Saturday, 17 September 2022

MUSINGS: Regarding the MoFiGate class action document, the love of analogue master tapes (on recent Bernie Grundman interview), and reminder of digital developments. [Yes, Canadian iPhone 14 still has hardware SIM tray.]

There are "hot topic" debates that stand the test of time, never truly resolved as it were. Typically, these debates are arguments of subjective ideologies (thus never fully resolved even if some elements can be shown to be clearly false) rather than explorations of nuanced facts. The "Analogue vs. Digital - which is best?" debate remains popular among audiophiles since the dawn of CD consumer audio in the early 1980's. As if there is ever only one single answer to such a broad topic with various pros and cons. I suspect most of us these days have grown at least a little tiresome of the topic even if we recognize that this "issue" will inevitably arise along our audiophile journeys interacting with others.

In the last while, there have been items in the news related to analogue audio, and by extension this whole debate, I think worth examining honestly. Let's spend some time to talk about this, consider some facts, and address a few of the unsubstantiated beliefs often perpetuated even among some respected members in the audiophile pursuit.

I. A look at the MoFiGate Class Action

Oh no, MoFiGate again! ;-)

Unless something more significant were to come up, maybe as a last look at this here on the blog, I thought it would be educational to review the class action lawsuit document posted online recently, filed in the US District Court in Illinois.

There are a number of sections of interest, but I gravitated to the part dealing with why consumers "pay a price premium for All-Analog Recordings", and why MoFi's action(s) are the cause of the plaintiff's grief:
IV. Consumers Pay A Price Premium For All-Analog Recordings

42. MoFi’s misrepresentations and omissions were not just disingenuous, they also
caused economic injury to Plaintiff and other consumers.

43. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for all-analog recordings for numerous
reasons. First, an analog recording is as close to a studio recording as one can get, “like reading literature in the original language,” whereas “converting analog recordings to digital inevitably changes the sound in ways the band never intended.”10 For that reason, many consumers maintain that analog recordings sound better than digital recordings.
10 Steve Guttenberg, Digital and Analog Audio’s Curious Coexistence, CNET, Apr. 28, 2018, https://www.cnet.com/tech/home-entertainment/digital-and-analog-audios-curious-coexistence/ 
44. Part of this is a result of the concept of “losslessness.” When a recording is
compressed so that it can be converted to digital, it loses frequencies “at the very highest and lowest of a record.”

By contrast, an analog recording maintains the full spectrum of frequencies. Digital recordings that maintain most of but not the entirety of the range of frequencies are referred to as “near-lossless,” but are not the same as an entirely “lossless” recording 11:

 
11 Devon Dean, Analog vs Digital Media: Which Is Better?, THE KLIPSCH JOINT, May 17, 2021, https://www.klipsch.com/blog/analog-vs-digital-media-which-is-better. 
45. Second, analog recordings are more collectible because only a limited quantity can be produced. Digital recordings are exact copies of one another that can duplicated indefinitely, theoretically without any loss in quality or degradation. So, once a digital recording is made, it can be copied infinite times and each copy will sound the same. However, this means digital recordings are not as collectible because there are an infinite number, and a vinyl record using digital remastering will sound the same as a digital record streamed on Spotify or Apple Music. By contrast, the original tapes degrade over time, meaning only a limited number of analog recordings can be made using the original master tapes until the tapes no longer function. Each analog recording may also sound different the further it is from the original (i.e., the first analog recording may sound different from the one-hundredth). However, that also means that analog recordings are more collectible and more valuable because only a limited number can be produced before the original master tape deteriorates.

46. MoFi recognizes that analog recordings are more valuable than digital recordings, which is why it charges a premium for the same. Indeed, the Records are the most expensive vinyl records that MoFi sells, ranging from $40 (for the Record Plaintiff purchased) all the way up to $125 for some of the “Ultradisc One-Step” recordings. By contrast, MoFi sells its digital recordings for $30 or less.

47. Accordingly, MoFi charged Plaintiff and other Class Members a premium based on MoFi’s representations that the Records were all-analog, and MoFi’s failure to disclose that the Records made use of digital technologies like DSD in the production chain. Had MoFi disclosed that its Records used DSD, or otherwise not mispresented that its Records were all-analog, Plaintiff and other Class Members would not have purchased the Records, or would have paid less for them. Plaintiff and Class Members were thus injured by the price premium attributable to MoFi’s representations regarding the all-analog nature of its Records, and MoFi’s omissions regarding the use of DSD or other digital technologies in the Record’s production. 
I think it's interesting how they're drawing the rationale for this section from public sentiment and beliefs rather than science primarily in paragraphs 43-45. For example, the idea of "losslessness" is a digital technology term. "Lossless" file formats imply an exact copy of the data, but does anyone ever claim that there is such a thing as an exact - "lossless" - analogue copy? In fact, that conversion between master tape to LP requires the application of an RIAA equalization curve and probably even more adjustments to make sure the signal level isn't too "hot" for the grooves especially with low frequency excursion and maybe upper midrange; all of this implying some change in the sound. In fact, I think most science-based audiophiles would agree that this affects the sound much more than merely the claim that "converting analog recordings to digital inevitably changes the sound in ways the band never intended" (notice that there's no discussion as to whether this digitization process is standard 16/44.1 or higher resolution). Even though Steve Guttenberg has written a lot of articles over the years and made some entertaining videos with his opinions, I don't think that should make him much of an "expert" in this matter when referenced in legal proceedings. I suppose one could use his opinions as a popular sentiment indicator among a certain group of people, but the views expressed are not particularly factual.

As such, it's silly to call digital "near-lossless" while an analogue reproduction (ie. LP) "entirely lossless". To use the claim that digital "loses frequencies at the very highest and lowest of a record" is again a fallacy without reference to specifics like sampling rate or identifying the bandwidth in question since LPs do not have infinite frequency response either. In the case of MoFi, they used DSD256 (in the later recordings at least) which can easily retain frequencies from sub-20Hz to >100kHz with low noise - better than any LP I know. Even back in the day with Quad-LPs, the frequency response required was up to 50kHz, and the resolution was not impressive.

Then the class action claim used the diagram in this Klipsch advertising material in paragraph 45 (BTW: Devon Dean, the author quoted, is a marketing content writer). As you can see, Klipsch at least accurately defined "lossless" as a digital domain descriptor as "when a digital copy of audio is identical to the original, it’s considered 'lossless'". As we've discussed before, other than reproduction through a NOS DAC, proper digital playback with appropriate filtering of the quantized data does not result in those stair-stepped waves in the output which analogue aficionados seem to like to drag out for dramatic effect every once awhile, but is again, false.**

After making claims around how digital is compromised compared to analogue and therefore digital is not the "entire" sound in paragraph 44, I then find it a bit disingenuous how in paragraph 45, they now extol the virtues of tape degradation and generational losses with analogue copies to argue the point about collectability with still lingering beliefs about sound quality. They claim that "a vinyl record using digital remastering will sound the same as a digital record streamed on Spotify or Apple Music". Hang on, that's not what you're buying here! You're actually collecting a product with the sound of the MoFi audio engineers' work using master tapes presumably done with extra care to retain better quality, in a limited production run, right? By linking this superficial "digital vs. vinyl" argument and saying this allows for infinite copies as if streaming, they're devaluing the importance of the hours of work behind the scenes for the actual limited-run MoFi product. Also, what does it mean that putting a digitized recording on vinyl sounds "the same" as whatever's on "Spotify or Apple Music"? The mastering on each service can be different and the digital encoding isn't exactly the same since Spotify still currently is streaming lossy Ogg Vorbis, while Apple Music has the ability to send hi-res lossless ALAC? This difference is a big deal if they argued above that digital doesn't retain the "full spectrum of frequencies". Do they know what they're talking about? There are simply too many holes here unaccounted for in their claims!

Here's the bottom line. At the heart of this is the argument that the plaintiff wants to lock music production into an all-analogue chain so naturally fewer records will be produced over time with higher sound quality recognizing that the original master tapes will gradually deteriorate and any further copies will result in qualitative losses. By doing this, they want to see a future where high quality sound becomes artificially scarce so that the few who bought into this scheme early can make money off their "investment". Facts about actual sonic fidelity be damned! In this scheme, digital sound quality must be projected in a negative light to bolster their claim that analogue is better, and they want companies to not use newer technologies so their LP collections will increase in value.

For me, as a music lover and audiophile, this kind of thinking where one expects, even desires, a deterioration of sound over time as master tapes wear off is a rather cynical inheritance for the generations of music lovers to come. There are inherently selfish and elitist desires here that run counter to my sensibilities as a hobbyist desiring that excellent quality sound be more accessible, not to be owned just by the few who covet expensive plastic discs!

I don't think anyone can deny the claim in paragraph 46 that there's a price premium placed on these supposedly all-analogue LPs.

As for paragraph 47, that's of course a subjective matter as to whether anyone chooses to buy such an LP with the DSD process in place, or indeed if the purchaser would have "paid less for them" (notice the angst in this video from fears of financial losses). If we still ostensibly care about sound quality as "audiophiles" (not mainly "collectors" or "investors"), from my perspective, I think the MoFi LPs can sound better because of that DSD(256) step, especially at the volume by the thousands of copies they openly announced that they were making. All this grief, as discussed last time, created by a system of belief which includes myths, hype, miseducation, plus investment expectations that there be an inflation in price over time. (This is a similar mindset taken to the extreme with the recent one-off T-Bone "New Analog Disc Technology" that sold for almost US$1.8M at auction with I'm sure an expectation that this disc be desired over time, not that it necessarily sounds particularly great.)

Well, audiophiles, at the end of the day, there is still this from MoFi:

MoFi: A sin of omission...

Regardless of the fallacies and misunderstanding of sound quality about analogue reproduction and LPs specifically, the real question is whether by purposefully incompletely disclosing the true sequence in the production chain, MoFi did wrong. As far as I can tell, since MoFi proudly advertised the "Pre-July" graphic, they must have wanted to impress upon the consumer the uniqueness of their "One-Step" process; nobody forced them to show off this production chain. Therefore, by withholding the actual DSD step until after  the truth was admitted post-July 2022, I think they have violated the trust of consumers who would care about the specialty product.

Although I suspect many of these cases are settled out of court, it would be fascinating to read what a judge would make of this. An interesting case of "truth in advertising" which cuts both into the sentimental but falsely idealized expectations/beliefs of consumers about the vinyl sound, and a company that really did commit a serious omission.

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** The Klipsch marketing diagram with the stair-stepped digital vs. smooth analogue signal is not accurate. Notice in the diagram the level of those digital steps didn't even correlate with the waveform levels!

In reality, do not think of these sample points as "flat topped" quantized peaks. Rather, they are just the levels at specific regular intervals in time correlating with the sample rate. Here's a more accurate diagram of what the point samples represent:
The yellow sample data points are just the instantaneous levels at those specific times (thin yellow line). Good DACs will accurately interpolate the levels in time between those points to recreate almost the exact bandlimited waveform for the analogue output (green interpolated waveform). A non-oversampling (NOS) DAC that just holds the sample levels flat across the time period is not an accurate way to reproduce the intended waveform, thus resulting in distortions with these kinds of DACs. I've always found it perplexing why some audiophiles would choose to listen to stair-stepped waveforms, even paying the high cost for some of these brands! Sure, certain individuals might like that kind of distorted sound - that's ok, just be honest and acknowledge what it is.

NOS DACs are far from the most common type of DAC thankfully! Do not be fooled by these inaccurate, yet enduring diagrams over the ages, dear audiophiles. Make sure to speak up when you see this kind of disingenuous claim.
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II. On the idealization of analogue audio (master tapes, engineers, longevity, and quality...)



The second topic I want to discuss was my "Are you serious!?" moment a couple weeks ago while watching a bit of this remarkably long 2 hour, 25 minute "45 RPM Audiophile" (Michael Ludwig) video featuring audio engineers Bernie Grundman, Ryan Smith, and Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds / Analogue Productions:


As I've expressed before, as an audiophile who values "high fidelity" sound, in the 21st Century, it's basically impossible to make a factual case for LP playback ever achieving an aspirational level of accurate playback (doesn't matter 33.3/45rpm). My occasional LP purchases these days, admittedly decreasing in frequency as costs have risen and perception of value drops, are mostly for nostalgic purposes (original pressings from back in the day, not interested in newly produced remasters). When watching videos such as this one, I expect to see the enthusiasm of LP lovers on display as the viewers likely represent the consumer base they're talking (and selling) to. But after all the excitement, I think it's important that LP lovers take a step back, make sure to honestly evaluate the contents of the discussions, find balance, and check the facts.

I guess what really surprised me came at around 24:00; a question was asked about tape degradation - whether digital copying or making another analogue copy would be the best for long-term preservation of the sound. Bernie Grundman responded with:
"If you want to preserve it for a long time, you have to make tape. Because digital will not hold up. Even Jump Drives lose their information and they'll drop out. The signal is so complex in a digital signal that the littlest thing that goes wrong, you're going to have a drop out, noise..."
Then he goes into stuff like old DAT format losing compatibility with today's playback systems. True, there have been concerns of DAT as inadequate for archival use for decades (like this) but is it broadly representative of digital audio?

Clearly, there are 2 things going on here with this question and the answer provided is either muddled or incomplete. The first is the superficial idea of preserving the material object - the master tape reels. Sure, maybe copying the tape to another reel and putting it into a cool, dry environment will protect the object for decades. However, as audiophiles, aren't we actually after a different kind of preservation? Isn't it actually the sound of the music on the recording that is more important than just physical integrity? In that regard, is simply copying analogue tape to another reel with inevitable generational loss of quality the best answer for archiving? (I would say "Of course not!".)

Humans will always have the ability to play PCM audio data which forms the cornerstone of modern AV media until the end of our species or some kind of catastrophe wipes out our technological abilities! Furthermore, open-source software exists to convert DSD data to PCM at very high resolution so there's no fear of incompatibility there either. We cannot say the same of any physical format that requires a complex mechanism, especially tape players. The beauty of digital is that copies are lossless and can be perfect replicas; impossible with analogue. I'm sure the digital archivists at music studios aren't just going to store their valued work on a "Jump Drive" (for those unaware, this is just Lexar's trademark name for their flash drive), right?

Modern automated data archive at CERN Tape Archive.

These days, for professionally maintained archives, other than multiple copies on hard drives (SSD/flash drives less reliable long term than magnetic media), LTO Ultrium-8 tape drives with capacity up to 30TB (compressed, lossless of course) per cartridge and expected 30 years life are readily available. Already LTO-9 has been released with up to 45TB compressed capacity and the roadmap calls for LTO-12 up to 480TB compressed per cartridge; historically doubling of capacity every 2-3 years. I could easily imagine the digital raw audio data and project files for albums can be backed up on something like that and archived to newer technology every decade or two, even automated in more fancy facilities. For home use, try a modern BluRay writer that can handle M DISC media (BDXL capacities up to 100GB/disc) for essential photos, video and audio recordings that will likely last multiple lifetimes as family heirlooms on standard-sized 120mm disks (as usual, storing media in dry, cool conditions essential). For the foreseeable future, BluRay playback would be ubiquitous.

Compared to this level of ongoing progress with the ability to replicate perfect copies, analogue audio tapes have reached the end of any major research and development and existing content will inevitably degenerate over time unless digitized. What's the availability of new high quality replacement tape or reel-to-reel players these days?

At least Grundman admits that the tape does actually "lose a little bit of quality of course" (26:05) with each copy. I find it baffling that he's willing to repair damaged tape portions even with "CD" (!) copies (28:20). Wow, if he's willing to do that, especially on a collectable remaster, I hope such an analogue/PCM hybrid is disclosed in the liner notes! So why not just digitize everything in high resolution for archiving and not risk repairing the deteriorated portions with lower resolution copies down the road?!

If you compare the quality of DAC/ADC loopback copies these days versus analogue tape copies, I don't think there's any question that the losses with tape are much worse! This strong advocacy for analogue media makes no sense in the 21st Century and really should make audiophiles suspicious about the opinions expressed here. I honestly hope that modern audio engineers will ignore this perspective and just take the time to archive whatever decades-old master tape they have to DSD256 or maybe DXD 24/352.8 using a modern ADC ASAP and of course make sure to have multiple digital copies archived. Absolutely take good care of the original tapes as a piece of history for as long as they last, but let's not go crazy with some kind of reverence as if there's some ineffable spiritual quality embedded in those magnetic particles.

Considering that music studios transitioned to digital through the '80s and '90s with perhaps the last hold-outs in the early 2000's, albums made with analogue tapes are now more than likely at least a human generation (20-30 years) old. Master tapes from studios consisting of purely analogue work (no digital tools / effects used) would likely be even older. Despite the idealization of the "master tape" in this conversation with Grundman, over the years, engineers I've talked to working in the studios don't seem to be that impressed by the sound quality of 30 or 40 year old magnetic media. It's not that old tapes become unplayable (recent research suggests even 100 years lifespan, this is just a test of material integrity on blank media though), but whether the sound quality actually holds up over time. If we're talking about the best high-fidelity quality, are we sure that the sound is as good as on "day one" by the time the old tape is dragged out of storage and a remaster is made 40 years later? Highly doubtful.


As time goes on (next couple decades, as even tapes from the '80s surpass half a century), the need to remaster anything from "original master analogue tapes" will likely disappear as time continues to slowly rob the optimal quality from early-generation copies and the best version would have been digital transfers done years ago, hopefully with top-end tape players and good ADCs. Take away all the hand-waving idealizations, and we'll be confronted with the fact that for these old tapes, aging affects the magnetic layer, there is a risk of exposure to nearby magnetic fields, and distortions like magnetic print-through happen. Some tapes have been affected by "soft binder syndrome", getting sticky or "shed" (as result of hydrolysis, specifically of old Ampex, this is why we hear of engineers needing to "bake" old tapes at 50-60°C for a few hours before playback). All this on top of potential degradation every time the tape has been played over the decades that can result in stretching, winding defects, scratches, frilled edges, effects from imperfectly degaussed tape heads, splices and damage to splices, etc.

Here's some thorough, no nonsense discussion about preserving old recordings with as expected digital transfers while at the same time advocating for research into preserving the old technology as best can be done.

For those who might not have looked into this, let's pivot a bit and consider some history of the transition to digital audio correlating not just with the rise of hardware ADC technology, computing speed, and storage size, but also with the evolution of audio software for editing work.

Old Soundstream 4-channel recorder... Detailed history here.

On the hardware side, when it comes to professional audio productions, Soundstream had their 2-channel 16-bit/37kHz recorders back in 1976 and 4-channel 16-bit/50kHz from 1977. For an example of the sound quality, check out Frederick Fennell and the Cleveland Symphonic Winds' Music of Holst, Handel, Vaughan Williams and Grainger on Telarc's SACD; not bad sound for '70s digital at such an early stage of development!

Let's also not forget the 3M multitrack recorder first released in 1978 which eventually brought us popular albums like Ry Cooder's Bop Till You Drop (1979) and Donald Fagen's The Nightfly (1982). By 1979, Sony released their PCM-1600 "PCM adaptor" that recorded digital audio on U-matic cassette tapes, followed by PCM-1610 (1980), and the classic PCM-1630 (1985) which was mentioned by Grundman in the video - some cool history here on the Sony. Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms (1985) is an example done using Sony's 3324 16/44.1 DASH 24-track digital tape system released in 1982.

[BTW: Sony specs suggest the PCM-1630 measures around -65 to -70dB THD if we want to compare that to some of the results we have today, old Stereophile measurements also show minimum phase filtering.]

Going beyond the studio into the consumer level, DAT was introduced in 1987 with the ability to select 32/44.1/48kHz in 16-bits and this became a common lower-cost standard digital recording medium through much of the '80s until early/mid '90s.

Higher samplerates and bit-depths came with the development of sigma-delta technology available by the early 1990s at lower price points; for example the Analog Devices AD1879 ADC chip with 18-bit ability introduced around 1992 could muster 103dB(A) SNR and -98dB THD+N up to 48kHz sample rate. This ADC chip along with the TDA1541 DAC were featured in some of the classic Ensoniq sampling synthesizers of the early/mid 1990's like the Ensoniq ASR-10. Ongoing refinement in resolution of course opened up the doors for the "high-resolution" digital we have today once higher-capacity DVD was introduced by 1996 to consumers. I remember listening to my first lossless 24/96 recording on a DVD demo disk somewhere around 1998; before the release of DVD-Audio or SACD although I'm not sure about the quality of the DAC back then.

Mac "Sound Tools" from 1989, the precursor to Pro Tools.

In parallel with the hardware, software for audio production evolved rapidly too since the 1990's. For example, Pro Tools was first released in 1991. Pro Tools expanded to 16-tracks and implemented real-time plugins by 1994. 24-bits + 32-tracks by 1997, both Mac and Windows now supported. Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca" in 1999 became the first Billboard #1 to be fully produced using the system. Pro Tools | HD added hi-res up to 192kHz by 2002 from which point it would be very hard to argue that sound engineers lack digital tools to create audio with resolution exceeding the limits of human perception done skillfully. See here for more Pro Tools history. Of course, I'm only highlighting one of many Digital Audio Workstation options.

It should be clear that digital audio has been evolving for a long time. It would be odd and highly presumptive for audiophiles/reviewers/gurus to think that through all those generations of refinements, there's still some "special" sound quality attached to decades-old analogue tapes that can't be captured digitally yet for some inexplicable reason, an LP somehow has the ability to retain this "magic"! Let's make sure not to hold on to falsehoods too long, lest we become delusional. Strong subjective claims are more than likely an expression of the psychological projections of the listener (including the audio engineers/marketers in the video). When it comes to LP playback, strong preferences are likely a reflection of desire for euphonic distortions, if they are to be based on perceptual differences at all.

While I did not listen to the full 2+ hours of that "45 RPM Audiophile" discussion, I jumped around a bit and noticed for example at 1:27:30, Grundman started complaining about digital transfers, "especially if you use an AES/EBU line - that's the worst line you can use because the left and right and clock are on the same wire". There was a little interlude about something else, then from 1:29:45 Grundman continued to talk about how he can't make perfect digital copies, jitter being an issue, again the use of AES/EBU, etc. There were implications that digitally "the wire" made a difference (1:32:45). Not sure if he's complaining about other significant things like latency in studio ADC/DAC set-ups but this generic protest about old-skool AES3 digital transfer is pretty strange stuff for an audio professional I think.

There's a question asked at 1:59:00 about whether a DSD transfer is audible (presumably a direct invitation from the audience to talk about the MoFi process). It's good that Ryan Smith was equivocal, but again strange and I think unwisely, Grundman shot from the hip and claims "look, it depends on how many iterations it's gone through and so forth" - huh? Is he saying that digital copies of DSD result in generational loss of quality? Maybe he's referring to generations of DSD ⇆ PCM conversion? It doesn't help when a professional, respected by the vinyl faithful, say things like this so loosely with little clarity.

I've observed that some guys particularly tend to get stuck in idiosyncratic ways of thinking especially if at some point in life, he went "against the grain" and later develops a compulsion to justify how these beliefs early on are now vindicated. Grundman seems to relish in the idea of how he was the "bad boy in the industry" or how "we couldn't make copies of digital recordings at all" that sounded good, how "Sony would not talk to me after awhile" (~1:31:30), etc. Shades of his psychology here mixed with experiences that might or might not be properly interpreted I think taints the discussions with opinions rather than speaking facts.

We've heard unusual beliefs from audio production people before. Cookie Marenco is one, and I remember Barry Diament also voiced some rather unusual ideas over the years. These folks have certainly done some amazing work on the albums I enjoy. I do not doubt their sincerity; people express all kinds of sincere, passionate beliefs all over social media. However, no matter how sincere one might express certain beliefs, that doesn't mean these opinions are true or even valuable. With age, sometimes we can become rigid and hang on to obsolete ideas much too long, neglecting to honestly take a moment to look back and maybe reconsidering those thoughts in the context of technological evolution; I would humbly suggest this of Mr. Grundman.

PS: The other night, I was listening to the new Madonna retrospective Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones (2022, DR6), an enjoyable compilation of her hits on the Billboard Dance Charts with alternate mixes that can at times show off very cool spatial effects (check out "Like A Prayer (7" Remix Edit)" or "Hung Up [SDP Extended Vocal Edit]" with the busy tone coming from behind the listener). While there's a time and place for this kind of mastering like at the 'disco' over the PA system where loud and dynamic compressed qualities are normal (the peak limiting sounds "wimpy" when volume normalized compared to the much more dynamic old Immaculate Collection), it's good that there are folks with Grundman's sensibilities in the audiophile mastering world. It is these practical sensibilities that I hope he teaches the younger engineers.

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III. Analogue Media... The future?

LP & LD. [ZZ Top Eliminator original vinyl, and MGM/UA The Compleat Beatles LaserDisc.]

In 10 years' time, I wonder how audiophiles will view the current love of turntables and LPs. Or over the span of history, what effects something like MoFiGate would have on the interest in analogue audio playback among hobbyists.

Given the economic situation and what is likely to come in the next decade (big picture challenges like financial upheavals, systemic indebtedness, managing waste and pollution, "greening" of energy and reduced fossil fuel utilization), I would not be surprised if the growth of LPs in these last few years might be seen as a "last hurrah". I think we have to look forward at demographic trends and whether the current interest in vinyl remasters as an "investment" still makes sense. By 2030, even the youngest Baby Boomer will be approaching 70 and likely downsizing in all kinds of ways, including a cultural decline in the sentimental memories of spinning LPs and the associated hassles. We'll see whether the younger generations have enough appetite in old recordings, interest in genres like classic jazz and their analogue master tapes, and the turntable technology to keep it going. Do we need yet another remaster for Kind of Blue, or is what we have more than good enough? More importantly, do we really want more material "stuff" in our lives?

Recently, Steve Guttenberg made this video about the future of analogue media from his perspective, arguing that we somehow "need" a new format (actually, at points in the video, it seems like he doesn't even know what he wants or is talking about):


Sure, asking for unwarped, flat LPs with no off-centering should be pre-requisites when paying a premium for vinyl (~5:00). The fact that new LPs are still often poorly made is shameful as this will obviously compromise sound quality. However, that's just asking for better quality, not a new feature or significant update to the existing physical format. He also wondered about resurrecting the analogue laser disc at 7:00 for audio. Or reformulating tapes at 10:00 and suggesting new generations of tape machines be produced. Seriously? As exciting as this may be for the passionate analogue folks out there, isn't all that a bit like suggesting a company should invest research dollars into a "next-gen" line of chuckwagon models with modern carbon fiber frame, high-tech polymer wagon cover, improved shock absorption, with sleek aerodynamics? All for the passionate chuckwagon owners? As a limited-run hobby product, go for it, but let's be honest and recognize that such machines are obviously anachronistic.

It's hard to imagine these speculations by Guttenberg ever translating to reality (beyond just items of curiosity if a company were to try!). I don't see where demand is going to come from. Seriously folks, if there is to be another physical media format with serious aspirations for market penetration, it will assuredly be digital - likely something solid-state, small, robust, reliable, fast, random access, audio & visual content-capable, and inexpensive. Some trends are irreversible because they're just overall better ways to do things.

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It might be fun revisiting this article in the 2030's. Let's see what the analogue audio landscape looks like then.

In other tech news these days, with all the hubbub recently about the new iPhone 14 going eSIM only, I'm happy to confirm that indeed my wife's Canadian unlocked iPhone 14 still has the hardware SIM tray (while still maintaining eSIM capability of course):


Yay. When traveling overseas, it has always been convenient to just pop the SIM card in and out at will. IMO, it looks like Apple cheaped out on the hardware for the American units. :-(

Anyhow, that's all for now. Life will be busy for a bit... I hope you're all having a great time as we enter the autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, enjoying the music of course!

9 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Awesome Ivan!
      I was drooling over that and the ASR-88 back in the day... Alas, living off student loans and going to med school those days so could not cough up the asking price. :-(

      2MB of sample memory (expandable to 16MB) back in those days seemed like quite a bit... How times have changed!

      Delete
  2. Hey Arch, wow, what a cluster, man.

    I was working as pro recording/mixing engineer in a variety of studios in the 80’s. It was the pinnacle of analogue sound and introduction to digital audio. Neve and SSL recording/mixing consoles and Studer multitrack tape machines were the top analogue kit back then that I was fortunate enough to work on.

    Unless you have heard it, analogue tape to tape transfers are woeful copies. Going from 2” tape at 30 IPS 24 track mixdown to ½” stereo at 30 IPS, one can notice an audible difference. But most studios only had ¼” stereo at 15 IPS, so you could really notice the audible difference in sound quality. Transients further softened by the inevitable tape saturation, bass response noticeably bumped (from the tape head) and rounded from the tape saturation, the beginnings of pitch shifting, increased tape hiss. The analogue electronics in some of the cheaper 15 IPS reel to reels left a lot to be desired.

    Typically, one or more “safety copies” of the master 2 track tape are made, which is really a 3rd generation copy as the master stereo tape is dup’d onto another reel to reel. Why not mix down multiple copies with the 24 track master all set up? Unless you had the Neve flying V faders or the latest SSL automation, all of the “mixing” was manual and depending on how many fader moves, eq, effects, muting tracks in and out, etc., all had to be timed/choreographed. It can take multiple passes of the song to get it right and even having multiple people assigned at the board to assist. Or one simply ran out of (expensive) studio time, and not so easy to re-set the mix up exactly like it was originally after another act has been in the studio.

    So another tape copy with yet more bass anomalies and dulled transients, tape sat, more pitch shifting artefacts, uncalibrated frequency response, on it goes. Often, this 3rd gen safety copy is what gets sent to the mastering lab as there is no way the "master" tapes were leaving the studio or production companies vault. By the time it is being mastered, it can be 4th gen transfer. This is how it was done for most studios in the 80’s and prior.

    But the biggest reveal to me from the SoundStage article – bolding mine:

    “MFSL’s opinion is that the DSD transfer step is totally transparent to the master tape and is necessary to achieve the highest-quality finished product. Doing so helps to preserve the master tapes, **and allows the engineers to make as many adjustments to their equipment as required**—and to make as many passes over the source recording and test pressings as needed—to get the best final product.”

    What adjustments? Equalisation? Dynamic range compression? Aural Exciters? Delays? Reverb? Stereo width enhancement? Tube preamp? In the digital domain there are a ton of digital audio plugins, literally thousands of them. Were any of these plugins used in the mastering? Or their analogue equivalents? Who knows what the actual signal chain is and what type of, and how many so called adjustments were made per tune, per album. Does not sound like a “straight transfer” to me.

    For me, the revelation on going from top analog studio gear to the beginnings of digital audio happened one day in the studio. I was able to get a Sony F1 digital audio recorder when they first came out. Listening to it with a band, we could not believe it. We never heard background silence like that before. One can always hear tape hiss in a very quiet recording studio. So when I pressed play on the F1, I had forgot that I started the transfer about 10 seconds into the DAT. So here we are at the mixing console, and I am instinctively turning up the volume as I thought, maybe I had mispatched the F1, but then BAM, the music starts… loud! We all jumped in the air! It was a disruptive technology moment for me that I never forgot. I can’t believe 40 years later that analog tape and vinyl records are still be talked about.

    Keep up the great writings Arch!

    Kind regards,
    Mitch

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    1. Thanks Mitch for the insights from experience!

      I figured you'd have some memories from back in the day to share. ;-) Cool man, you got to play with the Sony PCM-F1 (must have been ~1981/1982). I see Ken Rockwell has some info on this classic:
      https://www.kenrockwell.com/audio/sony/pcm-f1.htm

      Must have certainly been a very special experience that very first time to hear the transition from analogue → digital. That "disruption" you speak off. Sadly, this seems too easily dismissed these days; as they say "familiarity breeds contempt" - seems like what has happened these days especially with all the poorly produced albums out there that barely utilize a fraction of the potential fidelity of even a CD, never mind hi-res. I certainly remember the first time I heard a CD back in the '80s even on an inexpensive player.

      I'm just blown away by the head nodding from the vinyl faithful to some of these things Grundman says without any essential contextual follow-up clarifications... I am at least glad that recently at Pacific Audio Fest, the engineers for Patricia Barber's Clique! were *very clear* that digital production was the way to go.
      (http://archimago.blogspot.com/2022/08/pacific-audio-fest-2022-paf-2022.html)

      Thanks for the observation from the SoundStage! article:
      https://www.soundstageglobal.com/index.php/blogging-on-audio/278-matt-bonaccio/1021-the-needle-and-the-damage-done-mobile-fidelitys-dsd-scandal

      Hmmm, presumably they're talking about "adjustments" to the DSD playback and cutting equipment? I see they've taken pains to not scare the analogue purists any further by saying things like:
      "... while the master lacquer is cut from the DSD file and not the original tape, no editing takes place in the digital domain. Though editing in digital is de rigueur in more pedestrian digital mastering processes, it certainly constitutes yet another step: DSD files must be converted to high-resolution PCM for editing, and cutting from an edited file is clearly not the same as cutting from the original master tape."

      Historically, I've seen claims of some of the old MFSL remasters adding a bit of (smiley) EQ; not sure if anyone has tested this against original release material though.

      Yup, after 40 years, I guess we (audiophiles) continue to like to talk about this. Definitely one of the enduring topics... ;-)

      Congrats on the release of HLC-Multichannel! Looks amazing including the demo with the Dolby Reference Player Atmos decoding in your video.

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  3. I don't care much for vinyl but it was interesting to read about the history of digital recorders and tools! There was a quote from Bob Ludwig about the Sony PCM-1610: "They faithfully reproduced the usual qualities of early digital which included flat frequency response, far more linear than any tape machine specifications, and most attractively for classical music, immeasurable flutter."

    So he was impressed already then, and we've had quite an evolution since!

    I agree that these die-hard analog fans seem to be stuck in their old patterns rather than admitting that things have changed. On the other hand, I guess that can happen to all of us. I'm a software developer and there are younger developers that I work with who are eager to try all kinds of new things, while I think we should mostly stick to how we used to do it :)

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    1. Also, I see now that the new Roon app gives remote access to one's music - I think you have been requesting that for a long time, right? It will be interesting to see how (if?) it works.

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    2. Hi Freddie,
      Yeah, I think it's fascinating to read the impressions of folks like Bob Ludwig and comments like Mitch's above about the time of the analog-to-digital transition. These days, when the "in" thing seems to be nodding our heads when some audiophile guru tells the faithful that analog sounds sooo much better than digital, it's unfortunate that there is often so little push back on that kind of idea.

      Hopefully as audiophiles, we can be a force to express balance when it comes to this debate. Over the last few years, as non-audiophile music lovers have expressed to me that they believe vinyl sounds better because it's "warmer", and "smoother", yet I know they don't even own a turntable, I get the sense that this has become a sort of mainstream prevailing sentiment now.

      Yup, Roon ARC is now out and in fact I'm playing some music at work here now linked to my home server. Still a little finnicky at times but generally works ;-). Might talk more about this on the weekend!

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  4. Hi, Arch. I have to disagree with your interpretation of what the "heart of the argument" is. I don't think that the Plaintiff is really saying that they want lock music production into an all-analogue chain. What they are saying is that AAA records, by there very nature, are a finite commodity which can become scarce hence their collectibilicty and value. MoFi know this (frankly helped create and foster this) and took advantage of it by deceptive business practices. The analogue vs digital debate is fluff, this suit is about fraud. If you read just the first sentence of paragraphs 43 and 45 and all of 46 and 47 then you have a true picture of what the Plaintiff is really going to go after MoFi for.

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    1. Thanks for the note Hogues,
      Yes, ultimately, I agree that the lawsuit is really about fraud which IMO MoFi does need to come to terms with.

      I just wish they didn't drag their version of "science" (with square waveforms, strange definition of "losslessness", comments from Steve G. about whether it's "like reading literature in the original language") into the whole argument because all that stuff is IMO fluff and detracts from the arguments. By doing this, they created the impression that "analogue is best". That compared to the analogue tape copy even, everything else has various forms of "losslessness". These are not facts but are being represented as a type of world view they want the courts to consider; hence my take on this philosophy as part of their "heart of the argument". In this way, they're magnifying the value of these analogue copies, presumably believing that this will having an impact when it comes to whatever restitution they seek.

      No question digital broke the idea of the analogue way of thinking by allowing us to escape from imperfect reproductions, thus scarcity isn't generally a concern, the base cost of each digital copy is less expensive (supply easily satisfying demand), and the idea of "collecting" as a form of monetary investment does not hold (they did talk about this in the document as well but not specifically in the "Consumers Pay a Price Premium" section).

      Taking away all that digital stuff, if they just said:
      1. Direct-from-master tape copies are as good as analogue media can achieve at any one time to maintain highest quality. As analogue purists, we thought that MoFi did this as advertised.

      2. Since there is no such thing as a perfect/"lossless" analogue-to-analogue copy, we believed that the limited edition, good quality direct remasters done at this time in history would have resulted in the best sounding pure-analogue copies available. This made the LPs unique and collectable.

      3. Knowing that MoFi was targeting consumers who held the above beliefs, and having priced the products at a level commensurate with the understood difficulty in achieving high quality direct-analogue copies, we believe that MoFi explicitly misrepresented their process in their advertising and during interviews (as evidenced in the document).

      4. Therefore, we the plaintiffs request the court to order the company to provide restitution to the consumers for their fraudulent practice, and specifically for expenses (time, money, reputation) invested into products believed to be unique that now may have lost significant value.

      I think that would have made sense and much more straight forward without making all kinds of statements which lawyers can argue over and experts could prove to be false!

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