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Fats Waller music direct to CD

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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Fats Waller music direct to CD 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1990, The Syracuse Newspapers

The invention of the compact disc brought a new era to high fidelity, but it didn't get rid of one of the biggest problems in audio—the error-prone tape recorder.

CDs start out life as tape recordings. After a couple of copies from one tape recorder to the next, the final version is put on yet another tape recorder and sent to the CD mastering plant. It's then turned into a CD.

In most cases these days, all the tape recorders in this chain are digital. That's good news and bad news.

It's good because digital recorders handle sound very well. And it's bad because successive copies of digital tapes, from one recorder to another, can make the sound gritty.

The distortion that occurs is sometimes below the limit of hearing, but at other times it can be clearly heard once you start listening for it. In extensive tests of the first digital recorders nearly 10 years ago, I found that the sound slipped from "stupendous" to "terrible" after about five or six copies in a row.

One of the reasons digital recorders have trouble keeping all their bits in line is that they are usually video cassette recorders doing double duty. VCRs and even the newest DAT recorders—which operate just like VCRs—were never designed to make digital recordings in the first place. Sony started the trend a decade ago, and VCRs are now used as the hearts of digital recorders in nearly every studio in the world.

There's a better way. You forget the tape recorder. Just leave it out. That's how the best LP records were made in the ‘70s. The signals from the microphones went straight into an amplifier and then into the record-cutting lathe.

So how about a direct-to-disc CD?

Sorry, but it's just not possible. The CD player only knows how to play the disc if it has all the timing and cueing information placed on the CD after the recording has been analyzed by the mastering engineer.

You can't just plug in your mikes and bang away on the piano while a compact-dic mastering machine is cutting the laser disc.

But that hasn't stopped a small audiophile recording company from doing the next best thing. The company, Reference Recordings of San Francisco, has come up with the world's first CD to be recorded without a tape recorder.

Reference picked the best instrument for such an occasion, the giant Bosendorfer 290SE piano, and one of the most accomplished American pianists, Dick Hyman, playing the lovable music of Fats Waller. (The disc is RR-33DCD. If you can't find it in a hi-fi shop, call Reference recordings at 415-355-1892.)

But the story just starts to get interesting at that point. The piano was Bosendorfer's rare "Reproducing Piano," which turns the 1920s' player piano into a wizard of the ‘90s. The high-tech Bosendorfer records any pianist's keystrokes—including how fast or slow the keys are hit, and how hard or soft the touch—and extracts the keystrokes as computer data.

This information goes straight to a computer disc drive, where it can be saved or copied. Luckily, computer disc drives are not at all like tape recorders and they are perfect for storing digital data.

REFERENCE WENT way out of its way to add another super-tech touch to the world's first recorderless CD.

And then the engineers hooked up a microwave relay. They placed their mikes right where Hyman's head had been and hooked up a digital processor, which was able to change the piano's sound waves directly into digital data.

Then they turned on the Bosendorfer and started sending the piano's digitized sound straight out to the microwave dish. At the other end, a receiving antenna at a compact disc mastering plant fed the signal directly into a CD mastering machine.

The result: No tape, good data and great sound. I've been playing this remarkable recording two or three times a day for the last week or so and each time I hear it I shake my head in amazement. There's no comparison between this CD and any other compact disc I have ever heard.

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