goal. He said each second of sound for a single channel would chew up between 200-400 Mega Bytes. A stereo album would require 1.5 terabytes. To deliver recordings done this way, James is going to offer Linear Tape Open format data backup tapes. This archival format can store 2.6 terabytes of data…perfect for 2-3 albums of “infinite continuous numerical analog masters”.

Instrument Quality introduced their “Numerical Analog Converter (NAC) at the RMAF…and James told me he hopes to be able to demonstrate it at AXPONA 2016. He doing something interesting…probably impossible to achieve but interesting.

Time to head back to Los Angeles.


The “Music and Audio Guide” campaign is still running. We’re creeping up to the first Stretch Goal. Please stop over at the Kickstarter page and become a backer.


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.

8 thoughts on “RMAF Day 2: An Analog Approach To Digital

  • Dan Volker

    Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for the “mad scientist” to come up with a better analog tape recorder ( maybe not tape), that has massive signal to noise ratio and great frequency response….???

    • No. Look the analog tape world has come up with some very expensive and esoteric machines that do really well in the spec department…but they’re just not practical. Not that this approach is either…but I was fascinated.

  • Chris Wright

    Mark, as a self-taught graphic designer, I fully “get” the concept here and am fascinated at the potential for audio. This sounds to me like something that could be the next step beyond mere zeros and ones. The required storage space is pretty daunting, but tomorrow’s terabyte is today’s megabyte.

      • Chris Wright

        The daunting storage issue reminds me of a London hifi show about a dozen or so years ago. I attended one of those expert forum panel discussion things they always have at shows and remember locking horns just a teeny bit with no less a luminary than Ken Kessler, who I respect enormously, when I had the temerity to suggest that the then low bit mp3-infested iPod was a great pointer to a future when an entire collection of full resolution audio would be perfectly storable on such a device. Well I guess I was proved right on that and one can imagine this tech you mention here eventually being nothing special in terms of storage etc. The whole vectored concept is just so intriguing as it would make these files fully scalable to fulfil the potential of future technologies that, presumably, will be able to improve on even the original recording. I really do think your mad scientist, as you no doubt affectionately call him, is onto something here and, even if his vision isn’t realized, one can imagine that this is eventually going to be a way of aligning the stars in terms of enabling legacy analog recordings to take full advantage of higher and higher resolution formats. I so want to live to be 500 🙂

  • Carlo Lo Raso

    Hey Mark, it was great to finally meet you at the show on Saturday. Thanks again for your time.
    My friend and I visited this room and unfortunately the explanation they were giving us of the process kind of went over my head and left me a little confused. Your distillation though makes sense. As a freelance illustrator by trade who works with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator daily I can wrap my head around the concept as you laid it out here. My only question is, unless I misunderstood the gents in the room, they were talking about having people send them vinyl albums and transferring them, via their process, onto the archival tape. Why would you want to that? Transferring something from an inherently limited, arguably compromised source, to an archival tape? Their process would make sense to me if a record company wanted to archive their old analog master tapes using this scheme, in other words going from an original source to an archival one. Or am I completely missing something here?


    • Carlo…it was my pleasure. I’m with you on the vinyl LP thing and pointed out the same issue. We’ll see how they do. I did let him know that I’m willing to get involved in some way. I’m intrigued. Their paper sounds like snake oil but there is something there.

  • Bill Brandenstein

    This is a fascinating premise and unbelievably data-heavy. Ironic, since vector graphics are often such tiny files compared to the rasterized image files generated from them.

    But did you get any sense of how James Lee McDaniel would convert a waveform into vectors? Inherently that is still an analog-to-digital process, which means the conversion analysis and reconstruction will (like all DACs) be the determining factor of quality. As fascinating as this is – a data recording medium not locked to a sample rate or bit depth – at the end of the day it has to sound good, and we can make a pretty educated guess as to how high a quality level this might or might not be capable of achieving.


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