Dr. AIX's POSTS — 06 June 2014

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I used to spend long hours working in my studio. Early in my career, I worked on commercial records that took months…sometime many months…to complete. Studios generally don’t have windows. The musicians, engineers and producers that craft the records that we enjoy spend countless hours in the studio struggling over all of the elements that go into making a great record…and they rarely see the light of day.

A typical studio books two sessions per day. At least that’s the way it was back when I was doing that kind of work. There were sessions during the day followed by an evening session. Occasionally, bands would “lock out” a studio for days, weeks or even months, which meant they had exclusive rights to the studio, engineer and equipment 24 hours a day. Having a room locked out meant that you didn’t have to “clear” the board (return all of the settings to their nominal or neutral position), remove all of the patch cords and put away all of the equipment. In the day’s of analog consoles, this was a huge advantage because you could end one day’s session, take some time to sleep or eat and return to the room and pick up right where you left off.

The endless days of working on a single track drove me a little crazy. During one year, I worked on only two records. Every day meant I listened to the same tunes over and over again as we added parts and refined the productions. That life might work for a person in their twenties or thirties but it didn’t have long term appeal to me. I moved to mastering and opened up Pacific Coast Sound Works in 1989.

Mastering requires a completely different sensibility…and much shorter sessions. Mastering studios have the last word in the sound of a particular recording. The engineers that master stereo or surround mixes make sure that all of the tracks on an album reflect the same “sonics” and that they match the current standard for fidelity, timbre and level. That can be a good thing in some cases but it can also destroy a great performance and recording as well.

Working in a recording or mastering studio exposes the individuals working inside to sound over many hours…and usually at levels that are too loud. The reference standard for film mixes is 85 dB SPL but many tracking or overdubbing sessions exceed that amplitude by a large margin. Ear fatigue is a real thing. After 5-6 hours, I found my aural acuity diminishing. If I couldn’t fine tune a particular sound or track because of long term exposure to elevated levels, my productivity suffered…as did the product that I was working on.

Over the thousands of hours that I’ve spent listening to music produced by analog and digital systems, I’ve noticed certain physical and psychological changes. And those changes were different depending on whether I was listening to analog tape recordings, standard resolution or high-resolution audio digital tracks. Mind you that I have no scientific evidence for these observations but they have been predictable enough to warrant sharing them here.

Analog tape, in spite of its lack of dynamic range, never gets old. I can listen to analog tapes endlessly and never experience any noticeable negative effects. Yes, I’ve gotten tired and needed time away from a particularly long period of listening but there was always a natural and “warm” euphonious feeling that accompanied analog tape.

Standard resolution 44.1 kHz / 16-bit compact disc PCM digital recording is different. I have probably mastered 500 albums during my career. They span heavy metal, hard rock, jazz, pop records, acoustic and classical albums. After carefully listening to any type of music over 5-6 hours encoded as Redbook standard audio, my body tells me to take a break. The sound of standard resolution digital can be clear and dynamic but there’s something happening in the sound that affects me…and not in a good way. I can’t describe it any better than to say I noticed a difference once I started mastering CD professionally instead of creating new tracks using analog tape.

High-resolution digital, on the other hand, presents an entirely new level of sound capture and reproduction. I have sat in my room and listened to unprocessed 96 kHz/24-bit PCM audio without any negative physical or psychological effects. It’s like being back in the luxurious sound of analog tape without the noise and distortion.

I know this purely anecdotal but it comes from my experience as a professional audio engineer with over 40 years of experience. Take it for what it’s worth.

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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.

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