Searching for the Lost (Analog) Sound.

Searching for the Lost (Analogue) Sound.

You do not have to say a lot about the ideology behind the analog audio technology these days. In a world where almost everything is done digitally, the idea of analog sound continues to exert great charm and have a strong footprint in our reality, with the audio industry offering many interesting products. For a practical point of view, however, there are a lot of things you can say and write, things not necessarily liked by everyone. Even if you are just an occasional reader, you -probably- are aware of our views. Outside personal preferences, digital technology is the path to be followed in the field of sound reproduction, provided that the audio industry has the reign of any relevant technology. The audio industry should develop and support technologies that at the same time are open and in a parallel harness to the current information technology. However, the issue of the following pages is unrelated to digital audio.
Instead, it concerns the analog technology and its real potential. The relationship between the real prospects of analog technology and those we see in practice reminds Plato's Allegory of the Cave, perhaps not in all its implications, but certainly in some of them. Most audiophiles form an image for analog audio through processes that they do not control, and often do not understand. These processes may allow the production of and listening to analog media but have some serious limitations. That the "analog sounds better" could be an honestly expressed opinion, but collides with our technological reality. Consumer analog media such as vinyl records and cassette tapes, evaluated according to the established technical criteria, do not sound better than digital media. This does not negate the fact that under certain strict conditions (a top-class vinyl cut, played back through a top-class turntable system, for example), analog media quality could be extremely high and sometimes overcome a poor digital version. This is something that has happened in the past and is still happening today, but it is not, of course, enough to characterize a specific technology as a whole.
The fact remains that friends of analog sound, however excited, remain stuck in Plato's cave and still have the experience of a reality that is not true. It appears that there is a difference between what real prospects of analog audio are, and what we perceive, in practice, as consumers. An observation that brings us to the question: "What are the real prospects, after all?".

A great way to give a response to this question is to reach for the real source of analog sound today -the analog master- before any compromises the vinyl record production requires are made. An unpredictable ally in such a search lies in the recent renaissance of the venerable analog reel-to-reel tape machine. With virtually no active mass production today, you can find a second-hand R2R and, potentially, use it to listen to a master tape. Not surprisingly, the market is in line with the demand and there is a modest supply of both (mainly used/refurbished) machines and new tapes with some companies offering copies of their masters for those who want to have the relevant experience.
We think that the following story is a much better case: It is one of those times when there is the opportunity not only to listen to the master of a recording but also to compare it with the vinyl album that arose from it and, at the same time, to have access to many interesting facts about the whole process.
Willing partners in this whole project were Magnetic Fidelity and Jesus Agnew, the engineer behind the production of the album, from the recording, the mastering and the cutting process to the quality control of the vinyl records and the transfer of the master to second-generation tape copies, along with Naxatras, a Greek band that not only writes very interesting music, but maintain an opinion on how to record it, with a strict preference to analog. Our main goal was to listen to both media and to critically evaluate them based on the sound quality rather than the artistic value in a twofold effort: First to evaluate how well a high quality, focused on high fidelity, vinyl record can sound and, secondly, to listen at firsthand the differences between the master and the record.
The text is organized into six sections (including this introduction), and although the best way to read it is in a linear fashion -that is, in order, it is so designed that the readers can navigate as they please without any problems of understanding. On The Cast, you can read some details about the contributors of Naxatras III, the Magnetic Fidelity people, and the Naxatras themselves, including their musical instruments and the audio processors featured in the recording. The Interview contains the basic ideas on which Jesus Agnew and Magnetic Fidelity based the whole recording and production process. Naxatras III Production contains information about the basic ideas, procedures, and devices used during recording, disc cutting, and the tape transfer for the duplicated master production. Tape Machine Stories is a short acquaintance with the tape recorder/playback machine used -in an ad-hoc fashion- to reproduce the duplicated master and an opportunity(perhaps for the first time in many years) to apply criteria and methods for evaluating such a device. Finally, Impressions and Conclusions include our listening impressions from the two media as well as some reflections from the project.

Dimitris Stamatakos

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Original Publilcation: 2019/03/26 Last Follow Up: 2019/03/26

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