THE FAULTS OF RECORDING MEDIA

or

THERE IS NO SATISFACTORY, PRACTICAL MEANS OF REPRODUCING

SOUND

 1985 The Anstendig Institute

One hundred years after Edison's recording machine, there is still no ideal recording medium. The world has technology capable of producing a hydrogen bomb and missiles that have pin-point accuracy over thousands of miles, yet no available system of recording that can accurately record and playback sound is practical enough to be used by the general public. The systems that are accurate are so expensive, so technically complex, and so difficult to operate and transport that only professionals can use them.

Today, direct-to-disc records and 30 IPS (inch per second) wide-track tape recordings have the best sound-quality. Although both of these forms of recordings can accurately preserve the electronic signals that are fed into them, they have major drawbacks that make it impossible to consider them ideal. They both play for only short periods of time and the equipment is much too large and clumsy to be readily transported. Both also demand extraordinary measures in their upkeep and use. All 30 IPS tape-recorders are high quality machines made exclusively for professional usage and the same machine can be used both for recording and playback. But, with records, completely different systems are used for the recording and playback. Unfortunately, only the recording and record-cutting machines are of uniformly excellent quality. There is a lack of adequate precision in all but certain rare, prohibitively expensive record-players (turntable, tone-arm, and cartridge). Furthermore, if it is to be accurate, a record player demands excruciatingly painstaking setup and adjustment, and records themselves suffer greatly from scratches, dust, and other noise problems.

Direct-to-disc records, when recorded with extreme care and played back with the finest, correctly adjusted record-playing equipment, have the best sound quality that can presently be achieved. But even a slight misalignment of the phono-cartridge or tone arm or a small resonance in the turntable can ruin the sound and, at the moment, The Anstendig Institute knows of only one pickup cartridge, the Win Jewel Cartridge, that can retrieve enough of the sonic information to be called truly accurate. While direct-to-disc records represent the ultimate sonic quality that can currently be achieved when played on the finest equipment, most playback equipment is not able to reproduce all of the information on the records. Record-players (turntable, tone-arm, and cartridge) are the most problematic of all sound-reproducing components and only a miniscule number of record-players in existing sound-installations can retrieve all of the sonic information from the grooves. In fact, not only direct-to-disc records suffer from poor playback systems. Most reasonably well-made commercial records, even old ones, contain much more sonic information than can be retrieved by most sound systems.

30 IPS reel-to-reel tape recordings, when impeccably engineered using state-of-the-art tape machines such as the top-of-the-line Studer tape decks with custom-modified electronics, are very nearly equal to direct-to-disc in sound quality. But transferring the tape to records adds one step more than direct-to-disc to the sound-reproducing process and each successive step at least theoretically will degrade the sound somewhat. While the sound of the original master tape will be very close to direct-to-disc in sound quality, records or tapes made from that master will not match discs pressed directly from the direct-to-disc matrix. However, there are so many other possible variables (mike-placement, care in handling the duplication process, etc.), that, in actual practice, impeccably-made recordings using either 30 IPS tape or direct-to-disc are close enough in sound-quality to be considered essentially equal. The biggest differences will be due to how much care the engineer invests in the recording.

30 IPS reel-to-reel tape has other drawbacks. While it is able to run longer than the 20 to 25 minute side of a record, it can only do so by using enormous, difficult-to-handle and impossible-to-transport tape reels. And with large tape-reels, there is the great problem of tape misalignment and deformation, since the large reels that the tape comes on do not keep their shape well, are easily bent, and often scrape the edges of the tape, wrinkling them. This is a great problem even with commercially available 11 1/2 inch reels and it becomes worse with the larger reels that are necessary for 30 IPS recordings. Also, any slight imperfection in the parallelity of the tape reels and alignment of the machine will wind the tape unevenly on the take-up reel during the fast rewind and fast forward modes. Because of this problem, the tape has to be stored on the take-up reel and not rewound at high speed after playing. Therefore, the tape has first to be fast-wound onto the playing reel just before it is played. Besides the fact that the machines are large, unwieldy, and costly, an enormous investment in tape and in proper reels (the best are made of glass by Corning Glass) and in time is necessary, making this medium impractical for all but the highest-budgeted institutions.

Clearly, while high quality record-making and tape-recording systems can achieve excellent accuracy in preserving sonic information, the storage media (tapes and discs) and the playback equipment have many problems and pitfalls. Few people, if any, have ever heard all the information stored on those tapes and discs. Therefore, even though they are the best we have, records and tape recordings cannot be considered ultimately desirable solutions to the problem of reproducing sound.

All other recording media except the sound-tracks on hi-fi video recorders are deficient in the recording of the fine dynamic subtleties of sounds as they progress in time, i.e., the rise and fall in volume at the beginning and ending of sounds (the attack and release), the nuance, inflection, and the expression. These are the most important factors of sound, and the most intrinsic, since they are found only in sound.

Cassettes were originally invented for dictation and were never intended to record high-quality sound-sources (some claim that cassettes were actually not invented for dictation, but, rather, merely as a mid-fi recording medium, without the intention of ever trying to achieve true sonic accuracy). The tape-speed of 1 7/8 IPS for cassette tapes simply is not fast enough to preserve all of the subtle fluctuations in dynamics of real-life sound sources, especially in the higher frequencies, which cassettes are unable to reproduce with any accuracy. Manufacturers have gone to enormous trouble trying to get the last possible bit of sound-quality out of cassettes, but the tape speed is a limitation that cannot be overcome, no matter how well-designed and well-machined the cassette recorders may be.

Reel-to-reel tape machines can be acceptable at speeds of 15 IPS. But then they are bulky, run for only 45 minutes at most, have greater problems of tape deformation, and suffer all the other problems of the 30 IPS machines without matching their reproduction of the finest subtleties, especially in the higher frequencies.

All current digital recording media (CD discs, PCM and other digital recorders, digitally-mastered records, etc.) are the poorest of all systems in capturing the important dynamic-expressive subtleties and are therefore completely unacceptable, not only for high-quality professional audio use, but for use by the general public as well. Since, with all present digital technologies, the subtle dynamic information is missing in all frequency ranges, these digital recordings necessarily represent a faulty reproduction of the original performance, no matter how good the rest of the sound-system. Reel-to-reel tape at high speeds and all records preserve these subtleties in the recording and they can be retrieved with the right playback equipment. But with digital those subtleties are simply missing forever, because, for all digital recordings, the whole industry has adopted a technical norm which cannot reproduce those subtleties. Furthermore, the sensational-sounding specifications (specs) claimed for the new digital recordings are illusory. They only seem to be better because of the methods used in taking the measurements. Already in many serious audio publications, these measurements have been exposed and the real specs of current digital systems have been proved to be no better than, and in many ways inferior to, those of analog recordings.

Some video recorders have a new hi-fi sound-track (beta or VHS hi-fi). Although the tape moves rather slowly in video recorders, the recordings have a very high effective tape-speed because the recording head is located in a cylinder that spins very fast at an angle to the tape as the tape moves by it. Because of this extremely fast effective tape speed, hi-fi videotape sound tracks are actually extraordinary at preserving the subtle expressive content, bettering even our institute's 15 IPS tape decks. This would make Beta hi-fi, which our institute uses for public programs of recorded music, an ideal recording medium due to the enormously convenient video cassette format, the long playing time, and the small, convenient, easily transported size of the recorders. But this recording medium has three problems which presently keep us from recommending it wholeheartedly:

1) There is a problem of background noise on many types of program material. Because the heads spin at 30 times per second, there is a low-level 30 Hz noise (which also includes the harmonics of 30 Hz) that the manufacturers have to subdue by using a compressor-expander noise reduction device. Unfortunately, it is impossible to design such a device that does not have some occasionally audible side effects. The devices in the Beta hi-fi machines which our institute has used all result in unpleasant background noise if extraordinary measures are not taken. It is imperative to put sub-sonic filters on all inputs. Although sub-sonic noise is not heard, it will trigger the expander of the noise reduction system and cause all background noise to be amplified during silences or when single instrumental lines are playing or voices are singing, especially with very overtone-rich instruments or voices. In fact, it is best to cut off the frequency extremes altogether below 25 Hz and above 16,000 Hz, using a high-quality filter that will not degrade the sound. With some problematic program material, our institute even uses a high-quality equalizer in the recording to reduce this effect to as unobtrusive a level as possible. Furthermore, the noise reduction systems on the various models, and even on different machines of the same model number, do not completely match each other. Therefore, a tape that is quite good, with hardly any expander effects when played using the machine on which it was recorded, will usually be quite noisy when played on another machine.

2) The machines are not mechanically dependable. They break down often and demand regular periodic servicing and realignment of the tape transport to remain in good working order. That would be bad enough, but the service centers are ill-prepared to handle the resultant crush of machines being brought in for repairs, and down-time is usually at least three weeks (our institute has, at times, had to wait over two months). The manufacturers acknowledge the problem by offering special service clubs. For a price, these clubs offer regular check-up at prescribed intervals and offer substantial discounts on the cost of repairs. But that does not assuage the unpleasantness of having your machine break down just when you need it most.

3) There is a serious problem of drop-outs in the sound and other aberrations due both to the machine and to the quality of the recording tape. Manufacturers have made efforts to improve the tape by introducing high-quality, ultra-high-quality, and even supposedly better than those (professional quality etc.). These tapes seem to be better, but they still vary and all tape-related problems have not been solved. Also, service centers are reluctant to spend the necessary time to investigate whether or not such defects as drop-outs are due to the machine or to the tape.

The Anstendig Institute uses Beta hi-fi for its programs as the only practical medium that allows the information on the records to be heard. The institute does, however, have to go to enormous lengths to get a good tape for its programs, often recording the same selection over and over again until everything works out well, with minimum background noise and no drop-outs or other such noisy irritations. When we are able to hit on the right combination of filtering, recording levels, and equalization, or when the program material is such that it does not cause any expander effects, Beta hi-fi is unbeatable for sound-quality. When it is impossible to record a particular program without some background noise, the noise is usually not bad enough to disturb the experience of the program content. Although Beta hi-fi remains the best compromise for our institute's purposes, we cannot wholeheartedly recommend it to others because of the extremes to which we have to go to achieve an acceptable result.

Since there is no satisfactory recording system, what should be done? Digital, if perfected, would be the ultimate, even ideal, system of recording, since it has all the advantages of video cassettes in ease of operation and length of playing time. But it would have to have a sampling rate of about 300,000 samples per second. The fact that the whole industry already has adopted the sampling rate of cat 44,000 samples per second as the industry norm will only make the perfection of the digital recording process more difficult. Changing the present digital system will mean great loss for both manufacturers and owners of present CD systems. But, since CD discs do not contain all of the original sound-information those CD discs and players are worthless anyway. It is important that society quickly realizes how important it is to the future of civilization to develop a practical, accurate means of preserving and retrieving sounds.

That the world still does not possess a high-quality, unproblematic, elegantly simple, easy-to-use means of recording sound is not merely a blemish on modern society; it is a cancer that is eroding our powers of sonic discrimination. It is reducing the expressivity, and therefore the human quality, in human communication, and conditioning us all to accept distorted, degraded reproductions of recorded master-performances of the greatest masterworks of sonic art. Sound permeates and influences every aspect of life. Its importance as a determining factor in the quality of our lives makes the developing and manufacturing of recording machines really a public trust, not merely a profit-making business. The future quality of life in all modern societies rests on providing mankind with a precise, exact, and practical means of accurately reproducing sound.

 

1 An exhaustive industry study conducted in the late 1970's by Mitchell A. Cotter, currently The Anstendig Institute's Technical Advisor, also resulted in the conclusion that traditional record-type discs with a stylus-type pickup had advantages over all other systems. It was even found to have advantages as the storage medium for digital recordings. In other words, from the technological point-of-view, the choice of using the CD laser-type disc for digital recording instead of a record and stylus-type of arrangement was one more mistake in addition to the choice of an inadequate sampling rate.

2 Available from Trusonics Marketing, in Goleta, California.

3 See our paper "The Deterioration of the Quality of Music Making Due to the Deficiencies of Recorded Sound or The World Has Not Yet Heard the Contents of Its Records.

4 The Anstendig Institute's paper The Misapplication of Visual Criteria in Hearing explains the importance of these dynamic factors in sound.

5 The Anstendig Institute's papers and posters explaining the problems of digital sound are available on request, free of charge, from the institute.

6 Well-engineered 7 1/2 IPS tape machines can be quite acceptable in this respect, except for the higher frequencies.

7See our paper The Truth About CD and Digital.

8 The papers of The Anstendig Institute dealing with sound-reproduction and hearing deal in detail with the various effects bad sound-reproduction has had on the quality of modern life and explain why the quality of sound is a determining factor in the quality of life.

 

The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of vibrational influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing. The institute maintains an outreach program utilizing and demonstrating the results of its research.