Dr. AIX's POSTS TECH TALK — 28 November 2013

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I would like to thank everyone that reads this post for being involved and interested in my passion for music, technology and uncompromised quality. Thanks very much for the support and encouragement. I consider it a privilege to be able to share my passion with so many others. I hope your day and life is full of family, fun, food and of course, great music!

There are a few recordings on AIX Records that I didn’t produce or record. I’ve added some of these because I loved the artist and others because I have a personal relationship with the artist/performer. But I always insist that I provide do the mixing or mastering so that product reflects my own sound aesthetics.

On a couple of releases, I simply took the existing CD and then produced an accompanying Blu-ray disc in full surround and without the heavy handed mastering that destroys so much wonderful music. In order to do my thing, the artists or the engineers behind the project send me a hard drive with the multitrack masters. These are the actual tracks that were recorded during the weeks or months of recording, overdubbing and mixing that go into a typical commercial release.

I received an email from a reader in Sweden that wanted to know why there was so much difference between the CD and BD discs for a project by Ali Isabella, a very young singer/songwriter out of New York. She worked with some very talented co-writers, producers and engineers in Nashville for her 2012 AIX release called “Say You’ll Be Mine”.

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Figure 1 – Spectragrams of the CD vs. BD of Ali Isabella “Say You’ll Be Mine”[Click to enlarge]

The product has two discs in the package. There is the standard commercial CD that was mastered by a Grammy-nominated mastering engineering based in Nashville AND the BD disc with three mixes and no mastering. I was responsible for the BD disc.

The Swedish gentleman noticed an enormous difference. The CD was “boring and lacking in information” while the Blu-ray disc “is how recordings should sound”.

The CD contains almost no dynamic range, has excessive amounts of high-frequency equalization added to “brighten” the tracks and the bass is artificially enhanced. It sounds like the usual material that you encounter on the radio…and that’s what the mastering engineer was targeting.

The BD on the other hand was mixed from the same source multitracks but I used minimal timbral modification, no dynamics processing and mixed the various musical parts in a very wide array around the vocal track. Because the tracks very capturing in an acoustically dead studio, I had to use artificial reverberation to “liven” the tracks. Everything was mixed in the digital domain at 48 kHz/24-bit PCM and then encoded using Dolby TrueHD.

The differences between the CD and the BD are the amount of processing that was applied during the mixdown stage, the lack of mastering, the maintenance of “natural” sounds and the spatial distribution of the individual instruments. The BD is targeted at music fans that want a rich and inviting track. Take listen and see what you think.

I’ve added a track from the CD and the BD for comparison to the FTP site. Check out the folder call Ali Isabella CD vs. BD Comparison.

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(3) Readers Comments

  1. Thanks for an amazing demonstration of your point, Mark.

    Even listening to these two files on cheap PC speakers, with a nasty ear infection (i.e. effectively in mono), the difference is stunningly obvious. The CD version sounds really harsh and bright compared to the BD – which has a richness and natural tone that puts you in the room with the performer – and gets rid of that whole wall of production thing that just makes for lots of extraneous noise on the CD version.

    Charming song and a delightful performer though. Boy I’d love to hear this with fully working ears on my Hi Fi!

  2. Hi Mark,

    If I have a master with dynamic span at 90dB and frequency range between 20-20000Hz would it be possible to tell or here the difference between 16/44,1 2-ch and 24/96 2-ch?

    Which music would you say benefit with a frequency above 20kHz and which music have bigger dynamic range then 90-96dB = CD?

  3. Mark,
    Thanks for the comparative mastering tracks. I am most interested in this aspect of music production since with my current AV system and auditory ability, I can’t discern a difference between a well-made PCM and DSD format (same file). The biggest difference I usually notice is between a well or poorly mastered track, or if the source is clearly superior in terms of low noise.

    I have listened to the example tracks on several setups ranging from internal computer monitor speakers, standard car speakers, and finally a stereo AV system. With the lower overall volume of the BD mix, I actually couldn’t raise the volume enough in the internal monitor speakers to pick up the full dynamic range. So in the case where one listens to music with computer monitor speakers (though this should probably be forbidden), then the CD mix would probably be better. Also, perhaps this mix would be appropriate in the case when listening with a low power/poor quality amp.

    Despite not being able to properly experience this track on these low quality systems, I still could tell the BD mix retained more natural acoustics. In general, I thought the CD mix was fairly harsh, the instrumental tracks are always loud and the most prominent feature of the track, they detract from her excellent vocal performance. Also there were definitely finer instrumental details that were missing. I would definitely fatigue more easily listening to this track. The BD mix has a good balance between featuring the instrumentals vs vocal track. Though on my system, I did have to add about 8 db of volume to achieve similar loudness.

    I guess one relevant question is whether all CDs should be mastered using your approach, or does the fact that such a wide variety of playback systems exist (portable music devices, average car stereo system, audiophile CD players) require two separate mixes. I was excited that this was attempted with the latest Nine Inch Nails album, and the official release made a big deal of this separate mastering sessions, but personally I didn’t hear any difference between the regular and “audiophile” versions. As a consumer, I hope the aspect of music production that creates better dynamic range and more natural acoustics becomes a bigger focus, even for larger labels. Personally, I’d rather see old releases get a healthy dose of quality mastering rather than all this effort to repackage original CD tracks into high resolution containers. Of course the later is MUCH more profitable.

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