Archive for August, 2006

WHY DIGITAL STINKS, PART OO

Filed under: — George Petersen @ 1:31 pm

By George Petersen
As pro audio devotees, we love old stuff. And when something new comes along, we tend to hold off for a while and let things settle in before making that leap of faith into new technologies. Along the way, our dear friend analog got a new littermate by the name of digital and we were quick to chastise the new arrival.
Much of this admonishment was well deserved. When the CD first debuted, it was pretty bad, yet companies described it with catch-phrases like “the ultimate in sound” and “audio perfection.” Of course, if revision 1.0 was perfect, then how would one describe revision 2.0, when oversampling technologies brought the format closer to perfection. So which version was perfecter? The answer is none of them, but the reason why is not quite what most people expect.
I’m not gonna rally the flag of those who feel the only true hi-fi format is some esoteric vinyl pressing played on an esoteric turntable driving some equally esoteric phono cartridge attached to an even more esoteric tonearm, routed through liquid nitrogen-cooled cabling to just the right preamp/amp/speakers.
But in the domain of way-less-than-$100,000 playback systems, there is a middle ground of digital systems that could sound pretty good. Unfortunately, in the real world of the everyday playback and production tools we all use, simply silk-screening the word “Professional” onto the front panel doesn’t automatically make it sound better. Many of these digital products, from consoles to reverbs to CD players don’t—and can’t—sound good and big reason for that is not digital at all, but analog.
You might think a megabuck console or effects box would have a world-class analog back-end, but the dirty little secret here is that in order to save money, the analog circuitry that follows that highly-touted, D/A converter chip is often based around the cheapest stereo IC op-amps around. And is not limited to low-end gear—there are very expensive products that cut corners in this area to keep costs down/profits up.
Here, the chip’s low channel separation specs result in a squashed soundstage with poor imaging—hardly the sound you want if you prefer wide stereo mixes or lush thick reverbs. Sure, higher bit resolution, increased sampling rates, improved anti-aliasing filters, etc., are all factors in digital quality, but in too many products, a cheap stereo op-amp on the output becomes the weak link in the chain. If you’re working entirely within the digital domain, you’ll be entering the analog world at some point, and when that happens, it’s nice to know what you’re hearing is your project and not a cheap IC’s rendition of your creation.
We audio types tend to be picky about quality: Many of us have invested in quality front-end peripherals—outboard mic preamps and high-end A/D converters—to insure that what we hear in the control room is faithfully captured. But manufacturers of pro (and consumer) gear should pay attention to that often-ignored other side of the chain. We users might consider investing in a outboard D/A with a decent analog back-end. This won’t suddenly create digital perfection—analog recording wasn’t exactly perfect, either—but in the meantime, it’s a step in the right direction.
When not working on Mix stuff, George Petersen records and performs with the SF Bay Area-based rock band ARIEL. Check ‘em out at www.jenpet.com.
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So what do YOU think?
CLICK ON THE “COMMENTS? BUG BELOW TO READ/LEAVE COMMENTS…


WELCOME TO AUDIOBITES!

Filed under: — George Petersen @ 6:24 pm

By George Petersen
Episode 1: What’s your Problem, Anyway?
Welcome to AudioBites, my weekly rant/rave about all things audio and musical. The idea behind this started out simply as a blog, but we wanted to add an element where the discussion would go farther than the usual editorial slant, so we’ve provided a comment field where you and other readers can toss in your two Euros worth.
The whole idea here is interactivity, but this will be a semi-moderated free-for-all, where slander, obscenities, personal attacks and incoherent ramblings from participants who drool incessantly may be subject to the a simple stroke of that QWERTY key marked “DEL.” But what you should expect from AudioBites may be sometimes provocative, sometimes evocative, but (hopefully) always thought provoking and maybe even entertaining.
One of my pet peeves has to do with affordable technology. No, I’m not getting off on a tired tirade that only $$$ gear is worth using. Today, for the price of a couple months of car payments (depending on what you drive), you can assemble a decent recording setup. No, it won’t be world-class, but that paltry sum is enough to buy some basic tools that could lay down some respectable-sounding demos—even masters. And if you’re in a band and can split the costs among several players, the possibilities for buying even more (and improved) goodies are even better.
Now with all the parts in place, we come to the crux of the situation. Once you have the gear, it’s nice if somebody knows how to use it. And not just how to plug it in and get a meter to move, but having someone who actually took some time to understand something as basic—yet essential as—gain structure and maybe even mic placement.
Once upon a time, even getting a signal down on a pro analog deck required knowledge of machine setup and alignment. And unless one was very careful to optimize levels, tape hiss would quickly destroy the character of a recording. Once digital removed that nasty hissing sound and the alignment chores, EVERYBODY suddenly became an audio engineer.
And with no tape hiss, you could just record signals at -30dB and boost them during the mix with no problems, right? Wrong! As soon as you start chucking that much dynamic range out of your tracks, your pristine 24-bit system (at least it said 24-bit on the outside of the packing box) suddenly outputs 12- or 14-bit recordings. Hey, there’s no tape hiss, and that chic lo-fi sound is “in” these days, so who cares anyway?
And that’s what really bugs me. All this great, affordable high-res digital gear is going for rock-bottom prices, and with a little know-how and applied techno-savvy, the right band could break out of the basement and change the world. So where are these musical masters? I’m not talking about the “gee, we have our own record” types.You’ve heard of the million monkeys typing…So if a gazillion groups are out there (some are very out there) doing self-produced album, by now, there should be a least a dozen certified cases of household-name superstars emerging from those roots. Hell, the Cowboy Junkies broke with a cassette recording made around a campfire. So where are the next breakthroughs?
Certainly, there are valid reasons why latching onto affordable high-res tools don’t instantly turn the user into a George Martin. But the question remains: Where’s the revolution? Click on the comments field below and offer your take on this.
I’ll be back with some more quasi-coherent rambling next week, but until then, consider this…

BONUS TRACK:
DUMB FORMAT OF THE WEEK
This week’s dumb format award has to go to the miniSD (Secure Digital) line of removable media. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for solid-state memory, and the postage-stamp-sized SD format is very cool. But is a data cart that’s two-thirds the size of a postage stamp really a breakthrough? Worse yet, since most people don’t have miniSD card readers, you need to carry around a mini-to-standard SD adapter for compatibility with everything else, making miniSD somewhat less than convenient and kinda defeats the idea of ultra-compact storage.
Somewhere, there must be some kind of ergonomic rules that apply to media that become too small to handle. What will we do when the first 500 Terabyte microdots come out and someone’s entire life’s work gets lost, stuck to the fuzz at the bottom of your pocket and accidentally thrown away? Hmmm…
When not working on Mix stuff, George Petersen records and performs with the SF Bay Area-based rock band ARIEL. Check ‘em out at www.jenpet.com.
____________________________________________
So what do YOU think?
CLICK ON THE “COMMENTS” BUG BELOW TO READ/LEAVE COMMENTS…


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