Wow and flutter

May 18, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

The terms wow and flutter will bring back memories of tape recorders to some, perhaps pictures of butterflies to others.

Wow is a low-frequency fluctuation while flutter is a much faster version of the same thing. Steady state instruments like oboes and piano are particularly affected by these mechanical distortions prevalent in tape recorders and record players.

I was reminded of these ancient problems when digital audio pioneer, Tom Jung of DMP Records visited Gus Skinas in Octave’s studios. For those of you unfamiliar with DMP records, look up one of my favorites, Tricycle by Flim and the Bbs. To this day it remains one of the punchiest tracks I know of.

It was great to see Tom and we chatted and laughed as we both remembered our relief when the move to digital audio began. No more needles, wows and flutters to worry about. (of course, there was plenty of other problems, but that’s another chapter).

(pictured from left to right: PS Audio’s Gus Skinas, Chris Brunhaver, Darren Myers, and Bob Stadtherr followed by Tom Jung and disc mastering engineer, Matt Lutthans)

I recently ran across a 2018 interview in Stereophile magazine between Jonathan Scull and Tom Jung.

Jung: Well, back in ’76 it was the absence of wow and flutter. No matter how you slice it, it’s still there in analog machines. And you can hear it, especially with the piano. Digital’s absence of wow and flutter sounded more like what was coming off the studio floor. Of course, at the time we couldn’t compare it with the lacquers because they were all carefully packed and sent to the manufacturing plants. But we did compare it with the analog tape, and everybody in the studio thought there were things they liked better about digital. But as time went on I came to realize that digital sounded maybe a bit confused…

Scull: No pun intended?

Jung: [laughs] Anyway, something we had in analog was missing. So no free lunch, but overall digital was a better thing from the get-go.

Scull: Ah, a chink in the armor. What was missing, do you think?

Jung: Well, information. You know the way PCM or any digital works—it breaks the analog signal down into little pieces. And I’ve learned that the smaller the pieces are, the better it’s going to sound. That, and a lot of attention to detail all the way ’round. And, given that, to me DSD just sounds better. In fact, one of the biggest problems with PCM digital today is the analog circuitry that surrounds it. But PCM can sound very good if the analog is really done right both on the A/D and back again.

Remembering our past helps us move forward in our future.

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26 comments on “Wow and flutter”

  1. What a great team you have there Paul.
    (I finally saw Gus’ name on the inner sleeves
    of a couple of Elton John albums from 1970)

    **scottsol**
    Great ‘Playboy Forum’ story (Eddy Current) that
    you posted at 09:06 on this site yesterday.
    Thanks for the laugh!

    **Genez**
    Nice little follow-up too 🙂

  2. Nice memory of DMP, of which I still have several albums. Sounded “better” than bright, overdetailled digital at the time, but compared to good analog or today’s digital, to my ears sounded very muted and locked on top end and overall somehow “damped” and not breathing.

    Regarding several technical characteristics I’m with those who saw early digital as better from start in those (lack of mechanical distortion, wow/flutter etc.). I guess the different focus on technical vs. musical qualities led to varying opinions about overall sound quality progress of the new technology…and still does.

    Hearing the better sound quality of DSD vs. PCM, I’m still not aware of the “big jump” often proclaimed (which I personally perceive from best all analog, with its other own limitations). But the Directstream DAC is probably not the right unit to compare PCM with DSD, as it converts everything to DSD. I think it’s not easy to properly compare for others than studio folks.

    1. I still remember the marketing claims for the PS Audio PWD and other DAC designs recommending “native” for replay (avoid any upsampling) for best sound quality. Maybe I missed the new design ideas for digital filters and upsampling schemes. Chords sometimes publishes white papers for most sophisticated filter designs (number crunching taps). On the other hand there are some sound engineers dreaming of old school ladder DAC designs (R2R) with vacuum tube output stage. The question is: what are the minimum requirement for your hearing ability, loudspeakers or headphones to make the most subtle and rather marginal differences in sound “quality” audible?

  3. Fat Rat,
    It’s “Penthouse” Forum for the record. Come on you’ve got to get your “reading material” straight.
    BTW: I loved the cute and bawdy “poem” too. I’m an Electrical Engineer so I got all the references as obscure as they may be.

  4. Paul left out a more revealing instrument that has always plagued tape machines. Recordings of the pipe organ! More so then piano because of the much brighter/higher harmonics AND, the sustaining long notes and chord progressions.

    It STILL amazes me however, that it is very minimal considering all the steps from recording to our playback at home is very listenable!

  5. Sitting here at my desk composing this short “op-ed” for you all to read after reading of today’s post. Paul, sometimes when I go to church, I have no idea of what my pastors sermon is about, and yet when I do, the message is clear and direct to me. Today’s post got me inside my head and thinking about what’s next for me in audio. I’ve pretty much settled on my stereo system and my setup, other than a few pieces I’m going to add,(P.S. Audio Power Plant and Steller Phono) this is it for me. So what’s next? Today’s post gave it to me, “Recordings”, that’s what’s next. I’ve listened to you Paul now for a little better then two years or more, reading post after post, watching video after video learning along the way as well as listen to you talk about Octive Recordings, however this time, its really got me thinking as I’m sitting here at my desk listening to Sanborn Session’s feathering Bob James and how sweet it sounds. Last night I listened two four different albums and each had a different sound. At first, as I do, I started thinking about my equipment. No, because some of the albums were “bright, vivid, and tasty”. They seem to come out of the speakers and sat in the chair next to me, while the others actually made me look at my speakers and wanting to reach over and pull the music out of them. It’s recordings. You continually post about recording studio’s and how they record. What’s my point? my point is to get into reading the record labels and album covers to see who engineered it and what studio recorded it. I typically buy albums based on the artist and vaguely know who recorded it. I know blue Note, but other then that, that’s it. Thanks Paul, your post today has become a sermon for me today and has given me a new project.

    As always Keep Listening 🙂

  6. 40 to 50 years ago if turntable had less than .25% wow and flutter this distortion was not that much of a factor. Today’s quality time tables

    1. I must’ve got timed out. I started my reply about four comments up so if you want to see you how it began in this comment you can scroll up and take a look. Today’s quality turntables have very low wow and flutter so I’m not sure why today’s topic is making such a big deal about this type of distortion. Of the three sources that I derive my listening pleasure from, analog is taking back the lead. It’s not my main way of listening to music but it’s my most enjoyable. And, it may well stay in this order for quite some time judging by the resurgence of quality recordings on vinyl records.

  7. Unfortunately, there is what digital audio could have been and then there is the race to the bottom we all experienced.

    I just subscribed to Amazon’s HD FLAC streaming. Being a mastering engineer, I take great care with not clipping AAC and MP3 codecs. I was stunned by how much better the FLAC versions of many recordings sounded. I test all of my masters and never allow the level of degradation that seems SOP for some.

    Another surprise has been the number of 44.1 x 24 and 48 x 24 streams.

  8. Ah yes, Tricycle, the literal gateway track that wowed and fluttered my head and got me into this endless enjoyable quest for goodlier sound..
    You’ve heard it, it is playing in your head right now. If not, it goes:
    Buh buh buhhh buhh buhhh, buh buh buh buh buh-buh, buh buh buh-buh……….
    BLAM!! Buh bum.
    Just like that.
    But Blammier!

    Hooked on gooder english.

  9. I had to laugh when I read one of your favorite CD’s is “Tricycle” by Flim and the BB’s. The gentlemen I used to work with, (another budding audiophile back in the mid 80’s), introduced me to these guys when I worked in the Biomedical Engineering dept. at Hamilton Health Sciences. He electrical and myself mechanical. Between his electrical expertise and my mechanical know how, we built our first power amp designed around an “Erno Borbely” creation. (Designer of Hafler products).
    Tricycle was the first BB’s I bought. Amazing! As you say, very punchy!
    And I thought we were the only one’s around who listened to that stuff. Ha!
    You guys certainly have an amazing team! It certainly shows in your products.
    Keep up the great work!

    1. I put together one of your siblings from a kit back in 1981. It lived many happy years between an Advent 300 (used as an FM tuner/preamp) and a pair of ADS L520s.

  10. I recall reading an interview with Frank Zappa that he preferred digital recording, not because of wow and flutter so much, but because he ran into increasing tape hiss problems from the multiple overdubbing technique he often employed. He had what he called his Ampex guitar, where he would insert solos that he particularly liked from various concert performances into mostly studio tracks. There is also his octave guitar opening riff from “Peaches In Regalia” where he recorded it on an electric bass at 7-1/2 i.p.s. and then replayed it at 15 i.p.s. for mixing into the main track.

  11. For all practical purposes wow and flutter are of no importance in present day analogue play back equipment i.e. turntables of good quality. When present it is because the turntable is defective or an ancient all in one affair from the fifties or sixties, or the recording is defective or it’s in the person mind. Wavering piano notes do not exist otherwise. It makes a great point for analogue detractors but only for self satisfaction. This topic is, as far as playback is concerned, a tempest in a tea cup. It has been almost forty years and digital is still playing catchup despite leaps and bounds progress. something to think about. Regards.

    1. Back in the day of mass produced ‘crank’em out’ hit albums, slightly off center holes were a common problem. This added a consistent wow each revolution. Some were so bad that you could watch the tone arm move back and forth. One manufacturer, Nakamichi I think, sold a turntable that could automatically shift the center post, but not the platter bearing shaft, slightly so that record would spin true.

  12. Paul

    I ordered a used ‘New Pants’ cd by Flim & the BB’s which is another punchy release, this past February from the UK, and it has yet to arrive. A victim of Covid shipping nightmares I’m guessing. I’ll wait another few months before I reorder.

    Cheers
    Bill

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