Perfect Sound Forever? (Part 1)

In early 1983, I created my first master for Compact Disc.  I first heard of the format nearly a decade earlier, while still in college.  I remember a promotional mock-up, looking very much like a miniature LP jacket.  Inside, was a cardboard disc printed with the distinctive rainbow reflections of the real thing.

Atlantic’s west coast affiliate, Warner Brothers, was already creating CD masters when it was decided that Atlantic would open its own CD mastering room.  I was to be the CD mastering “department” and was sent to Los Angeles to spend a few days with my counterpart, learning the procedures Warner Brothers had in place for creating CD masters.

At this point, the only CD mastering rooms I knew to exist were at Sony in Japan, Polygram in Germany, Warner in California, perhaps DADC in Terre Haute and now, Atlantic.  To my knowledge, I was one of the first engineers to do CD mastering.  Technically, the process of creating a master for CD replication is referred to as “premastering”.  To the replication facilities, the term “mastering” refers to the first stage of manufacturing, when the glass master is “cut”.  Glass mastering is the creation of a glass disc, etched by a laser beam recorder.  This disc is electroplated and used as the first part in the process that yields the injection molded finished CD.  Still, in terms of the creative process, which occurs prior to manufacturing, creating a CD master is still referred to as “mastering”.  Mastering, for any format, not just CD, has always been the last step in the creative process and also, the first in the manufacturing process.  It is the last chance to make any adjustments to the sound and it is where the “part” used to initiate manufacturing is created.

In those days, the CD master sent to the replication facility was recorded on a U-Matic video tape cartridge, housing ¾” (~19 mm) wide tape.  It was recorded using the video capacity to store the digital audio signal.  A parallel track stored the usual time code used by both video and digital audio.  The system was built around two U-Matic machines (one to play, one to record), the 1610 (later 1630) analog to digital (and digital to analog) converters, and the DAE-1100 digital audio editor.  Ancillary gear included another Sony device, the DTA-2000, to analyze finished tapes and provide a printout of error occurrences per minute.  This, along with a written “table of contents” indicating start and end time code locations for every track and other incidental details was sent to the replication facility with the CD master.  A pair of U-Matic machines, the 1630, the analyzer and the electronics associated with the editor filled an equipment rack several feet tall.

The editor itself was a small console, a few feet wide.  It contained controls for up to three tape machines (two for playback, one to record), readouts of the time code indicating the location of the tape in each machine, controls to perform editing, and a fader used for gain (i.e., level) adjustments.  Editing in the digital domain no longer involved using a razor blade to physically alter the original tape, as we had always done with analog tape.  (There were some short-lived exceptions in the form of the digital multitrack reel-to-reel recorders that were to come later.)  Digital editing was now effected by playing the original tape while recording the edits onto a new tape.  The finished result needed to be created sequentially.  If, upon listening to the results of an editing session, the producer decided to add to or remove anything from the middle of the program, a new tape was created, requiring the entirety of the program prior to the new edit to be copied first.

As the music was playing and the engineer heard the section where the desired edit point was located, the press of a button on the editor would store a 6-second sample of the music — the three seconds before the button press and three seconds after.  The playback and record machines would stop.  A small wheel in the middle of the editor was used to manually move forward and backward in the captured sample of audio, so the engineer could precisely locate the edit point on the newly recording tape.  Turning this wheel accomplished what used to be done with analog tape by having one hand on each reel and manually “rocking” the tape past the analog machine’s playback head in order to locate the desired edit point.  Where the edit point used to be marked with a grease pencil, all the engineer needed to do now was press another button on the editor.  Now that the “out” edit point was selected on the record machine, a similar process of location would be done on the playback machine to find the “in” point from which the new tape was to continue.  Once the edit point on each tape was selected, a preview button started a process where both tape machines would shuttle backward a predetermined amount of time, still synchronized with each other and then both started to play.  The audio would be from the record machine (i.e., what had already been recorded prior to the edit point) until the edit point was reached, when audio would switch to the playback machine, in effect, allowing the engineer to hear the edit before committing to it.

If a recording or mixing studio console was reminiscent in some way of an airplane or Space Shuttle cockpit, my first look at the DAE-1100 editor reminded me of Star Trek.  It felt like the future, with its smooth, uninterrupted surface of subtle grey, with darker gray, red, orange and blue “buttons”.  Being able to test an edit without committing to it meant all sorts of edits could be attempted without fear of having to splice together a missed edit.  I used to describe the precision of the edits as allowing me to “get in and out within the width” of the razor blade cuts we used to make.  In comparison, I described the thought of editing with a razor blade as now feeling much like editing with a hammer.

Having long experienced what seemed to me to be the inadequate monitoring in the studios I’d worked in, visited and read about in the professionally oriented magazines, I sought to do something different in the new CD mastering room at Atlantic.  Rather than loudness optimized speakers, placed against the wall, near the corners, over the engineer’s head, or small, dynamically challenged speakers placed where they would create a midrange dip at the listening position – both commonly seen in every studio in my experience, I wanted to bring some audiophile sensibilities into the room.  At my request, studio management agreed to install a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers (my favorites at the time).  These I placed a few feet off the wall behind them, in free space, with nothing else near the speakers.

Once the room was set up properly and known master tapes played back to my satisfaction, it was time to get my first really good listen to digital audio.  The advance word from the hobbyist and professional magazines, as well as from colleagues who’d already gotten to listen to a bunch of the earliest CD samples, was very positive.  Everyone was enthusiastic.  I was going to hear what had widely been touted as “Perfect Sound Forever”.  With great enthusiasm and anticipation, I listened to my first sample.  Then I listened to another one.  And another one.  I listened to all the samples we had.  I went back and listened to some analog master tapes and vinyl LPs to make sure the monitoring was what I expected it to be.  With the analog sources, it was.  With the digital sources, I wondered just what everyone had been raving about.