Modern Nasty Recordings

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[June 2002.]

Digital didn’t do it. Creeping corner-cutting started long before stereo even loomed on the horizon.

The big push for quality in audio came not from record companies but from European government broadcasters. Bureaucrats don’t care what it costs. They just want the best so they can’t be criticized! So that market supported Neumann, Schoeps and AKG mics and Studer and Telefunken tape machines. The French government’s broadcasting arm, Radiodiffusion-Télévision Français, standardized on Schoeps mics for all voice and music recordings.

Schoeps came to my attention via my mentor, Peter Willemöes, in 1959. Peter had designed the electronics for the Danish Lyrec recorder and used Schoeps mics to record the complete Bach organ works by Michel Chapuis. Peter would edit the master tape — no copying — right on the spot and play it for the artist’s approval, and then feed that same tape into the disc-cutting system.

The first big change came with the multi-track tape machines, still with tube electronics. This was driven by the pop music producers who had many “artists” who couldn’t play the same thing twice if their lives depended on it. Since analog tape starts getting cloudy and muddy the more it’s copied, they kept that to a minimum by using parallel tracks. So instead of true two-mic stereo, they wound up with multi-track mono. And there went the neighborhood as far as sonic perspective goes.

This electronic confection did not go unnoticed by classical music producers, who started using the same multi-track machines. Prima donna conductors could diddle after the fact with instrumental balances and spotlight individual instruments or singers.

The next big change was the transistor. Nobody thought the transistor sounded as good as a tube, but it generated less heat and took up a lot less space. And the American military had mandated transistors for use in tanks and planes. The transistor was “good enough for Rock n’ Roll.” All the early transistor amps either blew up or fried themselves in other ways. Soon all mix boards, tape machines and mic electronics were “solid state.”

The late Peter Walker was dead on when he declared, “An electron doesn’t care whether it’s processed by a tube or transistor.” Little by little manufacturers and design engineers started producing less nasty-sounding transistors. But then Integrated Circuit (IC) chips started to come out and be used extensively in audio, many hijacked from the computer industry. And most of them had serious distortion problems — setting the stage for hard, gritty sound we now associate with digital.

In all fairness I must lay the blame for early digital nastiness squarely at Sony’s door. It was their electronics in the 1630 digital encoder and their DAE editing suite that processed the bulk of the early CDs. And now we have 48-track digital recorders and monster mix boards incorporating literally thousands of dubious IC chips.

Is there any way out of this madness? Several. Economics have reared up to bite the asses of the major record companies, who uniformly can no longer afford to support this kind of technological overkill. Or even record classical music in the U. S. of A.! And smaller companies like Jared Sacks’ Channel Classics simply ignore all the hyperexpensive junk and record with two or four mics with custom preamps. He feeds the Prism analog / digital converter, the sound of which he really likes, to the equally transparent Genex disc recorder. Unfortunately, Sacks is committed to working with Philips on SACD recordings. My personal evaluation is that the one-bit SACD format cannot leap fast enough to follow a steep waveform transient. And the Delta-Sigma encoding puts the signal below the noise floor! I think the Blue-Ray (ultraviolet) laser discs coming down the pike will render SACD as obsolete as the El-Cassette.

Here in the U. S. of A., Da-Hong Seetoo is using Schoeps mic capsules with his own preamps to feed a 24-bit hard-disc recorder for both Telarc and Deutsche Grammophon, four mics, max! And I don’t think he’s doing it for free.

As they appear, I’ll be happy to alert the reader to those sonically worthy CDs that have come to my attention.