ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

October 1, 2005

Analog and Digital: Going Off the Gold Standard

Language. Can’t live with it, can’t shoot it. Coverage of Hurricane Katrina included the plight of the dispossessed. A few talking heads referred to these folks as refugees. Hackles and dander sprang to alert. They’re American citizens, damn it, not refugees!

Language. There’s even a fine distinction between emigrant and immigrant. The former’s a touch more genteel.

Language. On frequent occasion, in casting about for something nice to say about a digital whatever, the audio journalist applies analog as the gold standard. "I swear to you, it sounds as good as analog. No, really, I mean it!"

I’ve been exchanging e-mails with a chum in New York, an event organizer and publicist for, among others, a prominent American composer. We’re both into J.S. Bach’s church and secular cantatas, he more deeply than I. (The man’s knowledge puts mine in the shadows.) It was he who alerted me to a sea change in two ongoing cantata recording projects, Ton Koopman's and John Eliot Gardiner's. Both conductors have parted company with their record labels -- respectively, Erato and Archiv -- to soldier on under different flags. My friend also mentioned a third cantata project I’m familiar with, led by Masaaki Suzuki and recorded in Japan with Japanese and Western performers, on the Swedish label BIS. In his estimation, all three cycles are better than anything that’s gone before. And, of course, like the current productions, almost all that’s gone before occupies compact discs.

It would be instructive to compare the sounds of the Koopman, Gardiner, or Suzuki discs to cantatas on vinyl from the 1950s and ’60s, when I first became aware of the music’s attractions. I don’t think any sane philovinylite would plump for the older medium’s superiority -- not in these instances. Productions of an earlier cantata project, conductor Helmut Rilling’s on Hänssler Classic, spanned the divide between analog and digital recording. These, too, all on CD, sound less good than the Koopman, Gardiner, or Suzuki surveys.

My understanding of pop music’s vast terrain -- black, white, Latino, alternative, underground, cabaret, bubble-gum, etc., etc. -- would fill a small page in 20-point type. With respect to music I like, I can say with certainty that vinyl is history. A few audiophile entities excepted, a commercial label would as soon issue a production on Edison cylinders.

Meaning what, exactly? That analog obtains largely as a hobbyhorse? Perhaps, but to a fast-diminishing degree. It’s more a question of doing justice to a medium. Large and valuable LP collections deserve the best playback possible, and if that requires analog front ends priced like Hummers, then by all means -- I am the very picture of equanimity when observing someone else spending buckets of money. My publicist chum, in shopping for speakers, listened to a showroom system that included a $30,000 turntable. A Mercury Living Presence LP of Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony in Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, a 1962 Cozart-Fine production, sent him into orbit. He has champagne tastes and a six-pack budget, but above all, a discriminating ear. I’m trying to be fair.

Fair but relevant. In matters monetary, we went off the gold standard long ago. In matters technological, two-score years is a long time. And good sound is good sound, then and now. (The 20-year span begins with the CD’s appearance in record shops, not digital recording. Denon, for example, had been taping in digital long before CDs began popping up in bins built for LPs. With respect to "popping up," remember those oblong plastic slabs and cardboard "longboxes"? No? Enjoy your youth.)

Cultures can be as strange as language. Prior to the overthrow of the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911 (and probably later), Chinese ceramists, calligraphers, and painters would think nothing of turning out works that mimicked exemplars from the distant past. They weren’t counterfeiting -- rather, they were paying homage to an always superior, earlier time. Ming potters did it often. You could call it an aspect of ancestor worship. Do I need to draw lines?

At this late date, comparing good digital hardware or software to their analog counterparts is a curious yet understandable practice that traces its origins -- in a perverse sort of way -- to the compact disc’s voluble detractors. Enough flogging, already! The mule is dead, its bones are chalk-white, and it’s way beyond smelly. Justification is no longer the issue. Let us be grateful, rather, for convenience. To be sure, Luddism has its attractions, but I wonder about the point of a $4495 phono cartridge that sounds fantastic, in the highly unlikely event you get it to track properly. I’m paraphrasing a review. If I dropped $5000 on a CD player that requires massage, libations, and prayer in order to sound its best, I’d have myself committed. I’ve yet to read a review that warns: "The player’s a bitch to set up, and it's really, really finicky, but boy oh boy, get it right and watch out!" Speaker placement maybe, but that’s another animal.

Turn the analog hobbyhorse out to pasture. Put the gold standard to bed with Dr. Gildersleeve’s Wonder Elixir and Wart Solvent.

...Mike Silverton

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