Positive Feedback Logo

Technology - AAD, ADD, DDD: the SPARS Code in the 21st century

07-01-2020 | By Wojciech Pacuła | Issue 110

"The SPARS code is a three-position alphabetic classification system developed in the early 1980s by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services (SPARS) for commercial compact disc releases to denote aspects of the sound recording and reproduction process, distinguishing between the use of analog equipment and digital equipment."

Wikipedia, USA

Richard James Burgess, the Marketing, Sales and Licensing Director at Smithsonian Folkways Recording, i.e. the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage (SMiLE), starts his monograph on the history of music production in the following way:

The history of music production and producers turns on developments of recording, playback, media, and consumer technologies. However, not every technical development triggers a shift in production techniques. Like organic growth in nature, the evolution of music production is nonlinear. Technologies and techniques coexist for a time, arising and fading in a never-flowing Darwinian process of development and selection. By this, I do not mean to imply any sense of a qualitative or deterministic progress from worse to better.

There are most likely parallel possibilities. Recording technology becomes increasingly sophisticated but inside that inexorable process, superior systems do not always dominate.

Richard James Burgess, The history of music production, New York 2014, p. 1

Digital Hysteria

It would be hard to find a better illustration of the coexistence of different techniques than in the case of the Compact Disc format. Conceived as a replacement for LPs and, with time, also for cassette tapes (as the recordable CD-R/RW medium), the CD was presented at a time when digital techniques were in their initial phase of development. The professional market would then offer two main digital tape recorder systems—DASH and DigiPro, manufactured by Japanese companies—Sony and Mitsubishi, respectively.

We know that two smaller-scale digital recording systems had existed before, i.e. the Denon tape recorder and Thomas G. Stockham's Soundstream that was also tape-based (read more about the beginnings of digital recordings HERE. However, they did not count in the struggle for dominance at recording studios.

Although there was an extremely high demand for entirely digital systems, the number of such recorders was very small and most recording studios used multi-track analog tape recorders throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, mainly the Studer X-800, then the X-810 and X-820. In her monograph on recording techniques used in pop music in the years 1978-2000, SAMANTHA BENNETT states that digital technology did not become dominant either in high-end recording systems, or in home systems, until the end of the 1980s.

So, until the early 1990s, we had dealt with a clear division between "home" recording systems, often equipped with budget MIDI systems, as well as ADAT and RAID recorders, and professional systems based on large-format mixing consoles, with analog or digital tape recorders. Adding to this the coexistence of analog and digital instruments, as well as the emergence of sequencers and samplers, we obtain something that Bennett refers to as "hybrid techniques."

A double CD album, where one of the CDs was recorded and mixed in the analog domain, while the other one—in the digital domain, but mixed in the analog domain; both were digitally remastered.

When it comes to producers and record labels wanting to make money on the novel Compact Disc, it was a disadvantageous situation. It is because it was much easier to promote the "digital" slogan without having to explain the complexity of the "hybrid" character of recording studios. So, emphasis was put on promoting the modern word "digital" and juxtaposing it with "obsolete" and "imperfect" analog systems right afterwards.

That was a really successful strategy. It is no coincidence that the first CDs bore a text informing the purchaser that all sound imperfections, such as noise, were caused by analog recording systems, while the CD would only  "reveal" them. CD players bore an enormous inscription "digital" and that very word was the main element of most commercials from that period. In this way, music buyers were convinced that 'digital' automatically means "better."

The SPARS Code as a Marketing Tool

As a result, it became hard for producers and record labels to explain to their customers that not only digital techniques were valuable and that not everything (we are talking about the 1980s) could be done in the digital domain from start to finish—many more years passed before it became possible, thanks to such technologies as the inexpensive ADAT digital tape recorder (as far as recording is concerned) or the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), i.e. computer-based sound recording and processing systems, e.g. ProTools (when it comes to recording and mixing).

An early analog Denon recording, digitally mastered using the 20-bit Mastersonic process—hence the second letter is "D," even though it refers to mixing.

So, companies had to use the tools that were available at the time. In order to promote recordings that were created using as many digital techniques as possible among music buyers, the American Society of Professional Audio Recording Services (SPARS) proposed a three-letter system for coding information about the recording, mixing and mastering techniques at the beginning of the 1980s, to be placed on Compact Discs. So, the name SPARS Code is a reference to its creator.

The SPARS Code was used for the first time in 1984. It is no coincidence that the Digital Audio (later Digital Audio and Compact Disc Review and then CD Review) magazine was created in the USA in the same year. It was established by Wayne Green, a journalist and publisher, in order to promote the new format. The code had the form of three letters put one next to another. They were sometimes placed within a common frame and later also in small squares connected together in order to form one whole. Records released by the Reference  Recordings record label were an exception. They bore the text: SPARS CODE: |D| put in a frame. The code was created using two letters:

A = Analog | D = Digital

The model "to go" code was: D|D|D, i.e. a digitally recorded, digitally mixed and digitally mastered recording. However, it was not possible until the ten years had passed. So, at the time, CDs bore the A|A|D combination, sometimes D|A|D and, with time, more and more often—A|D|D, to achieve the desired D|D|D in the 1990s.

TELARC was one of the first companies to make digital recordings, already since the 1976, using the Soundstream recorder. The 20-bit recording presented here was created later and digitally mixed.

The power of the code and belief that "digital is better" are confirmed by the story of the first CD edition of The Beatles recordings. We all know that the two living members of the band and the two widows had a conflict with the record label—and a lot of money was involved in it, too. The conflict caused a delay in talks concerning a digital reissue. Even though the first CD reissues were released in Japan already in 1983, they were immediately withdrawn from the market and they are a rarity today.

The decision concerning the reissue was only made in 1986, so the music producer George Martin, who had been asked to make the remaster, had little time to work on it. The initial concept was that the material would not be remastered, but remixed in the digital domain. However, he did not have enough time to deal with the first four albums, so he only remixed Help and Rubber Soul. The publisher really wanted more than one magical letter D to appear on the albums. That is why the first edition released in the USA had the code ADD at the back of the box. As this was not actually true (such things were not a problem at that time yet), paper stickers were put on the albums, saying: "ADD should read AAD" (more information and photos of the sticker HERE, date of access: 09.01.2020).

ECM is one of the few contemporary companies, alongside Master Music and Hi-Q, that are still using the SPARS code. The photo shows an album from the year 2018.

The coding was so popular that the engineering and professional associations—SPARS and AES—started worrying about their reputation. That is why already in the year 1991, the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services recommended withdrawing the code from CDs. Why? It is explained by George Petersen in his monograph on ADAT recorders:

The repercussions of ADAT were far reaching indeed. Was it mere coincidence that, as the first ADATs were delivered to retailers, the Society for Professional Recording Services recommended that record labels drop the ADD, DDD... ? After years of 'educating' consumers to look for that all-important 'DDD' tag, was the decision to abandon the code based on affirmation of analog… as a viable medium, or was the availability of low-cost digital a perceived threat to the allure of a DDD sticker?

George Petersen, The Alesis ADAT. The Evolution of Revolution, Emeryville 1998, pp. 2-3

No matter what the cause was, the SPARS code disappeared from CDs. Still in the 2000s, one could spot it only sometimes (usually on albums from Japan), with the exception of the ECM company that is still putting the "proud" D|D|D on its CDs.

The SPARS Code as a Source of Information

The SPARS code was used as a marketing tool in its initial years. It is because "digital" was promoted as a synonym of modernity, the future and better "crystal-clear" sound. The basis for digital recording was the imperative to improve the imperfections of analog tape recorders, but the technique had both its advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, the problems were only (partially) solved in the second decade of the 21st century. However, the promoters of the SPARS Code cared less about the advantages of the new medium as such and more about using its commercial potential. That is why every 'D' was so valuable.

An example of a wrong label: it is an album recorded and mixed in the analog domain, so it should bear the letters AAD. However, some of its editions have the DDD code on them.

However, the emergence of inexpensive digital ADAT recorders changed the rules of the game. These were digital tape recorders based on S-VHS cassettes, using S-VHS video transports. They offered 8 tracks and it was possible to combine them into large systems (even up to 124 tracks). What is important, the recorders and tapes were inexpensive—the former initially cost 3,995 USD, while the latter—about 15 USD. At that time, a multi-track reel-to-reel (digital or analog) tape cost 100-150 USD, and the Mitsubishi X-800 cost ca. 150,000 USD.

The low price made the recording process "democratic" and many well-known albums were recorded using this technique, e.g. Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill and Endtroducing by the producer DJ Shadow. In the audiophile circles, the most well-known such album is Patricia Barber's Companion. However, many people quite quickly started claiming that ADAT is not a system that can be relied on and brings about too many errors in recordings. A way to express these concerns was a controversial installation displayed during the Audio Engineering Society conference in 1997—a pile of tapes and ADAT recorders impaled on a metal spike.

The End of the World of (Public) Information

The fact is that when inexpensive digital recorders and then also digital sound processing systems appeared on the market, the fascination with the digital component of music albums production decreased. As a result, the promotional value of the SPARS code dropped to zero. It is due to the fact that it is hard to promote something that was digital indeed, but not necessarily high-quality.

An example of how the SPARS code can be used in a modern, creative way—on an LP. This is a recording made by Dirk Sommer and Birgit Hammer-Sommer in 2013 for the Edel record label. A whole series of such recordings (Triple A) was created.

However, the fact is that it was a system for coding product information that we all need today. Nowadays, when nobody gets excited about the word "digital" anymore and it is much more interesting to know that a recording was  analog, the system could be used to actually inform clients, i.e. us, about what they buy. It is because when we buy vinyl today, we get a total mystery. The medium is analog, but the master, mix and recording can be either analog or digital. It is also similar with files.

I think such a label should be obligatory. However, in order for it to perform its function well, it should be extended by one more letter 'A' or 'D' that would be used to describe the original master and re-master. It is because it was assumed that CDs were to be mastered with them in mind. However, the real situation of recordings looks different. It is easy to imagine the following situation:

Draw 2

There are such cases among the contemporary re-issues of analog recordings created in the early 1980s. Let me remind you that a remaster is made using a ready-made analog master (each "master" tape is a tape with a master). However, it can be done in a different way. The Hi-Q company (Mr Kazuo Kiuchi, the owner of the Combak Corporation, is its shareholder) releases classical music recordings on XRCD24. They bear SPARS code of the following type: A|A|D, but we know that remastering was done in the analog domain, in the JVC K2 system. So, we actually have two masters—the original analog and the new digital one.

There are also more complex cases, e.g. Mark Hollis's solo album. It was recorded using a combination of two tape recorders: an analog stereophonic Studer and the digital, 32-track Mitsubishi X-800 (or X-850) that was used to record additional instruments and performed the role of a sequencer. It was the main multi-track machine as well. The final was recorded to stereo Studer, analog one, once again. In this case, the first letter of the code should be doubled: A/D and the whole thing would look like this:

Draw 3

The description would have the form A/D|A|A for the LP edition and A/D|A|D for the CD. If we took into account my request for extending the SPARS code, the remaster of this album on the Compact Disc medium would bear the code A/D|A|A|D. And everything is OK, but… It all gets too complicated. That is why the modest three-letter code could still serve us—if only record labels wanted to use it.

Some Final Remarks

Will this lead to anything? To cut a long story short—no. Record labels are not interested in informing their clients about the products they make. Why? To a large extent, it is because clients do not care about it, either. And only audiophiles still remember that the SPARS code used to be such an information-carrying medium.

Text: Wojciech Pacuła

Images: Wojciech Pacuła

Translation: Marek Dyba

Visit High Fidelity