Behind The Scenes (Apr. 1992)

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the digital Compact Disc, although the players and discs did not appear in the United States until 1983. Banners on the covers of the July, August, and September 1983 issues of Audio heralded the first reviews of Compact Discs. Colleague John Eargle and I reviewed the first CD releases from London, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, CBS, Denon, and Delos.

Eargle used an NEC CD-803 player, and I used a Sony CDP-101. These were quite straightforward, very basic players, typical of the units being sold at that time. The discs themselves were a mixed bag-some were from digital masters, others were analog-to digital transfers.

We lauded some discs, while others elicited quite negative responses. With this new format, our principal concern was the sonic quality of the CD. It must be noted that John Eargle and I had been making digital recordings since 1977, so we were very familiar with the particular parameters of digital sound, the wide frequency response and, especially, the wide dynamic range and high S/N of the digital tape masters.

We were anxious to find out if CDs preserved these parameters.

In auditioning those initial CDs, we were aware that our first-generation players had 90-dB "brick-wall" filters that could be excited into producing some nasty sonic artifacts. We had to carefully differentiate between those anomalies and the thin, shrill, overly bright string sound that was more a result of utilizing inappropriate mikes, placing the mikes too close to the instruments, and feeding them through mixing consoles with noisy analog circuitry. In addition, we made particular note of internal balances in the orchestra as well as its placement in the recording venue. The common practice of multi-miking could greatly compress the acoustic perspective.

Of course, the early CD slogan of "Perfect Sound, Forever" was seized upon by the vinyl-brigade digiphobes, who gleefully ascribed any shrillness or other sonic anomaly to an inherent defect of digital audio. They made profound statements that digital technology was thrust on the market prematurely and that it needed much higher sampling rates and more bits to avoid "clinical sterility" and "truncated ambience and reverberant decay." Even today, the digiphobes still insist that digital sound is "cold," that it "lacks warmth and body" because reverberant "tails" of music "disappear" prematurely. Dither signals to address any such problem had been added to the inputs of digital recorders as far back as 1982 (and probably before that time). In any case, as Eargle recently pointed out in the January issue, there is inherent self-noise in microphones and recording consoles that is, in essence, "unintentional" dither.

Thus, even on the earliest CDs, the normal reverberation period of the recording hall was preserved.

Of those first CDs, I was impressed with a digitally mastered release from Telarc that featured Stravinsky's The Firebird, with Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (CD-80039). As I noted in my review in the July 1983 issue: Telarc's bass drum is heard with great impact. The other end of this dynamic range can be equally thrilling. There is a string diminuendo, just before the French horn entrance signaling the beginning of the finale, which reaches its pianissimo level against a background of total silence. Jack Renner's simple but effective microphone placement gives us a ravishing string tone without a trace of edginess-it can be done! I was less than thrilled by the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D Minor with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (CBS CD 35854). This recording had been mastered on a 32-track digital recorder from 3M. In my review, I remarked, "The overall sound lacks cohesion and at times is jumbled and amorphous .. it is ultimately the strident high strings which mar this recording." John Eargle liked Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 with Vaclav Neumann conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Denon/Supraphon (C377002). This too was digitally mastered.

Eargle stated, "... the sound is gorgeous. Listen for the natural buzz in the muted strings in the largo second movement. Nothing could be more accurate." But he wasn't too happy with the digitally mastered disc of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and Schubert's Symphony No. 8 with Lorin Maazel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (CBS/Sony CD-36711). As Eargle observed, "The balance be tween direct and reverberant sound is not quite real, and the Beethoven in particular sounds edgy in tutti passages. . . . Overall, the recording is adequate for what it is, but the launching of CD deserves better." In the August 1983 issue, I commented most favorably on Glenn Gould's performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations (CBS/Sony 38DC 35). I pointed out how fitting it was that Gould had been able to make a new digital recording of this work before his death in September 1982. The recording was thrilling music-making, and I stated, ". . . here at last is a piano recording without any compression of dynamics. If you want to play this at 'realistic 'in the room' levels, be careful! Gould plays some huge triple-fortissimo chords of crushing sonority." In general, Eargle and I found that the first CDs were quite pleasing-in spite of a few that had overly bright, high strings. For the most part, it was very rewarding to listen to music with full dynamic expression and lovely pianissimo sections unsullied by noise.

As you might expect, record companies are duly noting the 10th anniversary of CD with several promotions and special recordings. As I was writing this, Federal Express delivered a set of 10th Anniversary Limited Edition Commemorative Discs from Sony Music Entertainment. Included was Billy Joel's 52nd Street, which was transferred from a 1978 analog multi-track master.

It was the very first CD released by Sony Music in Japan, in October 1982.

Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, which was transferred from a 1975 analog multi-track master, was also included, and the Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations completed the set. All these CDs were digitally re-mastered using Sony's new 20-bit technology.

A major problem in the earliest days of CD was the scarcity of product. With only one CD plant in Japan and another in Hanover, Germany, supply could not keep up with the demand for discs, which exceeded even the most wildly optimistic projections. Imagine, many major artists had initial pressings of just a few thousand discs for worldwide distribution! Now there are more than 80 CD plants around the world--in such unlikely places as a suburb of Prague and near Moscow. Most of these plants use equipment from Philips, and all follow the protocols of the Sony/Philips "red book"--the "bible" for CD manufacturing. Supposedly, this ensures that CDs pressed all around the world will be of the same quality. Manufacturing costs vary, however. A CD with booklet and jewel case runs about $1.30 to $1.50 in the U.S.; with cheaper labor in some foreign plants, the cost can be significantly less.

You may have heard stories purporting that CDs will not last forever. Some CDs have straight-cut edges, but most are sealed. If you're foolish enough to coat CDs with Armor-All, or a similar product, for some imagined sonic improvement, the highly volatile substance may contribute to deterioration on CDs without sealed edges. There was a case where an ink used on the CD label was wrongly formulated and supposedly caused damage. Well, friends, I kept CDs from the original 1983 release in the U.S. and now have thousands of discs in my collection. I have never encountered any deterioration and would be hard put to come up with a dozen CDs that mistrack! An obvious question arises: How do the early discs sound now, or modern CD players? After all, those early players were only 14- or 16-bit designs, with low oversampling rates, if any.

They also lacked the mechanical refinements and more precise servo tracking and sophisticated laser pickups that are common today. I was curious to determine if those "problem" CDs with strident strings and other sonic anomalies would sound any better on a modern player. Of course, I had to keep in mind that certain variables regarding ancillary preamplifiers, amplifiers, loudspeakers, and the listening environment entered into the equation. Whenever possible, I played the early CD of a given work versus a later CD of the same piece of music, preferably recorded by the same label.

My reasoning here was that perhaps there are some record companies that persist in using techniques which consistently tend to make strings sound overly bright.

I played the original CD "offenders" through a Wadia 2000 D/A converter with time-domain processing and, as an example of a modern unit using one-bit technology, a Sony CDPX77ES CD player. Two early recordings that had dismal sound-the previously mentioned Shostakovich Fifth Symphony and Leonard Bernstein leading the Israel Philharmonic in Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 (CBS CD35877)--were a severe test. I did hear some smoothing, and the strings no longer sounded as overly bright, grainy, or shrill when played through the Wadia (because there was no brick-wall filter in the signal path); the Sony's built-in converter improved things to a lesser degree. However, the modern circuitry of these units could not overcome the poor choice of microphones, close-up mike placement, and multi-miking excesses that were the principal culprits of the strident strings. New CD recordings of the same music did not exhibit the offending amusical, wiry string sound.

On this 10th anniversary, the modern discs and playback equipment have reached a level of sonic refinement that should make it very difficult for any new digital format to surpass or supplant CD as the medium of choice for music playback.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Apr. 1992; Bert Whyte)

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