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Positive Feedback ISSUE 26
july/august 2006


Ok, enough of this PCM/DSD Crap

Dr. Sardonicus

After some consideration, I have decided to weigh in on the DSD/PCM debate, not because I think I have any particular insight on the distribution side, but because I have the benefit of some unique experience on the front end…

…specifically, what DSD is capable of as a RECORDING medium.

Actually, I have a lot of sympathy with some of the detractions/detractors of SACD; I really do.

I think SONY has trouble finding its ass with both hands on a good day, and their ineptness and arrogance concerning DSD/SACD is simply breathtaking. It is stupidity of such a virulent nature, it is probably catching and the Center for Disease Control should be alerted. Instead of learning from that whole BETA mess, it's as though they institutionalized that stupidity meme into functional company policy. Nefarious.

But this is not unique to Sony. Once a corporation reaches a certain size and complexity, it begins to feed upon itself and spends increasing amounts of resources watching its own navel and fighting internecine battles that have nothing whatever to do with external reality. It's just the nature of the beast.

And the music industry, as with increasing numbers of other US industries, is dominated by the soulless, malignant, mouth-breathing boluses of hog phlegm we call lawyers. The twin Biblical plagues of Lawyers and MBAs are flowing out of our universities like some hell-spawned effluvium. This truly is the motorway to hell. They are too busy trying to indict 12 year old girls for downloading songs to be concerned about the actual viability of their industry. They are like a particularly aggressive, completely mindless form of fungi, a genetically tailored vicious parasite that hastens the demise of its intended food source.

I am disgusted by the entire greedy mess. A plague on all their houses. I really think it has reached the point where it simply has to collapse into complete disarray and then be reconstructed. But I hold no hope this will happen in my life time. The philistines have won the day, for sure.

Right now commercial SACD releases are a mixed bag and I can understand perfectly why a specific, random selection of SACDs might leave a listener perplexed as to what all the fuss is about.

But this is not a limitation of the medium; it is a function of what finds its way on to SACD and how it makes that journey.

Until very recently, recording companies had no choice about "sweetening" a digital recording, other than to take it to PCM. And Sony has maintained such a chokehold on the DSD technology that it has reduced what might have been a flood of new recording equipment to energize this new format, to an agonized, starved trickle. For a significant portion of DSD's history you could not buy a DSD workstation, Sony had to give you one. Gee, I bet those decisions were made with everyone's best interests in mind.

So, right now we are seeing a more or less completely unidentifiable morass of analog, various flavors of PCM, and DSD mastering occurring, with who knows WHAT being done to the original master recording before it all gets dumped to SACD for distribution.

Frankly, my experience says that the vast majority of commercial SACDs travel at least part of the way through PCM land on their journey. So you may think you are really listening to DSD when you cue up an SACD, while in all probability, you are not.

Since recording companies seem steadfastly obdurate about detailing the actual recording chain …like a hotdog, the only thing you know for SURE about most SACDs is that they are distributed in DSD format (just as with the hot dog, the ONLY thing you know for sure is there was probably a pig involved at some point).

I see no reason to believe we will see a wholesale transition from a relatively lower resolution medium (44.1k PCM) to high resolution medium, DSD …for the most basic reason of all …lack of demand. In consumer land, only the audiophiles give a crap about sound quality, one way or the other. The public at large simply could not care less (which was not the case in the analog to digital transition, either for audio or video).  I think SACD is doomed to a specialty audio niche, at least without divine intervention.

BUT—and here is why I am writing—BUT …having been involved in recording music (amateur, semi-professional, professional) on and off through much of my life …I have had the opportunities so many vigorously assertive audiophiles lack …that is, being there when the transduction from the event to the recording actually took place.

I have listened to simple direct-to-disk recordings as they were being made, 7.5 through 30 IPS open reel-analog, 44.1 through 96k PCM, AND live, short chain multi-channel DSD recordings of live performances.

On a number of occasions I could walk out of the live event, and directly into the machine feed of the live event still in progress and then back again. That is a pretty rare experience.

So let me tell you one of my stories about that…. 

I was involved in a short chain, live, surround DSD recording of the Count Basie Band; Sennheiser and Neumann microphones, Mike Grace microphone preamplifiers, Cardas cables, Genex DSD recorder, no mixer, no processing of any kind.

We brought the entire band down into the control room to listen to a test recording of their rehearsal. Now remember, these are world-class musicians, not audiophiles. Of course we, the recordists, being idiots, thought they would be mesmerized by the resolution and "realness" of a short chain recording of their performance.

That isn't what happened at all.

When we ended playback on the first song, the first chair trumpet player went OFF, loudly carping about being sick and tired of always being positioned so he was blowing into the back of another section, and angrily stated it had to change. There were all sorts of similar side conversations erupting among the band's members. Someone ventured a comment that Butch Myles's drums sounded "boomy". Butch replied, "They are boomy, that is how I sound." And so on.

Net result? They stomped off, went up stairs and completely reset the band before that night's performance, which was a SCORCHER! I never heard them play better. And we recorded it. As to that recording ever seeing the light of day, well, that is a story for another day, boys and girls.

Now take just a moment and think about this in a contemplative sort of way. If you have a higher than room-temperature IQ you will understand when I say …regardless of what happens in marketing, distribution, etc., every recorded music lover has a vested interest in DSD mastering, simply because there is no comparison between what can be captured on a DSD master and that of ANY other recording medium, period.

The problem is that you cannot, in most cases, convincingly hear this from the current end result (commercial SACD's). Frankly, most SACDs are a poor shadow of their masters, but the fact remains that once you have heard what can be captured on DSD there is no going back.

So, I couldn't care less about the vacuous audiophile nattering on the "equivalency" of Red Book based on the current state of consumer media, any more than I care about the ongoing insistence that the sugary addition of even-order harmonic distortion is the path to audiophile nirvana. Until you have heard the DSD mastering process, you don't know what of you speak.

As to what media you prefer? Gee, I don't want to convert anyone. The hours are lousy and the pay stinks..

Record/preserve it in DSD and then, who cares?

My concern is that we get every possible historical recording archived to DSD as soon as possible, AND that the artists (both performance and recording) can and should make DSD the authoring medium of choice, REGARDLESS of what happens to it subsequently.

Sometime, in a far distant time, in a galaxy far, far away, those DSD master recordings will be re-examined by people with taste, insight and capability, and then finally we (or our distant descendents) will get to hear them as they truly should be.

The key here is to work for the proliferation of DSD mastering through the recording industry, to recording engineers and performance artists. It's the only hope.

Like movies to DVD's, the original recording can be released in whatever it comes out in, and then a few months later, it gets "re-released" through a license to a specialty company (like Mobile Fidelity) and just like we have always done, we audiophiles pay twice us as much to get something that sounds good (how many copies of Dark Side of the Moon do you have?). It is symmetrical, and it is a proven winner.

You want to listen to Red Book and convince yourself that 44.1 PCM is equivalent to DSD? Be my guest. Hell, I don't even care if you prefer to have your music sent to you on Edison cylinders or cassettes. To each his own.

The distribution medium is irrelevant.  The RECORDING medium is the battle we should be fighting. And it is a much smaller and easier battle to fight, and one that just MIGHT be won.

The audiophile community, composed as it is by dweebs, dorks, and whackos (yours truly firmly included), will never influence the recording companies to any great degree. They think we are amusing and irrelevant, if they think about us at all. But, we can influence artists and we should be doing just that, not stupidly ranting and raving at each other about playback formats like drunken troglodytes in a beer commercial.