I read a guest editorial called “The Emperor’s New Server” at the Absolute Sound’s website today written by Jonathan Valin. Steven Stone posted the link on his FB feed and I couldn’t resist. You can check it out yourself by clicking here. It never ceases to amaze me how thoroughly uninformed some audio writers remain in the face of what by now are established facts regarding digital vs. analog recordings. Do they just write this stuff as click bait?
Here’s the essential paragraphs”
“No matter what the bit rate, no matter what the digital delivery system, you simply cannot ‘sample’ the continuous-time sound of instruments or vocalists, turn it into discrete-time numbers, and then turn those discrete-time numbers back into instruments or vocalists without losing some of the very continuousness of presentation—the dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres—that is the very breath of musical life.
Yes, I’m aware of all the real advantages of digital audio in dynamic range, greater frequency extension (at least in the bottom octaves), lower noise, higher resolution, etc. over analog. But I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one. It doesn’t—even when the LP is mastered from a digital file!”
I’m not sure where to start in parsing the statements made in the preceding paragraphs. The opening salvo in Jonathan’s attack on high-resolution digital audio alludes to some imagined failing of a system that Shannon and Nyquist firmly established as losing no information from source to output. That’s right. There is nothing lost in the conversion from analog waveforms to samples and then back to analog waveforms. Is a digital system perfect? No, certainly not. But the “dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres” are all there. In fact, they are more there in a well made high-resolution recording than the best piece of vinyl on the planet. Jonathan just prefers the sound — the imperfections, distortions, harmonic inaccuracies — of one format over another. And he would have us accept HIS standards of measure, personal taste, and assessment as universal. I sincerely hope not.
The second paragraph acknowledges that in all of the metrics of sound capture and reproduction, digital audio has “real advantages”. He’s right and the partial list of advantages (there are many more) that he enumerates guarantees that the digital recording will be more accurate to the incoming analog signals than the same signals mastered to a spinning piece of vinyl.
So here I am with a very straight face telling Mr. Valin that I — and many thousands of my AIX Records customers and those that have heard my demos — prefer the absolute musical mastery, in his words “the breath of musical life” that is captured without equal by a high-resolution PCM recording. Analog has its place in the history and to appreciate those recordings in their native format is laudable. I have no problem supporting vinyl LPs for those recordings originally released in that format. But since the arrival of new high-resolution audio tools and distribution formats in 2000, there should be no going back for new productions. Anyone seeking sonic accuracy, emotional intensity, immersive music listening should avoid working in the analog domain. If, on the other hand, the goal to preserve the “mojo” of the past and craft recordings that emulate the “classic” sound of our favorites, then analog tools, processors, recorders, methods, and vinyl LPs are the way to go. There’s room for all aesthetics.
I started my label AIX Records to demonstrate that it is possible to engineer and produce recordings that exceed the fidelity of compact discs and vinyl LPs. I’ve been successful. However, merely showing what’s possible doesn’t necessarily translate into a model for the rest of the music industry. Even artists that I’ve worked with and who were amazed at the sound of our collaborations have returned to the tried and true methodologies that they’ve used for years. It’s curious but true.
My goals were met. I would put the same challenge before any interested music fan. If you were to come to my studio and experience Jennifer Warnes singing her rendition of Mickey Newbury’s song “So Sad” in high-resolution, 5.1 surround, I can pretty much guarantee that you would leave needing a tissue. It’s unlike anything you will ever hear in any other format.
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