"The Digital Disaster", Music Connection, October Mid 1980's

I wrote this piece in October of 1983 or 4 for the Los Angeles-based music magazine Music Connection. Note the disclaimer at the top. It was controversial! Note also that I named names.

Note also that I also correctly predicted the future when I wrote back then:

"Compact discs are not the future. They don't sound better than records and soon very few people will still have CD players."

The only mistake there was the word "soon". It took 30 years but today I can confidently state that "soon, very few people will still have CD players."

Also note: any resemblance between me at that time and Garry Shandling is purely coincidental.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Joe Crowe's picture

Digital recording and playback has advanced at an unbelievable rate recently, immediately following the admission by the digital giants that digital recording was far from perfect or even acceptable. They lied for nearly 30 years and the public bought it. Now that we are making progress many in the blogosphere are arguing strenuously for the preservation of 44.1/16 and claiming the only benefit of higher sampling and bit rates is frequency response beyond human hearing. They have been given a chance to move forward and are fighting to move back. To summarize the life of the late HP and paraphrase Dave van Ronk, just listen to the record goddammit.

recordhead's picture

or Frankie Avalon?

AnalogJ's picture

The description of MF as a "writer/comedian" almost unintentionally sounds dismissive.

Anyway, quite prescient.

Relatedly, I saw an interview of William Friedkin about the recent BluRay and DVD restoration of his 1978 film Sorcerer (a really good film). Friedkin states that it's good that it's only currently available in digital formats. Digital is the best medium, he suggests. No scratchy film prints. He then suggests the same for compact discs. They're forever. LPs can get scratched. How 'bout that?!

Joe Crowe's picture

One of the many lies the Sony/Phillips/"bought off audio press" promulgated was that CDs were "forever". Not true as many have found out and unlike LPs scratched CDs are often your newest beer coaster. More importantly 96/24 and future superior formats on DVD, Blu-Ray, or hard drive are at least as durable as CDs.

tnargs's picture

There is so much unkind sentiment towards CD here.... it wouldn't hurt to be a little more generous. Kept in cool and dry conditions, the five per cent failure rate for commercial CDs (one in 20 discs losing *any* data) is hundreds and hundreds of years. That's more than enough.

Joe Crowe's picture

Please don't read this an insult but you must be quite new to the world of high end audio if you ask why the unkind sentiment towards CDs. They do hold up tolerably well for long term data storage although somewhat limited in capacity but this forum primarily deals with music related topics.

tnargs's picture

I'm certainly not new to audio, but nice to see you have reversed your first statement on CD longevity. Your statement about beer coasters shows you don't know what the 'perfect forever' statement was about: multiple playback without degradation. To say it is about CDs lasting forever is either 'not in audio long enough', or straw man mud-throwing, on your behalf (along with the three quarters of people who make the same claim -- you are not alone -- including William Friedkin it seems). Don't take it as an insult BTW.

Anyway, this is analog planet so let's move on.

RobWynn's picture

Yes, the CD turned out not to be the future but not because the masses returned to LPs. While some are holding to their LPs, or returning to them, the vast majority have opted for a more grainy photo of the analog wave… MP3s and lo-fi streaming services.

This development reminds of Marx's Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League of 1850, which I will paraphrase with [CAPS]:

"... the rule of the [CD], from the very first, will carry within it the seeds of its own destruction, and its subsequent displacement by the [MP3/FILE] will be made considerably easier.."

The overall trend is toward convenience, not quality. However, there is hope in that if hi-rez becomes the standard it will be better than what the proletariat, er masses, currently consume.

Martin's picture

It's really interesting that you used stop making sense as the example.
I remember well in the early eighties listening to this and I just couldnt understand why I could not listen to whole thing. It made me nervous, edgy, distracted, it was tiring ti listen to. I could cope with anfew tracks at a time, but no more.
I only found out much, much later what the problem was.

Joe Crowe's picture

Anybody know what the recording format was for the audio master of SMS? I have never heard the CD but I have the movie on DVD and the soundtrack on LP. I don't remember having any particular issues with the sound. It may be that I love the music so much I am glossing over shortcomings in my mind. Haven't actually listened to the vinyl in a very long time, maybe I should drag it out and compare to some of the earlier Heads recordings.

Michael Fremer's picture
For some reason the DVD listening experience was far more pleasant than the LP or CD listening experience. I suspect that with the visual presentation has something to do with it.
Joe Crowe's picture

No doubt as a picture is worth a thousand bits :)

AQ Shane's picture

Just my two cents, but SMS is a record I take on the road with me and play for dealers and their customers and it blows people's minds. I'm frequently asked if my copy is a reissue or a premium release because it sounds so good that people can't believe it's just the original $8 LP release. I cant' explain why LPs cut from digital sources can sound terrific, let alone ones from digital's darkest earliest days. But I do often hear great sound from digitally-sourced LPs, and in comparisons have even preferred digitally-sourced LPs to their high-res file counterparts played back on SOTA digital gear. I know I'm a weirdo ... but it's true.

AQ Shane's picture

AAA is the grail. But it's not the singular path to great sounding records IMO.

Michael Fremer's picture
Well AQ Shane, in whose sonic tastes I trust, I have to say I've not played that record in years—probably since it made my ears sizzle way back when. Perhaps my system had to catch up to it? You are forcing me to play it again.
AQ Shane's picture

even if you thinking I'm smoking audio crack on this one.

AQ Shane's picture

I don't like sticking up for digital. AAA is the way I wish all things were, but I hear what I hear and try not to be dogmatic about it.

MikeT's picture

LOL. I am saying why is a picture of Mike Bloomfield on an entry that says Compact Discs Sound Terrible.

momarty's picture

That flashback of your article from the eighties really made my day. Your single voice then, and even now can be aptly characterized as "one crying in the wilderness". Well, brother, I heard you then, and I hear you now. I applaud your continued passion, perseverance, and unfeigned desire to teach and educate the masses as to what really matters in this hobby of which we care so much. I just wanted to thank you for helping me to gain a lot of the information I needed to help me enjoy "my music," in "my space". And I see you are still "on the case".

Not too long ago you turned me on to Mehemet Sanlikol's, " What's Next" by way of the sampled uploads included in that phono drive shoot out survey you conducted. By the way , I was with you on the "Creek" coming in second place. But that does not come close to what you enabled me to experience from your upload of Lyn Stanley performing "Too Close For Comfort". An Orbit U-Turn table and a Shure 97Xe cartridge? Really?? Michael, you clearly demonstrated that a very decent analog front end need not be expensive at all (table and cartridge under $300 US) and not only that, but that a well produced analog signal can be processed, stored for convenient retrieval and played back with little or no degradation to the original signal. This you shared with your readers, not only by writing about it, but by uploading a music file whereby we could hear and judge for ourselves. Brother, "you're ahead of you're time". I don't know of another reviewer (of a major publication) that is doing what you are doing.

All I can say is that what I heard in my little room, on my system, Miss Stanley et al sounded wonderfully balanced, focused and "fleshed out". And I would hold to this belief, that the quality of the sound which I was able to hear is due in no small measure to the efforts of you and others who were fearlessly steadfast in decrying that the CD was not even close to being "perfect sound forever" and that the efforts of the major players promoting it were creating " a state of rottenness " within the consumer electronics industry. This is just my recollection of the opinion I held concerning those things "back in the day".

So here we are now thirty plus years after the fact. Today, as it pertains to what I call "high fidelity" music, analog playback is still the standard. And that standard has been held up and maintained by you and others who have preached the gospel of " how does it sound". I find it quite ironic that you are essentially preaching the same gospel of analog supremacy but by using all kinds of digital tools to proclaim it. "Home slice" ( brother who is making all the bread now), you are indeed "keeping it fresh."

I would like to "keep it fresh" also. In other words, "I want to be like Mike". Your upload of Miss Stanley sounded exceptionally well on my humble system. I know you used the Orbit/Shure combo, but you did not say what phono drive you used; or what analog to digital converter you used; or what software program you used to make the digital file. My intention is, for whatever time I have left, to go through my album collection and transfer all my favorite songs to high resolution digital files.

Michael, thank you so much for all your good work. Your're beautiful, man.

drbrowning's picture

In the later half of the 1980's the CD was becoming the big deal and I got rid of my turntable and got a CD player and bought most of my library over again on CD. Part of the reason I bought into the lie was because I could not afford good equipment to play my records on. Your average teen working at McDonald's is not going to be able to afford a good system. So I did what most teenagers did back then was to listen to cassette tapes and radio. Well of course, you know what happens after that, the CD is going to sound like heaven and so I fell for it. Now I am buying titles over again on vinyl that I had back in the 1980's and 1970's and I am blown away by the 3D soundstage that is realistic and has depth to it. I go to a CD of the same title and it is like there is a veil over the music and the 3 dimensional soundstage is not as pronounced. Vinyl is a much better listening experience!!

Catcher10's picture

I have only had 2 CD players since 1985. My first one was a Sony CDP-302 deck bought new in '85ish. Paid like $500 for it...sheesh! And it lasted till about 2010. With raising a family, I stopped buying vinyl and really music listening became difficult, save for cassettes in my car, that is what I listened to for probably 15yrs.
CDs were cool and sounded good, real good for me during the 90s, the little I listened, again due to raising a family.

Fast forward to 2005 when I started back into music and pulled out the turntable, and also started listening to all my CDs. I learned quickly about fatigue and harshness.
The Sony then died....2012 I bought a NAD C545BEE CDP, my 2nd player...Certainly sounds much, much better than the Sony and not as clinical, more analogueee :)

But still for me there is no comparison, for most of my vinyl, with CDs.

I do like digital recording at 24bit, almost all the vinyl I have bought where I know were created from a 24bit digital master sounds amazing...blows the redbook CD version out of the water. The only "new" CDs I own are ones where the record company includes in a vinyl package, I am not buying CDs on purpose.

The recent LZ reissues are perfect examples of what 24bit digital masters can do on a vinyl rig.

My only recent AAA vinyl I have bought is Jack White Lazaretto, which IMO is very bad sounding. I could be wrong on the AAA, but I understood it was almost all done in analog, no digital...its still bad sounding.

and I have zero desire to enter the SACD/DSD arena, I bet its amazing, but pretty much nothing I listen to is available in these formats...I am 50yrs old and have no desire to start over buying my collection again, vinyl is my death media.

With cables, cartridge and phono stage I have about $3700 into my analog rig, any extra money goes towards my TT and vinyl. That is where I will be hanging my hat till I die.....

Nice article and forcasting MF....

Paul Boudreau's picture

I have to ask - what did the rest of the license plate say & what car was it on?

mapleglo330's picture

Just a guess.

Michael Fremer's picture
The license plate reads "BMWS UGH" and the car was my 1972 Saab 96
Paul Boudreau's picture

My favorite car of all was a 1972 BMW 2002. Bought new by my Dad in that year.

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes it was a great car. I have a friend with a 1974 Tii she's looking to sell. My problem wasn't with the car, it was with the drivers! They were smug and arrogant. They had "running lights" but not aimed at the road. They were aimed in the rear view mirror of the driver in front so they'd know a dimmer was behind....(etc.)
Paul Boudreau's picture

had that happen but I know what you mean about the arrogance. The stupid "ultimate driving machine" ad campaigns didn't help either although I think those came later. Back when I had the '02 at school in NY State ('73-'75), BMWs were so scarce that we used to blink lights at each other. Too bad rust never sleeps or I might still have the second one (a '73 tii I bought in '94).

Michael Fremer's picture
Saab drivers back then blinked lights too. In 2006 before buying a Saab 9-3 Turbo-X I decided to go to the BMW dealer down the block from the Saab dealer. I walked in and was treated dismissively by the greasy haired, cigar chomping, pinky ring wearing salesperson as if he couldn't be bothered trying to sell me a car. When I persisted and asked to test drive a 6 speed manual I was told they don't stock them! Only on special order. "Ultimate Driving Machine" and no manual in stock? What a joke. I went back to the Saab dealer and bought the Turbo-X and glad I did. Haldex cross wheel drive, 300+ HP, really great seats, and it's a limited edition (only 500 brought into U.S.) that's held it's value despite Saab's demise. Parts are available and I'm keeping it at least a decade. I kept my first Saab 20 years!
volvic's picture

I have two Bimmers and they will be my last BMW purchases as I agree Bimmer drivers are mostly wankers and their lights even blind me when I am driving, part of me hates being associated with such a group of drivers. Need something more understated like a Subaru. Will never buy a GM car as what they did to SAAB is shameful in my opinion, such an iconic brand now gone (hopefully not for too long, as I hear it is being resurrected). Ok now let's talk analog and music.

drbrowning's picture

It is very hard to convince the skeptics. When I talk about the extra 3 dimensional depth that is in vinyl and the realistic presence of the soundstage they just laugh at me an think I am crazy, because all they remember of records is the "snap, crackle & pop". I remember in my early days that I got very tired of the inner groove distortion towards the end of the record. I didn't know very much about how to set up my cartridge as I do now, but I just lived with the distortion for years, and thought that was just part of the package and the imperfections that came with phonograph records. Little did I know that it was just a few minor adjustments on cartridge setup that I was able to eliminate the distortion. I can still get some distortion from a very worn record, but over half the distortion that I was hearing was from poor cartridge setup.

volvic's picture

Thinking of buying a CD player and following the early trend till I went into my local Linn dealer who played the same violin concerto recording on CD and vinyl. He said listen to the vinyl through vinyl how it sings and how it doesn't through CD. I heard it and right there dropped my idea of buying a CD player, read Fremer's article and confirmed my route of purchasing an Oracle and Linn turntable, grabbed all the vinyl all the poor sods were selling off that as a poor student with the little cash I had left could afford and never looked back. My first CD purchase (used) was in 2000 as I knew their time was up and prices were beginning to fall, I have amassed over 4000 of those little silver discs and while machines have improved the switch to computer audio has convinced me that the weaknesses were not in those silver discs but the machines that played them. So I am going to anger a lot of people here on this site and say that 16 bit is just enough for me through the computer but that analog is still, next to my son wife and parents, my biggest joy in life.

David Andrews's picture

The only good thing to come out of the Compact Disc "revolution" was all the reissuing of obscure material and neglected musicians that would not have seen release within the limits of the LP format and economy.

Daniel Emerson's picture

Without CD and the whole reissue industry it enabled, there are so many bands and artists I would never have discovered.

While my early experiences with CD were hugely underwhelming, things have improved over the years. I still love my LPs, but have come to love digital too.

aboogaard's picture

The fact is that CD playback was bad at the time this article was written. Most used a singe 14 bit, later 16 bit DAC with huge amounts of phase angle error. In 1987 when I started to investigate CD players, I listened to a $700 Nakamichi with a single DAC multiplexed for two channels. I sounded so flat with little or no image at all. At the time, Phillips knew the single DAC was a bad idea. 14 bit duel DACs were all that was available, so they used them instead of 16 bit single DACs. The Phillips delivered limited frequency response, but at least they sounded smoother and had a descent image. Plus when Phillips did develop the 16 bit duel DAC, the players were relatively inexpensive, between $200 and $350, and blow the Nakamichis out of the pond for sound quality.

Now DACs have been refined enough that a CD does sometimes sound as good, or better than the same recording on vinyl. However, not always. Records have always been subject to the expertise of the lathe operator and the pressing plant. For instance, I've had three LP copies of "War Of The Worlds" by Jeff Wayne. The best copy was a Columbia half speed remaster that still had terrible sibilance reproduction and a rather harsh sound. Then came the CD and all was well, or at least the best of any. Also, the last copy of any CD is exactly the same as the first one. No so with LPs. They loose a little bit of something when your doing 1000 or so pressings of the same stamper.

All that said, I just tuned up my Harman Kardon T-60 TT and installed an Ortofon 2M Bronze and couldn't be happier. Using a good cleaning regimen combining Disk Doctor and Mobile Fidelity cleaning products, I have revived some old vinyl I thought I would never listen to again. And in some instances, the LP sounds better than the same recording on CD. Just not always.

By the way, FLAC files masted to at least 24/96 from the likes of HDtracks.com are compressed, but the data can be fully recovered and, to my knowledge, restored to an exact replica of the original analog signal.

Long Live Music In What Ever Format Sounds The Best.

cooker's picture

So even your half speed mastered version of War of the Worlds didn't sound as good as the CD?
I just bought a copy of a mint sealed version of that Columbia half speed mastered LP and am wondering if it was a waste of $$$ seeing as I already have the CD as well.
I bought the half speed mastered vinyl version of War of the Worlds thinking it would be better then the CD.