Sunday, April 6, 2014

CD masters vs Vinyl masters

Many years ago, before I bought a CD player I listened to almost all of my music using a record player. I had a few players, nothing really "high end" but they were competent solid performing record players with wooden bases, metal platters and metal tonearms. I was perfectly happy with their sound.

When I bought my first CD player I was immediately struck by how wrong the music sounded. Even at the time I recall describing the sound to others as being harsh, steely, artificial, and having excessive high frequncy energy, and a distinct lack of bass.

This all happened around 1993. Right around the time that CD was really starting to take over as the dominant format. New vinyl was being sent to the tip to be crushed and was reported on the news. ( I think this was more of a marketing stunt by the record companies). I advocated to friends and family and anyone who would listen, that CDs didn't sound very good. I only bought CD's if the LP wasn't available.

A few years later I discovered by accident that some CD players did sound acceptable. The CD player that changed my mind was the Akai CD-A7. It used the Burr Brown PCM53 DAC chip.
I liked this player because it had really huge dynamics, strong realistic bass and treble that wasn't overpowering, and this resulted in a fairly natural sound. It sounded closer to LP than any other player I had heard.

Now that I had come to the realisation that digital audio could sound OK, I set upon finding the most analog sounding player.  This search has taken many years and is a search that still hasn't finished.

I've owned or auditioned a great number of CD players and stand alone DACs, from commercial products through to kits.

One thing I have learned is that the overall design and associated components does greatly affect the end result. All "flagship" DAC chips can sound great if the circuit around the chip is designed intelligently and sympathetically to highlight the strengths and address the weaknesses of the chip.

Even though I own a couple of players and DACs that meet my objective of "closest sound to analog possible" I am still left with a problem, and this is where I come back to the topic of this article. CD masters vs Vinyl masters.

People like me who own the same album on both vinyl and CD will probably have performed this experiment. You play the LP and CD simultaneously, and swap between each source. Generally what I find is that the LP sounds more preferable to my ears. However the opposite is sometimes true.
I generally find the LP (being the first "version" of the music that I heard) to have a particular sound or "mix" or "mastering" that I am familiar with, and that I like. I also find that the LP is generally mastered with a greater level of bass and quieter treble, which is a sound that I prefer.

I've found that LPs sound better when the album is an analog recording from the 1960s up to the mid 1980 or early 1990's. Post 1990 digital recordings I find to sound better on CD than LP, (but not always)

 I began to wonder if the difference in sound between the LP and the CD was due to the format, or due to something else. In order to narrow down the point of difference, for experimental purposes, I digitally recorded a few LPs.

What I found is that playing back a digital recording of the LP sounds basically the same as the LP played back directly.(Note 1)

I've found that the predominant difference in sound between the same album on LP and CD is the way the disc is mastered.

I've recently learned that when cutting the LP master, the cutting engineer would have to make adjustments to the equalization of the music in order to make sure the needle would stay in the groove, and he would also make subjective equalisation choices that sounded good to him. The cutting engineer would also spend more time on albums where he personally enjoyed the music. So, what this means is that the master tape was mixed relatively "flat" with the knowledge that each LP master cut in different countries was going to sound different, and that each cutting engineer would impart his own sound upon the record. This is one reason that record collectors seek out pressings from other countries. With certain pressings being more prized than others -due to the equalization choices made by the cutting engineer.

This raises a few questions with regard to CD reissues of albums originally not released on CD such as music from the early 1980's and before.

  • Have record companies been providing us with the "flat" two-channel mix down versions or something else?
  • Do record companies realise that these versions don't sound the way people wanted or expected them to sound?
  • Have the record companies deliberately given us the "flat" versions knowing that at a later date they would release a "remaster" which contains a more "ear friendly" mix?
When CD was first released it was advertised as "perfect sound forever". Capitalism dictates that providing any consumer with the "perfect product forever" is not conducive to making more money.

The reader can make up their own mind if this is a deliberate act by the record companies.

Note 1 - A digital recording of an analog source can sound very good, but it does not sound identical to the original nor sound as good as the original analog source. The analog source always sounds better!



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