Dr. AIX's POSTS — 30 January 2014

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Despite the best efforts of many talented individuals and inspired companies, my heart of heart knows that high-resolution audio will not make it into the mainstream given the current path of promotion and production. Heck, I’m pretty convinced that it won’t even find a place at the audiophile table. Here are 5 reasons (there are probably many more) why high-resolution audio will quite likely die a quiet and undistinguished death in 2014:

1. There’s no agreement on what is and what isn’t High-Resolution Audio. Consumers, audio writers, audio engineers, artists, high-resolution download sites and audiophiles can’t agree on a definition for high-resolution audio. Anything with numbers larger than 44.1 kHz and 16-bit words or the letters DSD qualifies as High-Res. Many consumers believe that it’s anything “better than MP3 quality”. Die-hard analog advocates claim that analog tape or vinyl LPs are the bars against which all other audio formats should be measured. Most of the high-resolution digital music download sites tout their offerings as high-resolution tracks, when in fact they are merely standard definition recordings transferred to large bit buckets and sold for aggressive prices. Still others don’t want to rock the boat and want everything to be marketed as “HRA” if the proprietors of the products say they’re high-definition.

2. Artists, audio engineers and producers of commercial recordings don’t know what high-resolution audio is (although many will claim that they do) AND even if they did, they wouldn’t be allowed to deliver high-resolution masters to the record companies (maybe in numbers only). The mainstream record business is not interested in the audiophile lunatic fringe or advancing fidelity. They want to deliver commodity recordings that will light up the charts just like the last hit records that they produced. Louder is always better…and that’s a fact that’s not going to be changing anytime soon.

3. Personal and professional recording studios don’t have the capability to record and release high-resolution recordings because the equipment that they use can’t handle the high sample rates and longer words. It’s easier for a Pro Tools owner to keep doing what they’ve always done. Why would someone push the very limits of their system when no one cares? With the myriad plugins that are used in every commercial recording, there’s no way to run at 192 or even 96 kHz and keep thing running smoothly.

4. The truth cannot be told or someone’s feelings will get hurt. I get the chance to present at most of the audio trade shows that are spread across the calendar and the continent. For one of the upcoming events, I recently submitted a proposal for a seminar entitled, “High-Resolution Audio Downloads: Time for Truth and Honesty”. The accompanying abstract stated:

There are a lot of websites that claim to deliver “high-resolution audio” music and the renewed interested in better fidelity has prompted more to enter this narrow marketplace. Unfortunately, not all music downloads have better fidelity than the recording formats of the past…yet eager audiophiles are paying premium dollars for 192 kHz/24-bit PCM files or 5.6 MHz DSD downloads. Presented by high-resolution audio pioneer and authority Dr. Mark Waldrep (AES, NARAS and CEA, AIX Records, iTrax and blogger at RealHD-Audio.com), this seminar will reveal the truth behind the marketing spin and overhyped advertising. Learn how you can determine the quality of a download before you spend $30 on a poor transfer of the wrong master analog tape. Get accurate information on the production realities behind “so-called” high-resolution downloads and the importance of provenance and production formats. The truth about High-Resolution Downloads will surprise you and make you think twice before you reach for your credit card.

I was asked to kindly pick another topic because the organizer didn’t want to offend any vendors that might be part of the problem and not the solution. It’s starting to feel a little like an episode of The X Files.

5. The focus is almost entirely on the hardware and not the content. There are already portable players and some smart phones that have high-resolution DACs capable of 96/192 kHz/24-bit PCM or DSD at 64 or 128. And everyone in the audiophile community knows about the $20K Reference quality DACs that will playback 384 kHz 32-bit audio files…even though there aren’t any recordings that have been made at that ridiculous specification. We as music lovers have to demand that the artists, engineers, producers AND labels embrace a strategy that will produce better fidelity at the source. You can’t reproduce high-resolution audio with a 192 kHz / 24-bit DAC if your soundfiles don’t measure up to that standard. There are some labels that are doing the right thing…2L in Norway, MA Recordings and of course AIX Records but we’re in the minority.

When UMG and others put out High Fidelity Blu-ray Discs of older standard definition recordings, charge $30 dollars for the same quality that we had years ago and proclaim the dawn of a new age in audio fidelity, I get discouraged. They’re only contributing to the misinformation.

Sorry if I sound like a pessimist today. I’m not giving up…as Agent Mulder always said, “The Truth is Out There”.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a “binaural” electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art.

As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more.

Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com.

A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, “High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback”. The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(10) Readers Comments

  1. Another great post. regarding #4, I’d love to learn how I can determine the quality of a download before spending $30 on a poor transfer of the wrong master analog tape. Have you posted this “secret” in the past? If not, I think it would make a great topic for a future post. thanks.

  2. Well stated. With a background in corporate strategy, I’m tempted to look at this situation through that lens, and in doing so one quickly comes to two key points of view:

    – High fidelity/high resolution is a “disruptive” idea/technology/process
    – Disruptive ideas rarely are pursued by industry incumbents: they are most commonly pursued by new market entrants

    While the past is not necessarily the future, this means trying to educate or reform the current market players is unlikely to be effective. Instead, looking for an entity not currently a major player or with significant vested interest in the status quo is more likely to succeed. Perhaps a Google, Microsoft, or other tech and content firm. Sony could have been the firm but they seem more interested in licensing fees for their proprietary format before the patents run out instead of true high fidelity across the supply chain. Apple is interesting to think about – they could be considered part of the status quo, yet they clearly were very effective with the disruptive ideas of iTunes and iPods, and perhaps would do it again.

    To me, part of the bad news/good news is that the current players like UMG seem more willing to depend on coercive power (stranglehold on a key part of the supply chain) than value-added power (that’s the bad news), and firms that rely on coercive power are more vulnerable to those with a better mousetrap (that’s the good news).

    In short, you and your like-minded innovators are probably best in recruiting a new major player than trying toreform from within with such a disruptive set of ideas. If you accomplished recruiting a new capable market entrant (a big “if”, I know), then that turns the tables for incumbents to either change or die. Corporate strategy studies show that most incumbents die, but go out fighting with litigious and legislative counterattacks to kill or maim disruptive innovations, and we’ve seen aspects of that already with the RIAA. I would not put it past the more cutthroat music execs to “salt the earth” of high resolution by deliberately putting out faux high resolution music to discredit the disruptive idea. That’s not conspiracy thinking, that’s a shrewd defense of the status quo. The other classic defense is to tighten their grip on “content” – the musicians themselves and their output. That would need to be tackled directly by a new player because classical corporate strategy analysis would likely reveal that the controller(s) of the content in this industry calls the shots throughout the supply chain.

    You are up against extremely capable people who see your ideas as a threat to their current profit models, and I recommend you think a bit like them to overcome their resistance, specifically by going around them with a new capable market player. It’s obviously more complicated than just that, but hopefully you get the point of view. Fascinating stuff!

    • Thank you lazy, a great post. Your proposal is a clever one. HD music should not only be embedded in content from the likes of Microsoft and Apple, but also firmly embedded in the minds of the end user. Nothing less should be tolerated. EVERY CD released is dumbed down. Your statement:
      “You are up against extremely capable people who see your ideas as a threat to their current profit models”
      says it all…and yet, merely serves to highlight their ineptitude. What company wouldn’t like to boast of “superior” quality recordings? How is having an alternative HD download ( native to the recording process) a threat to their profit models? Indeed, Sony relies on sales of the very equipment necessary for the playback of these files. How is re-releasing thousands of albums on vinyl helping their profit margins?
      The fate of these music labels is in the hands of hunched-over, cardigan clad, bean counters wearing odd socks. Send these “profit eating” hand-brakes back to their caves and start “earning” your money.
      Who knows, perhaps it will “bring back” a lot of disgruntled consumers to the record buying market.

  3. Ok, this may sound REALLY bad, but, in the long run, is the only course to let the format(high(er) res) lead the recording industry? If everyone has the capability to play high(er) res files – will studios start upgrading their equipment to match? We have a lot of pretenders today that pack the same recording into higher resolution formats, is that a necessary evil to get over the hump? Is that better than hi-res dying or taking 7-10 years to make it into the mainstream?

    It is some what of a catch-22. Studios will not deliver high(er) res material if nobody has the hard ware and if nobody has the hardware, studios will not deliver high(er) res material.

    Obviously a simplification in many ways, but still could be a valid point.

  4. Several years ago I was instrumental in introducing a new 3D image processing technology to the oil and gas market. The venture could have failed at least twice but we kept it going and eventually made it, coincidentally in compliance with the industry norm of 7 years to adoption. The way we did it was to convince technical – stress the word technical – industry leaders that there was a higher fidelity route to analysis of seismic data than so-called “manual” interpretation. HRA is not directly analogous, but let me describe my own brief encounter with it before making a suggestion.

    My approach to recorded music is appreciative rather than forensic: I know how badly my amateur guitar playing stacks up against proper musicians. My CD player/amp/speaker system is several years old and would cost about $3000 to replace. I play CD’s directly, or from AIFF rips on an iPod. Either way good recordings – Melody Gardot, Eric Bibb, Martin Taylor, etc., sound great. A friend has a $30,000 system, which makes them sound even better. Both systems play at 16/44.1.

    I don’t need to be bound like Hannibal Lecter in a “perfect” listening position to enjoy music, but HRA looked like it could be a meaningful upgrade to my ageing setup. So I researched a possible investment in high-res downloads and an appropriate DAC. I did listening tests via a Dragonfly DAC and AKG reference headphones on several files, some with the same recording at different resolutions. The sources were Linn and Naim music sites, which I take to be reliable, as well as iTrax.

    To my ears 24/192 was indistinguishable from 24/96. Listening forensically there appeared to be occasional and very subtle differences between 24/96 and 16/44.1. In normal listening these nuances were effectively imperceptible. And it was difficult to gauge any qualitative difference between the higher-res files and my “good” AIFF recordings on iTunes. To put this in context I consistently discern, or at least believe I discern, an improvement in 16/44.1 over 320 MP3 files, more significantly on well produced material.
    Looking at the money required to buy, store, back up and play high-res downloads, I weighed the hi-res proposition against ongoing accumulation of high quality redbook CD’s, many of which sell at ridiculously cheap prices. Bottom line: $1000 gets me at least 100 CD’s, possibly over 200 used, or around 50 high-res album downloads, a music player, a backup drive and cables. With my mid-fi setup, CD’s win hands down on cost/benefit.
    This was a surprising and unexpected consequence of my little experiment. However I suspect the balance could shift towards downloads if played through a dac and amp capable of exposing the intrinsic sonic qualities of the recordings. My guess is that the hardware components would cost $5000. If I had that kind of money I would re-visit the download route.

    Whichever way you slice it I will continue to buy music that I believe is well produced. So will plenty of others, at least down to the mid-fi sector, if they know what they are buying. Arguably there is a perception issue here, as there once was with digital cameras. Only recently have “prosumers” understood that image quality can actually be inversely proportional to the megapixel count, whereas professionals have been shooting at 12mp or less for years. In the hifi world this translates into “how hi-res is your system?” rather than “what is the sonic quality of your input material”? When you have several streaming device manufacturers building in upsampling by default, it’s no wonder the picture is confused.

    The trick is to move the HRA badge from the hardware to the content. I guess the difficulty lies in finding a set of production parameters that can be agreed by the industry and easily identified by the buyer. Personally I would vote for a star system: one star plays at 320kbps, two stars at 16/44.1, and three stars at 24/96. All three levels would be available to download from the same source material (Linn Records are already doing this commercially, up to and including 24/192, but without the stars). Apart from rating sonic content such a system would enable the hardware companies to market a hierarchy of products, and hence aspirations, for a wider consumer base.
    How do you get there? This comes back to my original point. In the HRA world the most influential early adopters are likely to the artists, not (with due respect to Mark) the engineers. Neil Young is already on a soapbox, but there are other big names who are consistently well produced. Perhaps they could be enlisted to endorse a process, or standards, for getting quality-assured music to the online consumer. I can’t imagine Mark Knopfler, for example, putting out a poorly produced album. There are also highly respected producers, such as T-bone Burnett and Phil Ramone, who might lend their weight to the argument. Bottom line, it’s all about taking care of the music. That is a theme musicians will support.

  5. I agree the bits and bytes part of HRA will very likely happen over time if for no other reason than costs per computing operation/bandwidth unit/storage unit will continue to decline, but the high fidelity part (less compression, less clipping etc) will likely only happen quickly with a major new player, and we need both before those reading this are in the grave! The incumbents currently seem more focused on live performance revenue, per http://torrentfreak.com/piracy-isnt-hurting-the-entertainment-industry-121003/ (see slide about halfway down entitled “music industry revenue”)

  6. Thank you Dr AIX. You are a true Audio Legend.
    > The facts you have mentioned in your article are just “True Facts”
    > I salute You.
    >
    > I only recommend AIX Recordings to my Buddy Audio Fans.
    >
    > Cheers
    > Alphonso Soosay
    > http://www.alphonsosoosay.com

  7. Regarding your article on Reasons why HRA audio will fail:
    Mulder also said: I want to believe. I don’t think the major companies like Sony are going to stand by and let high resolution Audio fail. The marketing folks will figure something out. Also there are a lot of customers who will listen to an audio guru and buy whatever they say. Those users may not be aware they are getting ripped off for the reasons you stated. But the high-enders will buy the real deal. Do nothing and all will be done. Gerald Pratt

  8. Five reasons why high definition audio will succeed:

    1) The big consumer electronics companies are offering DACs that support high resolution and many download sites are providing files similarly capable.

    2) Everyone who downloads Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or the Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed” at 192/24 resolution will realize that they got nothing extra and start search for the reason why and the remedy for the situation.

    3) The education provided at ReadHD-Audio will satisfy consumers’ quest for why not all high res downloads provide a high res experience

    4) Consumer dollars will flow towards high res and flat downloads and away from downloads incapable of providing more than an LP or compact disc already provides

    5) Manufacturers will see that hardware sales increase as consumers download true high resolution files and will support true end-to-end high resolution as opposed to that which is high resolution in name only. Consumers will realize that enhanced enjoyment in playback at home is directly correlated to extended frequency response, careful tailoring of frequency response, and reduction of intermodulation distortion. Snake oil will be overwhelmed by easily demonstrated improvement obtained through the frequency response, resolution, and low IM. Audio equipment sales will experience a boom in its second golden age. Audio file download will shift from the existing sites to those who can guarantee flat studio or extended frequency response files.

    • Very nicely done Alex!

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