The soft effect

May 26, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

A very kind HiFi Family member generously sent me a few Sheffield Direct to Discs. These treasures are hard to find and I was extremely grateful to have received them.

Upon playing the Lincoln Mayorga and Friends disc I was reminded of just how direct and dynamic they were. There’s a clarity here that you just don’t find on even the best vinyl products.

That clarity comes not so much from the direct to disc mastering process but rather from the lack of the tape recording process.

Tape recorders have a softening effect and every generation of tape gets softer and softer. Cutting out the tape and going direct to disc, while a pain in the keester to make happen, really demonstrates just how soft tape can be.

We get that same softening when we run our audio through analog electronics. Each pass through the circuit rounds off ever so slightly the transient edges, blurring the lines just enough to hear it.

It turns out one of the main advantages of digital is the elimination of the softening effect. No matter how many copies or generations of digital we never lose any resolution.

Tape was an essential medium. Without it we’d never have gotten to where we are today. But I am reminded of how much I do not miss its softening effect.

I prefer the direct dynamics found in the music—regardless of how they got there.

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33 comments on “The soft effect”

  1. By that premise all digital recordings should be equal too or exceed the sound quality of the Sheffield Lab direct to disc – but they’re often not.
    I agree tape does have a softening effect as proved by losses generation to generation but I don’t think thats the full story here.
    Maybe I’m the odd one out but I still prefer all analogue although I’d admit the game is getting closer to a draw.
    Of course in the majority of cases you’re still using analogue to amplify the signal to drive the loudspeakers.
    I also believe much of the softening effect of tape was reduced by using higher tape speeds which of course is more expensive to do.
    I like your reasoning Paul but I don’t think it tells the fully story just yet.

    1. AllanG,
      I concur with you, in that there are definitely some amazing
      ‘AAD’ CDs out there, & in my CD library, but there are also
      some sonically offensive ‘DDD’ CDs…it’s still pot-luck;
      unless you go with Bob Ludwig’s mastering & remastering 😉

      It would behoove all of us audio-nuts to assess DSD, as a
      recording medium, in maybe 6 years (min) time.

      1. Ah yes. Leave it to Mr. Ludwig to prove a point.
        Also. Does the ADD stand for Attention Deficit Disorder ?
        Just kidding of course, but the running joke amongst purist could be that CD’s lack that focused sound for that very reason. Lol.

      2. FR, Why wait six years? I have a TASCAM DV RA1000HD that I have been using for a decade or so to make DSD needle drops of my best vinyl. It is practically impossible to tell original from the DSD recording. Also according to the interview that Paul did with Gus last September there are editing capabilities for DSD although I am not sure how they compare to editing capabilities of PCM.

    2. No, it doesn’t tell the full story, just the disadvantageous part for analog.

      When reading on this site, you have to know and imagine the rest 😉

  2. “…while a pain the the keester to make it happen…”
    Ha! Like I always say, “Anything in life that is REALLY worthwhile usually takes a lot of EXTRA effort.”

    Hey Paul, I’ll bet that developing the software/system to be able to edit music in DSD is also proving to be a complete pain in the ‘you know where’, but once it’s been achieved, it ends up being well worth the effort.

    I have one Sheffield Lab CD – ‘The Sheffield / Coustic Set-Up and Test Disc’
    (The Audiophile Reference Series) Cat#: 10040-2-T (1994) ‘Made in the USA’
    & still a very good way to show-off a 44.1/16 audio set-up.

    **Off Topic**
    We have had huge wildfires, floods & now a massive mouse plague (not to mention CoViD-19) on the eastern coast of Australia in the last 18 months that has done more than 5 billion dollars worth of damage to crops, livestock & buildings.
    Does anyone here have an any idea on an ETA for Armageddon??
    Genez??

    1. Jeez FR, That armageddon is almost biblical in its telling – lets hope you have a brighter future ahead -and despatch any mice nibbling on your cables!

      I found out recently that you can’t always go by the majority of glowing reviews of a recording.
      I bought a used but pristine vinyl boxed set of Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde with the Berlin Philharmonic & Karajan.
      Non of the reviews mentioned the horrible rumble on the disk, I thought my TT bearing was shot! By coincidence I was gifted the same performance on CD and the loud rumble was still there. Maybe its revealed by my Infinity woofers or wide bandwidth but out of hundreds of reviews no one mentioned it. The performance is superb but listening through it is difficult.
      Upshot is we can’t always go by other opinions..

      1. AllanG,
        Herbert Von & the Berlin Philharmonic is probably THE BEST
        combination of conductor & orchestra that I have ever
        experienced as far as canned classical goes.
        The problem is (was) that back then the recordings, yes even
        those done by ‘Deusche Grammophon’, were (are) woeful &
        I doubt that any remastering, even that done by Bob Ludwig,
        can save those recordings…otherwise they would have
        remastered them by now.

        If only we could dig old Herbert up & send him & the BPO off
        to ‘Octave Records’ for some serious DSD work.

        1. FR Oh,that’d be good, pity we can’t go back in time and correct it though. Sometimes on classical recordings a background noise comes from the organ air compressor. I don’t know what they could do to reduce the noise apart from putting it into a sound deadening enclosure.
          The rumble though almost sounds like VLF feedback as its not at all like the subway train noises you sometimes hear. Maybe we audiophiles are too darn picky – as Paul would say 😉

    2. Well Mr. Fat…

      >>>>Does anyone here have an any idea on an ETA for Armageddon??
      Genez??<<<<

      I had a dream last night. I saw the Lord.
      For some unexplained reason he looked a lot like Jed Clampett.

      I asked him … "how soon?"

      Much to my surprise. He said to me…

      Wellllllllll! I'M A GETTIN ready real soon like!

      And, that's why they call it, "I'm a gettin." (Armageddon)

      Hope that helps! 😉

    1. Plus one for Doug Sax and Bob Ludwig, two guys that manage to get it right. There must be others out there? Any more suggestions for names we ought to look out for in those CD booklets that increasingly I need a magnifying glass to read 🙁

  3. Leading edge So important. Crucial to the timbre of the music.
    I once heard a demonstration where a solo guitar, once truncated, sounded like a flute.

    Pat Metheny’s guitar works with that deliberate softening.
    Spectral amplification (megahertz bandwidth) keep that leading edge best.

    Good moving coil cartridges too.
    The Decca London with its jump factor. Once heard forever sought.

  4. Until recently, the same debates have been running on analog versus digital photography. Analog remained a distinctive artistic discipline and a process that in itself gives photography character. More or less no one doubts the abilities of digi now. It is surprising how much more hesitant the same process in audio is.

  5. My first ever audiophile recording was a Sheffield Lab: Harry James, The King James Version. I can hear Corner Pocket in my head right now. The dynamics on a DD are unmatched and I think Sheffield were the best.

  6. It wasn’t so much that Sheffield Lab produced great recordings; it was really that most everything else sucked by comparison. Which leads to the question: why didn’t the recording artists and buying public care enough to demand that same excellence across the board? And, of course, today we have superb digital recordings from Reference Recordings and a few other labels, but. for the most part, mediocrity seems to satisfy the industry and consumers.

  7. You have the same effect on PA systems. A cheap (by audiophile standards) PA system with some guy blaring into the mic in a local coffee shop sounds far more realistic than said guy recorded and played back through an ultra expensive system. Cut out circuitry and using direct feeds does the trick.

  8. I have a 45rpm 5 LP box set recorded in April 2013, direct cut and digitally, at Metropolis. Apparently the first time it had been done for 38 years. The entire set was recorded in one take using several studios. The sound is exceptionally good. It was not a project for the faint-hearted. It was led by Nitin Sawhney, a very fine performer and producer. You can read about the recording process in an article – google “One Zero Sound on Sound”.

    With regard to tape, I understood the first and primary purpose of DSD was as an archive format for tape transfers. Of the five DSD purchases I made, two were tape transfers and sounded excellent (Some Other Time and All My Yesterdays). I would not say the sound was soft.

  9. Just spun Buddy Rich: Class of 78 D-to-D a couple of days ago. Great American Gramaphone Company. A reminder of what is missing in most CD’s – and by comparison, most LPs as well. That disk hops. “Real” sounding dynamics. Just fun.

  10. “clarity comes not so much from the direct to disc mastering process but rather from the lack of the tape recording process”. Paul, really? Just what is the D2D process if not bypassing creating a master tape from which to make pressing masters?

    Also, I own several Sheffield D2D LPs and they do have great dynamics and musical presentations. Their downfall in my opinion was several were pretty scmaltzy, among the worst being Lincoln Mayorga and Friends. Maybe that’s just my taste? ;^)

    1. Doug Sax related the story many times of how he became interested in D2D recording. He had been listening to some 78 recordings and in spite of their lack of definition and the frequency limitations, was impressed by the dynamics in many of those. In that era all the 78s were produced by a direct recording process, minus a master tape. And that led him to the now famous Sheffield recordings.

    2. M3 lover,I agree with you 100%. I have seven Sheffield D2D’s but more than a few of them are not to my liking performance wise. Thelma Houston and Tower of Power recordings were really good but they didn’t really sound like a live venue or studio event.

  11. “That clarity comes not so much from the direct to disc mastering process but rather from the lack of the tape recording process.” This expresses to me a distinction without a difference. What is the evidence for this, Paul?

    “It turns out one of the main advantages of digital is the elimination of the softening effect. No matter how many copies or generations of digital we never lose any resolution.” Focusing on one alleged problem of analog does not lead ineluctably to the conclusion that digital is the answer.

    To be preserved for playback a musical performance must be captured somehow. I find analog direct-to-disc to sound wonderful. I find analog recording on tape and low generation playback to sound wonderful.

    The emotional and musical involvement I enjoy from recordings I love is diminished less by the alleged failing of analog you describe than it is by the conversion of that music into digital and back to analog.

  12. Peter Ledermann through his Soundsmith company, produces and distributes direct to disc records. It’s called Direct Grace Records. http://www.directgrace.org/Home.html
    The records were made by Peter as a charitable project to assist the world’s “at risk” children and 100% of the profit goes to organizations such as ANPPCAN, which is a child advocacy organization in Kenya that reaches 16 different African countries.

    Peter Ledermann: There is such imbalance in the world; it seems that although the advances in technology result in the ease in which we live, somehow it is connected with all things, and without conscience, it pushes the inextricably connected imbalance into hardships and cruelty. This is especially a horror when children are involved. DirectGrace records is a small effort to rescue handfuls of children at a time; children who suffer a fate worse than death. If I can do that, it allows me to enjoy who I am, and all that life has brought to me for enrichment of my soul, those I know and those I don’t know. It is palpable; it truly feels that in saving even one life, one saves all of mankind. Without attempting that, I cannot honestly and graciously accept much.

  13. I have Volume 2 of Lincoln Mayorga and Friends and could never score a copy of Volume 1. The last track of Volume 2 ends with a hard hit on a bass drum. With the right speakers that are both time and phase-aligned (meaning that whatever crossovers are used don’t muck up the signal shape), that bass drum whack can be felt in your chest and gut. The direct recording to the disc could put you in the audience on each and every playback if the recording setup were done well. I have other Sheffield discs that aren’t as “live” feeling like
    these two.

    Playing this record through a 2.1 setup softens the sound. Often the listener is impressed but wonders what the big deal is about direct-to-disc compared to any other audiophile-quality disc.

    I see softening happening as Paul describes, but it even happens if the microphone settings aren’t just so or if the electronics feeding the cutting head have their own phase shifting and frequency distortions.

  14. Paul, dust off that Otari MTR-10 tape machine, order one or a couple of Chad Kassem’s (Acoustic Sounds) Ultra Tape jobs — I recommend the one I have, Oliver Nelson’s “The Blues and the Abstract Truth” — play it on the Otari and THEN talk to us about tape “softening.”

    In the meantime, enjoy your digititis 🙂

    Seriously, I have 20-30 direct-to-disk LPs and they sound fine, but not real close to the best tape “safety masters” (even the dubs thereof) in my collection. Yeah, I’m old as the hills, but really glad I discovered this before I cork off.

  15. Having played live many times, the one thong I noticed with digital that the analogue people “bitched” about gets nailed right here:

    >>It turns out one of the main advantages of digital is the elimination of the softening effect. No matter how many copies or generations of digital we never lose any resolution.<<

    When we were done playing a song in close proximity to the musicians I used to get a feeling that I get when listening to digital. But, digital had some of its own problems with listener fatigue. I believe that had to do with the skewing of focus of the sound. Like fatigue one gets when not using their reading glasses. That I believe has to do with converting the digital to analogue and the adjustments one must employ… I found certain ladder Dacs are free of this problem I had with chip Dacs. Listener fatigue. I wonder if the ladder effect is also a way to soften the sound…

  16. Both analogue and digital alter the original signal. Analogue does it by errors of omission while digital does it by errors of commission. Analogue does it despite every effort to keep the signal intact but fails to do it. Digital does it by mangling the signal beyond recognition and then puts it together to create a facsimile adding distortion at every step. Take your choice. Regards.

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