You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 63
september/october 2012


Audio and Music Changes Over Many Decades
by Teresa Goodwin


Music is analog, in comparison digital slices up the original analog waveform into discrete samples and then creates a numerical representation of each sample. The trick to making digital the most analog-like, and the closest to real live music, is to make the time interval of each sample as short as possible. It's fast transient response that still separates even high resolution digital from well reproduced analog. With the higher sampling frequencies of SACDs, DVD-Audio, and high resolution downloads, one expereinces not only extended frequency response, but more importantly faster transient response. To me this is the key to making digital an acceptable way to listen to music since analog has the advantage of being continuous.

We still live in an analog world. If the 1s and 0s of digital were not converted back to analog with a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) there would be no music. There is no such thing as digital music; digital is a storage system that has the ability to overlook most of the artifacts and limitations of the physical format it rests upon. And that is the reason digital recording has become so popular. If this could ever be accomplished in the analog realm and at the same retail price points as digital, I believe analog playback would replace current digital playback formats in a heartbeat.

Most of my life was spent listening to the analog formats many decades before digital was ever suggested as a possible way to preserve music. I started with 8-Track tape, moved on to Reel-to-Reel, then to cassette, and finally the LP.

In My Beginning There Was Music

When I was very young my parents played LPs. My dad liked big band swing and my mom liked early rock and roll; her favorite artist was the Platters.

My first audio system, purchased, with money I made from babysitting, was a Realistic 8-Track Stereo Tape Player/Amp with two bookshelf speakers Model 14-913 for $89.95. It had a "fine track adjustment" which I used when I heard any crosstalk. The speakers were small: 8 inches by 11 inches. All of my 8-Track tapes were played at home and never in a car; during the years I owned it I never had a tape go bad. I mention this as this is, believe it or not, when I first started to notice differences in sound quality by different recording companies.

Stereo / Quadraphonic / Surround Sound / Multichannel

Today I listen to everything in 2-channel stereo only, SACDs, DVD-Audios, high-res downloads, LPs, tapes, Video DVDs, and even television.

I went from a multi-channel system to a two-channel stereo one. I have never heard a multi-channel system that has the stage depth, width, and height as 2-channel stereo... a correctly set up 2-channel system. One with planer tweeters is even more holographic. I admit my "sweet" spot is not very wide but why sit in any other spot?

I am not trying to convert anyone from multi-channel to two-channel stereo, I am just saying that I personally don't like what multi-channel does to music; even benign multi-channel that only adds ambiance in the rears.

In my two-channel stereo system, the stage is well defined as is the positioning of each instrument and the air between them. The ambiance extends in front of the stage to directly in front of my listening position. In other words, the room is filled with ambiance from several feet beyond the left and right walls; about 10 square feet of ambiance in front of the stage. Also the "phantom" center image is larger, better defined, and more realistic than any "center" speaker Iíve heard at any sound level. For me, no "center" speaker provides a better center image than a real center speaker.

The best multi-channel system I've ever heard was back in the 1973 at a friendís house. He had four corner Klipschorns and a Teac 4-channel Reel-to-Reel tape deck. What I liked best was his pre-recorded 4-channel 7Ĺ ips Reel-to-Reel tapes where the  rear speakers acted only in terms of the presentation of ambiance. He also had a Jazz quartet in which each instrument was in a corner of the room and we were in the middle... that sounded cool for about five minutes. The best quadraphonic sounded good, but I thought two-channel stereo was more realistic. Ultimately I was not impressed with discrete Reel-to-Reel Quadraphonic sound as I am not impressed with modern day multi-channel. I was though impressed with the corner Klipschorns, but I never could afford them.

My personal experiment in multi-channel was in mid 1990ís when my Denon receiver died. I replaced it with a new multi-channel Denon receiver, an Infinity Kappa K center speaker, and two Infinity Kappa rear speakers to go with my Infinity Reference Standard 7 Kappa's. I was not impressed. I tried Dolby Digital for movies and Dolby Pro Logic, Circle Surround and Ambisonics for CD sources. The salesman talked me into keeping it until the end of the 30-day return period to make sure it was fully broken in. I suffered with multi-channel for 29 days, took back the Denon receiver, the center and rear speakers and got an Adcom GFA-555II power amp and Yamaha's top of the line preamp with input for moving coil cartridges.

Even though I traded in my multi-channel system before the invention of SACD and DVD-Audio, I have heard SACD and DVD-Audio multi-channel and still prefer two-channel stereo.

I no longer go to the movie theaters as they sound artificial in multichannel and some of the side and rear sounds are a total disconnect from the action on the screen.

I preferred the Reno theaters before they were adopted for Surround Sound, not only did the sound get puny and disembodied from the action on the screen in the conversion to multichannel, it was no longer possible to lose oneself in the movie and be swept away in the on-screen adventure. Why? They made the screens smaller. The Reno theaters used the Surround Sound remodeling as an excuse for each theater to have more screens with a smaller size so they could show more movies at the same time. I now wait for the DVD release so I can rent it and watch and listen to it in glorious 2-channel stereo.

In January 2011 at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas I enjoyed the 4-channel demo given by Ray Kimber. Due to the how the IsoMike technique works it is not possible to utilize a center channel. However his phantom center channel was solid, detailed, and to my ears better than any real center speaker I've heard. However at the end of the demo he played an older 2-channel stereo IsoMike recording and to my ears the sound improved when the rear speakers went silent. "High resolution digital and analog music at T.H.E. Show and CES 2011"

Analog and Digital Formats

When CD made its debut in 1984 the audio cassette had just overtaken the Vinyl LP in sales. CD was supposed to replace both, however the public didn't take to them right away. CDs were too expensive, $16 and up versus $9 to $10 for front line LPs... and CD players were also too expensive. Still, some music listeners adopted CD perhaps because their LP playback was so lousy.

By 1987, CD player prices dropped, but not CD prices, which was enough to boost CD sales. When LPs were taken out of record stores they were still outselling CDs 4 to 1.

The industry took LPs off the record shelves to force the holdouts to adopt CD. After that, if you wanted an LP you had to special order it or buy from a mail order supplier. By 1988 LPs were only outselling CDs 2 to 1, and by 1989 CDs were outselling LPs. It is my firm belief if the LPs were not taken off the shelves CD would either have died, or become a niche format like DVD-Audio and SACD are today. The holdout music lovers were forced to adopt CD as the industry made it more difficult to buy LPs, first by talking them off store shelves and then by releasing new recordings only on CD.

Even with the record industry's strong-arm tactics they were not able to kill off LPs, but they did manage to kill off many of the audiophile record companies who resisted digital because they refused to release CDs of their recordings. They believed CDs robbed the music of its soul. They killed off direct discs, pre-recorded reel to reel tape, and the entire real time duplicated audiophile cassette industry.

The CD revolution prevented the birth of a new laser read analog format for people who didnít like the fuss and extra care LPs require, it was a 12 inch two-sided disc based on the LaserDisc format but with high resolution analog audio and no video. "Interview with George Mann, inventor of the Full-Spectrum, Frequency Modulated Optical Analog Laserdisc Format." 

In the distant future, I see a return to recording musical waveforms as is without any conversion to 1s and 0s and back to musical waveforms again. This unnecessary step will be eliminated by treating the cause of noise and distortion in physical formats instead of treating the effect as digital does.

Can you imagine a world in which CD was never invented, and digital was never used to record music? All the great recording artists of today would be recorded in glorious analog. There is an LP revival going on now, however the best choice of material is pure analog recordings, and mostly pre-digital recordings are being released. It's a shame that most of the modern music from the 1980's forward is digital and a quite a-bit at only 16-bit 44.1kHz. Also there are 2 track 15ips reel to reel tapes copies from the Tape Project and Opus 3 though they are rather expensive.

Recording engineer Tony Falkaner  is now making 2 Track 15 ips analog versions of all of the recordings he does for other companies. He believes analog is sonically superior to both DSD and even the highest resolution 32-bit 192kHz PCM.

I get lost in the music, that is if the playback format does not call attention to itself. I listen in the dark, with my eyes closed, reclined in my sweet spot. I can suspend reality and actually see and hear the musicians playing in my room when listening to the better analog reel to reels, SACDs, DVD-Audio's, and high resolution downloads. When listening to LPs with minimal surface noise the music is often even more realistic until a pop or click brings me back to the fact Iím actually listening to an LP.

With CDs or any 16-bit 44.1kHz PCM I can never get to that musically elevated plateau, as I cannot hear past any of its obvious flaws. The timbre of musical instruments on CDs is unlike any other format, they have a gross upper midrange shrillness and rolled-off high frequencies.

I have tried very hard to drain music from CD. I tried CDs with tubes, upsampling, Shine-Ola cleaner, CD-Stoplight, and CD mats. While all offered sonic improvements and somewhat smoother sound, they still fall short of every other format. The lowly cassette gets the gestalt of music and sounds more tonally accurate, even with all the tape hiss and high frequency compression.

Prior to getting my first SACD player, the Sony DVDP-S9000ES in 2000, I listened to LPs, 24-bit 96kHz DAD DVDs, and selected HDCDs from Reference Recordings, Linn, FIM, and Acoustic Disc, as most other HDCDs sounded as poor as CDs to me. I later learned that most major label HDCDs didn't use the full encode-decode process. What sold me on SACD was when I compared my Linn and FIM HDCDs using my Adcom GDA-700 HDCD decoder/DAC to their SACD versions.

I love the convenience of SACDs, DVD-Audios, and high resolution downloads, however, to me audiophile LPs still have the highest resolution and you are there feel. I dislike cleaning LPs, cleaning the stylus, and adjusting VTA. With SACD and DVD-Audio I just put the disc in, it plays, and the sonics are close enough for me.

As Mark Levinson said, "Most music lovers feel that there is something wrong with the CD. Many prefer the sound of their LP's, or have cut down or stopped listening to music without even realizing why....Research shows that the pulse code modulation (PCM), the operating system of the CD, has limitations that so far cannot be overcome. There is something about listening to sound that has been processed with PCM which is stressful - the opposite of what most people seek in listening to music."

Mark Levinson: CD vs. SACD and LP

A Major Shift in Musical Taste

For many years I have bragged about my wide musical tastes, and the fact that I practice format promiscuity, owned and played pretty much all formats except for the lowest resolution MP3's, CDs and 8 Track cartridges.

I am no longer practicing music or format promiscuity, but I am becoming more selective in what I want to listen to. Starting five years ago my tastes started to narrow until I woke up one day in early May of this year and poof, I didn't like classical music anymore. This after it being my favorite style of music for 38 years. I don't understand what happened. It's almost as if my classical gene was turned off overnight, and I can't turn it back on.

Since then I have played at least parts of all my classical SACDs and computer music files, and can now confirm it's not just classical orchestral but also orchestral music from other genres such as pops and movie soundtracks that are now, unexplainably, unlistenable. I just now find it all so boring.

My long time favorite SACD of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition with Paavo Jšrvi conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra now bores me to death. So, I decided to give my first version another shot, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer progressive rock arrangement, and in some ways I liked it better and in other ways not so much. If I had liked it more, that would have made my journey full circle since Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the rock groups that introduced me to classical music. However, I actually prefer Emerson, Lake and Palmer's songs not based on classical music thus I have retired Pictures At An Exhibition from my listening queue for the time being.

I think it's also the style of the music, not just the instruments themselves where my interest has faded away. To me classical music now sounds simplistic, whereas before it sounded a lot more complex, indeed perhaps the most complex of all music. Before, classical music sounded meaningful, often exciting, and sometimes beautiful but now it just sounds boring.

I love rock, jazz, blues, and world music as much as I did the day before this happened. Rock music from the 1960's-1970's is now my favorite musical genre, followed by traditional jazz.

There is another possible reason for my orchestral burnout, I have always been very picky about the sonics of orchestral music. This could stem from the fact that I never much cared for the sound of string instruments played with a bow (arco style) and prefer plucking (pizzicato) instead. I found bowed violin on CD and 16-bit PCM unlistenable, and only the very finest engineered analog and high resolution digital recordings made string instruments played arco style enjoyable. It was the winds, brass and especially percussion instruments that got me interested in classical music back in 1974.

How It All Began

As a teenager, I listened solely to rock music, however in 1974 I started experimenting with classical music. My first classical LP was called Beethoven's Biggest Hits,  an RCA Red Seal LP I purchased after reading the liner notes to Electric Light Orchestra's ELO II which had the song "Roll over Beethoven" in which Chuck Berry's song was interspaced with excerpts of all of Beethoven's most famous works.

My second classical LP was Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on a Deutsche Grammophon LP. At the time it sounded better and much different than Emerson, Lake and Palmer's version. This is what started my Classical adventure.

I didn't like pre-Romantic era composers or most chamber music, especially string quartets, which I think stemmed from my dislike of string instruments played with a bow as there is no winds, brass or percussion to balance out the string tone.

I didn't like any type of classical singing, and abhorred opera most of all. To me opera sounds unnatural, especially the high sopranos, their nerve-wracking wails sound like they are being tortured to death. To my ears all forms of classical singing sounds even worse live in a concert hall. Even when they sing in English it's still hard to understand the words, from research I have done, part of it must be singing from the diaphragm and how they form words with their lips, to my ears it's all very unpleasant. I also abhor singing in Broadway and musicals, which has some of the same objectionable qualities, although the words can be understood.

Most of my favorite rock, jazz, folk, and world music is vocal, so for me instrumental-only classical music was a sharp departure from my preferences in other types of music. This could have contributed to my classical/orchestral gene being turned-off since I love popular singing in every language, my favorites are English, Spanish, and French.

When I first started listening to classical music I thought the styles of classical were more varied than other forms, however that is because a lot of classical music is derived from other musical forms, based largely on the country of the composer. So it is not the original or authentic form of said music, but a high-art version. As I have got more and more into authentic traditional and pop forms of world music I discovered non-classical music is actually not only more varied but more enjoyable, at least for me.

I like jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, classic rock, modern rock, pop, folk, world music from the folk, traditional, pop and rock genres of Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Latin America, South America, Africa, Ireland and other nations, as well as traditional Jewish and Arabian folk music. However I don't like everything in a given genre, I pick and choose.

I think it is now a lost cause for me to enjoy pure orchestral music again, my classical/orchestral gene appears to be turned permanently off. Losing interest in classical and orchestra music is new to me, as in the past, if I liked a song or composition I generally liked it the rest of my life.

Final Thoughts

Now I'm finally getting to the reason for this disclosure, in the past I have recommended classical recordings for people, like me, who didn't like traditional classical music.

"The Basic Power Orchestral Repertoire or Classical music for folks who donít like Classical music"

"The classical divide: Absolute versus Program music"

I have now come to the realization that even if one gets close to a certain style of classical music that is in a similar style of popular music, one still may actually prefer the sound of the instruments used in popular music to the sound of instruments used in classical music. Thus, for those listeners embarking on a classical adventure may not be worthwhile. We are fortunate to live in the computer age as we can sample music before buying it, thanks to streaming audio. And if one becomes disenchanted with a recording, or even a whole genre of music, selling it online is not only easier but one gets a better return.

Whither you listen to classical, rock, pop, jazz, or any of the other many styles of music through analog or digital recordings, in stereo or multichannel, the most important thing is to enjoy the music.

Happy Listening,