Digital Music Renaissance

Dick Burwen's algorithms may bring back analog's rich, complex sounds

Photo: Mark Anderson

DIGITAL DISCO: Dick Burwen's massive audio system sounds best with hundreds of tweeters tweeting—and three disco balls slowly spinning and reflecting their glittery beams.

Neil Young has called the digital recording era the "dark ages" of music. Bob Dylan, in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, called music from CDs "static" and "small." Just a couple of grumpy old rockers who can't get with the program—or visionaries who see that the times, they are a-changin'? A retired engineer's basement in Lexington, Mass., is the unlikely wellspring for some technology that could hold the answer.

Richard Burwen, designer of everything from stereo sound chips to the Pioneer spacecraft's magnetometers, has spent nearly 50 years building and tweaking his own 20 000-watt ultrahigh-end hi-fi system. And some of the tricks and algorithms he's developed could someday make your CDs and digital music files sound better than you ever thought they could.

In 1962, Burwen began designing his house around what has become the US $500 000 Burwen Sound Studio—"the ultimate man-cave," as one scribe called it. The rear third of it hosts racks of computers, control panels, and audio components of varying vintage, from 1960s dial-and-needle boxes to modern-day laptops. The rest is an enormous resonant chamber with an Alice-in-Wonderland feel: Because no surface is parallel to any other, there are few troublesome echoes to limit the frequency response of the room.

Three recessed chambers at the far front provide cavities inside which Burwen's homemade left, middle, and right speaker systems reside—150 tweeters, five midrange horns, ten 16-inch woofers, and four 24-inch subwoofers. In front of each speaker Burwen has hung a mirrored disco ball and set a snare drum on the floor to add to the reverberations, which he says make the sound "more musical."

The layout of the studio was largely completed in the mid-1970s. Then came CDs. Burwen became increasingly frustrated at the decreased sound quality of this supposedly superior format. CDs are, he says, "rather screechy to me."

Rob Fraboni, who has produced records for Bob Dylan, The Band, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, and Bonnie Raitt, says the CD format went to market before it was really ready. The problem, Fraboni says, is the sampling rate: 44.1 kilohertz for CDs. But the sound of the human voice is at its richest and most complex around 1200 Hz. In that range, the CD format leaves just 36 samples to describe a whole waveform. Imagine using just 36 connect-the-dot points to outline the Mona Lisa—how beautiful could she possibly be? Worse, MP3s and other compressed formats are just approximations of the CD standard, further distorting and simplifying the image.

But Fraboni says Burwen's CD-remastering software—initially just for his home studio—has played a key role in resuscitating digital music. (For the record, Fraboni was also a paid consultant to Burwen from 2005 to 2008; he's now working on his own separate music-remastering suites that he says leave less of a sonic footprint by not altering the original music quite as much.)

Burwen's CD-remastering algorithm introduces tiny bits of reverb at higher frequencies, where the sample rate starts to get patchy. The ear and brain read these tiny echoes as more organic connections between sample points and, as a result, Burwen's reconstructions sound more natural.

Burwen's entire software suite, a Microsoft Excel workbook containing 1.4 million formulas, is called Audio Splendor and costs $14 000. A home version, Burwen Bobcat, which works only with Windows Media Player, is tentatively priced at $3300.

All in all, says Fraboni, "Dick has made a tremendous contribution toward making music listenable again." If Burwen's algorithms can climb out of his basement cave, perhaps music can emerge from its dark ages.

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