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Why Does Modern Digital Not Sound Better Than 80s Digital? Effects Pedals, Units & Accessories
Old 30th April 2014
  #1
Why Does Modern Digital Not Sound Better Than 80s Digital?

Considering that digital technology has progressed rapidly in every realm over the past 30 years, why does digital audio sound no better than it did in the mid 80s? I still have yet to hear a modern pop record that has better sound quality than:

- Faith, George Michael (1987)
- Islands, Kajagoogoo (1984)
- Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits (1985)
- Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984)

I'm blown away at how good the Mitsubishi X850, the Sony 3324, and Sony Betamax seem to sound.

My only guesses as to why these old recordings sound so good is because:

- We still listen at 16/44.1
- Mixing engineers were better 30 years ago

Thoughts?
Old 30th April 2014
  #2
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natpub's Avatar
Saying how something "sounds" is always a complex proposition, involving hundreds, thousands of variables. This, of course, includes personal taste. So, there is no way to comprehensively answer this question.

I agree Brothers in Arms is a beautiful sounding album, amazingly written and performed. In most cases, I suspect it is the quality of the musicians, their gear ('real' instruments), quality studios with huge analog paths, outboard, great mics, etc. (as opposed to whatever digi setup is being used on various modern recordings), and attention to writing, arranging, and high production values that make such classics sound "good."

I suggest that a comparison of a 1985 vinyl of "Brothers," a 1985 CD, and a current re-mastered CD (hopefully not one overly slammed), will reveal much more useful data for your question. Now that I think of it, I suspect modern mastering, particularly from 2005-2012, has a LOT to do with your concerns. In general, I think the "loudness wars" are winding down, so we will probably hear better and better end products as time goes along.
Old 30th April 2014
  #3
We have better converters today than what were available in the 80's but as said above, there are many pieces of the puzzle that make a great recording.
Old 30th April 2014
  #4
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dlmorley's Avatar
The amount of time and money you could spend on a project was probably higher then and at the same time, the engineers and producers generally grew throughout the 70's so had a clue what they were doing and how to use the gear and appreciated the qualities that were appearing on high end digital..
I doubt a Mitsubishi X850 really sounds better than a modern radar system, but that is just guessing as I haven't had direct experience of either but they were certainly mixing on some seriously high end ANALOGUE consoles (Euphonix, SSL, Neve in general)

It certainly sounds better now in terms of budget gear though..but that is part of the problem. Lots of budget releases done on prosumer gear by engineers with little serious experience of what high end actually sounds like.
Old 30th April 2014
  #5
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the sampling interval remains 22.7 microseconds for redbook.
Old 30th April 2014
  #6
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matyas's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by burns46824 View Post
I'm blown away at how good the Mitsubishi X850, the Sony 3324, and Sony Betamax seem to sound.
Ever used one of the above-mentioned machines? I have used all of them extensively, and I can tell you that they don't sound good at all. Any budget interface you can buy today is going to have far better conversion than those machines.

The reasons many 80s digital records can sound good (in spite of, not because of) the format:

1. Great engineers who knew what they were doing.
2. Mixing was still mostly analog.
3. Non-squashed mastering.

Other reasons are, of course, good songwriting and performance. And don't underestimate the fact that we've been living with those records for 30 years and have grown accustomed to the sound.
Old 30th April 2014
  #7
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ben_allison's Avatar
Because they got it right, out of the gate.

Listen to William Ackerman's Passage.

Recorded to digital. In 1981. Digital recording had really only been around for like 2-3 years. Sounds absolutely flawless.

I mean... how could something sound better? More depth? Detail? Not possible. The only way something sound sound better is if we had graphene speakers or some way of capturing the sound in 3d so you could actually walk around inside and experience changing early reflections and reverb.
Old 30th April 2014
  #8
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digital doesnt sound at all. digital is a transparent way to process and store data and therefor its a medium. nothing more.

the question is wrong. the correct question would be: why do the people producing music process the music in a way that it sounds worse.

beside the fact, that this is a subjective matter - personally I am with you, its disgusting what nowadays turns up as music - its the (ab)usage of certain gear and a false way to turn the knobs. its not digital - that is the same digital as 30 years ago - its the users who make the music sound worse. you cant blame digital nor analog for what the music sounds like.
Old 30th April 2014
  #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by matyas View Post
2. Mixing was still mostly analog.
that doesnt matter at all. because the digital mixed music sounded even better too, only with less noise and less distortion than the analog mixed.
Old 30th April 2014
  #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by matyas View Post
Ever used one of the above-mentioned machines? I have used all of them extensively, and I can tell you that they don't sound good at all. Any budget interface you can buy today is going to have far better conversion than those machines.
.
The converters in those above mentioned machines were based on successive approximation register, nothing to do with today's delta-sigma.

Opinions vary. I used those machines. They often sounded amazingly good.
Old 30th April 2014
  #11
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matyas's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by cathode View Post
The converters in those above mentioned machines were based on successive approximation register, nothing to do with today's delta-sigma.

Opinions vary. I used those machines. They often sounded amazingly good.
I understand that the technology used in the converters of those machines is fundamentally different from those in modern converters. As I've said, I've used those machines as well. Personally, I think the clocks, and above all, the analog stages of early digital machines are vastly inferior to what is readily available today. There are those who disagree with me - Chris Lord-Alge earns large sums of money with Sony machines. However, my opinion (after having worked with these machines myself) is that the reason many of the records made on them still sound good is because of the skill of the musicians and the engineers, not the machines themselves.
Old 30th April 2014
  #12
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matyas's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by whiteaxxxe View Post
that doesnt matter at all. because the digital mixed music sounded even better too, only with less noise and less distortion than the analog mixed.
I agree with your previous comment, and should probably clarify. I don't think anyone can dispute that digital mixing lacks the noise and distortion of analog. But in some types of music, such as pop and rock, such distortion has often been viewed as euphonic and had come to be an expected component of the overall sound. While digital tape machines did away away with tape hiss and distortion, the fact that there was (usually) an analog console still involved meant that at least some of the familiar artifacts of analog recording would presumably be present.
Old 30th April 2014
  #13
Slate Pro Audio / Slate Digital
 
Steven Slate's Avatar
 

I've heard plenty of harsh and crappy sounding digital productions from the 80's, and some amazing sounding digital recordings made recently. And the opposite can be said as well. Is it the digital gear? Is it the plugins? The converters? I think no. It is the talent behind the music and its creation.

Cheers,
Steven
Old 30th April 2014
  #14
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JonMiller's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by matyas View Post
I understand that the technology used in the converters of those machines is fundamentally different from those in modern converters. As I've said, I've used those machines as well. Personally, I think the clocks, and above all, the analog stages of early digital machines are vastly inferior to what is readily available today. There are those who disagree with me - Chris Lord-Alge earns large sums of money with Sony machines. However, my opinion (after having worked with these machines myself) is that the reason many of the records made on them still sound good is because of the skill of the musicians and the engineers, not the machines themselves.
It blows my mind that CLA still uses Digital "tape" that being said, I'm sure he would still produce a good mix working on any format. His ears are his greatest tool
Old 30th April 2014
  #15
Quote:
Originally Posted by whiteaxxxe View Post
that doesnt matter at all. because the digital mixed music sounded even better too, only with less noise and less distortion than the analog mixed.
He meant they used analog consoles when mixing digitally, (not mixing to analog tape).
Old 30th April 2014
  #16
Quote:
Originally Posted by matyas View Post
Ever used one of the above-mentioned machines? I have used all of them extensively, and I can tell you that they don't sound good at all. Any budget interface you can buy today is going to have far better conversion than those machines.

The reasons many 80s digital records can sound good (in spite of, not because of) the format:

1. Great engineers who knew what they were doing.
2. Mixing was still mostly analog.
3. Non-squashed mastering.

Other reasons are, of course, good songwriting and performance. And don't underestimate the fact that we've been living with those records for 30 years and have grown accustomed to the sound.
Really good points...

Also very interesting to know that the conversion technology of digital tape was not delta-sigma. I'm only 27, so I'm not particularly knowledgeable about early digital technology, but I figured there was some fundamental difference between digital tape and modern converters...
Old 30th April 2014
  #17
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aceagon's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by whiteaxxxe View Post
the question is wrong. the correct question would be: why do the people producing music process the music in a way that it sounds worse.
Agreed...well sort of...I mean that is THE QUESTION, but I do think that, on the whole, this is a very important conversation to be had, especially for younger individuals such as myself who are trying to keep a healthy respect for depth, detail and character afloat in the flood of dissipation (generally speaking) that is the modern world digital recording/production tendencies.

Very interesting to hear about the different conversion technology on DAT machines.

It'd be cool to get some more folks chiming in here...
Old 30th April 2014
  #18
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narcoman's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Steven Slate View Post
I've heard plenty of harsh and crappy sounding digital productions from the 80's, and some amazing sounding digital recordings made recently. And the opposite can be said as well. Is it the digital gear? Is it the plugins? The converters? I think no. It is the talent behind the music and its creation.

Cheers,
Steven
Exactly right.

The best digital recordings, I think, ARE more modern ones. The exmples given by the OP are (apart from Frankie) not great sounding at all to me!! They sound fragile as fek.

Having said that - tastes were different, fashion was different.
Old 30th April 2014
  #19
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bcgood's Avatar
 

A big problem with comparing 80s recordings to stuff done today is the over limiting in mastering that is standard today. But the arrangements, quality and experience of the engineer and general music/cultural climate should not be ignored as factors as well!
Old 1st May 2014
  #20
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aceagon's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by narcoman View Post
Exactly right.

The best digital recordings, I think, ARE more modern ones. The exmples given by the OP are (apart from Frankie) not great sounding at all to me!! They sound fragile as fek.

Having said that - tastes were different, fashion was different.
Fragile...hmm maybe...but is "fragile" directly related to the real shortcomings of digital recordings (i.e. high-end like the serrated blade of a CUTCO knife)? I don't know did something like an SSL console serve to soften things in a good way though on something like Islands?...Cause I can turn that album up without the top-end slicing my ears, unlike 98% of modern digital recordings I own or have been witness to.

Regarding Frankie/The Pleasuredome...super full and huge, but IMO it has the harshest top end of all the mentioned albums...by far...and I own three different masters). I still love to blast it even whilst my ears bleed a tad (the Japanese 1984 release with the 9 minute version of Two Tribes ).

The others albums mentioned however (Faith, BIA)...are really out-of-this-world digi recordings IMO.
Old 1st May 2014
  #21
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vincentvangogo's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by aceagon View Post
...Very interesting to hear about the different conversion technology on DAT machines.

It'd be cool to get some more folks chiming in here...
Just as long as no one uses the phrase 'vintage digital' - or I might have to kill myself.
Old 1st May 2014
  #22
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It's also the crappy mediums we listen with. Zappa's early digitally recorded records (ship arriving too late) on vinyl sound amazing. He used Sony Digital digital tape machines. The CD's (even remastered) sound terrible. I would think that nearly 35 yrs later, better sounding mediums (with much higher resolutions) would have arrived by now.
Old 1st May 2014
  #23
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by burns46824 View Post
Considering that digital technology has progressed rapidly in every realm over the past 30 years, why does digital audio sound no better than it did in the mid 80s? I still have yet to hear a modern pop record that has better sound quality than:

- Faith, George Michael (1987)
- Islands, Kajagoogoo (1984)
- Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits (1985)
- Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984)

I'm blown away at how good the Mitsubishi X850, the Sony 3324, and Sony Betamax seem to sound.

My only guesses as to why these old recordings sound so good is because:

- We still listen at 16/44.1
- Mixing engineers were better 30 years ago

Thoughts?


Didn't you beat this topic to death 6 months ago in a different thread... or rather, get beaten to death on this topic 6 months ago?

A Sony 3324 has no magic... as was stated numerous times in that thread... A studio that could afford a $150,000 machine in the 1980's probably spent 10 times that on room design, acoustics, outboard, microphones, etc and employed an engineer that would do it all justice...

...but now I suspect the reason those old recordings sound better is because people such as yourself are blindsided by the finer details without ever seeing the broader picture and just getting on with making music.

Perhaps its time to just get on with it?
Old 1st May 2014
  #24
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Kimotei's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ultraworld View Post
It's also the crappy mediums we listen with. Zappa's early digitally recorded records (ship arriving too late) on vinyl sound amazing. He used Sony Digital digital tape machines. The CD's (even remastered) sound terrible. I would think that nearly 35 yrs later, better sounding mediums (with much higher resolutions) would have arrived by now.
What do you mean by higher resolutions? Isnt 16 bit already like vector graphics? Isnt the only reason to go above 16bit to do with "headroom" for processing the material before master?

Im asking because I want to learn more about these things.
Old 1st May 2014
  #25
Gear Maniac
 

I worked at Power Station from 1994-1999 as Chief Technical Engineer and know Neil Dorfsman, who recorded Brothers In Arms. I wasn't there when that was done, but a few of the techs and engineers that were told me that record was recorded in Studio B, which was a small wood room designed by Tony Bongiovi and had an early 48 channel SSL 4000 in it. Not a very good sounding console, but had great automation capabilities. What made the record sound so exceptional was Neil's abilities, one of the best engineers on the planet, his choice of microphones, we had an awesome locker, and the fact that Tony was eccentric about his equipment. The tape machine used was a Studer A800 MKll that Tony had 24 Pultecs modified by Ed Evans (the Chief Tech then) to interface as line amps, I saw the racks, empty at the time in the basement, and banks of 1073 mic pre's. They only used the SSL as the monitor, thus effectively bypassing the SSL's electronics.

As far as the other parts of the project, mastering, etc. I can't tell you about that, or the specific's of the other records mentioned.
Old 1st May 2014
  #26
Gear Guru
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by burns46824 View Post
Considering that digital technology has progressed rapidly in every realm over the past 30 years, why does digital audio sound no better than it did in the mid 80s? I still have yet to hear a modern pop record that has better sound quality than:

- Faith, George Michael (1987)
- Islands, Kajagoogoo (1984)
- Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits (1985)
- Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984)

Thoughts?
I will gladly disagree with the entire premise of 80's digital "sounding better" than modern digital. No need to explain "why" something is happening if you don't agree that it IS happening. And whatever you choose as "the best of the 80's" (your list is not my list!!) the best recordings were outliers in a sea of other music, much of which did NOT sound so great.

I can say the digital I used then did not compare to the digital I use now.

Quote:
I'm blown away at how good the Mitsubishi X850, the Sony 3324, and Sony Betamax seem to sound. My only guesses as to why these old recordings sound so good is because:
this is your taste talking
see home many of those same engineers would choose to use one of those old digital decks (if they had the choice and it was up to them) on a project they were starting tomorrow.
Old 1st May 2014
  #27
Gear Guru
 
Drumsound's Avatar
As mentioned, a big part of the equation is the people involved in these recordings. Couple talent, at all aspects, with actual BUDGET that allows for things to be done "just so" until everyone is happy.
Old 1st May 2014
  #28
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This is a homely response, forgive me.

If someone thinks vintage digital(tm) sounds better, why not set up with those very machines, considering they now go for pennies on the dollar? 24-tracks of what sounds best in your opinion for what, 2 grand?

If the response to that is sure, but nowadays we use 150 tracks, then the Occam's Razor most likely explanation to the perception that the older recordings are better is plain as day: you prefer a sparser sound than a bazillion tracks.
Old 1st May 2014
  #29
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R&D?
Old 1st May 2014
  #30
Gear Maniac
 
Evil Jack's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by ArKay99 View Post
I worked at Power Station from 1994-1999 as Chief Technical Engineer and know Neil Dorfsman, who recorded Brothers In Arms. I wasn't there when that was done, but a few of the techs and engineers that were told me that record was recorded in Studio B, which was a small wood room designed by Tony Bongiovi and had an early 48 channel SSL 4000 in it.
Brothers in Arms was recorded at Air Montserrat - not a great sounding studio by all accounts (certainly the live room). Great Neve console though.

SoundonSound had a 'Classic Tracks' feature on the record a while back...
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