Welcome to the mid-winter meeting for those suffering from audiophilia nervosa. I'm writing this a little early, meaning Christmas week, as I'm planning on taking a vacation in the Caribbean and don't plan on doing anything except soaking in the sun and water. Let's hope I don't go crazy being away from my system for more than a few days.
So why the negative title this month? Because the audio community is being preyed on again by the music industry, this time the hardware manufacturers. While the software engineers at Dolby and DTS have, for the first time, actually come up with codecs, which may be about as close to the original master tapes for the home, the manufacturers of both Blu-ray and HD-DVD have been glacial in implementing it.
While the newest machines have already included the ability to present full 1080P video images, the best of the present high definition standard, there is still not one machine out there that has the ability to decode or transmit full 6 or 8 channel high definition audio in either the Dolby or DTS format. While the specifications for the video side require at least 1080I if not 1080P decoding, the audio specs only require that the discs and the playback machines have one of the two improved, but still not close to high end, audio reproduction codecs.
While there probably will be a couple of machines in the next six months that will have the ability to internally decode the high end standards, all will only have the ability to transmit 5.1 channels rather than the specified 7.1 of the maximum audio standard. In addition, there are still no receivers or pre-pros out there that have the necessary HDMI 1.3 standard reception and decoding abilities to take advantage of the best available. It is anybody's guess how long that will take to implement, as the standard is only three months old.
Thus, this writer has decided to wait on the sidelines and see how the situation works out, even though I'm dying to see and listen to the high definition discs, which have the ability to outperform all other means of high definition reproduction, having much higher bandwidth than cable, satellite and even off the air, especially on the audio side where the best is Dolby Digital. If it weren't for the bandwidth limitations of the web, I'd hope that the high definition disc would die a quick death and cost these bastards a ton of money for their ineptitude and flagrant abuse of the audiophile community.
So while waiting for all of the above to settle out, I've begun a fairly large project. About 15 years ago now, when early digital was not so good, and vinyl playback seemed not to be the ultimate in reproduction, an opportunity appeared out of the blue. A recording engineer from New York had somehow heard through the grapevine that I was selling a piece of equipment and that I might be interested in getting into analog tape playback. He was a member of a group of New York recording engineers who were employed by the major studios, and who had formed a club for spreading their original work among themselves. Whether legally or not, they made second or third generation 15 ips copies of their studio masters for trading among themselves, all up to their best standards as they were for both personal consumption and to be given to other engineers to showcase their best work. In all cases they were probably as good as or better than those copies used for vinyl mastering. As, at that time, they were getting on in years and were switching to easier to work with digital machines, their libraries of 15 ips 2-track 1/4 and 1/2 inch tapes came up for sale.
At the same time the studios were cleaning out their vaults of both unwanted masters and second generation working tapes, and these were readily available to people in the know by doing a little dumpster diving.
As the studios were switching at the same time to digital, many of the original mastering tape machines also came on the market for a pittance. So for less than $6000 I obtained about 200 1/4" 2 track pancake tapes and a highly modded Ampex 351 studio tape deck. What a prize. Most of the recordings were second and third generation of the best of the best from the Golden Age of recordings, from all of the major recording studios in the US and England, and also many of their own private recordings of groups in New York done at the major halls and churches. For obvious reasons names can't be mentioned; just suffice it to say that many of the audiophile reproductions being sold by the specialty recording companies today that we're paying a small fortune for over and over are being made from the same generation tapes.
Happily, the tapes exceeded all expectations for sound quality, surpassing their vinyl grand-daughters reproduced even on my Walker Audio Gold Proscenium turntable with Kondo IO cartridge, and even more so most of the digital being produced even today. Unhappily, they were a pain in the butt to work with as most were so-called pancakes; tapes on a spindle without their tape wheels for protection. Many a night was spent trying to rewind thousands of feet of tape that had fallen on the floor, without damaging them. I could see why the engineers had applauded digital's compact size and lack of difficulties. So what if it didn't sound as good.
Also large percentages were starting serious deterioration. Back in the 60's when whaling was banned, their oil, which was used to lubricate the tapes, was also banned, so the American manufacturers started using petroleum distillates. As the Japanese still had a source of whale oil, they didn't need to switch. After a few years the American tapes, especially Ampex, started drying out, and as they passed through the tape machine guides and rollers would leave a sticky residue which would cause squeaking and finally slow down and stopping of tape transportation. One could heat the tapes in an oven which allowed them to be played back for a short period of time, or, as I discovered, add some Xylene at the first tape roller to lubricate them, again for a short period. Of course, Xylene may be a carcinogen so I may have shortened my life. Thus, to save them, I spent several hundred hours lubricating, and then transcribing them to 16-bit/48kHz digital audio tape (DAT) using a Panasonic 3500 professional DAT machine. And you thought you were an audio fanatic.
The results were greater than expected. While the DAT's didn't quite match the quality of their original tapes, they were probably better than what could have been obtained from doing another analog generation and certainly beat CDs of the same recordings from the major manufacturers and even the specialty ones, again names not mentioned. At that point, the original masters were sold off for about what had been paid for them and the tape machine was donated to Clark Johnsen's Listening Studio, now out of existence.
For one reason or another, over the past several years, the DAT tapes were partially forgotten as new material came here for review, but last month for some reason I decided to re-listen to some. Most still sounded just as superb as before, even in some ways surpassing the quality of SACD and DVD-Audio. Unhappily, several were found to have multiple dropouts, a sign they were starting to deteriorate. While this was only a minor disaster for me, this may be a system-wide problem. As many of the digital recordings done sine 1982 have been done on DAT, it could be that a whole generation of music reproduction may be disappearing in the industry's vaults. Hopefully they're on top of it.
So how can one save the DAT tapes? Obviously if one had two machines, one could re-transcribe them to fresh tapes. But that may give one only another 15 years before needing to do it again, and there aren't very many good DAT machines to be had. One could also transcribe them to a computer hard drive, but with most computers that would mean probably using a less than exemplary sound card which may add jitter and other anomalies, and would probably require going through Window's K-Mixer with its inherent faults. Finally, one could transcribe the 16-bit/44kHz DAT tapes to CDs using a computer with the above named problems. Obviously this would present a problem with standard 16-bit/48kHz DAT tapes.
Also, I've been thinking of trying to digitize my best vinyl for security purposes and ease of playback. Please don't start grousing about how doing this would be sacrilege to the vinyl. This could be done using a computer with a semi-pro sound card using a program such as Adobe Audition but with probably some loss of quality, although the program could be used to decrease vinyl noise, ticks and pops.
The High-Rez Answer!
Then word came of a new product from Tascam that might work for all of the applications, their DV-RA1000HD High Definition Digital Recorder.
It's a professional grade (in the good sense) recorder which will transcribe 2 channel digital recordings at their present bit rate or record analog at anything from 16-bit/44kHz to 24-bit/192kHz directly to its 60 GB hard disc, or to DVD-RW or even CD-R or CD-RW, and even record in Sony's Direct Stream Digital, DSD, the only machine under $10,000 to do so. Inputs include optical and RCA SPDIF, professional AES-EBU through XLR plugs, and DSD through SDIF 3 BNCs. Analog inputs are balanced XLRs or unbalanced RCAs, and there's a USB 2.0 connection for computer transfer.
The machine has built-in facilities to do three band parametric digital equalization and either compression or expansion, input volume and pitch control. There is a wired remote control, phono jack headphone output with volume control and a RS-232C port for computer control. The instruction booklet is well written without the normal translation difficulties, and once one has gone through it a couple of times and ruined a few recordings, the machine is pretty intuitive to use. One is also given the opportunity for free to download the Minnetonka Audio Diskwelder Bronze 1000 software, previously reviewed (click here) to produce DVD-A's from your recordings.
Here's where the second reason comes in for the article's title. Not being cognizant as to how mastering gets done on the pro side, and being somewhat mislead by their advertising, (actually seriously mislead) that the unit will record and produce DVD discs up to 24-bit/192kHz or DSD, the machine was purchased for its list price of $1999, one of the few times I've paid list for anything. Unhappily either I misunderstood its functioning or was mislead by Tascam's advertising, as I wanted a machine that would produce finished high bit recordings.
First, the unit will not produce either DVD-Audio or SACD discs. While one can copy CD's to the hard drive, then produce CD copies, any other files are stored as either raw DSDIFF or so-called Broadcast Wave files. While these can be played back on the machine, or recorded as the above files to DVDs, neither of these can be converted by the machine directly into DVD-A or SACD recordings playable on a regular unit, but must be transmitted to a computer, where using the Diskwelder Bronze program, both types of files can be converted to DVD-A recordings. Also no home computer program has the ability to play back these files. The DSD files also have to be converted to 24-bit/96kHz PCM to do any work on them, which obviously ruins the reason for producing them in the first place. One cannot produce SACD's from the DSD files, only DVD-A's, although the machine can be used to playback the DSD or 24-bit/192kHz, 96kHz or 88kHz using it D/A converters.
The machine, on the other hand, can store up to 60 GB of these raw files and play them back into your stereo system in their original form, and one can store any amount of these files to a computer's hard disc, and then play them back through the machine using the computer as a go-between. The machine can also be used as an excellent playback unit for CD's and DVD-A's with fidelity almost equivalent to my modded Denon 5900 player, but only in two track, which is fine for analog or CD transcriptions. One can also use it as a DVD-A or CD playback deck, and interestingly the analog sound is actually up to even my modded Denon 5900's.
The unit is otherwise a complete recording studio in a box. Analog can either be input at line level or through two mike inputs with switchable 48-Volt phantom power supplies. Digital can be input as PCM, SPDIF or AES-EBU or DSD files and stored on hard drive, CD-R for 16-bit/44kHz or DVD-RW discs for high bit or DSD. Again these are broadcast files that cannot be played back on other machines but must be converted by a computer to the appropriate types, thus the USB 2.0 out and input.
Once one gets used to its quirks, the machine works superbly at its task. There are a few problems with ergonomics though. The remote control is hard wired to the unit which has the advantage of the commands always being received in a timely fashion by the unit, but it is small with buttons very close together which has made for a few errors. Also setup for recording is less than intuitive. Each time one programs the machine for a new recording, all parameters have to be reset.
Once one writes in program names, numbers, etc., they are fixed in stone. So don't make any errors or they will be carried through to the final disc. Finally, the machine cannot sense track numbers written on DAT's, so one either has to sit there and punch them in as the tape plays, or set time intervals or limits for how quiet the tape should go for a track switch to take place. On a couple of tapes the machine sensed more than 99 track intervals, which is the limit for a DVD-A, and in my attempt to combine tracks, several of the them became unreadable, thus requiring a re-recording. As with everything, practice will hopefully make perfect.
In order to make a playable DVD-A, the machine becomes a USB hard drive connected to a computer. With a program such as Diskwelder Bronze, one can convert the Broadcast Wave files to DVD-A compatible ones. The whole process including the conversion burning and verifying takes about one hour. The Bronze program is somewhat limited in that no video can be recorded. Thus the DVD-A is recognized as a CD by a DVD-A player, but it is still decoded at its normal bit rate. This may actually be an advantage as some persons swear that having video degrades the sound.
The USB function also allows one to transfer the recorder's files to a computer hard drive for storage, and then back again if one wants to work on them or make a DVD-RW for storage purposes.
For the past month I've been transcribing my DAT tapes to DVD-A's. The unit takes the 16-bit/48kHz data and adds 8 lower bits to make it 24-bit/48kHz to allow lossless editing and mixing. Theoretically those extra bits could be used to do expansion, for instance of drum thwacks, but I haven't tried it yet. With DVD-A's 4.7 GB capacity, one can store about 4.5 hours of music on one disc. Thus, while other may make MP-3 compilation discs of several hours duration to playback in their cars, my car is outfitted with a DVD-A player, so my compilations can be up to 24-bit/192kHz. Played back using my Denon 5900 Universal player, the sound is as good as if not better than the original DAT's, probably because the D/A converters in the DAT unit are at least 10 years old. They certainly remind me of the reproduction from the original master tapes, and certainly beat most if not all CD's and a good percentage of the two track SACD's and DVD-A's available today. Thus the time spent has been well worth the effort as these discs will now be very easily to copy (for my personal enjoyment of course.)
Next up will be the transcription of my best vinyl, probably at 24-bit/192kHz sampling rates. I'll let you know the outcome. It'll be interesting to see if I can do as good or better a job as the high end studios are doing today with their transcriptions. Finally, I'll be seeing if one can improve on CDs by using the unit to do a little equalization, expansion and rerecording onto CD or DVD-ROMs at 24 bits. More later.