How less can be more

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In a recent post entitled Digiphobia I remarked about the limited dynamic range of the analog/vinyl space. I also mentioned how much greater that dynamic range is with digital audio. That, of course, sparked a lot of comments. Good. Here's the thing:technically speaking vinyl/tape/analog (as we think of them) are limited in dynamic range and frequency response. Rather a lot actually, relative to digital. This isn't up for debate. However, one might then ask why good vinyl sounds so damned dynamic! The answer is not a simple one but here's part of the story. Much of the useful dynamic range found in a CD is wasted by most recording engineers. The low level bits are really not doing much because engineers are desirous of keeping the average level high. A good example of the opposite of this is a Keith Johnson Reference recording. Keith's modern recordings (all digital) have to be turned up an additional 10dB or so. If you listen to them at the level you might a CD, it will not sound right. He's taking advantage of much of the increased dynamics available on the digital space, but to do that requires you to turn up the average level on your system. Try that with analog and you get too much background noise. On a digital based system there's nothing but beautiful silence. The vinyl mastering engineer, on the other hand, has the opposite problem than does Keith. His issue is the limited dynamic range available to him. He has a space smaller than live dynamics and he needs to squeeze what he can into that smaller space without mucking up the sound too badly and give you the sense of realistic dynamics. That recording engineer has a lot of tricks he can employ to make the recording believable, including compressing the signal a wee bit to bring up the low level details. How much does it take for the ear to tell your brain there's a lot of dynamics? Turns out not a lot. Going from the softest to the loudest allowed on this restricted medium can be startling. So startling that your brain tells you this is a crazy amount of dynamic range (which, in fact, it is). So don't take what I say as a condemnation of vinyl, a format I enjoy for what it is and provides. It has the ability to portray music with startling dynamics and amazingly real sound and can sound like music at its best. Only digital has the capability of being better, much better and a chance at capturing all the dynamics and information of a live event. And when you hear a master recording using the improved tools of today's best DSD and PCM recordings it'll drop your jaw.
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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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