To discover what sounds best, I made some lp recordings with various Nakamichi Cassettedecks and compared these to recordings make on a computer in 24/96 with an external firewire interface, the Apogee Duet AD converter. The same records, same cables and the same setup were used. in fact, I made recordings in various setups to get a really good idea of the results.
Recording on Computer
Of course there are many ways to record lp's but because the computer is so popular now, I wanted to compare this method with the most pure method we all used in the previous centrury: cassette! Many believe that by going digital you loose some of the musical information. Be that as it may, digital recordings do sound different from analog ones. To put this to the test, I used a selection of excellent Nakamichi Cassettedecks. If you are unfamiliar with this brand, know that once these were considered state of the art. They were simply the best cassettedecks available, at a price. They didn't come cheap. Luckily I have a friend who collects these decks and who was friendly enough to loan them to me. I also used his setup to make some recordings. The comparing was done in my reference setup
Digital recordings were made on two systems simultaneously. One is my main PC with an EMU1212M semi-pro sound card. The other is an Apple Macbook with external Apogee Duet firewire interface that has excellent ananlogue inputs. The Apogee Duet is a controller as well as external AD converter. I use it set at its maximum of 24 bits 96khz settings and record the WAV files with a program called Amadeus Pro.
The Apogee Duet is a controller with built-in AD converter that accepts balanced analog signals, transfers them to a digital stream that is transfered to the computer via Firewire.
A screenshot of the Apogee mix application. Here you can adjust levels and change the routing. All settings are controlled digitally but are actually made in analogue fashion inside the controller. Apart from the Apogee device and software, you also need a WAV recording program. I use Amadeus Pro.
Recording on cassette, but not just any old cassettedeck...
One of the recording setups with a Nakamichi 1000ZXL and ZX9 cassettedeck. The 1000ZXL is considered tha absolute best deck ever, not only amongst Naks, but in the world.
The record player is a rare and expensive Technics SL1000mkII with Denon DL103d MC cartridge.
On this photo the 1000ZXL is in use for recordings in tandem with digital ones via the Macbook. Next to the 1000ZXL, we also used the ZX9 for additional recordings and cross-referencing. For playback I used the same machines in this setup, as well as a Nakamichi Dragon and a nakamichi LX3 in my reference setup. Also see below for more information.
Playback of the recordings
In my Reference setup I used two different Nakamichi-decks for replay of the recordings I made:an LX3 and a Dragon. The decks were placed in the Spider Racks and were connected with good cables. The Macbook recordings were copied over the network to the main PC and played back from there from the EMU1212M coaxial digital output, connected via a Belden RG59 coax cable, into the DCS Delius and Purcell DA converter and upsampler as well as tried into an Audiomeca Enkianthus. There is quite a difference between these two dacs, for more info look here. In all cases, the preamp was a Jeff Rowland Synergy.
Decks used for playback: on the top is the legend: the Dragon. At the bottom a simpler 2-haed machine, the LX3
The Dragon in action, looking inpressive on top of the DCS conponents.
Now that, for the first time in years, I had a cassette in my hands again, inserting it into the Nakamichi deck and hearing the transport do its work in a silent and supple manner, I got in a state of nostagia. How cool it was to see the music carrier behind the little window and watching the tape make its turns while the red counter and VU-leds put on a hypnotising show.
This nostalgic feeling quickly made place for disappointment over technical deficiencies. For one, the speed turned out to be different for all decks we tried, second, there was some wow (speed variations) and third, all heads needed realignment. Ahhh. I remembered now why I had once abandoned the format. When the speed was adjusted to match the digital recording and the heads were adjusted for maximum treble response (actually matching the setting that was used when recording), the sound was now very enjoyable. For sure, it didn't have very open treble, detailing and focus was mediocre, center stage seemed to wander somewhat from left to right and dynamics were constrained. But there was something very RIGHT about the recordings. They were analogue. Sure, the treble could be more open but it was very fluid and absolutely free from hardness or grain. The mids may not be very focused but comes across as simply very natural and voices just sound utterly real and unforced. Much like the original record. Except that the record had more dynamics, better focus and more airy highs. But what do you expect from a dictato-phone-evolved format? It is applaudable what Nakamichi has achieved here. Image if only they had access to largers tape formats... There is no misunderstanding: recoring an lp on an analog format may not be technically perfect and may in fact be fiddly but it keeps the soul of the music intact.
The Mac/PC recordings were technically simply better in all accounts than the tape recordings. Mind you, technically. When I switched off the head and started listening with my heart, I clearly felt that the midrange of the tape recordings was much more natural and real. Despite the stability problems and lack of focus. When listening very closely to the treble, traditionally a difficult thing for digital (for 16 bit cd's at least), there was absolutely no sign that the recordings were digital. There was fluidity, continuousness and plenty of air. Spaciousness, detailing and focus were all very good, at least on par with regular cd recordings.
Analog versus Digital
I could really enjoy the PC with some recordings while tape was better with other recordings. After listening to more and more recordings a pattern started to emerge: slower, more downtempo music such as ballads were more engaging on tape, while more uptempo and electronic recordings were better in digital form. There was always a residual "digital" feeling when switching from tape to digital. This is because tape, for all its analogue rightness, also adds a lot of distortion to the recording much of which happens in the heads. Because the music signal has to travel through a coil that magnetises a piece of metal in the head which in turn magnetises the tape, some rounding and slowing occurs. This is calles hysteresis. It is an effect that most people find very pleasant. Me too. But switching to a digital recording makes for such a clean sound that it can come across as too correct. Nevertheless, considered more closely, at leat technicallay speaking, the sound of the digital recordings were closer to the original lp playback than the tape recordings. The latter added some euphonic extra layer to the sound.
Het lijkt erop dat de PC toch nog wat digititis injecteert dat het geluid wat droog en minder vloeiend maakt. Niet scherp, rafelig of wat dan ook, maar toch licht hoorbaar digitaal. Dit effect was nog te minimaliseren door via de Purcell upsampler te gaan en de juiste kabels te gebruiken maar deze ervaring maakt toch duidelijk dat PC nog steeds niet echt volledig een vervanger voor de lp of zelfs cd is. Ondanks dat geef ik duidelijk de voorkeur aan PC. Zeker wanneer de juiste DAC (DCS met upsampling) en kabels (Transparent) gebruikt worden. Het hoog is dan vaak zo luchtig en subtiel en de afbeelding zo groot en ruimtelijk dat het me op die aspecten echt aan de lp doet denken.
A word on Nakamichi decks
Nakamichi decks are amongst the best decks in the world but at the time of this test they are certainly ageing. Even though Nakamichi transports are considered the best available, they do age. Therefore, the instability that I noticed doesn't neccesarily have to be an intrinsic cassette-feature. The best Naks may have been even better when they were new. That being said, I do remember having similar problems when I still actively used cassettedecks and I used many: Akai, Aiwa, Yamaha and of course many Naks. The most stable deck I had was the externally auto reverse RX-202E. This was in the basis a very simple deck, apart from its futuristic and very clever way of reversing the entire cassette as opposed to the heads. This deck played back every tape and was and never let me down. But also on this deck you could clearly hear the tapes age every time you played them. Also, playing back tapes on another deck that that on which they were recorded is not the best way to get maximum results, even though we re-adjusted the heads' azymuth.
Analog still has a very alluring sound. It is potentially better at preserving the music's soul: the sound that comes off tape is so unforced and totally un-technical that it's hard not to like. It is clear that analog as a system is still not entirely beaten by digital. It's just that poor old cassette isn't entirely up to the job. It can sound very seductive though, if you can put up with the technical deficiencies such as speed variations and treble response.