Sunday, 22 September 2013

Precious Sound Memories

I was reminded yesterday of the fragility of a person's audio treasures.
The lady with the enquiry was most concerned that an album she owns on a music cassette is no longer available to purchase new in any other medium.  She wanted to preserve her tape by transferring it to CD format as she does not have access to a cassette tape player.  No problem:  I seem to be doing quite a bit of this lately.

No-one really knows where sound and video recording and replay technology will go in the future.  Formats come and go....anyone remember the 8-track cartridge?  It used quarter-inch magnetic tape in a chunky cassette,  first appearing in Lear Jets and later in many cars.  Check out ebay for tapes and even players.
Back in the early '60's my first foray into HiFi involved a turntable for playing the new stereo LP's and an open-reel recorder for music tapes.  The records, except for ones I discarded or sold, are still playable, but the tapes have met their demise over the intervening years.
My greatest audio treasure is a 10inch, 78rpm acetate ( a type of plastic ) disc of my father singing two songs.  It was cut in the early '40's in a small studio somewhere in Melbourne.  With careful transfer and state-of-the-art noise reduction software, it doesn't sound half bad.  I only wish my mother's fine coloratura voice was recorded somewhere.

So where are we going recording-wise?  Deeper into the digital domain, it seems.  There is quite a bit of discussion as to the best digital recording system - the one that will best preserve all the information captured by the microphones employed at the time.  Sony is heavily promoting its 1-bit DSD digital encoding format, as in SACD discs, while the rest of the professional and amateur recording world uses some form of PCM, multi-bit system.  A few die-hards prefer the recordings made by tape machines.
Does the average person buying the music of their favourite group or composer really care?  I think not.  Just consider the popularity of downloads from iTunes, etc.  Thankfully high resolution downloads are becoming increasingly available for those of us who appreciate quality reproduction of our music.
After quite a bit of research, I have to say, in my opinion, the best current, affordable, practical recording format is 24bit, 192KHz PCM, using best available encoding hardware (interfaces) and software.  DSD is a close second, but subtle artifacts from high-frequency noise are an issue.  No digital system is perfect.  No replay system is perfect.  We can only hope, at this present time, to approach the level of audio perception of the human ear and brain.
Every recording system is both fragile and ephemeral.  Some folk have thousands of tracks on their computer hard drives.  But hard drives fail.  Records and tapes wear out or are damaged beyond repair.  Formats come and go....anyone heard of Elcassette?  Thought not.
But take heart - even some of the Edison wax cylinders and players are still going strong, after more than 100 years!  Not a bad record.

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