Audio, Etc. (Feb. 1979)

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by Edward Tatnall Canby

If you read me last month on the super disc vs. the LP, you could tell that I was writing before the AES Convention in New York. Inevitably, there was at that Convention still another new digital super disc system, this one from Sony. If I am right, that makes four systems which use the ever-burgeoning digital micro-pits in place of the old mechanical groove. It's a fertile field for new crops of super sound, and super pictures too.

Each of these new prototype super discs actually works, for audio, for pictures without sound, or both. Each has been carried through to prototype ac cording to its particular choice of parameters, different trial jugglings out of the enormous mass of new possibilities arising from digital techniques.

Sony's disc runs at 450 rpm to JVC's 900 and Teac/Mitsubishi's 1800--don't think that this double/half syndrome means twice as good or half as good; it's all part of the preliminary juggling and surely no company is yet committed to every last detail of its own system (though it would be nice if ...). We can assume that all of these outfits, pride notwithstanding, have learnt what happens when there is no eventual agreement. So--no impasse.

Just some marvelous test driving ....

Amid the welter of specs we can conclude that by this time anybody, or almost anybody, can turn out an astonishing digital disc. Amen. What comes next, of course, ,is not yet in hand--the public. What is really crucial now is an altogether different set of parameters, external. But just as basic. These are the parameters of usage. Usage past, usage now, and usage as forecast for the future. Some mighty hefty outfits have floundered because they misjudged these outside forces in their zeal to perfect their own engineering.

Let's set the perspective. There are three basic types of consumer usage in our broad field of reproduced entertainment/information for the consumer--I include here both audio and video, home movies, Polaroids, tapes, discs, the works, and for the home, the car, the moto and skimobile, and high way cruiser, not to mention office, bar, club, even the school and library, not counting the pro educational stuff ... everything. Still--three basic types of usage. What is important is that they come in mixtures as well as in the pure state. It's the proportion of the mix that we have to evaluate ... or forecast (which is a lot harder). Just like fertilizer.

Forecast Fundamentals

Get me? The stuff that you put on your crops and flowers and house plants is rated everywhere by three numbers, standing for the three basic elements of plant nourishment--I can never remember which is which, nor the proper order, but let that be.

You can have a 10-8-10 mix or a 20-20 20 (concentrated) or even a 4-4-0, entirely minus the third element. You'll find these numbers right on the bags and boxes and bottles and they do help evaluate, if they don't tell all. So why not apply some of the same to consumer usage in our own bag? Our three kinds of usage, you see, are just as permanent and inevitable as fertilizer, whether they apply to a digital disc or an Edison cylinder, an LP, or a super-8 movie . . . or a VTR. Past, future, it's all the same. The thing we need to do is to formulize the mix, the proportional usage, so we can read it like fertilizer, if a bit less precisely. So here goes... and keep in mind that I am talking about the whole spectrum, audio and video, the sonic and the visible in all the combinations. My usage factors run right across the boundaries.

Factor No. 1. Hard to find a good general term for it. Let's say, immediate recording, live, primary, original, on the spot. Making your own, with mike and/or camera. Home movies fall into this category and those new instant Polaroids on a tube. Also the home tape recorder. This category includes the original Edison tinfoil audio, recorded live on the spot, and the later wax cylinders--that could be shaved off and recorded again. Erase feature. The VTR with its mike and camera options offers Factor No. 1 in its special mix--also a lot else. Do it yourself ... baby's first drool. Similarly the audio cassette, taking down interviews and anything else that's live sound.

The disc once included this first factor too, though there was no erase. I made lots of home-type disc recordings in the 1940s and they were awful.

But the distinction between these and the playback-only disc was always clear. They weren't even the same. You did not record on a regular disc. You don't now. You won't tomorrow.

Factor No. 2. The opposite. Best to call this publication, though it includes broadcasting, which is a form of publication. The message comes to you prerecorded, pre-filmed, preprinted, in a professional package. You play it, you show it, you read it. The book, of course, is the ancient original example. The disc is a bit newer. Both are published, and nothing else. The only book that offers home recording is the child's copy book. The erase isn't very good.

In my fertilizer type rating, then, books and discs, being all-out publications, stress one factor only, Factor No. 2. I put down three numbers (IT get to the third category) and in this case the formula has two zeros, 0-100-0. Only one factor involved. However, most of our media are of the mix sort, and many offer some form of the published message as one of their options -- in varying degrees of usage. Some times quite insignificant. You can buy prepackaged home movies for your projector (and do the porn people know all about that!) but publishing has never been more than a minor factor in home movies, which features Factor No. 1, home recording, live and on-the-spot. So how do I rate a home super-8 system? Give it this formula: 90-10-0.

A few prepackaged films, but most of them you make yourself. (This is just a guess in the numbers, in case you happen to sell super-8 travelogues and the like, and no offense intended towards the biz.) How about TV? It is almost entirely publishing, in the larger sense of my usage factors, a making-public in mass form via multiple duplications, professionally packaged. It's much like a book, a mag, or a disc. That is, if you keep away from the VTR. So TV rates the same as the disc, a flat 0-100-0.

Great success story, just the same.

Tape Transposition

Look at the home reel-to-reel tape recorder. A real and variable mix here, varying, too, from user to user. Yes, you can buy published open-reel tapes, prerecorded, but this factor has never been very large, and the audio cassette has gone a lot further, I'd say.

Reel-to-reel in the home is used for a lot of direct recording, obviously.

That's Factor No. 1. But also for the third category, as we shall see. So give reel-to-reel in the home an averaged 45-10-45. Low on the publication side, that middle number. Now contrast that with the LP disc, a pure publication with a rating of 0-100-0! Even without my third category, via only the first two, you can see how useful this number thinking can be in highlighting the differences between media in terms of usage. Not only what is "available" as a facility but, more important, how it works out (or might or should work out, if a forecast) in actual practice. The technical potential must be weighed against practicalities concerning real people.

You have probably figured out my Factor No. 3. It is self evident and com bines the other two, felicitously and, often, illegally. Well, not all of the time, just some of the time. But it LIVES--does it live. There's one good word for it ... COPYING.

You home record your published material, whatever, whether broadcast, discs, tapes, audio, and video alike.

Even a ball game is a publication when it comes over TV and so is every talk show and fun program and horror movie. You take them down, you are copying.

There is no copying of home movies, or practically none, and those copies have to be done outside, professionally. So super 8 gets a zero, or maybe a 2, for the third factor. But elsewhere, as we all know, this is the fastest growing business of all, legally or no. Copying covers a lot of ground and we'll have to skip Xerox and Kodak, about which I know plenty.

Not in the home, in any case. In our area, audio copying has been the main factor until recently, and it was the big reason behind the rise of the audio cassette (bigger, I regret to say, than the improved fi). Also the very bane of the record company, which sells one disc and suffers a dozen or a hundred copies at no profit! Let us not talk ethics and legalities here. Copying is now an irreversible fact of our life, like the mechanical reaper in the 19th century, later, the mechanized cotton picker, and still more recently the automated newsprint system. Fundamental changes, dislocating, whether legal or not, and somehow we always must learn to live with them. We are going to be living with better and better copying of everything, one way or another, and that is that. (And let's say not a thing about digital copying!)

Conservative Comparison

The implications of my third factor, this copying, are immense. Look at the VTR. Like the audio cassette the VTR is multiple-use. It fits everywhere. It can (1) record, (2) play published material and (3) it can COPY, in full color and sound. Phew, can it copy! The ads tell you which factor is now the big selling point. Right now I would rate this sys tem, for all three factors, as maybe 5 10-85. Get that! Five percent for actual home VTR recording with the optional mike and camera. Ten percent, maybe, for the playing of published, prerecorded video cassettes (and at what a cost!) And a whopping 85 percent for COPYING, complete with all those computerized automatic on-off timers.

Come to think of it, I'm being too conservative. Make it 3-3-94. Is any body buying a VTR for other than taping the Yankees and the Dodgers and a thousand other good air shows? That's the name of the game.

Now you can see how nicely my formulas present the picture (and the sound), even as so many guesses.

Compare the audio disc with the audio cassette. Should we compare them at all? They are so different. The disc rates a flat 0-100-0. The cassette, on the other hand, is remarkably balanced in its all-over mix of functions.

Lots of audio copying, the third factor.

Plenty of direct "live" recording, the first factor, if you include all the battery cassettes with portable mikes.

Also, a sizeable and growing publication factor, the prerecorded cassettes that are a respectable market these days. So give the cassette a pleasant (at a guess) 40-20-40 or even a 33-33-33.

Real nice medium and utterly unlike the equally useful disc's 0-100-0.

Sharply different.

Really Not Comparable.

Go further. Take the VTR and com pare it with its coming rivals (?) the picture super discs now in prototype.

So you've been thinking there mostly in digital terms, sampling rates, bits, rpms, and so on, and technical quality of sound and picture, bulkiness, cost of playback and so on. Engineering. If you compare super disc and VTR on these terms, the disc, potentially, is likely to win hands down. It will be much less expensive (when it is avail able), far less bulky, more convenient, and probably better in quality. All the pictures you want on two sides of a slim 12-inch platter. So throw out the clumsy, expensive VTR and bring in the super disc to replace it. BUT, BUT, BUT! Just take a look at my ratings. The big, versatile, expensive VTR, tape in a big box, rates that incredible 3-3-94, as my best current guess. The last factor, COPYING, is what now sells it, though it can do the other things too. Now look at its supposed coming rival, the technically superior, cheaper, and much more compact super-disc system with pictures. That disc gets the same old universal disc rating, 0-100-0, even so, and the copy factor is a whopping zero. How can we even try to compare these two? They simply are not com parable.

You may count on it that the super-disc developers, at least some of them, are soberly aware of this enormous difference. The disc, any disc, is a one-purpose publication and nothing else.

Please note that Dr. Goldmark's ingenious EVR "cartridge" for CBS of a few years back was also a publication sys tem and would have gotten the very same 0-100-0 rating. It didn't fly. Plenty of $$ ploughed under for that little miscalculation.

Historical Habits

What you need, it seems, is a human base. An established habit, an existing market. Television, again, is also a publication, 0-100-0--but so was radio before it, and the radio audience was there for TV to take over handily.

(And didn't radio borrow from the phonograph?) The trouble with any form of moving picture publication in these new TV orientated and TV-played formats is that there really isn't any established base for them at all. Those numerous and ingenious prerecorded "cartridges," including EVR, seemed a sure bet but they turned out to be the biggest bust in history. All except the one that was outwardly the most conservative, the lowly tape VTR from Sony! That was the sleeper and, we can now see, it was because this one rated something other than 0-100-0. It could do more. It's doing it now.

Indeed, the VTR and the television set together make a new system combined. The VTR fills in TV's two zeros, recording live (optional) and copying; TV itself takes care of the publication bit. The VTR, if you wish, converts non-repeatable broadcast publications into repeatable ones.

I would rate the VTR-TV combination system, on the average, as maybe 5-55-40. The measly 5 represents home recording, not for most of us via VTR.

Let the home sound movies and may be Polaroid fight that one out.

So before you go out for that bag of fertilizer, think one more step. Still, today, nobody has the slightest idea whether a market will appear for a TV-type publication, prerecorded and minus anything else. The idea flopped dismally the last time. And here comes our valiant super-disc people, looking for that very same market, if with better and cheaper goods to sell and, hopefully, better compatibility, too.

Published video color pictures, strictly on a 0-100-0 basis. It's all or nothing and a terrible risk. Also a challenge. No wonder an audio super disc may come first, to fit our tidy nice little hi-fi market.

I think I see what these foreign optimists have in mind, in Japan and Europe. Maybe WE don't like the idea of packaged video. But in the other well-developed countries, it could be different. I think these people count on the rest of the world to snap up those nice pictures, enough to get things going and to heck with the U.S.

Then, they're hopeful of the big breakthrough, as America comes around, at last, and throws in the heavy cash. Well, better last than never, I say.

(Source: Audio magazine, Feb. 1979; Edward Tatnall Canby )

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