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Is there such a thing as a 'truly flat' recording? - public expectations

A.S.

Administrator
Staff member
It may disappoint audiophiles, but I dare say that a truly flat, undoctored, unedited, unmastered audio recording does not exist. The front end of the recording process has, and has had for decades, an array of technical facilities to shape, bend and process the audio as captured by the (relatively) flat studio microphones to make it marketable to the general public. With the progress of cheap digital technology, these now-software tools are extremely sophisticated - and ubiquitous. As with all tools, they can be used and abused.

Take for example, software plug-ins from the well respected iZotope company, website here. The new Ozone 7 Mastering Plug-ins offer extremely useful tools to 'sweeten' recorded audio, and you can be certain that these or similar tools will have been used to artistically shape contemporary recordings, whether issued as streamed files, on CD or on LP.

Here are the sort of adjustments that can be made -

Vintage Tape [Advanced only]

The Vintage Tape module brings the distinctive richness and warmth of tape saturation to your modern digital recordings with all the frequency coloration, distortion, and phase effects of [analogue] tape. Take advantage of analog tone for masters that sound more musical with added dimension, fatness, and depth.

Vintage EQ [Advanced only]

With the richness, warmth, and color of Pultec equalizers, Vintage EQ lets you brighten your master, smooth out heavy lows, and add body to your digital recordings. Discrete frequency value selections let you boost and cut separately — but at the same time! — without ending up with a “boomy” master.

Vintage Compressor [Advanced only]

Vintage Compressor is a single-band compression module for subtle warming and sweetening effects. The program-dependent release tailors release shapes depending on your material to adapt naturally to your music. Thicken the midrange, tighten and round out the lows, let the top sparkle, and get authentic vintage character.

Vintage Limiter


Glue a mix together and add character with the Vintage Limiter’s warmer, analog-sounding final-stage limiting while retaining the ease and precision of digital maximizing. Bring a natural feel to harsh and digital-sounding masters. Get a silky warmth and body and the nostalgic vibe of the classic records you grew up with.
I've underlined one of two phrases in the above which I feel are highly relevant to the audiophile. It's important to appreciate that nobody is pretending that these equalisers are doing anything other than taking the digital source and bending it to emulate the familiar analogue sound of yesteryear. It is doubtful that had we jumped from shellac 78s directly to CD that many of these tools would have been created, but passing through the intermediate vinyl era created a certain widespread public expectation of how recorded music should sound at home. But it is far removed from the front-end studio reality in frequency response, dynamics, signal-to-noise, distortion and stereo width.

It is beyond argument that as the public have never experienced sound as heard the other side of the glass in the studio control room, their perception of what is sonically 'right' is moulded entirely by the musical diet that they have been fed, on vinyl, over two generations. In other words, the public know no better, and as we know, when they are delivered the digital reality, many who classify themselves as audiophiles reject that sound. The analogue/digital debate is not a technical one, it's about mass perception. Precisely the same issue applies to TV pictures. Because the public (rarely) attend TV studios where they are immersed in a pin-sharp 360º brightly illuminated colourful scene, they have been able to readily accept both monochrome VHF TV, then 625 line PAL colour and later 1080 broadcasts on tiny two dimensional TV screens all of which provide 'marvellous image fidelity'. In actuality, we are preconditioned to believe that those panellists were monochromatic and in soft focus because that was the image delivered to our eyes. But in fact, had we been preesnt in the studio we would have seen that they were multi-coloured, pin sharp and with normal high contrast.

Here is a good overview of audio sweetening - dynamic equalisation -in action, video here.

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P.S. On the subject of preconceptions and expectations, I can think of no better example than my favourite 1960s USA TV series, Lost in Space, with it's dark malevolent story lines and high moral tone (probably had a greater influence on me than anything my parents taught me I've long thought).

Seen through the little B&W TV in the corner of our room in the mid 60s, this was a world of terror and human failings:

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That monochrome, two dimensional, soft-focus world was wholly real to me - and still is actually. I don't see grey skin - in my mind I see normal Caucasian skin tone, and the monochrome actually enhances the uncomfortable unfamiliarity of a family marooned light years away.

Imagine my shock on subsequently encountering what I would have seen, on set, had I been present in the studio during filming .....

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What a shock. Even though I'm well aware of the fact that the colour images are true to life, there is something attractive about the B&W images even though they contain far less information. Comfortingly surreal. And there we have the analogue/digital debate in microcosm.
 
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willem

Well-known member
Distortions of reality

Distortions of reality

The video on dynamic equalization was interesting. It showed that this is a system that more or less automates what an audio producer would do manually to clean up the sound.

Much of it seemed eminently sensible, and unobjectionable, precisely because recording is such a delicate and imperfect balance on the interface between the mechanical and the electrical. Watching it you loose some of your innocence, but for me that is all.

The other links to options to create nostalgic euphonics are an altogether different story. Here, the recorded sound is bent to the uneducated taste of romantics misled by audiophile nonsense. The cynical observer may also conclude that it shows those euphonic norms for what they are: distortions of reality.
 

witwald

Active member
Resurgence of reel-to-reel tape decks

Resurgence of reel-to-reel tape decks

I liked the photos of those old reel-to-reel tape decks. They are certainly very impressive looking pieces of audio hardware. I just had to have a little chuckle to myself when I read the following:

"What makes tape such a smart choice? For starters, it has greater dynamic range than vinyl, with extraordinary sound at the frequency extremes: the treble and bass. Next, consider the amount of signal processing that each medium requires. Vinyl: a lot. Tape: very little. Signal processing is the enemy of hi-fidelity. The less studio voodoo the master tape (MT) is subjected to, the better."

The article reminded me of an old Akai 4-track reel-to-reel recorder that a friend of mine, who is a musician, had used to record himself playing on guitar back in the late 1970s. It was a two-speed machine, like most reel-to-reel players, supporting tape speeds of 3.75 and 7.5 inches per second. He now wishes that he'd never sold it. I wonder if it's still working? It wasn't, however, one of those fancy 15 inches per second machines.

These reel-to-reel machines need careful alignment to give of their best. The heads needed to be cleaned on a regular basis to clear them of sticky tape oxide residue. If you were recording, you needed to adjust the recording bias to ensure that you were going to get a good frequency response (possibly relatively flat) out of whatever tape formulation you were using. Of course, to do that, you needed to have your own signal generator to feed in the required sine waves at various frequencies, at 10 kHz or 15 kHz or so, depending on tape speed, to see the effects of the bias adjustment.
 

IMF+TDL

Active member
Analog tape high frequency response gets worse with each playback

Analog tape high frequency response gets worse with each playback

"But then you can press Play, and bask in the flat frequency response."

Perhaps for the first several plays.
Record some high frequency test tones on a tape, play it back ten or twenty times and then see how much the level of those tones has dropped.

Play a CD a hundred or a thousand times and there's still no deterioration.
 

A.S.

Administrator
Staff member
Analogue tape - really sorry, very bad news

Analogue tape - really sorry, very bad news

"But then you can press Play, and bask in the flat frequency response." Perhaps for the first several plays.

Record some high frequency test tones on a tape, play it back ten or twenty times and then see how much the level of those tones has dropped.

Play a CD a hundred or a thousand times and there's still no deterioration.
I'm actually in a far better position to comment on analogue studio tape recorders than vinyl replay systems because I have several with an original purchase ticket price totalling perhaps $30,000. They include what is thought to be the very finest studio machine of all - the Telefunken M21a.

My first experience in a BBC studio as a teenager was of watching the 10" NAB reels rotating, and it's not something that one could, or should forget. I'm sorry to say that when basic audio test equipment is applied to analogue tape, the result is plain to see. No matter how perfectly the reels are rotated, the limitation is the recording medium itself, the tape itself, which is nothing more or less than a thousand foot long, wafer thin, flexible magnet. And it should be no surprise then that the two fundamental and insoluble issues were, are and will always be:

- inconsistent contact between the moving magnet (the tape) and the erase/record/replay heads which give rise to constant drop-out and issues like scrape-flutter (insoluble) due to the tape itself being a physically resonating structure (like a string on a violin)
- self-erasure and print through and age related degradation of the moving magnet (the tape) (insoluble)

On a related issue, the fact that analogue tape worked tolerably well at all is because of massive EQ applied in recording, and the inverse applied in playback, similar in concept to the RIAA curves of record cutting and replay. Technically, good analogue tape is just a tiny bit better than vinyl as a storage medium, which is why as a recording and delivery pair, analogue tape and vinyl LP worked successfully. The vastly wider dynamic range of CD, lower hiss and practically zero distortion allows the listener to clearly hear the limitations of analogue recordings, which is why the whole industry converted to digital as fast as they could in the early 1980s.

We've looked at this subject in great detail, and you can refresh yourselves here.

I've worked myself through the analogue tape phase, extracted every ounce of warm emotional attraction that could be extracted and now see it for what it really is. Beautiful mechanics, miserable medium. Does this sound familiar? It should.

Jay McKnight, a most approachable engineer, is a living authority on analogue tape recording, and just for starters, have a look at one page of his extensive archive here. Like audiology, analogue tape is a thoroughly researched subject over half a century and reached an insurmountable technical peak thirty or so years ago. One of the great skills in life, especially in business, is to know when you are beaten by technology, and beaten the industry was.

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P.S. Interview with Jay here. Considering that he has made a business out of manufacturing calibration tapes for setting-up studio recorders, take note of his comments on page 2 in answer to questions about 'young people and analogue recoding...'.

There is nothing more we can add to the subject here that has not been said and known by those in the recording business for a couple of generations. Do not waste any money on this subject unless you collect technical art.
 

Ned Mast

Member
Still natural classical recording?

Still natural classical recording?

"It may disappoint audiophiles, but I dare say that a truly flat, undoctored, unedited, unmastered audio recording does not exist".

In the realm of pop music, I would probably agree. But in classical? Just how flat the microphones used by Telarc are I don't know, but all (or almost all?) of their classical CDs have the following statement under technical information: "During the recording of the digital masters and the subsequent transfer to disc, the signal was not passed through any processing device (i.e., compression, limiting, or equalization) at any step during production." Undoctored, then?

I'm fairly certain Peter McGrath takes a similarly simple approach in his recordings, as does Kavichandran Alexander.

I agree that many audiophiles reject what might be close to natural recorded sound, having been conditioned by both vinyl, and recordings and speakers that skew frequency response. But I think - in the realm of classical recordings - one can find more than a few that represent fairly well the sound that was recorded. While we have no way of knowing how accurately they have done this, I hear enough acoustic music in real halls to use this as my reference when listening to my system.
 
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