- What would be the best audio format ever?
- What will be the best audio storage format ever?
- Does it exist yet? Is it something we already have?
First of all, we’ve got tape we’ve got cassettes, 8-track, and reel-to-reel. Those are the three most popular consumer tape formats that we had available to us.
Let’s talk about cassettes because they get a lot of bad rap and I saw somebody posted a comment on audio-fi recently something about :
“If you think cassettes sound good you’re deaf”
I disagree I had a very expensive cassette deck years ago and I was able to make really good recordings.
It had three heads it had adjustable bias control it had all the different noise reductions on them which by the way aren’t without their problems but it was an improvement and of course the tape formulations as well, chromium dioxide metal and those helped a lot as well improving the sound quality.
Cassettes are really were invented for voice dictation. But advances in technology allowed them to be used for music and they can sound very good. Cassettes run at a very slow speed one in 7/8 inches per second which is the slowest tape speed out all the tape formats made for music.
And the tape is very very narrow it’s only 1/8 of an inch wide so they have to cram four tracks of audio to four sides a and to four side B onto this little thin tape.
So you wouldn’t think it would sound good but they did, with all the advances in noise reduction and tape formulations and biasing they could actually be made to sound really good.
I used to make copies of some of my CDs so I could make like mixtapes and I A and B them and that’s fine that sounded pretty good I was able to make very good sounding cassettes not sure what some of you have problems with it but I didn’t.
8-track tapes had potential. I know they generally sound horrible very few people had an actual decent 8-track player or recorder.
They never really went that far the format kind of lost its integrity eight tracks run at twice the speed as cassettes do and the tape is twice as wide so it’s a quarter-inch wide instead of an eighth inch wide.
Eight tracks generally did not enjoy the tape formulations like chromium dioxide and metal so they were stuck with the old ferric oxide and that’s why they really didn’t sound that great.
Not only that but most of the eight tracks that people listened to were pre-recorded which means they were massed duplicated in high-speed facilities and they generally they weren’t duplicated under ideal conditions.
Just like cassettes weren’t when you bought a cassette of an album it was really usually not very good sounding. But because eight tracks run at twice the speed had they been given a chance to enjoy some of these other tape formulations they could have sounded pretty good.
In radio stations, they used to use what are called carts and cart machines.
A cart is just like a it’s just it’s like an eight-track tape really it’s got the same car it’s not compatible with 8tracks but it’s the same idea it’s a continuous loop of tape that spools out of the center of the reel of tape and around past the heads and unwinds around back on the outside just like an 8-track does.
But these tapes sounded good enough that radio stations were using them for music and commercials.
I used to have a friend whose job was to transfer all the 45s that came in from the record companies onto cart tapes and so that the DJ’s could rack them up behind them and then he could just pull them and easily queue them up a little easier than using vinyl.
Of course, he still did use vinyl but they used cart machines as well, also used them for commercials.
If you go on YouTube and you look up “cart machine tape” you can listen to some of these things they sound good. I mean certainly a lot better than 8-track did, so the format potential was there with 8-track but it just never got pushed off the ground any further than it did.
Now that leaves us with reel-to-reel and as these are all obviously tape formats.
Reel-to-reel depending on the speed that you were running it as they could also sound very good.
This is all analog stuff so it’s not digital so all you analog fans out there this stuff is for you and especially reel-to-reel machines they don’t get the same bad rap that cassettes and 8tracks do. Generally, reel-to-reel machines are regarded as high-quality tape recorders.
They can run it three and a quarter inches per second seven and a half inches per second and even 15 inches per second for some of the very high-end ones and in recording studios, they could run it 30 inches per second.
Depending on the speed you could make a pretty damn good sounding recording at three and three-quarter inches per second and certainly a really good sounding recording at seven and a half inches per second.
I don’t remember whether reel-to-reel machines used chromium tape or not maybe some of the higher-end ones did and I don’t remember whether a lot of them had Dolby I think some of them had Dolby maybe dbx. With that technology, these machines could sound good.
Don’t forget most of the vintage vinyl records you’re listening to today are made from these reel-to-reel tapes we’re speaking about so you can’t knock them.
A lot of the older ones like the seventies 70’s albums you have they were just seven and a half inches per second reel-to-reel quarter-inch tape just normal stuff that we can still get today it’s if you’re lucky.
The problem with reel to reels, of course, is that the record companies didn’t distribute albums on those and they were a little more cumbersome to use you had to put the reels on the machine and thread the tape and everything, but is that really any more difficult than cleaning and putting on a record.
It’s too bad it didn’t take off because now we’re talking about you know reel-to-reel versus vinyl because reel to reels can sound very good and so can vinyl.
So what are the differences?
Let’s face it vinyl is not perfect. It’s not without its problems and if things aren’t set up just right it can sound bad.
You’re never gonna get rid of the pops and the clicks no matter how you clean it what kind of a machine you’ve got to clean your records you’re always gonna have surface noise on your records.
They’re so fragile, get one scratch or one piece of dirt on it there you go you’ve got a click or a pop and it’s just really as much as we love our records I’m thinking, some alien somewhere is looking down and going: Look how they’re playing their music!
But wouldn’t music sounded better on reel to reel?
Imagine reel – reel becoming the popular format back then so you would buy a reel-to-reel machine obviously and then you would buy your records on tape and this would be a hell of a lot easier for the record companies to produce.
Because to make records they’ve got to jump through hoops you’ve got a carve, you’ve got to cut the lacquer of the original lacquer and then you’ve got to make stampers out of that and then you’ve got to stamp the records out then you’ve got to make new stampers after well because the old ones wear out.
It’s just it’s quite a procedure whereas running off copies of reel-to-reel that would be easy just duplicate the originals. You could do that pretty easily and they did it with cassettes and 8tracks.
Would 8track sound as good as vinyl?
Yeah, in fact, they would lack the crackles and pops at vinyl as they’re still going to be noise tapes.
The tape has noise but at seven-and-a-half inches per second with a little help from some technology and some tape formulations like chromium dioxide I think that reel-to-reel would have been and still could be the best analog format out there
It’s just that’s not the path that we took, records were just the way things went and they were easier to you collect and store and put on, then reel to reels was. But if we’re really worried about sound quality first and foremost out of the two I would choose reel to reel.
You’ve got your people out there spending as far as I’m concerned way too much money on turntables and just to try and get the most out of these records.
When you really come down to it “we’re playing records” they can only sound so good, they’ve got problems. Whereas tapes which studios recording studios used for years and years and years to make records with they obviously had to sound good because that’s what we were using to make the records.
If it would have taken is just a little extra effort on the consumers part to take the tape out of the box stick it on the machine thread the tape around the heads whine it on the other reel and away you go.
It doesn’t have the same random access capabilities that a record does, you’ve got to play the tape sequentially though you can’t jump from song to song, you’d have to fast forward or rewind or whatever which is true but most of us when we listen to an album we don’t skip the songs we listened to the entire album so that wasn’t really been a problem.
Digital Music Format
Now let’s talk about digital because there’s a whole different area where you either love it or you hate it.
When CDs came out I was very happy I was tired of vinyl I was tired of replacing needles I was tired of figuring out how to line up my cartridge with no internet and never any proper instructions how to do so. My records never sounded that great and I used to record them on cassettes anyway.
They sounded to me just as good on cassette as they did it originally on the records because again I could make good cassette recordings. I just knew how to do it and I had good cassette decks.
CDs they’re capable of producing all the frequencies that we can hear us as humans.
A sine wave from 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz is pretty good frequency response.
As soon as you’re born you start losing your hearing so when I was a teenager I could hear up to 20,000 Hertz but now I can’t I just no way by the time you’re 30 you’ve lost quite a bit of your hearing and by the time you’re 60 you’re going to about 14,000 Hertz.
CDs have plenty of frequency response for most people.
All this stuff about digital adding scratchiness or harshness to the music that’s just because people are used to the sound of records, vinyl has its own sound it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or worse than CDs it’s just different.
They’re taking the master tapes from the recording studio and they’re bringing them into a mastering facility for a vinyl cutting facility and they’re transferring these recordings onto a plastic disc they’re itching the sound onto a disc and then they’re taking that disc and they’re spraying it with metals to make stampers so that they can then take polyvinyl carbonate and press out records.
There’s gotta be some sound degradation in that process absolutely and that’s part of where records get their sound from they do sound very good.
I love my record collection I love listening to vinyl I think it’s fantastic as a matter of fact I’m surprised it works at all and I watch my records play and I marvel at it’s like how can this work like this but it does.
It’s fantastic and it’s interesting it’s romantic and it’s just like this should not work but it does it’s really cool and there’s the whole handling of the records and taking them out and putting them on and there are the artwork and all this stuff everyone’s already talked about that’s all part of the whole experience of listening to vinyl.
CDs they kind of have that, you still have own the CD and you take it out and you put it in and you press the door shut and it disappears into the CD player and then you don’t see it again, until it comes out at the end but you still have some of the artwork and still have the lyrics and all that stuff so it’s still pretty good.
I thought CDs sounded good and I still do, they are very accurate and a lot of the records that you guys listening to from let’s say the 80s were recorded in the exact same format.
For example, my favorite band “rush moving pictures” awesome record and it sounds fantastic that record was recorded at 44.1 kilohertz 16-bit. So if you thought rush moving pictures sounds good you’re basically listening to a CD. We need to stop knocking these things.
A lot of records were recorded in that format they didn’t have the hard drive space or the computer power to use 24-bit and or you know 48 kilohertz or 96 or whatever all those ridiculously unnecessary high numbers are.
They just had that that’s 44.1Khz 16-bit so a lot of people are saying:
CDs sound harsh!
Well, guess what a quarter of your record collection from the 80s was basically CD quality pressed onto vinyl.
Maybe recording and CD-quality music on the vinyl fixed CD problems the problems of 16-bit 44.1Khz. Remember 16-bit 24-bit all that is doing is giving you less noise it’s not improving or lowering or hiring the audio quality or the frequency response it’s just lowering the noise floor.
- 16-bit has a noise floor of about -90 dB.
- 24-bit has a noise floor of like -100 dB.
- Cassettes have a noise floor about -60 dB
- Records have a noise floor of about -65dB.
A cassette tape has an equivalent bit depth of about 8 bits maybe 12 and a record has an equivalent bit depth of about the same because the noise floor on these things is not very low it’s you can hear the noise.
Is digital music really your enemy?
Why don’t we since we’ve got so much hard drive space these days why don’t we increase these numbers to ridiculously high amounts so that there’s absolutely no way to tell the difference between digital and analog.
Mind you analog has its own inherent sounds because well basically analog has problems and that means that those problems become the sound of analog whether it be tape whether it be vinyl whatever other analog formats there might be out there.
So that’s why analog sounds the way it does is because it’s doing something to the sound digitizing music at appropriate levels appropriate bit rates and bit depths doesn’t do anything to the music.
Let’s sample our music let’s digitize our music at 64 bits. So 64 bits gives you billions and billions and billions of different levels of loudness so it’s almost infinite.
And then for a sampling rate let’s use a million samples per second or whatever multiple of 16 we could get close to a million samples per second.
How about that?
How about we sample these things at such ridiculously high levels that there’s absolutely no possible way that anybody on the face of this planet or anywhere else for that matter would be able to hear the difference, and would not be able to tell that something has been recorded digitally.
You also have to keep in mind that we could really go so high with this that you would reach the point where it would be physically and scientifically impossible to sample any higher. Because time itself has a quantized.
The time when you really magnify and break it down so far, you can only go so far down before you get to what’s called Planck and that’s where time ticks along at a specific sample just like digital does.
So in essence time is digital and if you don’t, believe me, you can look this up.
What is the best audio format?
The short answer to that is CD Quality. In short words MP3 320 kbps.
If you could sample music digitally at that Planck level so you couldn’t do it any faster, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, that digital format would be the best format ever. Better than vinyl better than CDs better than magnetic tape.
Now there’s one problem solved we’ve got a format that is absolutely transparent it’s never going to affect the sound quality whatsoever.
But we’re missing the tactile experience of taking it out of the package and putting it on, why a lot of us got back in the records in the first place, it got rid of them because we were sick of all the clicks and pops and scratches but we got back into it because we missed the experience of it and let’s not even talk about mp3s.
Mp3s are fine at a good bitrate of 320 kilobits per second they sound fine.
I listen to them all the time they sound fine to me and to a lot of people. It’s a portable format.
But if you could get a record with the cover and the album art and sleeve and pull out the record and you’ll have it in your hands and then put it on a turntable or on a device and then put the needle and listen to music that’s been sampled it’s such a high bitrate and such a high bit depth that there’s no way to tell the difference between that and the original recording I think you’d have the perfect format.
I will leave you to think about this let that burn in your brains for a little while. I’d love to hear what you think down below in the comments. Don’t forget to spin those records.