Category Archives: Recordings we like

Just listened to NIN “hurt” on vinyl.

So I just listened to NIN (Digital distortion in a purely analog signal path.) “Hurt” on vinyl.  This is a song I know very, very well.  One of my all time favs.  I finally got my vinyl signal path dialed in so I broke out the record, which I’ve kept sealed for years.  Put it on the record cleaning machine then on the turntable with the Denon 103R (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…) tracking the grooves. I had great expectations which it met and exceeded, even over the SACD copy which I’ve listened to a lot. But what amazed me is just how fundamentally different it sounded, like I’m hearing this cherished song for the first time.  Sure… it makes sense since I’d never before heard a purely analogue version.  But still…  amazing really.  As a side note, Johnny Cash did an amazing rendition of this NIN classic, found here:

Jonny Cash “Hurt”


Digital distortion in a purely analog signal path.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is an enigma.  He plays with all sort of digital gear and tools to create his music and distort guitar riffs so they are “just so”,  Then he records the end result on 2″ analogue tape.  Drop the needle on a faithfully released vinyl version of Pretty Hate Machine or The Downward Spiral and you will likely be surprised by the sound quality from what is mostly digital sources (though there are still plenty of pure analogue sources in the mix).  So how can music that was produced in the 16 Bit digital era of the 90s, have digital sources, and yet sound so good?…

The answer is deceivingly simple.  Digital wasn’t the recording method, but rather the source of the music itself.  Then Reznor went to traditional analogue recording methods to create the master tapes.  This sounds counter-intuitive, but it really isn’t.  Unlike Daniel Langois, who recorded the analogue sources from U2’s sessions on 16-Bit DAT tapes, thereby destroying the sound quality forever, Reznor created his music mostly in the digital domain then faithfully recorded it on high quality analogue master tapes.  Digital distortion was his favorite creative medium, but he obviously recognized the inability of the 16-Bit digital tape format to faithfully record his digital compositions.

NIN is a very progressive band in all respects.  What’s interesting is how progressive they were by refusing to adopt the “latest greatest” digital technology that reared it’s ugly head in the music industry during the era of their greatest popularity – 16-Bit Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio).  If you listen to any of their music, past or present, you can immediately tell it was recorded in the analogue domain.

By their own design, NIN creates a very interesting mix of controlled distortion.  Trent Reznor talks a lot about how his form of artistic expression is in the realm of distortion.  Other “old school” bands incorporated distortion into their music of course.  Just listen to any live performance of The Who and you will hear intentionally created analogue distortion all over the place, often created by destroying electric guitars on stage.  But Trent Reznor has taken the concept to an entirely new level by utilizing computers to create, control, and refine it digitally.

What’s fascinating is that, with the revival of vinyl records (The new (old) gear coming out), NIN’s albums are now available and faithfully reproduced from the original analogue tapes on vinyl.  So… for the first time in history, we get to hear his intentional/artistic, digitally created distortion faithfully reproduced with an all-analog signal path.  How cool is that?!

Pleasure And Pain Ben Harper & Tom Freund

This album was produced and recorded by George Cardas in one take on March 15, 1992 in Upland, California using a Cardas Differential Microphone, a Cardas Hexlink Golden 5-C Cable, and a Studer A-80 Tape Recorder.  It is indisputably one of the ultimate vinyl reference recordings of late, and I must  confess that I’ve been remiss on my review since I added it to my vinyl collection.

Why?…  Well, every time I throw this gorgeous slab of heavy weight vinyl on my turntable it mis-tracks.  So, I suppose I’ve planted my head firmly in the sand since I’ve gone to such great lengths in setting up my turntable that it pains me to hear mis-tracking, no matter what recording.  And this is the only record I’ve ever heard mis-track.  Does this mean there’s something wrong with the recording?  Umm… a tempting deduction but unfortunately not the case.  Rather, there is so much right about this recording that even my finely tuned turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination can’t quite handle it.  Keep in mind that the tonearm was chosen specifically for the demanding compliance requirements of the best phono cartridge I’ve ever heard, the Denon 103R moving coil (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?)….  And, I’ve gone to painstaking lengths to isolate the my chosen Denon direct turntable properly (Denon DP-790W turntable review).  So the observed mis-tracking isn’t due to oversight.

Fact is, this recording has such extraordinary dynamic range that it will certainly find the Achilles heel in any fully analog system.  It only mis-tracks on a couple songs, and even then only on very brief transients, and the rest of the time it’s one of the most amazing recordings you’ll ever hear.  It has such presence that if you close your eyes you would swear Ben Harper is in the room with you, plucking his guitar and serenading with amazing harmonizing vocals.

So, to be honest, I had been avoiding this recording (and review) until I could solve the mis-trackng.  After some tweaking of stylus force and anti-skating I’m finally listening to it tracking perfectly as I write this.   Yes, this recording is so amazing that I need to recalibrate my tonearm and cartridge for it!  But it’s so worth it, and my tonearm settings will go back to where they were for the rest of my vinyl collection as soon as I lift the needle.

If one format is better than another, why doesn’t the music always sound better?…

So here’s the deal….  DSD recordings are the gold standard of high definition digital audio.  They are not always the best digital recording of any particular album, but they have the opportunity to be.  Just because a title is released on SACD (i.e. DSD recording) doesn’t mean that the recording engineers did everything else possible to provide the best quality.  Sound quality varies title by title, and I’ve listened to many DSD recordings and found that  some are better than others, just as I’ve found some vinyl recordings are better than others.  A perfect example of a dismal DSD formatted release is the SACD version of U2’s “Achtung Baby”.  The fault isn’t in the DSD format, but rather in the fact that the original master tapes were 16 Bit DATs (Digital Audio Tapes – The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio).  So the SACD version faithfully reproduced the totally flat (lacking dynamic range) and lifeless sound quality that the original 16 Bit DATs were limited to.  Garbage in, garbage out syndrome and, as much as the purveyors of such releases would like you to believe that upsampling performs some kind of voodoo magic, it doesn’t.  You simply can’t make chicken salad out of chick shit.

The very highest quality DSD recordings are those made “direct to DSD”, meaning that the artist’s were assembled in the studio for the purpose of “cutting” a DSD master recording.  Since “direct to DSD” recordings have only been around for less than a decade, they are limited to new and relatively unknown (though often very talented) acoustic artists.  The “direct to DSD” concept is analogous to the “Direct to Disc” recordings put out by Sheffield Labs in the 1970s, where the artists would record direct to the vinyl cutting lathe without interruption.  That’s right, at the time “disc” meant vinyl record.  Not only did the artists have to perform flawlessly for an entire record side but, perhaps an even more amazing feat, so did the recording engineer who was continuously adjusting and mixing the levels of up to 24 tracks simultaneously.  Screw it up and everyone starts over, not from the beginning of the song but from the beginning of the 20+ minute LP side.  Painstaking to say the least, but these releases eliminated one more link in the recording chain, the analog master tapes – the recording went straight to the LP cutting lathe and the recordings were used industry-wide to showcase what audiophile quality sound was all about.  In fact, Dave Gursin’s “Discovered Again” direct to disc recording was one of the reference LPs (What is a “reference recording”?) of choice for the loudspeaker designers at Audionics of Oregon when I worked there back in the late 1970s.

Second to DSD digital quality is PCM with a resolution of 24 bits, at a sampling rate of 96 kHz or 192 kHz.  I’ve found that the 24 bit depth resolution to be the key factor, and the sampling rate to be far less significant.  This makes perfect sense when you think about it – 24 bit sampling offers a resolution that is 256 times greater than the 16 bit that “Redbook” CDs offer.  Since digital is binary, we are talking about 2 to the power of 24 (16,777,216 bits) vs. 2 to the power of 16 (65,536 bits), whereas a sampling rate of 192 kHz is only 4.3537 times greater than that of 44.1 kHz.

And not all titles are available in all formats.  That’s why I’ve got a mix of different formats and have several titles in more than one format.  Interestingly, DVD-As are going way up in price since the format is dead and they are becoming more collectable.  A sealed copy of Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” on DVD-A sells for around $120 vs. $15 for a sealed SACD copy, even though the SACD release has superior sound quality.  Go figure.

Online downloads are getting better all the time and are perfect for those who prefer the convenience of having a music server.  But be careful as many tracks are just up-sampled and resold as being higher definition.  In case you are wondering what a music server is, just think of iTunes.  It is the most ubiquitous music server in existence and remains the ultimate example of convenience over quality (as for audiophile quality music servers, see DSD Music Server project).  The files sold on the iTines Music Store are grossly inferior to even Redbook CD quality (16-Bit/44.1K), and useless for high definition audio playback, though useful for other listening (What I love about MP3s).

Online downloads of high definition audio files come at a premium price.  For example, the cost for a PCM 96K/24 bit download of Eric Clapton’s “461 Ocean Boulevard” (a fantastic recording) costs $25 and the better quality DSD version on a sealed SACD costs only $16.  But listening to the SACD means you need to get  out of the listening chair and insert the SACD disc into your player whereas with the PCM 96k/24 bit file on a music server you can buy individual tracks, make playlists,  and sit on the sofa and change your mind, all iTunes style.

And… the techies love the gadgetry that the music servers offer, “Hey, check out what I can do with my iPhone remote”, and are willing to compromise quality for it.  Some will argue that is not the case but they are likely spending more time discussing it on the forums than sitting down and listening to their music.

I’m of a different cloth, where sound quality is paramount and everything in my system is selected to that end.  That isn’t to say that I won’t connect my iTunes server to my high end system and put on background music.  But when I do my “sit down and listen” sessions, I want the best quality possible.  As I write this I am listening to DSD off my music server and warming up my amps for a vinyl session.  Not many people sit down and listen to music anymore, and that’s fine.  I just happen to be amongst those who still love doing so.  Over… say, watching TV or listening to NPR any day.  I suspect few with high-end music servers sit down and listen to their music much, where they do nothing else but enjoy the music.  And that’s fine, they have some of the finest quality background music playlists the world will ever know.

Linn has been leading the charge for good quality high definition digital audio with their SACDs and music servers.  This is ironic, since they established their name based upon their venerable LP-12 turntable, which is still sold to this day for several thousand dollars.  More importantly, they are “all about the music” and go to great lengths to get the recording right in the studio.  And, when they put one of those recordings on a SACD the results are astounding.  The first time I sat down and listened to one of their reference recordings simply redefined what I considered digital audio capable of.

Ghosts I-IV [Vinyl]

if only the recording engineers who ruined The Cure’s Disintegration album had payed the same attention to detail as Trent Reznor did on this one.  If you think you know Trent Reznor’s work from NIN, think again!

This release is split between a total of 4 (yes… 4!) vinyl albums, all meticulously recorded at 33 RPM (but i bet they were 1/2 speed mastered to sound this good)

I’ve collected several of his late 80’s albums that have been re-released on vinyl, and they are all some of the best pressings I’ve ever, ever heard (including MFSLs OMs from “back in the day”)

the sound reproduction is probably the best i’ve heard on vinyl so far.  two of my four LPs are very warped, amazing they even play really.  i purchased it several years ago so too late to send the back 🙁  there’s a device for sale to flatten them i might buy

this is unlike any NIN you’ve ever heard.  TR is one of the most creative composers of his era and stands out as one of the most creative and influential of all time.  I like NIN, but he’s influenced the music of many, many other artists and was producer and engineer on many incredible soundtracks, such as “Lost Highway” and “Natural Born Killers”
this album is him playing around with ideas that you would never hear played on the radio.  very esoteric and definitely not for everyone, but worth buying if you have a good front end to hear what it’s capable of.  he is one of the few of that era who cared deeply  about sound quality.  maybe listen to some tracks online if you can find them…