From an Analog Corner to an Analog Planet!
It’s a nerdy question, but do you remember where you were when you heard your first Compact Disc? For me it was at a Los Angeles Audio Engineering Society convention in 1982.
I’m neither a recording engineer nor an AES member. My invitation was courtesy the head of the sound department at Walt Disney, where I was then supervising the soundtrack to the movie TRON.”
The convention was where I believe the compact disc had its American debut using what I remember as a nearly washing machine-sized non-commercial player and a one-off digital transfer of Roxy Music’s Avalon—one of my favorite albums then and now.
I knew every tiny percussive nook and cranny and where every element fit into three dimensional space on the original Bob Ludwig mastered Warner Brothers pressing and on the even more spacious and dynamic sounding Japanese Polydor edition. A later acquisition, the original UK EG edition (EGHP50) marketed by Polydor, sounds best.
All of these editions clearly sounded better than that non-commercial CD, which sounded terrible by any quality standard of reproduced sound. I once described the sound I heard at that event as doing to music what Krypton’s justice system did to criminals before spinning them off into outer space—pressing them flat between sheets of glass.
Another time I wrote that digital preserves music the way formaldehyde preserves frogs: you kill it and then it lasts forever, except as we came to find out CDs hardly last forever, physically or conceptually.
Some say the CD’s days are numbered. Can there be a better expression to describe the extinction of an ill-conceived format where music is stored on a spinning disc as 0s and 1s represented physically by plateaus and pits etched into plastic? In other words the CD is really an “analog” format!
Yes, this is cranky talk in most of the world but that’s hardly my concern, or yours obviously, if you’ve read this far. Just as most people can enjoy a PB&J sandwich while others choke to death inhaling just the smell of peanuts, some people obviously do enjoy listening to digitally reproduced music while others are left gasping for air.
Though admittedly digital sound has gotten better through decades of improvements, I choked on it back then. Today the best I can do is show respect for some CDs and especially for files of 96/24 bit resolution and higher, by calling them “listenable” and “enjoyable”—as listenable and enjoyable as vinyl?
No. Not for me and not for a lot of music lovers—including many engineers who know what their recordings are supposed to sound like and who prefer vinyl, despite its well-known flaws—as if digital doesn’t have its share, currently measurable or not.
My first brush with digital recording occurred a few years before that AES when in 1979 Warner Brothers issued Ry Cooder’s Bop ‘Til You Drop advertising it as the “first digitally recorded rock album” (using 3M’s 50kHz/16 bit 32 track tape recorder).
From everything I’d read up until that point, my expectations led me believe this was going to be sonically incredible: the recording had no noise, no hiss, no wow and flutter and ultra-wide dynamic range. Certainly, if this could sound better than the sonically stupendousJazz issued a year earlier, it would be amazing!
On the morning of its release I stood in front of Licorice Pizza on Wilshire Blvd. waiting for the store to open. I bought a copy and put it on the passenger seat like a cheap date. I drove home adrenalin literally pumping.
I placed the record on the turntable, lowered the stylus and what I heard exceeded my every expectation, only in the opposite direction. Not only did it sound unusual, almost other-worldly and unlike music as I knew it live or on record, but almost as soon as it started I began feeling disoriented and worse.
With each drum hit, dread, confusion and even a feeling of oppression replaced my adrenalin fueled upbeat anticipation as the first track played on. I’d never before felt anything like it listening to music. The drums didn’t sound real. Nothing sounded real. I couldn’t recognize the sound of familiar instruments. I knew what they were but they sounded different, almost synthesized.
Instead of putting me in a groove, the beats felt off-kilter, like pile drivers slamming down on my head, each beat pressing me lower while consuming some of the oxygen in the room. Nothing computed as music—at least as I’d come to understand the experience of listening to recorded music.
I wish I could say I’m being hyper-dramatic here, but I’m not! I called some engineers I knew and thus the great and ongoing excuses began: “Well, what you’re hearing is that the cutting lathe doesn’t like the wide dynamic range and overall accuracy. You’ll have to wait until we have a ‘pure’ digital format to really hear how good digital recording really sounds.”
I bit. I waited. And then came Avalon at the AES! I wasn’t concerned listening to this sonic awfulness standing in the room surrounded by recording engineers.
Everyone would hear how bad it sounded and chalk it up to a new technology that was clearly in need of further development, but it was a start and an exciting one at that. Incredibly, at the conclusion of the ear-bleeding demo the engineers all around me were excitedly saying things like this was the greatest sound they’d ever heard. That was the moment when I knew we were (expletive deleted)!
How could what clearly and obviously sounded bad be declared good? What I’d heard struck me as bordering on defective. The sound was hard, glazed, two dimensional and lacking in detail. It was a caricature of an album I knew so well. Since when did Bryan Ferry have a lisp?
Were the AES attendees swept away by the sexiness of the laser-read technology? Maybe they were concentrating on what was not there as in no wow, no flutter and no hiss. There was also no music so they couldn’t have been reacting to that! Okay that’s being harsh but it’s a fairly accurate harsh.
How many times have you gotten to know an album on CD and then after hearing the vinyl for the first time said to yourself “Now, finally I understand what that music means?”
How many times after having repeatedly seen the CD cover art have you been confronted by the 12 X 12 album cover and gone “Oh, that’s what the cover is!”
If your answer to those two questions is “never,” I’m not sure why you’re still reading this, but don’t let that stop you!
Walking out of that AES convention afterward, I felt like Kevin McCarthy at the end of the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as in “They’re coming! They’re coming”! I was equally agitated and alarmed, and that’s not hyperbole. I literally shook! “How can this be happening!” I said to myself because even though this was a small demonstration in an obscure setting, what was going to happen was clear.
The next day I went to a store that custom made bumper stickers, had one printed that said “Compact Discs Sound Terrible” and slapped it on my car even though most motorists back then had no idea what a compact disc was! At least I was in L.A. the center of the music business, where at least a few would know.
Thanks to my friend Bud Scoppa who was then the editor, I began writing in L.A.’s Music Connection magazine about the looming digital disaster. I’m sure I sounded nearly hysterical because most readers had yet to see a compact disc, no less hear one. But I saw clearly what was about to happen.
Soon thereafter commercial CDs appeared along with relentless mainstream media “time to throw away those old scratchy records and replace them with perfection” hype .
In major studios digital recorders began replacing tape. The record bins slowly disappeared at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip to make way for trays filled with long-boxed CDs. The changeover’s rapidity was alarming—despite my one man campaign to the try and stop it.
When The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial extolling the CDs’ virtues I wrote a letter that was published saying “I trust your editorial writer knows more about arms control and economics than he or she does about high fidelity….yes they are quiet, convenient and won’t wear out, but they also sound hard, harsh, edgy, pinched, constricted, two dimensional, bright and generally unbearable after only a few minutes of careful listening….”—as if that was going to change any minds or stop “progress.”
Over at Aaron’s Records on Melrose a tall glass cabinet appeared containing the few CDs that were then available. It resembled the Ark in which Jews keep the Torah at a temple.
Smug digiphiles carrying stacks of records would enter, drop them on the counter with a purposeful thud and be ushered to “The Ark” by a store clerk who would unlock it so the customer could shuffle through the slim pickings, discarding all but the “pure” digital discs labeled “DDD”.
Never mind that because at the time there were no digital mixing boards so at each step in the process the signal had to be converted to analog and back to digital so these discs labeled “DDD” were anything but!
While this hilarious pseudo-religious ritual took place on theother side of the store, I’d be thumbing through the stacks of “discards” that included records I’d long lusted after but either couldn’t afford or couldn’t find! A few hours later they’d be out in the “New Arrivals” bin for a few bucks a piece!
That was the upside of the decade long debacle during which time I kept asking myself “How could this be happening?” How could people discard sonic and packaging greatness for bad sounding polycarbonate swill? They could call the cold generic packaging a “jewel case,” but “plastic sack of hinged crap” was more accurate.
A Billboard story about recording studio comings and goings explained that over at one major studio, the analog tape recorders were out and the new digital machines were in! The drool almost spilled from the page as the studio owner breathlessly extolled digital’s virtues while demonizing analog tape’s supposed shortcomings. Like the digital recordings themselves, what the studio owner was saying didn’t ring true.
A few paragraphs later the story explained that this studio owner had just been appointed regional distributor for the digital tape recorder manufacturer whose products he was extolling in his role as studio owner! That’s how this could be happening!
During the mid-80s I continued producing radio commercials and doing some writing, all the while buying other people’s vinyl cast-offs and hearing my treasured records sounding increasingly better thanks to turntable, cartridge and phono preamp upgrades.
In 1986 I began writing about vinyl for The Absolute Sound and shortly thereafter did a media tour for TDK showing people how to transfer their vinyl to cassette. I used every media opportunity, including an appearance on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel, to talk up vinyl—this at a time when it had already been declared dead. I didn’t give up.
When the first glimmers of a vinyl backlash reached the media in the early 1990s I was interviewed by MTV and my comments (along with those of Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and others) appeared in an MTV News story called “Analog or Digital”? that you can watch on YouTube here.
In 1994 I joined Stereophile and asked to write “Analog Corner” a monthly vinyl-centric column that the editor felt would last but a few years since vinyl was “going away.” Now, almost twenty years and more than two hundred columns later, vinyl is back! It’s neither a fad, nor an exercise in nostalgia. It’s once again a healthy, vibrant medium.
While the numbers aren’t exactly mainstream, the visibility is. Records and turntables are all over television shows and commercials and in the movies as the fans among writers, producers and set designers insert their vinyl enthusiasm into their work.
I’ve traveled all over the world doing turntable set up seminars at audio shows and wherever I go I’m greeted by vinyl lovers who share our enthusiasm for the format. Some try to tell me that I am responsible for the vinyl resurgence, but though flattering, it’s hardly true.
Credit should really go the people who put their money where there mouths were during vinyl’s darkest days—folks like Mike Hobson who started Classic Records along with Ying Tan now owner of the reissue label ORG. Also deserving credit is Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds and the late Herb Belkin who founded Mobile Fidelity in the 1970s and returned to vinyl with his own pressing plant in the 1990s. Let’s not forget Don Record Technology Incorporated’s Don MacInnis who kept RTI running during the “lean years”. And let’s not forget the Rap and Hip Hop community and indie labels like Sub Pop that stuck with vinyl when almost everyone else had given up.
But most of the credit for vinyl’s survival and resurgence has to go to the fans like you who kept the vinyl flame burning against unbelievable odds. The vinyl resurgence is among the most unlikely of technological stories of the 21st Century.
Far from being an exercise in nostalgia that critics claim it is, the vinyl revival is a testament to what’s good winning out over what’s convenient. There is most certainly something special about music reproduced on vinyl. New doesn’t necessarily equal better and that’s clearly the case with vinyl versus CD sound.
Had you told me in 1993 that in 2012 vinyl would make the strong comeback it now has and that young people would be releasing their new music on vinyl and that a young generation would be buying it and embracing the format, I wouldn’t have believed you.
I’d hoped only back then that those who loved vinyl would continue treasuring and supporting it so that the records would not be consigned to the dump. You can be sure plenty of great records ended up there during the late 1980s.
The hope back then was that at least a few struggling turntable, tonearm and cartridge manufacturers would survive so that replacements would be available.
No one suspected that a turntable manufacturer like Rega, founded in the pre-CD era, would sell more turntables in 2011 than ever ever in its history.
And believe me, never back then did I expect to be given the opportunity in 2012 to edit a website dedicated to vinyl and vinyl playback. For one thing, who knew what a website was back then!
So here we are, in the digitized world living on an increasingly AnalogPlanet! This website will cover all things analog from the music and records to the hardware.
The site is brand new now, but already we have more than a decade’s worth of content posted from musicangle.com and from The Tracking Angle, the print magazine that preceded it during the 1990s. Also already up are analog equipment reviews I and others have written that originally appeared in Stereophile and on Stereophile.com.
In addition, the more than two hundred “Analog Corner” columns appearing in Stereophile that have never appeared online will eventually be published here as well.
This site will provide sufficient space to incorporate subjects not possible to cover in Stereophile’s pages, including a detailed description of how to use a digital microscope to set stylus rake angle (SRA) and how to use a digital oscilloscope to correctly and accurately set azimuth as well as measure arm/cartridge resonant frequency.
If you are new to all of this and don’t know what SRA and azimuth are, stick around awhile and you soon will! Meanwhile, thanks to the generosity of Bonnier corporation we’ve gotten permission to publish, and for you to download a seminal article originally published in Audio Magazine back in 1981 explaining the importance of stylus rake angle and why an SRA of 92 degrees is nearly always the ideal setting. Please download and read it!
The most gratifying part of writing about vinyl and analog for Stereophile is meeting readers at shows and receiving email and written correspondence.
Over the twenty five plus years I’ve been doing this and imploring readers to buy a turntable and enjoy listening to records, I’ve never gotten an email or letter along the lines of “Dear Mikey: I took the plunge and bought a turntable. What a waste of money. Records sound terrible. You’re nuts.”
But I have gotten hundreds of letters and emails like the one you’re about to read that I received a few weeks ago, reproduced here with the writer’s permission. More than anything, it’s emails and letters like this that make this job so enjoyable:
By way of introduction, I'm a 51-year-old music nut who, thanks to you, feels like he's 17 again.
My uncle gave me a copy of Rubber Soul when I was 7, and I've been a fan of music ever since -- classic rock, Motown/Stax, Sinatra, blues. I was about to say I never got into jazz or classical, but perhaps a better way of saying it is that I haven't YET gotten into jazz or classical.
I had about 2,000 LPs in my collection by the time I was in my early 20s, which is about when CD's came on the scene. Like idiots before (and since), I dumped my vinyl and moved to "perfect sound, forever." And that was perfectly fine with me for 20 years or so, and I built up a collection of about 2,500 CD's. But then, in early 2003, I had to contemplate the prospect of leaving my CD's behind in storage as I took a job that would have me living out of a hotel room overseas for 12 months -- so I looked into this new-fangled MP3 thing, and an iPod. Like the moron I can be, I ripped all my CD's to a hard drive (in 128K MP3 format, no less!), and then … wait for it … DUMPED ALL MY CD's.
Over the next 8 years, that was fine for me. The nature of my profession requires me to be available to move around at virtually a moment's notice, so having my music on a hard drive and a couple of iPods was very convenient. Plus, I never had a serious hi-fi to listen through, so I wasn't really aware of the loss of sound quality.
But then last summer … last summer I decided it was time to upgrade the sound system. First step, new speakers. After just a little bit of research, and a couple of listening sessions, I purchased a set of Klipsch RF-7 II towers, and then added the RC-62 center and back, and RS-82 surrounds. I upgraded from a Sony A/V receiver to an Outlaw 7700 amp, an Integra DHC-80.2 pre-pro, a second-gen AppleTV, and an Oppo BDP-93. Everything was hooked up via HDMI, I was using Audssey XT32 in my oddly-shaped listening room, and to my (untrained) ears, the sound was a vast improvement over what I'd been listening to, when I listened at all. The result was, I began to rebuild my CD collection, and rip them in AIFF format to the external hard drive. So I did most of my listening -- which became a much larger part of my daily routine -- through the AppleTV.
But the salesman I'd dealt with at my local A/V dealer was clearly a fan of yours (if not a disciple), and lured me into a listening room armed with a Pro-Ject RM 5.1 SE and a copy of Tim Buckley's "Greetings from L.A.." It began to nag at me -- had I just spent more than $10,000 (a not insignificant sum for me) to build a system I found … lacking?
My greatest fear, as I contemplated adding a vinyl rig, of course, was how much it would cost me to rebuild a LP collection in this day and age. But I bit the bullet, purchased that Pro-Ject 5.1 SE and a matching Pro-Ject Tube Box II phono stage, and bought some used favorites at our local used vinyl dealer.
Mr. Fremer, you are the devil. And you are an angel at the same time.
God (and my banker, I guess) only knows how much I've spent in the last 8 months rebuilding the LP collection of my youth -- and adding to it. I'm up to about 2,500 LP's at this point, and they know me by my first name at SoundStageDirect and AcousticSounds. ElusiveDisc and MusicDirect also know me well. And when I walk into my local used vinyl dealer now, the proprietor leaves whatever customer he's with and makes a beeline for me, to ask me what he can help me find today. Even at $5 or $10 per LP, I can't walk out of that place without having dropped at least a Benjamin.
I've since upgraded again -- I'm running a Pro-Ject RM 10.1 with a Blackbird cart through a Parasound Halo JC-3. I've got a pair of Thiel CS2.4's on the way, and I anticipate that by year's end, I'll have added a Parasound Halo JC-2 with home theater bypass to the system, so I can bypass the circuitry inside the DHC-80.2 when I listen to my vinyl. Next year's big purchase will probably be the Parasound Halo JC-1 monoblocks, and when I move into a new house later next year, it'll be time to add the Thiel CS3.7's.
My clients know now they shouldn't bother to call me before 9 AM (a nice switch, I must say), because my morning routine begins with three sides of vinyl while I drink my coffee and go through all the accumulated overnight emails. And the night only ends after I've listened to at least another two sides of vinyl.
I don't really have a question for you (though I'd love to know if you think it'd be worth it to add a higher-quality speaker cable to my rig -- and if so, what would you recommend in the under-$1,000 area?). I just wanted you to know that your work in making sure vinyl didn't go the way of the dodo has made my life SO much more enjoyable than before that I felt the need to let you know.
I'm sad the MusicAngle (site) will be going away, but I'm happy for your move, and can't wait for the new site to be up and running.
And if you're ever in the area and looking for a free dinner and a conversation with an adherent please let me know. I'd consider it an honor to treat you, as a gesture of my great appreciation for the work you do.
With best regards,
PS -- I just started watching your "It's a Vinyl World, After All" DVD last night. You're quite the hoot!
Money can’t buy what's delivered when you receive correspondence like that!
So welcome to AnalogPlanet and please stay in touch! The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
-Michael Fremer editor, AnalogPlanet.com
PS: I know, the logo’s tonearm is backwards! But that’s the only way to turn it into the letter “L” so while we’re analog, we’re not that ANAL-og about it!