Tuesday, November 11, 2008

CD to Cassette Tape Recording: Better Sound Quality?

By: Sherry Rashad

Back in the good old days of the mid 1980’s when CD sound quality is not yet as developed as today’s despite the multi-million dollar advertising campaign of “perfect sound forever”. Transferring or recording the music from your CDs to cassette tape was probably the cheapest way to improve your CD player’s sound quality – i.e. making it sound analog like Mother Nature intended it to be. My first CD player – bought second hand back in 1986 from a local garage sale, is a far cry compared to my present set up. Consisting of a Pioneer universal CD, DVD, SACD player hooked up to a mid-1990’s Audio Alchemy DAC to make my CD collection sound like LPs. Yet that first generation Philips CD player really offered me the opportunity on hands-on analogue recording.

Domestic / consumer-level digital music playback technology back then really is at it’s infancy. Entry-level CD sound circa 1984 is not exactly easy on the ears, especially for an amateur musician who cares about sound quality. If you find today’s MP-3 based digital music downloads good enough, you could be in heaven back then. But coaxing the CD to cassette recording to sound excellent is no easy feat.

Test cassettes are a necessity to “tune” your tape deck. One of the cheapest ones back then is the Harrison Test Cassette – if you consider 40 US dollars circa 1987 cheap. This particular test tape has Dolby level plus various other tests. But I was fortunate enough to acquire an excellent condition second hand BASF IEC test tape, which even today, is considered the “Holy Grail” of cassette test tapes. Given that this is an IEC Primary Reference Standard test tape, it costs about 150 US dollars each brand new back in 1987. Even back then, good old analogue sound is not cheap.

Even today, I still use my trusty 1980 era metal cassette tape capable Sony Walkman as a primary portable music system. I never grew accustomed – let alone fell in love - to the current sound quality of pricey i-Pods. Especially in my place that despite adverts of downloadable high resolution digital music now available, our local authorized i-pod dealer only has the Red Book 16 bit 44.1 kHz. CD standard as their highest quality music download available. I mean why pay 300 to 400 US dollars on an i-pod that for all intents and purposes sounds like a cheap 100 US dollar CD player circa 1986? Maybe I’ll just transfer the music on my i-pod – bought primarily for accessory / cosmetic jewelry purposes and data storage purposes - to cassette just to make the music sound better. Have the guys / CEOs / purveyors of music downloads ever listen to music recorded on a large open reel analog tape or a live band for that matter?


Gibson said...

As a digital cynic like Neil Young, I do agree that analog is best when it comes to music.

Hirum said...

Maybe it was the badly-designed analogue output filters of those first-generation circa 1984 CD players that is the primary cause of the poor sound quality of early CD players, especially if you are weaned on the minimal group delay distortion of vinyl-based BBC sound. Like perfect pace, rhythm and timing. And back then, Iron Maiden fans were very torn about whether to use Audio Technica or Shure LP cartridges.

Gibson said...

Though I'm too young to remember - I only discovered Iron Maiden when the Super Bit Mapped CDs were widely released - in HMV's Hong Kong affiliates at least - back in 1996. Iron Maiden fans were probably into Audio Technica and Shure vinyl cartridges when it comes to LP playback.

Sherry Rashad said...

I also wonder if analog cassette tapes - especially those "decent" ferric models from the mid-1980s - manage to "correct" the group delay distortion of high-order analog output filers of early mid-1980s period CD players. Thus making "CD sound" better as it is transferred to analog cassette tapes.

VaneSSa said...

The analogue filters that are used in first and second generation CD players are high-order filters that have unacceptable levels of group-delay distortion fom a musically-literate ears point of view. It wasn't until the mid 1990s when mainstream CD manufacturers began using a low-cost version of the Delta-Sigma digital to analog conversion ciruit that budget CD players began to sound good. Surprisingly those 1995 era CD players have a sound quality that is still light-years ahead of every circa 2009 iPod. Steve Jobs should investigate on this.