Pic of RCA Dynagroove record, "The Sound of Tomorrow"

RCA Dynagroove:
The Sound
of Tomorrow

In 1963, RCA introduced a set of enhancements to its LP record-making process under the trademark, “Dynagroove.” It was heralded as “adding brilliance and clarity, realistic presence, full-bodied tone and virtually eliminating surface noise and inner groove distortion.” However, it was criticized as early as 1963 by J. Gordon Holt in Stereophile magazine. He sniffed, “[It is] nothing more than a sophisticated way of bringing higher fi to record buyers who don’t care enough about hi-fi to invest in a decent playback system.” Although I recall a high public regard for Dynagroove in that era, today, one can find quite a few negative comments posted about it on the Net. I suspect that those stem in part, from the original criticisms by Holt. It could also be that some of the processing used in the system is no longer optimum, for the playback equipment used today (see below).

I was curious to see if the attacks of the audio elite were fully justified, so I turned to Dr. Harry Olson’s paper describing the Dynagroove system. It appeared in the April 1964 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.

Dynagroove in a Nutshell

Let’s take a brief look at what Dynagroove really was. It was a comprehensive program to improve sound recording in all aspects from artist’s conception of the music to reproduction of it in the home. I know this might sound like so much marketing patter today. In the early sixties though, RCA Laboratories, under the direction of Dr. Olson, put together an interdisciplinary team of scientists, design engineers, recording engineers, musicians and music directors, to study the recording and record production process. The resulting system included the following improvements:

  • New studios, with controlled attack and decay characteristics.
  • Special selection of microphones. (Olson was an expert in mic design.)
  • Microphone placement based on controlled, subjective testing.
  • New, low-distortion microphone preamplifiers.
  • A new type of master recording console, with special peak indicators to
    guard against overloading the master tape.
  • New magnetic tape recorders with higher overload points.
  • Recording at 30ips instead of the conventional 15ips.
  • Development of a new magnetic tape formulation, with higher retentivity, lower noise level, higher coercivity and a heavier base material.
  • A (controversial) Dynamic Spectrum Equalizer (DSE) intended to compensate for deficiencies of reproduction in a typical residential setting
  • Sophisticated Recording Overload Indicator to guard against exceeding the limits allowable for cutting the master disk.
  • Dynamic Styli Correlator (DSC), which canceled tracing distortion, due to a 0.7mil playing stylus. It was stronger at high frequencies and at the inner grooves.
  • Optimization of vertical tracking angle in the disk cutter.
  • New, higher-power disk cutting amplifiers to reduce distortion.
  • Reduction of noise in the master lacquer disk by maintaining constant temperature of the cutting stylus.
  • Improvements in the plating process used to produce final stampers from the master disk, resulting in higher signal-to-noise ratio.
  • Development of a new, electrically-conducting plastic for the record disk,
    to dissipate static electricity, reducing dust pickup and the associated
    surface noise.

Controversy Over Dynamic Spectrum Equalization (DSE)

Perhaps the most controversial part of the Dynagroove system was the Dynamic Spectrum Equalizer (DSE). It was a variable filter which boosted low frequencies at low levels and boosted high frequencies at high levels. Another way to view it is: There was dynamic range compression at low frequencies and expansion at high frequencies. The processing was intended to compensate for the masking effect of room noise, for changes in the ear’s frequency sensitivity over level and for the reverberation characteristics of the average home.

It’s not surprising that this didn’t appeal to audio purists. I would agree with them, that I would prefer not to have my audio processed this way. Nevertheless, I recognize that there was real research which argued for it. I am sorry to have to admit that, comparing the CD and Dynagroove LP versions of one selection from 1963, the LP version sounded better. It was more dynamic and brighter than the CD. That prompted my interest, which led to this article. It was a brief comparison. If I were to compare more material, perhaps my opinion would change as to whether the LP sounds better. In any case, I definitely would prefer my music to be unprocessed, in that sense.

But there is another factor to consider: Most LP recordings needed some general compression to sound good. I have always (reluctantly) accepted that. The dynamic range of a symphony orchestra simply exceeds the usable dynamic range of an LP by too much. Given that the overall dynamic range had to be somewhat compressed, was there any way to restore some of the dynamics?

Have you ever noticed that after listening to loud music for a while, it no longer seems loud? The ear adjusts and much of what we perceive as dynamic range is what occurs over relatively short time periods (say several seconds) rather than minutes. The DSE was a dynamic range expander for the upper frequency range. It restored some of the short-term dynamics for that part of the spectrum, since that part didn’t dominate overall power level. The result was that the effects of necessary overall compression were somewhat mitigated.

Once again, personally, I would prefer the unprocessed version. But I would bet that most listeners, audiophiles included, would choose the Dynagroove version, if it were not identified as such.

The Dynamic Styli Correlator (DSC)

By 1963, it was well-known that the 0.7-mil stylus which was used to play LP’s, would cause a significant amount of distortion as the ball-shaped tip attempted to trace the path cut by the chisel-shaped cutter stylus. This is called tracing distortion. You cannot use a chisel-shaped stylus to play records, because it would put too much stress on the plastic and damage the grooves. The Dynagroove solution was to model the distortion and introduce an equal but opposite signal into the recording. This would cancel the tracing distortion, upon playback. Since the amount of tracing distortion gets worse towards the inner grooves, the compensation had to vary with cutter head position. According to test data presented, the DSC worked very well.

However, DSC is now criticized for the fact that it was optimized for a 0.7-mil playback stylus and elliptical styli (typically 0.7 x 0.3-mil) are common today. Yet, it is not clear whether playback with the non-optimum elliptical stylus will incur more distortion than if the DSC were not used at all. That is an interesting topic for investigation.

In any case, the 1963 Allied Radio catalog did not list any cartridges with elliptical styli, though many big names such as Shure, Empire, Pickering, Stanton and others appear. The elliptical stylus had been invented by Edison around the turn of the century but it would be some time before it was rediscovered and became common in home stereo systems.

So the DSC part of Dynagroove was a real advance in the state of the art at the time. Whether it helps or hurts today, is an open question.

Other than DSE and DSC, all of the changes introduced in the Dynagroove system were unquestionably positive developments in producing high-quality LP records. Although DSE does cause controversy, it would seem to be unfair to ignore the many real enhancements that the system brought and to dismiss all of the excellent Dynagroove recordings which were made.

 

Reader Comments


Posted by Robert (NJ) October 02, 2016 - 09:58 am
Thanks for sharing your Sarnoff experience. I did see the facility where the chips are manufactured. Also, while Ampex is credited with inventing VTR's, they could not record in color, only monochrome. They had to get RCA Labs to figure out how to do it, as your comments explain. Great place...I hope to go there again. Best regards.

Posted by Steve L. October 02, 2016 - 05:14 pm
Hi Robert, Thanks for sharing the story about your tour of the original RCA Laboratories. In the 1990's, I was honored to be given a consulting contract from there to do part of an analog IC design. This had to do with video noise reduction in a VCR. The facility was called Sarnoff Laboratories then and had a storied past. I flew up there for a meeting and enjoyed a brief tour of the place where the U.S. color television system was invented. They had a stunning collection of prototype video camera tubes, picture tubes and other memorabilia. In addition to his pioneering work in electroacoustics, Dr. Olson led a team to crack the problem of color television tape recording. That resulted in the first broadcast of recorded color television signals in 1956. It was quite a thrill to be working with those folks. Thank you for bringing to light, RCA Laboratories and the rest of the story.

Posted by Robert (NJ) October 01, 2016 - 06:48 pm
Thanks for the reply Steve. I recently (July) had the opportunity of a lifetime when I was given a brief(1-hour) tour of the original RCA Laboratories in Princeton, NJ by a senior research scientist that has been there since 1985, just before RCA was acquired by GE. I was afforded the chance to see Harry Olson's anechoic chamber, which is no longer used as such. Since the facility does much Defense Dept. contract work, there were many areas that were restricted, but what I did see gave me a great satisfaction. I felt tremendous awe while walking the halls where so many monumental discoveries in electronics were made between 1942- 1986. The facility is now called SRI International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Stanford University of California. It is still an amazing place where amazing things are being discovered and built. Best wishes.

Posted by Steve L. October 01, 2016 - 04:40 pm
Thank you for reporting the results of the audition that you and your friend conducted and for the kind comments. Your results make good sense to me and are consistent with what I heard from the Italian album. I'm glad to have this discussion documented with the article. I think it adds a lot. Best wishes.

Posted by Robert (NJ) October 01, 2016 - 09:36 am
Hi Steve, I am impressed at your diligence in studying the different record grooves. I played the Italian pressing for an audiophile friend (MIT grad, former VP for the old TechHiFi chain, then VP at Technics/Panasonic until he retired 2 yrs. ago). We compared a few Command 35mm pressings, 2 RCA Victor Living Stereo pressings, an RCA promo album titled, "Sounds Fantastic", and a London Phase 4 Ronnie Aldrich Pianos Today album. Referring specifically to the Italian Dynagroove album, my friend said it sounded less dynamic, and having less "presence" compared to the other Dynagroove LP's. He also felt the Command records had less bottom compared to the US Dynagrooves. But we both agreed that the Italian LP was overall fair-to-good in sound, and a step below the others. As far as my groove comparisons, I compared no mono pressings, only stereo. Thank you for all of your time and effort in this interesting research. You are truly knowledgeable and motivated...a really good combination!

Posted by Steve L. August 13, 2016 - 03:56 pm
Hello again, Robert. My copy of Questo e' il Dynagroove arrived from Italy and I listened to both sides, very intently. You had described it, saying " the sound quality is fair at best. No dynamics and spaciousness that are the norm on American pressings." My impression was good but unexceptional overall quality, which, given the subjectivity involved, is generally consistent with your comment. I found the dynamics pretty compressed but most vinyl albums are, since doing otherwise would leave much of the music mired in surface noise and blemishes. So we don't disagree there, either.

I think I see what you mean about the lack of spaciousness: There seemed to be less reverberance in the studios, giving the impression of a smaller space. I took that to be an artistic choice, which could be viewed by some as giving a cleaner, tighter sound. I prefer more reverberance for classical music. However, in the classic rock category, I love the low-reverb, tight, studio sound of Chicago VI, (1973) as evidenced by the "Feeling Stronger Every Day" hit from that album. It just seems SO clean to me. Producer James William Guercio had just built the Caribou Ranch studios in the Colorado Rockies, where the album was recorded.

I guess the bottom line is that we probably heard the same things but the subjective effect depends on one's personal taste. It's hard to say how much of what we heard from this record is related to the Dynagroove process and how much is due to artistic choices. One thing I did notice was that the surface noise level was exceedingly low. At one point between tracks I could discern a master tape transition from the change in white noise level. That was something which Dynagroove did try to address. Also, distortion seemed quite low. In any case, I appreciate your bringing up this interesting, international dimension to the Dynagroove story. It's been fun to explore it.


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