Hidden treasures


A master recording captured on 30-year-old magnetic tape won’t sound as good as it once did, but that is not true of virgin vinyl or digital of the same age.

Of all the virgin vinyl ever produced there was one that was head-and-shoulders better than any other: Direct-to-Disc recording. Many of us will have fond memories of the Sheffield and Crystal Clear Direct-to-Disc recordings of the 70s and 80s. These rare treasures were an extraordinary challenge to make but, done right, there were few examples of recording art better than they.

For those unfamiliar with this lost art here’s how it worked. An artist or band would perform live in a studio, often with little more than a stereo pair of microphones fed directly into a mixing board. The output of that board was fed into a cutting lathe where the mastering engineer would follow along with the musical score, making on the fly adjustments to the lathe to compensate for dynamic range challenges (as opposed to doing the same on the mixing board which limits that range). These were true works of art—one of a kind and never duplicated because it was live, the stamping master capable of producing only so many copies before it was exhausted.

The results were often extraordinary: Dynamic to the point of the needle sometimes jumping out of the record groove. The first time you played one of the albums would be the best and each successive play just a little less exciting (as the playback needle polished the grooves into submission).

What made the magic wasn’t the technology of Direct-to-Disc because digital was (and is) far better in every respect. It was remarkable because of what didn’t happen: the mastering engineer couldn’t screw it up with limiters, filters, equalizers, and all the trappings that today rob the life from reproduced music. The impossibly difficult process had to be live and without hindrance to qualify as Direct-to-Disc.

Imagine what we could do with live music on good microphones fed directly into a DSD recorder with the hands of the mastering engineer kept off the bells and whistles available today.

Oh man, those treasure would be remarkable.

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