Perfect Sound Forever? (Part 2)

There I was in 1984, Atlantic Records’ “CD mastering department”, responsible for creating a good portion of the masters used to replicate the monthly CD releases for the label and associated divisions (Atco, Elektra, etc.).  Demand for CD was on the increase and it was clear this was where recorded music was going.  The small CD section at the local Tower Records store was a bit larger every time I visited, slowly but surely encroaching upon the real estate that was, for the moment, dominated by vinyl LPs.  I saw customers so eager for new CDs, I got the impression even a disc of dog barks would be a hot sales item.

The manufacturers behind the format proclaimed “Perfect Sound Forever”, distortion-free music on a medium that would not wear out.  It sounded too good to be true.  Like most things that sound too good to be true, it wasn’t true.  I remember the expectation with which I first listened to digital masters and to the earliest CDs.  Despite the raves of my colleagues and those in the press, what I heard every time I listened sounded to me not like an evolutionary step forward for audio but like an electronic equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard, an irritating harshness that felt like a good deal of the music had been replaced by something unnatural, something mechanical, something cold.

A number of colleagues I spoke with did not seem to have the same experience.  In fact, they looked at me askance when I expressed great disappointment in what I’d heard, as if I was missing something so obvious, they couldn’t believe it.  They would point out how flat the frequency response measurements were, that the wow-and-flutter (a measure of speed inaccuracy) was virtually unmeasurable.  They would say “Just listen to the noise!”, amazed to have a medium that did not add any hiss.  I would respond “Just listen to the music!”

Yes, piano recordings did display a steadiness of pitch devoid of the indeterminacy sometimes engendered by analog media (played on less than great tape machines or turntables, or when either the tape was stretched or the vinyl pressing suffered a slightly off-center hole).  If any hiss was audible at all, it was the hiss from the original analog recording.  The digital medium wasn’t adding any that I could detect.  Yet, what good were rock steady speed and dead silent backgrounds when the piano sounded like it was made of aluminum?  And the cello sounded like a cousin of the kazoo?  Instrumental harmonics were bleached into thin, pale ghosts of themselves and the very air around the players (on recordings that had such) seemed to have been sucked from the room.  A great rock record invites the listener to turn up the volume.  Doing so with a rock CD just brought on the headache that much sooner.  What was wrong?

I had done everything I knew to ensure the highest possible quality.  I set up the CD mastering room with the audiophile sensibilities I sought to bring to my work.  I created CD masters bypassing most of the electronics in the room, keeping the signal path as short as possible, introducing only what was absolutely necessary and avoiding extra switches, wires, patch bays, consoles, etc.  I even took to carrying my own cables to work every day, replacing the generic studio cables connecting the output of the tape machine to the analog-to-digital converters with one of the best audiophile designs of the day, one that had repeatedly shown me it was capable of passing more of the musical information, with less degradation than the regular studio cabling.  Still, even with the CD masters created this way, a comparison with their vinyl counterparts, made using a far less purist approach, showed just how much more of the musical information on the master tape made it to the finished LP than ever made it to the CD.  There were no exceptions.  This was the case every single time.  Digital acolytes in the press attributed any favor shown the LP to euphonic (i.e., pleasant sounding) colorations in the medium, where CD was supposedly truer.  But as is often the case, the audible evidence said otherwise.  A well set up $100 turntable/cartridge combination would, in terms of bringing back the sound of the master recording, sonically wipe the floor with a $1000 CD player.

A fellow mastering engineer, one whose work I had admired for years, called one day and invited me to sit on a panel of mastering engineers to discuss CD at a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society in New York City.  I gratefully accepted and not long afterward, found myself sitting at a long table on stage in an auditorium, next to four other colleagues, all of us involved in CD mastering.  When I spoke, I felt quite alone in that my colleagues all sang the praises of the new medium while I (quite shyly at the time) said “I just don’t feel it sounds as good as my vinyl yet.”  (Yet?!?)  I explained how I felt vinyl was revealing much more of the musical information contained in the master tapes.  Despite any technical flaws or issues in manufacturing and playback, things that did not at the time seem to plague CD (at least not when one just looked at the surface of things), vinyl was providing more music and to my ears, that was more important.  When I left that evening, I thought folks were looking at me as though I had two heads.

What we came to learn as time passed and more audiophile companies got involved with digital and CD, was that a major part of that bad sound in the early days was due to the digital recording and playback gear itself, perhaps most specifically in the filtering that is an essential part of these mechanisms but also in the converter chips at their core.  I found it interesting that when folks like Bob Stuart started writing articles about jitter (timing irregularities between samples in the stream of digital data), a number of folks who had previously raved about CD (seemingly because of the “good” specifications they’d read) now found issues with the format.

With the advent of new knowledge came new filter designs and new converter chips.  The players were starting to get better.  Even the Sony 1630 converters I used in the studio got new retrofit filters that made for noticeable sonic improvements.  The CD format was growing in popularity every day and clearly was going to be around for a while.  The thought occurred that vinyl mastering engineers were routinely credited for their work on albums but no one as yet (at least to my knowledge) had been credited with CD mastering.  I spoke about this with management and after a conversation with the art department, saw the first CD booklet with my name in it.  As the format continued to grow and demand for more releases increased, outside facilities were contracted to create masters in addition to the ones that were keeping me busy full-time.  The only problem was the art department was not always informed when a master was going to be done by a third party.  As a result, some CDs I mastered did not have a credit and some CDs mastered by others have my name on them.  (In a way, I came to know whence the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” comes.)

I made some other observations regarding the digital audio of the day.  First, the playback and record sides of the Sony DAE-1100 digital audio editor did not sound the same.  The official word was that a digital tape could be cloned (“clone” being the term used to describe a digital copy) to create an identical copy.  Yet, when I cloned a digital tape and played it back to compare it with the original, the original always sounded cleaner.  Was there some degradation in the copy?  I found it interesting that when I took the tapes out of their respective machines and swapped them, putting the copy in the “playback” machine and the original in the “record” machine, the original now sounded degraded.  It turned out (for reasons I’m still not sure of) that playing back a tape from playback side of the editor just sounded better than playing the same tape from the record side.

As CD grew, we started using more and more replication facilities.  When sales for a particular release were expected to be large, often a single replicator could not produce a sufficient quantity of discs, so I’d create a CD master and then send clones of that master to different replicators.  When the discs came back, I made another discovery.  The discs from all the replicators sounded different from each other, sometimes subtly so and other times not so subtly.  And none of the discs sounded indistinguishable from the master used to make it.

It was plain to see there was much more to be learned about this digital juggernaut.  My thinking was that we’d had vinyl for about a hundred years.  In another hundred years, I expected CD would be pretty good.  Happily, it hasn’t taken nearly as long as that.  Today, CD can be “pretty good” if not exactly competitive with fine vinyl, despite what is said in some quarters.  Perfect sound forever?  Not to my ears.  It is more like “Decent sound, once in a while” but I can see how that is a bit less catchy as a marketing phrase.

Sonically, there was lots of room for digital to grow.  As futuristic as the equipment seemed at the time, it too, along with many of the very techniques involved in recording and editing, would soon undergo a revolution, as recording and mastering began to take advantage of the nascent world of desktop computing.