June 2008

Perfect Sound for the Time Being: Behind the Compact Disc’s Sonic Ascent

Sony and Philips painted themselves into a digital corner when, back in the early ’80s, upon the introduction of the compact disc, they declared that their shiny silver invention was capable of “perfect sound forever.”

Shame on them: the dismal sound produced by the so-called Red Book digital standard might have been avoided. In a rush to get a product to the market, they made several key decisions based on incorrect assumptions, including underestimating the true nature of human hearing.

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Jazz remastering engineer Joe Tarantino.

Back in the November 2007 edition of this column, we touched on this very issue as it compares to the way we hear analog playback, and I think the segment dealing with digital bears repeating here.

Peter Lederman, chief engineer of the Soundsmith Corporation (sound-smith.com), manufacturer of fine phono cartridges, analyzes the digital dilemma this way: “It is the events lost between each sample, and the multiple errors that are introduced by attempting to digitally capture, decode and filter your way back to the original analog sound that makes CDs inferior in critical respects when compared with analog. It has been said that once you take filet mignon and grind it up into hamburger, you can never find a chef that will make it taste like filet again.”

Putting those digital samples back together in a truly musical way has been the challenge since the format’s inception. But although we now know that truly perfect sound is impossible, vastly improved CD sound is finally becoming a reality, thanks to developments in several areas ranging from revising the format itself—such as the massively large sampling rate of DSD/SACD—to advancements in the electronics used to convert analog musical waveforms into the digital realm, or just improving the cabling utilized in the mastering studio. With 30 years to study the problems, engineers have actually been able to produce CDs that possess many of the qualities of good analog; perhaps not all, but certainly closer than the irritating screechiness of early digital discs.

This was brought to my attention in a dramatic way in the midst of my research for the analog column mentioned earlier. I’d just received a copy of the recent reissue of The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings of Monk and Coltrane. I was startled by the totally lifelike sound of the music, very unlike, and far superior to, even the old ’70s-era Milestone LP reissues I had of these sessions. I found it to be far more analog-sounding than most any other CD I owned and found myself paying more attention to Monk and Trane than to my research—a sure sign that the music was communicating the way it should, but so rarely does, via the average compact disc. There was far more resolution, far more definition of the “shape” of individual instruments—nicely rounded as opposed to edgy and grating. Timbres were spot-on accurate and each instrument occupied a well-sculpted space in the imaginary soundstage instead of making up part of a smeared image. The whole thing was 1,000 percent better than any other version I’d heard of this music: engaging, lush and—without any artificial coloration—totally musical. I really had a hard time believing I was listening to a CD; the difference was that shocking.

I had to have more, so I contacted the Concord Music Group, current owner of the vast Fantasy jazz catalog, and requested other samples of this new batch of remastered masterpieces. Turns out most of these new discs, including the The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions from Miles, Coltrane’s Fearless Leader and Interplay boxes, Sonny Stitt’s Stitt’s Bits: Bebop Recordings 1949-1952 and the entire Orrin Keepnews Collection reissues, were remastered by Joe Tarantino, a 23-year vet of the Fantasy studio crew, now working as a freelancer, but still the primary wizard behind Fantasy’s jazz reissues. Even if you already own the material in the reissues just mentioned, you owe it to yourself to try these new reissues. The music comes through as never before. Oh, and this music is classic, legendary stuff that all jazz fans should own regardless.

So why were early CDs so bad to begin with? What were the basic problems? Well, Shawn Britton, a remastering wiz at Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, puts it this way: “Some of the weaknesses were basically due to the size of the disc they chose, coupled with the pit density capacity of the era when digital began. Red Book CDs have a mathematical limitation in their sample rate. Simply put, they lack resolution. Some of the complaints about the sound of early CD releases can also be attributed to the quality of the analog-to-digital converters in use at the time. Another major factor was that many record companies at the time, unfortunately, made no effort to find original master tapes from which to make transfers.”

Tarantino himself also lays much of the blame on the inferior quality of the A-D converters of those early years, “Those A to D converters were not a tenth as good as what we have today. There was a lot of error correction, and some nasty distortion occurred during low-level passages.”

Todd Garfinkle, of M.A. Recordings, based in Tokyo, agrees with all of the above. “The early releases were recorded using analog-to-digital conversion that was less than satisfactory for music lovers who could tell the difference between the analog sound they were used to and what was happening at the time. The basic problem was, and still is to some degree, the sampling rate, the digital filtration and dithering.”

And today? What is that Tarantino did to make Monk and Trane come alive? “We went back to the original master tapes, in many cases, for the first time for a CD issue,” he says. “But there were no test tones on the tapes of those days, so I had to pay special attention to getting tape head alignment just perfect—ear-balling it, if you will—doing it correctly in order to make sure the playback of those original tapes was as close to perfect as possible. As far as any processing, I didn’t want to alter the sound of the original, so I EQ’d as little as I could, enough to make the music sound good, but not much so as to maintain the original integrity of the recording. I am very pleased with the way everything has turned out, sonically speaking. Today’s A to D converters are so much better. Also, we’re doing 24-bit masters with converters that have none of the brittleness of those older units.

“Another important part of the improved process is the way we send the finished product to the pressing plant, the masters we send. In the old days we used to send U-matic tapes, and there used to be error correction going on all the time during the mastering, actually two levels of error correction which degraded the sound. Now we send data files which are rock solid, and include no error correction, which makes a big difference.” Joe, whatever you are doing, keep it up, and keep it up all the way through that massive Fantasy catalog, but start with the Dolphys, the Mingus sides, the rest of the Monks, Miles and Trane sessions. Then the choices are yours! Amazing stuff.

Nick Phillips, vice president of jazz and catalog A&R with the Concord Group, echoes Tarantino’s thoughts. “Regarding remastering, one of the main premises in our Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series and our Keepnews Collection series is that these reissues start with the original analog master tapes. For both of these series, the masters are transferred to digital at 24-bit resolution and remastered. Rudy Van Gelder, of course, does the remastering for our Rudy Van Gelder series of reissues, while Joe Tarantino does the remastering for our Keepnews Collection series and other titles.”

Phillips elaborates: “The sound of standard Red Book CDs has improved in recent years due to better A-to-D converters, the ability to transfer, or record, at higher-resolution digital, whether it’s 24-bit PCM or DSD [Direct Stream Digital], plus there are better D-to-A converters available to the consumer today when it comes to playback. All of these things add up for nicely improved sound in the standard Red Book CD format today, so much better compared to when digital was a fledgling technology.”

Mobile Fidelity takes a similar approach, according to Britton. “The bulk of our current business is remastering. Of course, as the bar across the top of our products states, we obtain the original master tapes to create our products. We archive our digital projects in the Direct Stream Digital format, which uses 1-bit Delta-Sigma modulation and a sample rate of 2.8 Megahertz in contrast to the CD Red Book specification of 44.1 KHz sample rate. For CD audio, we then decimate down to the CD sample rate and word length. Technology has significantly improved in both A-D and D-A converters over the last 20 years, but I believe that we have nearly reached the maximum capability of CD sound in terms of sample rate and word-length.”

So what do these engineers aim for in the final product? Britton describes MFSL’s approach: “We strive to maintain a natural tone when remastering so as not to force a certain sound of our own onto a popular recording. For example, on Miles Davis’ Steamin’, I worked to keep his horn sounding as though he was standing in front of the listener. Being a professional musician, familiar with the actual sound of instruments, helps considerably. Also, having engineers with on-location live recording and with live sound reinforcement is a plus as when we are doing this work. It helps as a reference for what real, live instruments sound like.”

A good example of MoFi’s recent work is the delightful sound on a new Art Pepper hybrid SACD reissue. Engineer Rob LoVerde describes the project: “Art Pepper’s The Way It Was was a 1972 compilation of several sessions dating from 1956, ’57 and 1960. Roy DuNann, a highly talented and well-respected recording engineer, was the man who captured these amazing performances on tape. We started with the original stereo master tapes, as we always do, and, interestingly, the recordings from the 1956 session must surely be some of the earliest stereo recordings ever made. Anyway, other releases of this great album have used certain sonic manipulations like summing the lowest bass frequencies to the center to aid in lacquer cutting, or adding echo to the original CD version for reasons unknown, all of which we decided not to repeat. Our version is an exact replication of the sound of the master tapes. We expect that fans of this album will enjoy the high level of authenticity we’ve treated this album to. We think it sounds fantastic.”

On the technical side, many of today’s best mastering and remastering labs trick out their gear to get the nth degree of sound quality out of those treasured old tapes, or today’s new hits: everything from the cables used to modifying the tape machines and various converters. Joe Harley, VP at AudioQuest, a leader in supplying cable for pro and consumer use, and a consultant to JVC’s XRCD series, as well as one of the movers behind the lauded Music Matters Blue Note LP reissue series, says this about wire and CD quality in general: “Pro audio and studio guys all think wire is wire. Kevin Gray at the AcousTech mastering lab was of that same mindset. But I recently rewired his studio. We did a small bit of it, and once he realized what a difference it made, he couldn’t get enough throughout his system and kept hounding me to get the entire place redone! Better cabling really does make a big difference. We heard tremendous jumps in quality when remastering the second batch of Blue Note LPs, after the rewire. Kevin really dug it and the sound was noticeably better.”

He then goes on to comment on CD production: “Many factors go together to affect the final quality of the CD. With XRCDs, we master in real time, but what can take a great master down is the replication. The formulation of the disc you use can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, the bean counters want to know how cheap and how fast you can replicate the final product, and this has driven quality down.”

What does the future hold? Sony’s Direct Stream Digital seemed to be a contender for a while in the form of the SACD, but Sony itself seems to have lost interest in that format, though others continue to hold a torch, including Concord’s Telarc label. The increased sampling rate certainly makes the sound much more natural, much less digital.

Shawn Britton elaborates: “Direct Stream Digital is very close to the sound of analog, but high sample-rate and long word length PCM [more traditional digital] comes in a close second. The technology is there; we just need consumer demand. People are just now realizing that their iPods with inexpensive earbuds do not sound good and are beginning to question the wisdom of carrying around thousands of songs that just sound like crap.”

Garfinkle of M.A. reiterates some common themes. “Newer CDs sound better in part because filtration has improved,” he says. “Sampling rates, at least for the recording of master material, has improved up to 192Khz for PCM and 5.6 MHz for DSD. DSD at 5.6 MHz is something unbelievable and should find its way into the rooms of serious audiophiles, hopefully with BlueRay or some similar HD disc format. Of course the hardware companies have to agree on a single format for this to be successful.”

Garfinkle is referencing a sampling rate, 5.6 MHz, as yet largely unused by music purveyors. Since 2.4 MHz DSD (SACDs) was a revelation, one can only imagine how much better a sampling rate more than double that might make Metheny, Scofield or Frisell’s guitars sound. Not to mention Rollins’ tenor, Bill Evans’ piano or Elvin’s traps.

Of course, a higher sampling rate would most markedly affect new recordings, not reissues, as would proper attention to mic placement, improved studio cabling and so on. Garfinkle’s minimalist, two-mic approach has produced some of the most sonically satisfying discs of the last couple of decades, and he does the whole dog-and-pony show himself, choosing the musicians, the recording space and the equipment. He says, “The process gels when the following are present: a good-sounding space, great musicians and recording equipment that does not color the sound. This includes my two microphones that are DC [battery]-powered microphones equipped with the same diaphragms used on the famous Bruel & Kjaer 4006 microphone from Denmark. The high-output, line-level audio signals of these mikes are presently fed thru Crystal Cable’s Ultra Cable directly into an A-D converter or, even more recently, the Korg MR-1000 5.6 MHz recorder, which also works on pure DC power. So I am totally battery-powered now when I record!”

Regarding balancing his final sound, something he can only control by careful placement of each player in the recording venue, Garfinkle says, “Yes, this balance is important and it all depends on myself and how I hear things and how the musicians are willing to work with me in order to take home a recording we can all be proud of.”

CDs may or may not ever surpass the easy musicality of the supposedly obsolete LP. But the future is much brighter than it seemed even a few short years ago. Even as the media continue to shout about the death of the CD, the format’s sonics skyrocket in quality and consumer CD players make unbelievable strides in their ability to make amazing music, all repeating the “plight” of the lowly LP, which not only refuses to die, but seems to be thriving. Just about any and all record companies can now make wonderful-sounding CD product to enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of the music we all love, even those of us without a 12-inch turntable. Now, if they only would.

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