If you’re here for discount vouchers to use in a network of popular convenience stores, you’ve come to the wrong place. Bye!
But if you’re wondering what those weird SPARS codes are on your CDs – most likely AAD, ADD and DDD – then read on.
What are SPARS codes?
SPARS codes were developed by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services (SPARS), and were intended to inform music lovers how the music on CDs was recorded, mixed and mastered.
When CDs were introduced in 1982, they represented consumers’ first experience of digital music. But as the vast, overwhelming majority of music recorded up until that point had been recorded using analogue equipment, most early CDs only contained ‘analogue’ music that had been digitally mastered for this new, digital format.
Classical music buffs in particular, but also other audiophiles, place great importance on the sound quality of the music they buy and listen to. In the 1980s, a release that was purely digital (DDD – see below) was the holy grail.
The idea behind the SPARS codes was therefore to help would-be purchasers better gauge sound quality, and as a result, level of listening enjoyment, they could expect from a particular CD. In extreme cases, whether they should even buy a particular CD. “It‘s not been digitally recorded?! I’m not buying that! I may as well listen to all my music on picture discs!”
PolyGram, one of the major labels (long since part of Universal), was the first to print SPARS codes on its CDs and inlay cards, back in 1984. Some of the booklets in their releases also included an explanation of what the codes meant. Other major labels, and some independent labels, soon followed suit.
SPARS codes – what the letters mean
SPARS codes comprise three letters (although every rule has an exception – see further below). These letters are always A and/or D, in various combinations.
- A stands for analogue.
- D stands for digital.
Eight theoretical combinations are possible, but in practice, only three are (were!) widespread:
- AAD: This denotes an analogue recording, with analogue mixing and digital mastering
- ADD: This denotes an analogue recording, with digital mixing and digital mastering
- DDD: This denotes a digital recording, with digital mixing and digital mastering
Other possible combinations
The other possible combinations are: AAA, ADA, DAA, DDA and DAD.
As CDs are digital sound carriers, and are therefore always created from a digital master, the last letter is always D. It’s impossible to master a CD using analogue equipment.
Although SPARS codes were never intended to appear on vinyl records or cassettes, apparently some labels did use them on analogue formats. So just as the final letter in a SPARS code on a CD can only ever be D, the final letter on a record or cassette can only ever be A, as these are analogue formats.
And although this may sound strange, if vinyl records commonly carried SPARS codes, many would bear the DDD label. This is because the music is recorded, mixed and mastered digitally, even though it is then transferred to the analogue format of vinyl!
For many years, I’d wondered why a couple of Front 242 CDs I bought upon release in 1993 bore the unusual SPARS code DDAD. The extra initial D represents the instruments they used, meaning the music was mixed on analogue equipment, even though the rest of the playing, recording and mastering process was all digital.
Did digital mastering for CD improve sound quality?
It should also be noted that, when older recordings originally released on vinyl and/or cassette were prepared for reissue on CD, the digital mastering required didn’t necessarily mean that the audio material was improved in any way.
In many cases, the music was mastered for CD using the most advanced techniques and equipment available at the time. The intention was to make the music sound as good as possible, and hold up as well as it could to contemporary recordings. However, this digital mastering often meant merely the process of transferring the music to a digital medium – the bare minimum necessary.
This is the reason why so many 1980s CDs sound so underwhelming today. Many just sound like the vinyl release, but without the background noise and crackles – which is essentially what they were. People (like me!) were paying again to buy recordings they already owned, supposedly for the improved sound quality, but in hindsight, we were perhaps only really paying for the convenience of owning the music on a smaller, more versatile format. (Yes, CDs are more versatile than vinyl – you can’t listen to vinyl on the bus or in your car!)
Although I’m by no means a gold cable-brandishing audiophile, it was always a treat if a CD I bought was ADD, as the music sounded much better. You could hear the individual instruments clearly! But because of the nature of the music I liked and still like, and the labels which released it (small budgets!), I only ever encountered a few DDD CDs in those days, and when I did, it almost felt as if the musicians were in my house, playing right in front of me! Having said that, I’d much rather listen to an AAD compact disc of exciting music than a DDD disc of sterile, corporate music. Horses for courses…
SPARS codes were very much a child of 1980s and 1990s CDs.
Even as early as 1991, SPARS – the organisation behind this labelling system – effectively ‘disowned’ it. The technology used in music studios was becoming ever-more complex, meaning there were already too many variables to fit neatly into this simple system.
What if some music that was otherwise purely digital contained some samples of analogue recordings? (See just about all dance music, ever!) Or what if the music was bounced backwards and forwards between analogue and digital equipment in the studio? This also happens, as all engineers have their favourite studio gear.
Despite this, some record companies continued to add the codes to their releases, and SPARS eventually ‘adopted’ their system again.
Are SPARS codes still used today?
As digital technology for recording and mixing became more affordable, the more music was digitally recorded and/or mixed. Nowadays, the vast majority of music is digitally recorded, mixed and mastered. (If it isn’t, it’s usually because someone has deliberately chosen to use analogue equipment for at least some part of the process, because they prefer the results it provides.)
As most music today is DDD, there’s now no need to label CDs accordingly. (At least, for the comparatively few titles released on CD these days.)
You can still find SPARS codes on reissues, where they still provide helpful info on how the music was recorded, mixed and mastered, and therefore what the CD may sound like.
Anyone making music using Garageband, which comes preinstalled on all Apple computers, has got recording technology at their fingertips which is more advanced than that available to many well-known musicians and bands in the past, who were recording and mixing in expensive studios paid for by their record companies. (Which doesn’t automatically make the music any better, I know.)
SPARS codes – summary
I hope this article has helped you decode this two-letter alphabet soup found on many older CDs.
Now you’ll now be rummaging through all those boxes of old CDs stuffed under your bed, looking for SPARS codes, in order to see which ones were digitally recorded, or at least, mixed. Happy hunting! (And listening!)
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