Wow and flutter
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.