Now that I’m in the midst of library building from my CD collection, it’s a good time to reflect on the merits of CD audio. Decades later, it is a funny thing, this compact disc. Just like various pressings of a vinyl record, some sound great, some sound less than great; but all of them avoid the surface noise that will always plague vinyl. Let’s remember, CDs were innovative and neoteric, and incredibly convenient: no flipping sides, no fast-forward or reverse. Just a small, shiny disc that contained an entire album’s worth of music (but not liner notes) that one could manipulate with a remote control from the comfort of, well, on one’s backside.
My time with CDs goes back to the mid 80s, when a VEAP check afforded me my first CD player – it was a Yamaha, and while I don’t remember the model, it had a feature called FTS: favorite track selection. Some of the earliest discs I still have are Roxy Music’s Avalon, Peter Gabriel’s Security and The Sugarcubes debut album. BTW, I’d also like to debunk the myth of “they don’t last forever.” All of my discs have ripped. The only two that I haven’t been able to read are because they were physically damaged. I will admit that some read slower than others, but I have yet to find this so-called “disc rot”. Touch wood?
As a collector, I find myself gravitating back toward the earliest CD pressings, the so-called “target” era, when discs were made in West Germany and Japan, and were essentially “flat-transfers” of the original recordings. A lot went into making a CD sound good. Initially, it was finding a suitable source – an original 1/4″ stereo master, as opposed to some later generation – and let’s not pretend that those pioneer engineers weren’t good at what they did; but I also imagine the lack of computer tools to manipulate those source files owes to the “purity” of the early discs. That said, some don’t sound so good: Who’s Next on MCA comes to mind right away. I’ve scanned the bargain bins for the 80s and very early 90s pressings of Van Der Graaf Generator discs (on the Caroline Blue Plate label) which avoid the harsh sound of later remasters, and cherish the fact that I did keep the original Line pressings of Gentle Giant’s first four albums.
Why is this? The so-called loudness wars. CD “remasters” are a tricky thing. Ostensibly reissued to provide better sound, they don’t always sound better than earlier pressings. Why is this? In an effort to make things sound better in earphones and compete with “modern” recordings, mastering engineers have made vintage recordings “louder” by compressing the music’s dynamic range, the difference between the loud and soft in a recording. Does this mean they all sound worse? Well, that’s matter of preference, but categorically I can say this: The beauty of the flat, non-compressed music is the ability to crank up the volume on a good system and enjoy the dynamics of the original recording. Take a look:
With the DR14.T Meter program (and help installing it from here), you can even check this with your own files:
> Scan Dir: /mnt/data/music/ripped_archive/Gentle_Giant/1972_Three_Friends_[Line]
01_Prologue.flac: DR 13
02_Schooldays.flac: DR 13
03_Working_All_Day.flac: DR 12
04_Peel_the_Paint.flac: DR 12
05_Mister_Class_and_Quality?.flac: DR 13
06_Three_Friends.flac: DR 11
DR = 12
- The full result has been written in the files: dr14.txt
- located in the directory:
Elapsed time: 3.71 sec
As a format, CDs are just about done, now eclipsed by streaming. Long live CDs.
On the web:
Album list – Dynamic Range Database