Monday, February 11, 2013

The 1980s “Digital Decade”: The Decade That Sound Quality Forgot?

Many innovations born during this time eventually made our present day hi-fi a relatively affordable hobby but were the 1980s truly the decade that the concept of sound quality was forgotten?

By: Ringo Bones

Back in the time – i.e. the late 1970s - when “experts” believe that the residual noise in a system with a 70 dB signal-to-noise ratio measurement is already inaudible to most humans, the birth pangs of the “digital decade” cried out a promise of perfect sound forever where all it did achieve was “consistent sound forever” digital master recordings were touted as the best thing since sliced bread. Back in 1980 – a digital recording system whose specifications are a “bit” less advanced than that of the one used in recording CDs by 1983 – were used to make hiss-free master tapes for later vinyl LP release, as in “digital vinyl LPs.

Strangely enough, the JVC DAS-90 digital recording system, whose specifications are a bit lower than that of the Redbook spec 16-Bit 44.1 KHz sampled digital later used by consumer electronic giants Sony and Philips to record and master their music for CD releases when 1983 came resulted in vinyl LP releases of mostly Classical recordings that have way better sound quality than CD. Back in 1995, an audio-buddy of mine upgraded his cartridge to a more expensive Transfiguration Spirit to find out what the digital audio artifacts of the JVC DAS-90 mastered digital recording sounds like. It was a Classical vinyl LP of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet from the American Nonesuch label. And he apparently only got a better sounding set-up as a result – as in a better quality analog sounding set-up. So is digitally recorded vinyl better than the Redbook spec CD? During the mid 1990s – such questions and actual side-by-side vinyl versus CD experimentations only add fuel to the fire to the digital versus analog debate.  

The mid 1980s was also the time when I started my first forays into serious hi-fi. Even the contemporary major releases of the time were full of hype about the benefits of digital audio recording and mastering. During the time, Sony 32-track open-reel digital recording machines and its attendant 32-track digital mixer and the 32-track digital mastering machine working at the Sony-Philips Redbook spec of 16-Bit 44.1-KHz sapling were probably the de rigueur of most major label releases. Well at least Judas Priest’s Turbo, Scorpions’ Love At First Sting, Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls and Heart’s Bad Animals were the albums that landed on the upper echelons of the Billboard Charts while being flogged as full digital recordings. And you know what – they are apparently indistinguishable from their 24-track analog mastered brethren when played on contemporary digital gear, well, apart form a slightly flattened dynamics due to the limitations of 16-bit digital.

 The main reason why in the pro studio world recording engineers chose analog over digital is that analog overloads gracefully while digital – especially of the lower-spec 16-Bit variety – tend to be very unforgiving when it “hits the red”. And the low sampling rate produces digital nasties that even heavy metal rock musicians and their attendant mixing and mastering engineers exposed to almost constant 120 dB SPL’s of mayhem can hear, its no contest that analog wins even at the very tail end of the 20th Century. Given the proliferation of 24-Bit 192-KHz sampled “improved digital”, know of any heavy metal musicians mastering their works on 24-Bit 192-KHz digital?