Dr. AIX's POSTS — 15 June 2014

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I’ve still got last week’s press release from the DEG, CEA The Recording Academy® and all three major labels up on my computer screen. This document is the work product of many months of discussions, consultations and analysis by all of the parties listed above. The people involved range from CE hardware/cable manufacturers, audio producers and engineers, label representatives (including a few technical people) and personnel from the relevant trade associations. The final stages also involved lawyers and other executives from the majors.

As many of your know, I’ve been included on many those discussions (although as a member of Producers and Engineers wing of The Recording Academy®, I was never contacted about the issue, which I find somewhat surprising.) As an audio engineer that has championed real HRA longer than anyone I know, audiophile label owner and producer of one of the largest catalogs of high-resolution audio releases on the planet (if you accept my definition of what high-resolution audio is), I pushed very hard for a meaningful definition…something that would help consumers and professionals distinguish between the fidelity we’ve had for many decades and what we can deliver now…it didn’t happen.

I was not optimistic about the outcome from the start. The organizations involved wanted a definition that was as inclusive as possible (nobody wants their products to be left out)…even to the point of watering down the document as to render it meaningless, which it pretty much is. It just comes down to making money.

Here’s one of my favorite statements in the press release.

The definition is accompanied by a series of descriptors for the Master Quality Recordings that are used to produce the hi-res files available to digital music retailers.

As I read this, the four descriptors are intended to identify the “provenance” of the source recordings. No problem there. In fact, I’ve been very supportive of having the labels provide accurate information about the tracks that they are making available to their licensed high-resolution audio digital download sites. If we get the right information, then we can make more informed decisions. However, it’s going to get pretty messy when you refer to a MQ-D (meaning the source is a DSD/DSF master source) and we have no idea what individual production stages the recording went through before it was put on a site for sale.

I just picked up and read Robert Harley’s editorial in the May/June issue of TAS. He wrote that he’s looking forward to evaluating transfers of some of my friend Peter McGrath’s (Wilson Speakers) analog tapes to both WAV and DSD files. So is the descriptor going to read MQ-A…meaning from an analog master source…or MQ-D or maybe MQ-P? I think we’re still going to be in the dark for a long time.

So the descriptors try to inform consumers about the provenance of source recordings “that are used to produce the hi-res files available to music retailers”. This is where they lost it. I can get behind more information about the source of the tracks…even as flawed as we know it will be…but why does that guarantee that the resultant file is necessary hi-res? Under the definition as written…everything can be considered high-resolution!

Check out this illustration:

140615_HRA_Descriptors

Figure 1 – The four descriptors being presented in high-resolution containers. [Click to enlarge]

This definition means that any analog source that was transferred to a file at better than 44.1/16-bits qualifies as high-resolution audio. Really? I noticed while I was preparing the illustration that it doesn’t say analog tape…but any analog source! This could include taking any digital recording and passing it through an analog console. So my scratchy acoustically recorded 78 RPM lacquer disc from 1932 is HRA if I consume it from a 96 kHz/24-bit file. And a standard CD into a DSD file at 2.8 KHz is HRA too.

Something has gone terribly wrong when a few bureaucrats (an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment) can render a definition meaningless. His or her job is to keep everyone happy. Instead they should be establishing meaningful standards.

This is the first shot into the demise of high-resolution audio. I’m not happy.

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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.

(19) Readers Comments

  1. very good point.

  2. Hello Mark Waldrep
    The real meaning of what high-resolution audio is and should be at least 96 kHz/24-bit file. The World Audio Industry should be establishing meaningful and true standards. Making money is one thing but the facts have to be accurate. In Australia 96 kHz/24-bit file is accepted as what High-Resolution Audio is and should be.
    Cheers
    Alphonso Soosay

  3. Essentially, they opened a door to pass any old analog-based recordings to sell them as HD audio.

    Otherwise, the number of songs they can sell as HD audio would had diminished to just low thousands albums (by my optimistic estimate). This is all about money. There is zero thought on customers.

    This is hardly surprising, and does not change current situation. It is best to stick to known labels which actually make real HD audio albums (e.g your own AIX Records, Linn, L2, etc) for now.

  4. The SPARS code, as simplistic as it was, had the benefit of clarity for the consumer. That said, the metrics that matter most are independent of the production chain, such as the SNR, dynamic range or frequency extension.

    I have a 192/24 recording of Miles Davis from HDTracks, and also the CD version. While the recording itself is a classic, all the HD version offers is meticulously transcribed tape hiss and other noise. In other words, completely pointless.

  5. The solution would be to rename MQ-A, MQ-C and MQ-D as RQ-A, RQ-C and RQ-D. R would stand for Remastered. MQ-P will remain as MQ-P, as it is the only true HD Master Quality Recording.

    Consumers can then choose either PCM or DSD containers to their liking, but with knowledge of whether the source was MQ-P, RQ-A, RQ-C or RQ-D.

    To satisfy DSD fans, perhaps MQ-D can remain as MQ-D. We would then have MQ-P, MQ-D, RQ-A and RQ-C.

    Nevertheless, even as it stands, the classification is still useful, so long as the Descriptor of Source is specified. As a consumer, I will then choose MQ-P/PCM and know exactly what I’m getting. I would not care about the others, but would not deprive those who want them.

  6. Dear mark,

    I think that everything is lost with that terrible HRA definition. Much more confused than before. The way to get really HRA is examining the spectragraphs. The problem is that we can only examine such graphs after buying the so called HRA file. That is a shame!

    • That’s why I’m going to work hard this summer to set up the HRA Database. Stay tuned.

      • Mark:

        An excellent idea!

        Maybe your readers could contribute a 30 second sample of whatever HD downloads they have purchased to help populate this database with a wide sampling of what is currently offered on-line? I have been examining some of my own HD downloads with Adobe Audition after reading your blog and was very surprised at some of the spectra.

        This could be a good way to prod the major labels into revealing the true origins of some of their recordings.

        Regards, O

        • That’s the plan…coming soon.

  7. Dear Mark,
    Just wanted to say that i really enjoy your cries from the desert! The bullshit factor is no match for your consistant, logical and can’t-really-deny-it-if-you-are-a-rational-being message. i have learned a lot and it has completely re-in-formed my thinking on many issues.

    I have one stupid, can’t get t out of my head question… granting that you cannot improve the original source regarding the higher khz and mhz information — because it is not there!, might it not be the case that you can do one up on a standard cd resolution by recording a vinyl source in order to improve the resolution below 2000hrz? The point being thaat the analog vinyl record has an “infinite” amount of information that a higher bit resolution recording might take advantage of… (i really want this to be the case;)

    I know my terminology is faulty, but i hope you get the jist of my question (restated: is there any, any, any benefit to recording vinyl to “higher” resolution flac files like 24-96 or even 24-192? I suspect the answer, but don’t really want to acknowledge it!!)

    Again, your voice is important and at least one person is seriously listening to what you have to say — and passing on the information when able/approprite

    • Bill…it’s actually pretty simple. Whatever the fidelity (think about dynamic and frequency range) of the source is needs to be completely accommodated by the delivery container. If you have a poor quality vinyl LP and want a digital copy of it, a standard CD will more than handle it. Even if the vinyl LP is stellar, it doesn’t take much more than Redbook PCM quality to make an accurate transfer because the recording technology of the source AND format limitations of vinyl are critical factors. There are only a few ways to release a recording on vinyl. You can record on analog tape and then transfer to vinyl LP through the disc cutting procedure. You can record directly to the lacquer or create a direct metal master or you can record to digital and then cut from that master (which will have more fidelity than the best analog recorders). You you live with the fidelity of the source when you contemplate making digital copies of your vinyl collection. That means that 96/24 would more than handle anything from vinyl and probably 44.1 or 48 would be enough. There are advocates for analog tape that state that a finely tweaked analog machine will top high-resolution digital…they’re wrong. They may prefer the sound but an analog tape machine deals with problems that PCM digital has overcome (noise floor, flutter, scrape distortion etc).

      So transfer to 96/24 and you’ve good…actually more than good. If you want to get the most accurate representation of the same album, but the CD and rip it or acquire lossless files of the tunes.

      • Mark:

        I generally agree with what you say above BUT consider this: I have several ‘audiophile’ recordings from small European labels that were available in both CD and LP format [from the same label] where the CD sound was inferior to the LP for whatever reason. In this case a carefully done ‘needle drop’ with the right equipment yields a digital file that sounds better than the CD rip.

        Ophelia

        • It is certainly possible that the sound of a CD and LP are very different…and that the LP sounds better. It’s all if the production process that leads to the final format.

      • Sorry about not thanking you earlier for the answer! Your patience payed off when I read the last lines of your answer… You’ve said it a million different ways, but not until today did i get the whole meaning. I will attempt to sum up what I now understand:

        You can’t get more out of vinyl by re-recording it digitally with the best of hi-fi machinery, because the very method of making a vinyl record is limited by so many impossible to overcome problems. In other words, the sound of records can be different, better or worse in the listening experience, but by the very physics of things you can’t match a digital recording of a sound “event” regarding dynamics and range. Period. I finally get it, the big picture along with the previously understood details!

        I sympathize with your mission in life! EVERY single word/term/concept used to describe recorded music is so dependant on reference and impossible-to-state-simply-definitions without (re-)defining explanations of definitions… much less the history, practice and obfuscations of these crazy sound-describing words.

        I also re-thank you for what you do… for simple minds like my own! On the upside, you have increased my free hard disk space by a zillion percent — downside… the megazillion hours wasted!!

        bill

  8. This need for fancy packaging (DSD or big PCM boxes for analog or slightly better content) is just another example of basic human nature. Humans are drawn to an attractive package. You see it in the furniture trade (since you mentioned your acuity at dovetailing), the wine trade (labels or funky bottles), the automobile industries use of plastics, chrome covered or not, to create meaningless (not aerodynamically beneficial) contours or ‘looks’. It’s everywhere. There are multi billion dollar industries for human beautification. Last time I checked, however, there weren’t any genuine medical procedures for pectoral or quadricep “strengthening” or even lung capacity “augmentation”. Those things take real work or discipline to build or maintain.

    People are just attracted to good ‘looking’ packages. It’s a common denominator. And most importantly it sells in the marketplace. (And sadly, people will equate a price point, oftentimes, with ‘quality’.)

    You been presenting real facts in the HR. Facts, to most people, sadly, are meaningless. Many times, even, they are the source of further entrenchment into their belief patterns.

    The wikipedia page on cognitive dissonance is helpful.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance#Belief_disconfirmation_paradigm

    Keep up the good ‘fight’. It’s a worthy vocation.

  9. Hi,
    I agree, this definition and descriptors just plays into the hands of the music labels and HDTracks and the like. We’re going to be conned into paying more for what we already have or can listen to for free on Spotify (on the whole, I find Spotify quality more than acceptable) etc.
    Personally I’m quite content with cd quality provided the content has been well produced and mastered but I am prepared buy from yourself and one or two others where the provenance is guaranteed.
    If it helps your consumer survey my setup is a music server feeding a Benchmark DAC2, Rogue Audio power amp and Avalon speakers. I don’t listen through headphones.

  10. Mark, the good and bad news is that this marketing babel prior to a rigorous study is either irrelevant or counterproductive.

    But if you can QB a rigorous study, I’m actually confident you can blow away all of the current babel and define as you like. Just one rigorous study will give you the cred to get favorable media coverage wherever you need and want it, and I recommend you shamelessly use that to promote whatever framework you want. And I believe that will “carry the day” and make all pre-study noise just that. In short, I encourage maintaining a focus on a rigorous study and all good things will follow. I’m actually a cynic in many respects, but even more than that I don’t think consumers are fools, and that’s good news for a robust study.

    • I’m unwilling to accept the definition and descriptors that the DEG, CEA, NARAS and labels issued last week for the reasons I put in the post. If I can get the traction to do a real study then things might improve. I’ve got a couple of angles working…stay tuned.

  11. Hi Mark,

    It’s insulting that people who – for the wrong reasons – have a say when it comes to defining HRA believe they can ignore or simply distort the very scientific principles and technology that has made HRA possible.

    A definition which itself doesn’t carry sufficient information regarding the key principles that otherwise clearly and distinctly define HRA, doesn’t comply with the basic elements that constitute a sufficient definition as such. And as if the already deficient definition wasn’t enough proof of the lack of competence of those who came up with it, there’s a series of extra “descriptors” regarding “Master Quality Recordings”, which has no relevance whatsoever to what constitutes HRA, and that manage to contradict the already vague definition proposed.

    No analogue recording (MQ-A) and no CD quality (16/44.1) recording constitute HRA, because none of them “have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources”, and perhaps I should conclude this sentence by adding: “by definition”. In the case of MQ-D, I would personally include it within the latter group as has been exhaustively discussed and insisted on with more than sufficient evidence in this blog,

    If the industry people that are behind setting and defining of standards, that apply to consumer content and technology which are dependent on scientific facts and evidence, they certainly can and should be held accountable for their errors, and for misleading the public and providing the bases for false advertising and inaccurate representation of scientific facts. I think we can sit back and see how a process is wrongfully undertaken, but we don’t need to sit back and accept the outcome if the people involved have a responsibility.

    A legal measure to contest and revert this aberration should be perfectly in order, and a precedent should be set regarding whose authority – and the responsibility and extent of that authority – should be required and qualified to make definitions a set industry standards that affect millions of consumers. I personally think your battle can’t be over with the issuing of the final definition and document that establishes what HRA is, but starts precisely when that standard is officialized. Only then can we officially contest it and correct it. I think that the AES should consider taking part in this matter and issue a statement of correction of this aberration.

    Cheers

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