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. The code denotes which parts of the recording process were completed using analog equipment and which were completed using digital equipment, encompassing three areas: recording, mixing and mastering. The first two positions, representing recording and mixing respectively, may be either an "A" for analog or a "D" for digital; the third position, representing mastering, is always "D" on digital CDs.
The system was first implemented in 1984. Due to increasing complexity of recording and mixing processes developed over the code's first decade of use, SPARS decided to withdraw endorsement of the code in 1991 because they felt the code was overly simplistic and did not accurately reflect the complexity of typical recording and mixing processes in use at the time. However, many record labels continued to use the code and SPARS decided to re-endorse the SPARS code in 1995.
The three letters of the code have the following meanings:
- First letter – the type of audio recorder (usually a tape recorder) used during initial recording (analog or digital)
- Second letter – the type of audio recorder used during mixing (analog or digital)
- Third letter – the type of mastering used (always digital for CD releases)
There are five types:
- AAA – A fully analogue recording, from the original session to mastering. Since at least the mastering recorder must be digital to make a compact disc, this code is not applicable to CDs.
- AAD – Analog tape recorder used during initial recording, mixing/editing, Digital mastering.
- ADD – Analog tape recorder used during initial recording, Digital tape recorder used during mixing/editing and for mastering.
- DDD – Digital tape recorder used during initial recording, mixing/editing and for mastering.
- DAD – Digital tape recorder used during initial recording, Analog tape recorder used during mixing/editing, Digital mastering.
Since CD is a digital medium, it must be produced from a digital master—therefore the last letter of the code will always be D. Newer LPs stored the music in analog format, yet they were often labeled as DDD, as the recording and mixing/editing were both digital.
As digital tape recorders only became widely available in the late 1970s, almost all recordings prior to this date that appear on CD will be AAD or ADD—having been digitally remastered. This means that the original analog master tape has been converted (transcribed) to digital. It does not always imply that there has been any additional editing or mixing, although this may have taken place.
In practice, AAD was uncommon and DAD was very rare, as many companies (especially the well-known classical music labels) used digital tape recorders (which was not prohibitively more expensive than analog tape recorders) during the editing or mixing stage.
The jewel box booklet and/or inlay of early compact discs included the SPARS code, typically DDD, ADD, or AAD. The typeface Combi Symbols CD includes the two common ways that the code was written on recordings.
Chris Stone and other members of the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services (SPARS) proposed the code with a set of guidelines for CD manufacturers to mark their product with an indication of exactly which parts of the recording process were analog and which were digital.
SPARS withdrew endorsement of the code in 1991 due to confusion over analog and digital conversions and interfaces; many felt the SPARS code oversimplified and meaningless. However, many labels continued to use it, and in 1995, the organization re-endorsed the code.
Lack of detail
The main limitation of the code is that it only covers the type of tape recorder used, not taking into account other equipment used in the production of the recording. For example, during the mixing stage (the middle letter in the code) many DDD recordings may have actually been converted from digital to analog, mixed on an analog mixing console, but converted back to digital and digitally recorded, thus earning it a D in the relevant part of the code. In addition to this, many recordings have effects or parts of different recordings added on to them, creating more confusion for the code.
Representation of quality
Regardless of the quality of the recording, many DDD classical music compact discs typically sold for considerably more than their ADD counterparts of the same work, due to the so-called premium attached to the fledgling digital recording technology. For instance, Herbert von Karajan's recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, an analogue recording in the 1970s that won the Grand Prix du Disque, sold for considerably less than his 1980s digital recording of the same piece, though the newer recording was not particularly critically acclaimed.
These albums with common SPARS codes (AAD, ADD, DDD) are arranged by year of release on CD, where known:
- Jean-Michel Jarre – Zoolook (1984) – DDD
- Scorpions – Love at First Sting (1984) – DDD
- U2 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984) – ADD
- Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985) – DDD (Technically DAD, due to the mixing machine itself being Analog)
- Genesis – Invisible Touch (1986) – ADD
- Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time (1986) – ADD
- Jean-Michel-Jarre – Rendez-Vous (1986) – AAD
- Judas Priest – Turbo (1986) – DDD
- Queen – A Kind of Magic (1986) – DDD
- Queensrÿche - Rage For Order (1986) - AAD
- Michael Jackson – Bad (1987) – DDD
- Blue System – Body Heat (1988) – AAD
- Amy Grant – Lead Me On (1988) – DDD
- Huey Lewis and the News - Small World (1988) - AAD
- Yello – Flag (1988) – ADD
- Aerosmith – Pump (1989) – ADD
- Rush – Presto (1989) – DDD
- Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo – Wanted: Dead or Alive (1990) – DDD
- Jean-Michel Jarre – Waiting for Cousteau (1990) – DDD
- Monie Love – Down to Earth (1990) – DDD
- Bryan Adams – Waking Up the Neighbours (1991) – DDD
- Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991) – AAD
- My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991) – AAD
- Nirvana – Nevermind (1991) – AAD
- R.E.M. – Out of Time (1991) – AAD
- Simple Minds – Real Life (1991) – DDD
- Benny Andersen´s - SNØVSEN - (1992) ADD
- Aerosmith – Get a Grip (1993) – AAD
- Jean-Michel Jarre – Chronologie (1993) – AAD
- Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994) – AAD
- Weezer – Weezer (1994) – AAD
- Rhett Akins – A Thousand Memories (1995) – DDD
Pre-1984 digital recordings
Many older recordings previously issued on vinyl were reissued on CD, beginning with the format's commercial introduction in late 1982. Reissue CDs often only have the original LP's copyright dates on them, so it's not obvious when the CDs were actually made. If they bear a SPARS code, though, the manufacture date was no earlier than 1984. Most of these older recordings were analog, so it's not unusual to see AAD and ADD codes, but occasional examples of digital-recording codes appear on later CD editions, such as these:
- ABBA – The Visitors (1981; first CD release Oct. 1982; date of CD release with SPARS code unknown) – DDD
- Donald Fagen – The Nightfly (1982; date of first CD release and CD release with SPARS code unknown) – DDD
- Different codes for different tracks
- DMP albums were recorded "Direct to Digital" (a digital equivalent of Direct-to-disc recording) with no mixing step. Notable among them are the albums of digital recording pioneers Flim & the BB's.
- David Bowie – Rykodisc had an LP series of reissues with the AAA code [analog tape used in all the processes]
- The Thermals – Personal Life (2010) – AAA (printed on vinyl issue)
- HB - The End of New Beginnings (Music Cassette) - Hell Breaks (2013) - ADA
- Simple Minds – Street Fighting Years (1989) – DAD
- Gin Blossoms - New Miserable Experience (1992, original issue) - DAD
- They Might Be Giants – Flood (1990) – DAD
- Ministry – Psalm 69 (1992) – DAD
- Destiny in Space/Blue Planet/The Dream Is Alive – Original Motion Picture Soundtracks (Released together on one CD, 1994) – DAD
- ABC (band) - How to Be a...Zillionaire! - DAD
- Pixies - Bossanova (1990) - DAD
- Wendy Carlos – Switched-On Bach 2000 (1992) – DDDD (The additional "D" was added to indicate the instruments the music was made on were digital; this may not be a SPARS-endorsed code.)
- Haswell & Hecker – Blackest Ever Black (Electroacoustic UPIC Recordings) (2007) – DDDD
- Kenny Roberts – You're My Kind of People and It Only Makes Me Cry (Forgetting You) (1988; early 2000s CD releases) – DDA/DDD (Digital Recording And Mixing, but initially released only on analog formats.)
- Analog sound vs. digital sound
- Digital recording
- Sound recording and reproduction
- High Definition Compatible Digital