An interesting story appeared two days ago, that got my juices flowing. Digital Music News received an ‘exclusive’ about a new patent application for “High Definition Vinyl”, from an Austrian company called Rebeat. Read the story here if you haven’t seen it already.
There are several rather sensational claims being made in that article, by Rebeat’s CEO Guenter Loibl. What does sound intriguing here, is the possibility of 3D printing the lacquers, with lasers calibrated to etch out the analog groove with more accuracy. It also says that this technology will be backwards-compatible, i.e., today’s turntables will be able to play the new HD LP’s, and the new HD turntables will presumably also play good old analog records, too. The other claims – reduced mastering cost, reduced time to market, and most of all, a doubling of audio fidelity, seem kind of absurd, to me anyway.
Is this the culmination of a long evolution, coming full circle? Could we really harness two divergent tehnologies and merge them into a sort of super hybrid? Is this all too good to be true? C’mon, folks. Let’s take a breath and think about this for a moment.
First of all, the vinyl LP has always been a high-definition format. In fact, the amount of resolution in 60-year-old “golden age” recordings is often astounding. Every day, people who are invested in modern, high-end analog playback discover “more music” (more details) in the grooves than they ever knew was there. Every type of audio hardware has improved, slowly but steadily, over the decades, including turntables, tonearms, cartridges and preamps.
Secondly, D2A is by and large, still a shitty idea. Period. Let’s make no mistake: downloading audio into a 3D printer (or any other computer hardware) means we are dealing with digital data as our “source”. Which, in the case of ALL older recordings, means that the potential goodness of the master tape is not our source, even though it could well be the very best source available. Ever hear a really outstanding digitally ‘mastered’ LP? Me either. That’s why we love analog, baby.
Thirdly, and not least: Vinyl’s perceived resolution will always be limited by its signal to noise ratio. Why? It’s the damned interface. Diamond stylus vs. a fast moving vinyl groove, in a most violent collision, modulating forces that are truly shocking when they’re magnified. Cram more information into that same groove and guess what? An even rougher ride. There’s no way around it: vinyl playback is physical, and it’s noisy. So it’s not that vinyl needs to “go HD” – it needs to “go LN”. Lower Noise is the goal for analog, and that’s where serious efforts have been made, in higher-tolerance machining of bearings, better stylus profiles, tangential-tracking tonearms, quieter pre-amplification, etc.
So what about these claims, then?
“30% more capacity”? As in, 30% more time on a 12-inch side?? No chance. The microgroove is already so narrow, we often experience bleedthrough of signal accross the groove wall. Cramming more music into an LP is not going to yield anything but a sonic mess. 30% more volume? What does that even mean? I don’t need louder records. (do I?)
As far as better speed to market, well, this is an issue the bean counters are indeed struggling with today, with the increased demand and limited production capacity. But vinyl is vinyl. It’s messy, it’s prone to defects, in short it’s a difficult format to produce en mass with high quality control. And none of that really changes with a different mastering method.
The most outrageous claim though – “double the audio fidelity”. I don’t even know where to start with that. There are no real details of how any of this would work, BUT, based on what’s being purported, none of this addresses any of the physics challenges of playing a vinyl record in a better way. Which means, s:n struggling to top 70dB, while digital audio can do 100dB in its sleep.
So, again, for me, it seems like another “let’s cash in on the vinyl resurgence” play. Like the laser turntable, and other misguided notions. Except now we have ambitious young “startup guys” prowling the market for opportunity. Oh, man. I hope I’m wrong! I really do. We’ll see in the days to come, whether any promising details emerge, or this falls by the wayside. I love the idea of well-mastered, environmentally friendly LP’s, but I just don’t see it.
That topographical map groove is cool looking. Who’s gonna take one for the team and sacrifice his Shibata stylus on it? Not me.