The live myth

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Just a reminder that if you’re attending Chicago’s Axpona, come by and say hi tomorrow, at 4PM. I’ll be one of the cranky old guys up on stage in the Legends Forum.

There are no perfect recording or playback mediums. The much sought after goal of reproducing live music from recordings in your home is mostly a myth, though we often catch glimpses – snippets of the thrill of what it might sound like – sometimes outright fooling us into turning our heads because it sounds like someone is playing in the room. But consistently fooled? Not in my experience.

And yet claims of one playback medium excelling over another swirl like Minnesota black flies in June.

I promised in yesterday’s post on mastering limitations that I’d mention some areas where digital doesn’t hold a candle to vinyl in a technical sense. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact vinyl’s analog. And analog is the gold standard. Analog is continuous, infinite in resolution, and defines the medium conveying recorded music: the output of a microphone. Digital’s performance is always referenced to analog’s gold standard.  Sony’s original marketing claim of Perfect Sound Forever suggested digital is a carbon copy of analog (which, of course, isn’t true).

Digital’s proclamation of perfection is kind of like the artificial sweetener industry’s claim that their product is “indistinguishable” from their gold standard – sugar – a claim we can argue about all day long – but the point is the same. Both are attempting to be as good as the reference. Never better. And if someone’s claiming “better“, run like hell.

I don’t want to focus too much on the good and bad of digital, though most of you know my stance on it. DSD is closer to analog than PCM – and not by just a little. Sure, there are pundits that hear more detail and resolution from PCM than DSD, even if the PCM is a copy of the a DSD recording. That’s a subject we’ll likely jump into when we take a breath. But for the purpose of this discussion between the two major format groups – vinyl vs. digital – I will simply reiterate that both from a technical standpoint and from my own listening experience, DSD is closer to analog than PCM of any resolution.

But regardless of your opinion on the matter, here’s the thing. Both vinyl, DSD, and PCM’s goals are the same. The accurate reproduction of the original analog waveform in all respects.

Vinyl attempts to capture the analog using analog means – while PCM strives to do the same thing with numbers, DSD with varying degrees of energy density. In each case, the goal is the same.

And none get it right.