Audio, Etc. (Jan. 1979)

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Oh, boy, is the disc alive and well! Far from dying as has so often been predicted, it is now likely to become one of the most important of our recording media both as entertainment, on a much wider scale than at present, and strictly business, for information storage. Maybe Edison was right when he launched. his phonograph as the stenographer's dream machine.

Of course, I am not talking about the present standard disc, the venerable LP and its junior sibling the little 45, now respectively a bit over 30 and 29 years on the market. What I mean is the next generation of disc ERA IV a la Shure, counting from the original acoustic shellac a new superdisc family that will at last close the appalling technological gap that has developed over these years between the LP and current disc capability.

That gap is already greater than the one which was closed in 1948 when LP took over from the 78, then a half-century old, acoustic and electric. When the present enormous gulf is at last closed, as between standard and possible, we will have a true revolution in hand, in the classical pattern. That is, much more than the mere parameters and system of the present disc will be replaced. The platter, as we know it in the entertainment area, at least, will no longer exist. An immense rearrangement, an upheaval! I wonder which will come first, this or the next California earthquake? The odds are not very different.

Our forces of technology do, in fact, build up very much as do those of the big quakes, though fortunately they are not let loose as suddenly. New methods, new ideas, new know-how, new processes, new R & D, all these keep right on proliferating, in our field as in others; and yet because there is already an operating standard, very little can be directly applied. Everything funnels through the necessary parameters of the standard or is put aside.

And the more successful and extensive is that standard operating system, the greater is the vested interest in its status quo. Thus the big slowdown and the larger the gap grows, the greater are the forces required to overcome, to establish the new. Earthquake building.

Nothing wrong! Please don't think that "old" or "established" means something nasty like reactionary! The LP record and system is NOT reactionary indeed, in its own way, it is the opposite, still active, mature, still moving forward, an enormously successful system, and a useful one. After all, what would we do without standards, long enduring, even beyond their time? Such as, say, railroad track width, the numbers in a round dozen, the ounces in a pound. You can name a hundred that are rightly under challenge though of honorable descent.

Go metric! Go binary. Throw out the d (British old penny) in favor of the p (new penny). How ingenious and wise of the British to toss away their duodecimal-and-worse coinage in favor of decimals with so very small an upheaval! What we must always do in these overdue catch-up operations is to minimize the human earthquake that is inevitable, do what we can to make useful links, maximize the benefits and reduce the hurt. In England you can still spend a shilling anywhere in the actual metal, or a florin, or sixpence. They even fit the slot machines.

And so right now we are working on a few disc links, ahead of time, to help us over that vast technological gap in disc potential between the present LP/ 45 and the violently different discs that are inevitably coming, to bring us to up-to-date standards. What'll you bet that the first of these you will see will be, by no coincidence, 12-inch platters, pressed in existing plants out of plastic of a normalish sort, and probably stuck into present paper envelopes and cardboard jackets, shipped in existing cartons and stacked up on regular record shelves? That's the idea. But what a very different record this will be.

Compatible Collusion

So, it is save what you can, cushion the quake, be reasonable, lessen the shock, spread the load, salvage the salvageable. Plenty of salvage, even in such a relatively ancient system as LP and with such an incredible distance to jump. There's a word for this. Compatibility! Its purpose is ever the same, to help in a difficult transition. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, like, say, the "all-groove" needle, the stylus that would play (more or less) both 78 and LP grooves, or the much less disastrous turnover-style double cartridge.

And where do you think our present handy semi-plug in cartridges got their form? Same place alternative plug ins for the two grooves. So it's not sauve qui peut, before this revolution, but save sensibly. And in these last few brief years each new prototype disc of the coming generation has shown more awareness of this critical aspect of change that, to me, denotes real progress.

What we are doing today, and must do for a good while, is to live on two planes at once. We watch the new discs develop and approach marketability maybe. And we go right along with the old disc. Curiously, though, this necessary double standard is surprisingly difficult for most of us to understand and evaluate even for those who are highly knowledgeable in a technical way. Maybe worse for them. It is much more than merely living with the old and the new, perforce. We must give them true equality, however different they are.

Now that involves a lot more than you may think. After all, there is that gap, and the comparative performance figures for the old and the new, so incredibly different. It's easy to sound off about the new technological marvels and the utter obsolescence of the silly old LP or, oppositely, mutter away about visionary money-wasting and the importance of the tried and true and a mature, workable, successful existing system. We can't think either of these ways. We must think equality. Different, but equal and, moreover, interdependent.

So even our thoughts, in the engineering and in the home playing, must exist on two planes, both continuing, both showing advancements of importance. Sort of hard, I admit, but there you are. On one level we have the rarified and money-rash area of R & D where the new miracles go into expensive development and then, usually, go back to be developed some more or maybe dropped cold. A dangerous game and prone to massive mistakes.

Sometimes, oddly, the fault is not enough radicality. Or a slant in a wrong direction, out of touch with the future. Who can be sure? Wrong direction can be as fatal as faulty technology. Right direction (as it turns out) and you're in. Everybody tries to be right. That's R & D and is it nerve-wracking, as well as exciting, for all those involved. Nothing too theoretical about our R & D in disc, these days.

The gap has long been bridged and bridged many times. But the gulf itself isn't yet closed. No new standard yet.

Evolutionary Improvement

Down on the other level, the other plane, we have the present LP disc and the 45. One of the astonishing things about the LP is that its basic parameters, as set forth by Dr. Goldmark in 1948, have allowed a steady flow of improvements right through these 30 long years, and even for an unforeseen revolution, the introduction of disc stereo. That was a right direction, and it was essentially within the LP's capability. Some minor compromises, notably in separation but do we now complain that tape stereo separation is audibly better? LP stereo proved extremely practical, if not ideal in all the specs.

So give the LP its due, for the past and even for the present. And don't forget that it is the underpinning, in the disc area, that makes the upper level of advanced R & D possible and reasonable. Also keep in mind that LP technology continues to be important in its own right, and it has not stopped advancing. The LP is still impressive in plenty of ways and I hope that somebody has remembered to celebrate the anniversary with a long list of its achievements over these years.

Not for me to do, but I suggest that, in terms of my two coexisting planes, the upper or R & D, and the lower or continuing standard, the LP system has been a model of excellence. It has been good to us. And the LP is still forward looking. Note how recently it has become the vehicle for the most advanced published recordings yet, the digital and direct-cut types yes, you can hear the difference, even via this ancient record! So the disc situation, the over-all momentary quo is clear and sharp and the latest entries on the upper R & D level, the superdiscs, admirably define its shape and nature. We're getting there! After last year's sensational Mitsubishi/Teac digital disc, laser recorded, laser played (Audio, Feb., 1978), we now have a further entry in the pits (pun intended) out of JVC. These two join a number of earlier prototype systems, such as Teldec (two generations if I am right) and others from Europe and I almost forgot us such U.S.A. developments as the now rather muted RCA venture, pioneer, though not Pioneer. All of these, it is increasingly clear, have been on similar tracks and offer similarly astonishing new parameters of sheer performance. Big diffs, natch, and corporate war as usual. But it begins to look right now as though there actually might be a convergence what a miracle. Those pits, for instance. They are ever more clearly the digital wave of the disc future.

The digital pit replacing the analog groove. Wow they might even come to an agreement on compatibility of the pits! Would that be the earthquake. Let us hope & pray.


So you begin to get the picture pun intended. The fundamental revolution is ever closer but the LP marches on and it must and should continue to develop, like the VW Beetle, which did the same right up until this last year, because it, too, was obsolescent but world reliable. (I still drive mine in preference to that thing they now call VW.) Note the careful overlap before the Beetle departed to Brazil. And note the mostly unheralded multiplicity of identical parts, between Beetle and its successors. That's the right game. Save what you can, ease the revolution as it happens.

Now, in all this context, a portentous word or two. Beyond all other reasons, including corporate battles, lack of directionality, technical problems partially solved, too late, too little, the real reason that the quadraphonic disc failed (it has failed, at least here) was simply because, for the first time, the LP was pushed overtly beyond its capacity. You can add all the other arguments you want on top (you will) this is the basic one. The LP itself couldn't take it. There had to be either an elaborate overstrain or, equally, an elaborate and admirably ingenious compromise either way, it was too much . .. flogging an elderly race horse, with the young ones almost ready to run.

All you need do is consider what we now have in prospect. Last year's Mitsubishi/Teac disc casually offered, just in case anybody was interested, a potential for 16 discrete audio tracks simultaneously. That would make a nice discrete quadra-quadraphonic, now, wouldn't it? As for JVC, they don't even mention the possibility, but with 14-bit digital PCM they surely could do something of the sort as well. If somebody ordered it.

Well, somebody won't. We need a few more years' worth of long breaths before we tackle all that again. But do not think that multi-channel audio space has just faded away, in favor of stereo forever. We learned unexpected new things during all that four-channel flap and many of them are still with us. New cartridge design, new styli, half-speed cutting, and such active offshoots as the home space synthesizer via digital delay. Please note that you do NOT synthesize space in your living room via two channels.

So we can wait. Via the new systems, when the upper level gets here, multiple-channel sound is going to be easy and very viable, as anybody can see. The whole idea is dormant for the time being, stunned, you might say.

But again, we now have the capability and, sooner or later; we will use it. But it will never again be via the LP. Meanwhile many of us still play all our LP recordings "surround" and we will continue as long as we play LPs at all. A great LP advance for those who have the courage to stick with it.

I have deliberately left unmentioned to the last the real revolution, obvious to all. There will never be another purely audio disc system! The LP is the last of its lineage.

Picture Discs

There will be audio discs, of course. But any future disc system, whatever, will as a matter of course be picture capable. We have this technique too and we will use it. The new audio disc will find its place as a modest alternative type, within the ample parameters of the picture-disc system. Inevitable! There can be no argument. And JVC's new disc entry, the unpronounceable "VHD/AHD" system is an interesting illustration. This system is launched two-way. It has a single disc player that accepts alternative discs, either pictures-with-sound (we shouldn't really call it TV) or audio-by-itself, in super digital fi. Take your choice. The system is still technically prototype (whether or not it is for sale), and it looks to be a bit clumsy and maybe expensive but just wait. And look at the parameters.

A relatively "cheapie" pickup, non laser (capacitative), that just slides. No grooves, instead, pits, millions of them, in close spirals pressed right into the plastic. An electronic feedback pickup drive for tracking. (Maybe eventually compatible with Mitsubishi?) You guessed it 12 inches, on only mildly special plastic (conductive), and it can be pressed via existing LP presses. See what I mean.

Performance is par for the course upper level. Sky high. You get two hours of color and stereo sound per disc through your TV set, an hour on each side. That's more than twice the "long play" of the old LP. You can imagine, at 900 rpm, the sort of spiral this means, and the headroom, bandwidth, etc. Gasp, gasp. That's what we can do now, friends. As for the audio version of this disc, it probably plays forever. They haven't finished timing it yet.

Oh, so you want more details? Sorry, not now. I have to go play an LP.

(Source: Audio magazine, Jan. 1979; Edward Tatnall Canby )

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