What we can learn from SPARS? Huh?



Well, Hello. Where were you the last ten years? The sound coming from the speakers was like an old friend you had not talked to in years, but in an instant you could carry a conversation. Somewhere, I lost this sonic friend between the white earbuds, the endless sea of streaming music services, and our ecosystem walled gardens.

You see, my dad gave me his old-school multi-component stereo with real kicking speakers. I did not realize how much I had sacrificed in the sonic spectrum for portability and small speakers. It was not just the improved audio that I missed. I realized I was listening to whole albums again and not just what Pandora was dishing out to me.

When I was playing some of my earlier CDs this week, I saw something I had not seen in a long time. On the backside of the CD was a  three letter code near the bottom.  I am not sure if you remember this. It was something like ADD or DDD.

This code was developed in the early 1980s by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services (SPARS) for CDs to show you, the consumer, the history of the recording process for that CD. This certification program consisted of a series of guidelines developed by SPARS and given to CD manufacturers. The first two code spaces represent recording and mixing respectively and could either be an “A” for analog or a “D” for digital. The third position, representing mastering, is always “D” on CDs. So, you could have the following combinations:

  • AAD – Analog tape recorder used during initial recording, analog tape recorder used during mixing, digital mastering.
  • ADD – Analog tape recorder used during initial recording, digital tape recorder used during mixing, digital mastering.
  • DDD – A fully digital recording, from the original session to mastering.
  • DAD – Digital tape recorder used during initial recording, analog tape recorder used during mixing, digital mastering.

I know when I bought my first CDs (for $18) there was a perceived quality difference when you purchased a DDD CD. You thought you were getting a better quality CD. The SPARS code was on all early CDs but its gone now.  What happened?

  1. The simple code was just too simple. What happens when something is converted from digital to analog and then converted back to digital. Is it still a rated a D?
  2. The audio recording process became more involved. According to the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services, “the digital/analog technical scene had become so cluttered with conversions and algorithms for interface as to resemble rocket science.”
  3. There was a shift in the marketplace. The growing tsunami of digital recordings trumped any need to separate perceived quality in the marketplace.

SPARS withdrew endorsement of the certification code in the 1990s.

I am sure this has happened with other certification programs. Will this happen with the whole LEED certification program, set of rating systems for green buildings, homes and neighborhoods developed by the U.S. Green Building Council? There are competing standards like the Green Globes certification program. At some point I think we will be in a post-LEED era where LEED will become less relevant as building codes evolve. Other modern day certification codes will probably disappear. Organic?

Maybe in times of great change, we need a simple certification code, but the best ones just fade away. So dust off that vinyl or crack open that CD, enjoy a whole album this week, and just fade away.