The roosters of technology have been heralding the dawn of the digital recording era, as well they should. But, like their excitable feathered counterparts, they have indulged themselves in much poppycock about its virtues, sonic or otherwise.
The truth is that virtually every claim made for the superiority of digital encoding of music is either dosed with hyperbole or false.
These are the myths -- the public relations folklore if you will -- about digital encoding and the compact disc:
The compact disc has been advertised and promoted as having "perfect sound forever," i.e., the sound is said to be a perfect replica of the musical experience and can be encoded in a medium that will last "forever."
Digital LPs and CDs are said to have wider dynamic range than conventional analog tape recording and are said to have lower distortion.
Because the CD itself is tracked by a laser that does not physically touch the surface of the disc, the CD is supposed to be invulnerable to wear and abuse.
Digital tapes are supposed to be immune to noise.
A copy of a digital master tape is supposed to be an exact replica, thus allowing endless and perfect replication.
The fact is that present-day digital technology, which won't soon be improved, is inferior to good analog technology for reasons both technological and musical. And analog will continue to be the preferred technology for the musically serious listener for the foreseeable future, just as the long-playing record -- and there are literally billions in circulation throughout the world -- won't soon be eclipsed.
A compact disc player, like a tuner or cassette machine, is just another device that one may add to his home music system. Anyone who would throw out his turntable because of a CD player would also be throwing out the hundreds of thousands of recordings made worldwide since the invention of the LP 35 years ago -- a repertoire that will never be duplicated entirely on CD, or even very much in part. The choice will be between the fast-food-like convenience of the CD, with its inferior reproduction of music, or the vinyl analog disc and the heritage of nearly a century of recordings.
Thus the choice posed by those who have proclaimed the death of the LP is between technology (and an undeveloped one at that) and music.
Why the rush to judgment by the majority of U.S. music critics and reporters? The argument, like the technology, gets a bit technical.
For the better part of 100 years, sound has been stored either directly on disc or on some form of magnetic recorder. That sound is transformed from acoustic energy at the recording site, via microphone, to a continous electrical signal, one analogous to the sound wave. In digital recording, the sound wave, instead of being continously sampled, is sampled at intervals, each interval being coded as a series of binary pulses.
The only way to get perfect digital would be continuous sampling. Though in theory digital allows perfect replication of the original signal with a discrete number of samples per second, the hitch -- or one of the hitches -- is that the number of samples per second must be at least twice the highest frequency one wishes to encode. (I am disregarding another major hitch for the moment, that of the dynamic range of the signals in question.)
So let us say that we wish to engrave 20,000 Hertz, or cycles, per second as our uppermost frequency. Then we would have to have, at the least, a sampling of the signal 40,000 items per second. But musical harmonic and transient information does not stop at 20,000 hertz (commonly abbreviated as 20 kilohertz or kHz) nor, necessarily, does the human hearing apparatus. And the more frequent the sampling, the more complex and expensive the digital encoding system.
Because the industry adopted a uniform sampling rate at 44.1 kHz, the highest frequency theoretically attainable from a digital recording would be half that frequency. Yet given what is practical in the real world, sharp cutoff filters start chopping off the audio signal at 19 kHz.
The damage these sharp filters do extends down into the audible range of the music and is particularly evident on complex music that has considerable high-frequency energy. This can be heard as both a hardening of the sounds that are there and, simultaneously, a thinning out. The present-day digital system cannot handle the amount of high-frequency energy of, say, a Mahler symphony with woodwinds, strings and brass going full tilt (and creating harmonics and transient overtones past audibility); in fact, the louder and more complex the music, the more music damage the filters do.
The reason the filters have to cut off the sound so sharply is that the sampling rate is so low. A higher sampling rate -- above, say, 100 kHz -- would allow digital engineers to use filters with milder cutoffs and, hence, milder distortions.
Digital sampling rates might have to go as high as 1 million Hertz to reproduce the upper frequencies of music truthfully and with the same degree of finesse as the best contemporary analog recordings -- and by "finesse" I mean reproducing those subtle cues that fool you into thinking, for a moment, that you are hearing the real thing.
There is also the matter of the bits (or bytes) in digital encoding. Present-day encoding uses a 16-bit system, which is not enough, since not all of those bits can be used for storage purposes. The result is that digital does not reproduce certain soft sounds at all.
Unlike analog, where one can hear a sound even below the inherent noise threshold of audio tape, a sound below the digital threshold simply isn't recorded. Subtleties like hall ambiance simply stop being encoded once a certain level is reached. This is one why one hall sounds like another in digital recordings, and why low-level musical information, the sort that helps you distinguish between, say, a Stradivarius and a Guarnerius, is lost.
Those wonderful distortion measurements for digital that you hear about are made when the system is going full blast. As the music drops back to normal and soft levels, the distortion rises proportionately -- just the opposite of analog.
I have gone into this simply to put the lie to the claim from the industry combine, the Compact Disc Group -- an amalgamation of the world's largest electronics industries and record companies -- that digital means "perfect sound forever." I am surprised that reporters, who should be the world's greatest skeptics, should have accepted the words "perfect" and "forever" without question.
In its present form -- into which it will be frozen until a system with higher sampling rates and more bits comes along -- digital does not have a wider (practical) dynamic range than analog encoding. It does not capture the differentiations that let you forget you're listening to sound instead of music, and, therefore, it tells less of the musical truth and is, in fact, a step backward.
It is, however, more convenient to use. When Derrick Henry of Opus magazine surveyed the record reviewers of its staff, he found that few, if any, thought CD's superior to the best analog in fidelity -- only in convenience. Thus McDonald's triumphs over French cuisine.
Still, compact discs can be scratched, just as your regular LPs can. The discs can be warped in the heat and become unplayable. They do get dirty and if they are not clean (picture-window clean), the laser that reads the pits in the silver disc won't read correctly. Eventually the player's error-correction circuitry won't be able to function properly, and the sound will deteriorate. So -- surprise! -- CDs wear out in time. Just like regular records.
So instead of a cartridge-arm-turntable to play back your discs, you have an infinitely more complicated (and, thus, breakable) laser-tracking, fast-whirling (1,800 rpm) disc system with highly complex digital-to-analog decoding circuitry and filters to worry over. The quality of the laser servo mechanisms in contemporary players is questionable (some of the parts are made of plastic; it takes little for the alignment to go awry) and the electronics are little better than those in the so-called boom boxes, an irony since the basic digital technology is truly space-age in its complications.
And far from sounding alike, the compact disc players on the market sound (mostly) unalike and wretched, like different grades of industrial waste. The few that do begin to sound acceptable (that is, the few that don't induce headaches and fatigue) are expensive, on a par with comparable high-end LP playback gear.
What you really have to remember is that both the laser playback system and the digital encoding technology are in their infancy. They were not intended by their designers as serious contenders for state-of-the-art sound in their present configurations, but rather for the mass market.
Up until the introduction of the audio cassette (which comes from the Dutch company Philips, the same electronic giant that brought us the compact disc), new technologies in audio equipment were introduced at the top end of the marketplace. It was a trickle-down technology. Nowadays, new technologies are being introduced in the mass market: trickle-up technology.
Today's best cassette players, on the order of, say, a Nakamichi, cost more than $1,000 (a price unimaginable in the early low-fi days of this format). And while the price of a CD player has been dropping, so has the sound quality and the sophistication of the players' internal workings. A $300 CD player does not, in truth, sound all that much better (and in some ways, not as good) as a $300 cassette player -- some would argue that a Walkman sounds more musical -- and if you want to hear the potential of the medium (and it does have potential), then you'll pay dearly for the player.
Even at that, a comparably priced turntable-arm-cartridge playback system will wipe the floors from under the CD unit. But you wouldn't know this unless you have a component system of sufficient resolution, one that will likely cost you more than the cheap portables and the kind of package systems of Japanese (and discounted) origin. This is the sort of system for which the CD has been sculpted to sound its best. But as the resolution of one's system goes up, the flaws of CD and digital-derived LPs become all too apparent. The better the system, the more unlistenable the digital.
What is depressing about this is that the major record companies have just about completely converted to digital recording. All the world's major orchestras are recording exclusively in digital, and the only reason many popular recordings are still originally recorded in analog is that the supply of huge, multitrack recording machines has lagged behind the demand. Critics and the public have been snatching up CDs, and the demand far exceeds the supply, making this a financial windfall of monstrous proportions. The Compact Disc Group recently announced it was disbanding, a victim of its own success in promoting the new medium.
And, in this sense, those who predict the death of the conventional LP do have a point: The CD is a runaway success, a triumph of PR over truth and sense.
And yet, as the juggernaut rolls along, the evidence has begun to accumulate and the voices of dissent have begun to be heard. Recent studies show that the type of tape used to encode the digital pulses (once assumed to be of no importance) has an effect on the sound; that the copies of original digital masters show deterioration and that the deterioration increases as the number of generations from the master increases.
More people, in high-end audio and among the reputable critics, have begun to take a second listen, only to find they are enjoying their music less. They find that CDs really do sound coarse and harsh on Mahlerian climaxes; that it's difficult to distinguish a clarinet from an oboe, a viola from a violin, Carnegie Hall from Boston's Symphony Hall. That something is missing.
At one time, my magazine was the only publication for the general reader endcol that was delineating the faults of digital sound (the technical journals began, early on, to discuss the real-world shortcomings of the new technology). Now it has been joined by many more, though, curiously, not the mainstream audio press.
The backlash has begun. Many gifted designers and engineers have begun to address the problems of digital encoding and playback, but the emerging consensus is that without increasing the bits and the sampling rates, the technology can only be made to sound "listenable" as opposed to truly musical. A musical-sounding digital technology, one that equals the best analog developed over the past 100 years, remains in the future.
And that, gentle readers, is why the LP and analog are not dead, nor likely to be for a great while, no matter how lovely the cock crows.