Wednesday 2 April 2014

MUSINGS: On Experts, Experience, and Opinions...

So last night, instead of going to bed early as I was supposed to, I decided to have a look at this interview of Allen Sides from Ocean Way Recording on TWiT.TV. As usual, Scott Wilkinson does a fantastic job with the interview and takes questions from the audience.

Obviously, Mr. Sides is a man of many years of experience and can speak authoritatively on MANY topics related to audio hardware, studio production, and historical anecdotes based on those years.

But some things bothered me. Around 16:00 there was talk about DSD: "somehow between making the recording and that SACD it doesn't sound quite as good as it should". Really? By 17:00, there's discussion about CD copies, different stampers sounding different, then an anecdote on Mariah Carey and how the pressed CD sounded bad compared to the reference. Okay... Maybe... How about someone ripping the disks and comparing the data integrity and talking about that? Given that Mariah was married to Tommy Mottola until 1998, this anecdote is now at least 16 years old so any hope of forensic assessment is long gone - does it still apply as a generalization these days?

Things get really bizarre by 26:00 - "I have never been able to even make a copy of a CD that sounds as good as the CD I started with... It always sounds worse". As you can see, Mr. Wilkinson was perplexed and commented that "it's almost like generational loss in analogue" that Mr. Sides is referring to. "Multiple degenerations"? Please...

I wished Mr. Wilkinson would have done a follow-up question like - "What if you bit-perfectly ripped that original CD to a computer - does it sound the same then?" "How about if you copy to a different hard drive, does it sound different?"

It's also clear that there are some limits to Mr. Sides' knowledge/experience which most of us in the hobby world would have no difficulty discussing. (34:30) Q: "What's your idea of FLAC encoding?" A: "I'm really not that familiar with it." Fair enough, a person cannot know everything.

Although I'm not that old at this point in my life, I have learned some things in my "travels" both personally and professionally. One which I hold dear is that no matter how much we can respect and trust the "experts" for their lived experience and knowledge, they (like us) are all just human. And as humans we all have idiosyncrasies and biases. In this case, I don't think it's much of a stretch for any of us who have spent hours on our audio systems, used EAC or dBpoweramp for ripping to ensure bit-perfect copies, to stand up with good confidence and tell Mr. Sides that he's just plain wrong about not being able to make a copy of a CD that sounds identical. The fact is that in more than 30 years of the existence of the CD format, there has been no evidence of this when variables are controlled for (eg. ensuring that bit perfect copies were achieved, the rater was blinded, etc.). If indeed "generational losses" were possible with digital, this would already be a well known fact and there'd be no uncertainty whatsoever! Moreover, if this were fact, it would change significantly how we deal with accuracy of our digital data (hey... how can I be sure that those numbers in my bank account are accurate?!). Experts can provide educated opinions, but ultimately they are just opinions and not necessarily fact. The same goes for his strange comment about SACD not sounding as good as it should between studio and the physical disk. What is more likely, that the digital data somehow mysteriously changed over time or that his own psychological expectations changed as the memory of the live studio event consolidated? (Assuming of course that the data wasn't altered by some mastering engineer along the way.)

In this world, there are many mysteries yet to be discovered and likely much we as a species will never know. But digital audio systems which are inventions of the human mind based on mathematical constructs and technologically engineered devices (like the CD) that ultimately changes the physical world (sound waves) were not produced by serendipity. I do not feel it's good enough that we should just shrug our shoulders and declare some experiences to have enduring truth like parts of this interview. That surrender to logic leads us into the realm of "anything is possible!" and ultimately the slippery slope on the path to "snake oil". This is especially significant in the impact on those already obsessive-compulsive and perfectionistic (ahem, like many audiophiles). Maintaining an objective approach hopefully allows a counterbalance to this. An opportunity to take a step back and question the things which seem to make no sense. An opportunity to explore reality with techniques and at times instruments of greater sensitivity than that which we are endowed with within this mortal shell. Although the human mind is the best "instrument" to perceive the beauty of music, accuracy of the reproduction chain is a different matter and can be detected by the use of objective techniques with obviously greater sensitivity.

It's fun listening to interviews like this and I certainly felt it was time well spent nonetheless.


  1. I know from experience that making a 'perfect' copy of a CD isn't always a walk in the park. In years gone by various friends have made sample copies for me using various hardware/software combinations and most of those discs fail to report an 'AccurateRip'. Sometimes it's nothing more than a simple offset issue but I have quite a few which have corrupted data within tracks even though they play without obvious skipping and rip without CRC errors. Add to this the variable quality of CD-R media along with the potential for read errors during playback and it's possible to see how a (poorly made) copy may not perform as well as the original pressed CD, at least in terms of bit-perfect output. Of course, whether or not this might be audible is arguable and I'm certainly not seeking to defend Mr Sides. I only know that I was very happy to leave CD playback behind once I owned the necessary equipment to make verifiably accurate lossless archives of my discs. It removes a variable from the equation because those bits really are perfect!

    1. Thanks for the comment Stephen.

      Indeed there was a time when making perfect copies was difficult. In the "old days", we were stuck with ripping without the benefit of tools like EAC and burning was a tedious affair. I remember all the coasters I was stuck with back in 1997 when I bought my first HP CD burner - painful given how expensive they were back then. The computer back then (my first PC after transitioning from the Amiga was a 300MHz AMD K6) could barely keep up with preventing buffer underruns and one would not dare multitask during a burn! I could barely achieve bit-perfect copies at 2X speed (1X was usually OK).

      This changed substantially over the years and our general assessment of the situation IMO should change with this! It seems Mr. Sides is stuck with the 1997 viewpoint on this... That only creates fear, uncertainty, and doubt when it's unnecessary especially coming from an expert / authority figure. These days, it's not difficult at all to copy and ensure CD bit-perfection. Although I barely ever burn CDs any more, it hasn't been a problem over the last 10 years and to do it at 24+X speed. (Of course decent media is needed as you pointed out.)

    2. I recall a certain hi-fi magazine giving away little stickers that you were meant to attach to the label side of a CD to improve sound quality. I'd like to think it was an April Fool's joke but I'm not so sure. Sadly, I no longer have the magazine to check. It was a long time ago! I'm so glad we've moved on from those times, or at least some of us have!

  2. Ten years ago i was involved in a very "nasty" discussion about audibility of burned CDs vs originals.

    After many "arguments" on both sides we conducted blind test at Croatian Audiophile club. Unfortunately I could not attend, but it is irrelevant for my point.

    Originals were ripped on mac computer using error correction, and then burned using ToastTitanium software at 4x speed on a standard quality CD media.

    After hours of ABX listening sessions of original vs. burned CDs, no one could tell the difference, all that on a very respectable setup.

    And that was ten years ago.

    After that session I can't convince "true believers" to conduct any other blind test in public (USB cables test at Audiophile Club for example), they did not like the result.

    1. Great anecdote, Marin.

      So do you still hang out with the guys at the audiophile club or did you get excommunicated? :-)

    2. Hahaha...I still get invited to the club. They probably like my "sharp tongue".

      Every now and then I show up and shake their "firm believes" carefully and with arguments and a dose of humor, so they end up laughing at them selves :)

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