The soft effect
A very kind HiFi Family member generously sent me a few Sheffield Labs Direct to Disc CD’s. 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.
Sheffield Labs in a great music label and makes both LP’s, as well as CD’s. Their recordings sound terrific and what Paul is writing about today, has seen the same thing happen here, especially with the new T+A electronics I use and have become a dealer for. And, unlike many labels, their music selection is varied.
The first time I listened to a Sheffield Labs direct to disc recording I experienced a dynamic surprise. A kick drum that seemed to come out of nowhere to pound my chest. Oh my gosh that was an amazing experience, one that’s stayed with me all these many decades.
Modern recordings seem to have forgotten the joy of dynamic surprises. Instead, many producers want constant loudness and drama, forgetting (or maybe not being aware of) the sheer delight rapid changes in dynamics can bring.
Very few recordings in my stable of treasures have those dynamic surprises, something we fully intend to change as we produce music.
If you have a few favorite recordings with dynamic surprises, please do share it with us.
There’s always an appetite for the unexpected.
Although I just use my eyes and ears to set up customers audio and video systems, I use the XLO/Sheffield Labs disc to test my reference system. I know how things are supposed to sound, better than I know the back of my hand, so this disc is very helpful. The Stereophile one is a good one too.
An easy better
One of the pitfalls of audio system testing is loudness between devices under test. One must be scrupulously careful to gain match anything you’re comparing to. If a new amplifier even a dB or so difference in gain can make a noticeable performance change. And, you certainly don’t want to choose one piece of kit over another when a simple twist of the volume control can make this right again.
When we test various designs or wish to listen to the works of others it’s pretty easy to gain-match since we have access to a lot of fancy audio test equipment. You, dear reader, probably do not have that same access and so it can be a little more difficult.
You can often go to a manufacturer’s website and get their specs. There, you can see at a fixed frequency how much gain an amplifier has. If it’s off by dBs, then your next challenge would be how to compensate. With many preamps, such as our own, we specify our volume in predefined steps: 0.5dB for most of the range.
You can also gain match with a test disc and microphone setup. On my iPhone, I have several dB meter apps. Decibel X is one that’s worked well for me, but truth is, you can use just about anything and it’s fine. The key to gain matching is making sure the microphone is in exactly the same spot each time and the tone played is the same too. I still use the Stereophile test disc as my reference standard.
However you manage to gain match equipment, just make sure you do when evaluating for sound quality.
In yesterday’s post we mentioned a Sheffield Direct To Disc recording and several readers asked me just what that was. It was the most direct method of recording possible before the advent of digital and interestingly enough it was a throwback to the original recording technique. Perhaps a bit of history is in order.
When the idea of recording first came into our society all recordings were “direct to disc” only there was no disc. Better said as “direct to cylinder”. The capturing of sound at the time used no electronics but rather a large acoustic amplifier (a horn) whose output had enough air movement to push a needle cutting a pattern into wax or tin foil wrapped onto a rotating cylinder. Once recorded all you had to do was change the needle type from a cutter to a player and reverse the process to hear it played back through the same acoustic amplifier – this time the needle following the cut grooves in the cylinder and moving the air so you can hear.
Thing was, whatever you wanted to record had to be performed live and without any mistakes. This was a real challenge for both the performers as well as the recordist as any errors would ruin the take and it had to be done again.
Enter the tape recorder that used electronics and magnetics to capture the sound with the advantage you could control the recording process and edit the performance making the life of the recordist and performer a whole lot easier. Problem was you had to transfer the recorded sound to the disc removing the listener away from the direct recording and adding a layer of sonic degradation – the first of many to follow.
As the high-end audio field gained in popularity it was natural enough to want better source materials and some lucky few were able to get copies of original master tapes to enjoy, but this was rather limited and expensive. Then came the idea of direct to disc recording once again that would eliminate the in-between tape recording and get the listener closer to the musicians.
The problems were the same as before – no mistakes in cutting or performance could be tolerated to make a great recording and once finished, only a limited number of copies could be made from the cut master so copies of these masterpieces were expensive and limited. But the results were amazing with a clarity and dynamic range that couldn’t possibly have been achieved any other way than digital which didn’t exist in popular form at the time.
I am sure some of you remember better than I but Sheffield and Crystal Clear records were the only labels that came to mind as I am writing this.
It surely was a magical time in the history of audio and I was glad to have been a part of it.
Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.