Dr. AIX's POSTS — 21 January 2015

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It’s starting to make sense to me. After trying for over 10 years to elevate the fidelity of recorded music and establish a meaningful stratification of quality levels, someone finally explained it to me in a single sentence in an email this morning. Simply put, refusing to accept that compact discs are “high-resolution audio” is bad for enterprise. There it was in plain black and white. The message from this individual and lots of other providers of high-end audio components, cables, accessories, and software is that what matters most is not an accurate and meaningful definition of high-resolution audio. What actually matters most with regards to the HRA initiative…and in fact the entire high-end audio business…is how much money can be extracted from audio enthusiasts and music lovers in the quest for the “Absolute Sound” or the “Soul of Music”.

I reflect back to a conversation that I had with my father when I was only about 13 years ago (he died of cancer when I was 15). He told me that maintaining one’s integrity, being honest, and holding to your word were among the most important things an individual can aspire to. Now I’m not going to say that I’ve lived a perfect life and haven’t done things that he would have winced at…but overall, I think I’ve lived a life that he would be proud of. And it’s cost me. If I had been willing to work a little closer to the “enterprise above all” philosophy that many espouse, AIX Records and iTrax might be much larger and more successful. But I just couldn’t do it. I know I’d feel bad about it. My iTrax web site could have included all of the content in CD quality from the major labels…but I decided that iTrax would provide only high-resolution content. Not the best business decision but I’m comfortable with it.

The various organizations, artists, audio companies, and music industry executives involved in promoting and advancing high-resolution audio are doing it for one reason. Money. They are all looking to build their catalog business, or their download business, or sell more expensive accessories to unsuspecting music fans. I guess my motives have been misplaced when I try to educate potential HRA customers, produce recordings that demonstrate what can be achieved with modern high-resolution audio equipment and state-of-the-art procedures, and advocate for simple to understand levels of audio fidelity according to formats and specifications. But today I learned from a very high-end audio manufacturer that, “It’s bad for enterprise,” to be honest and transparent about the music that drives the high-end industry.

I can agree that telling the truth will slow the growth of the high-resolution audio marketplace. But I sincerely believe that if we don’t provide a dramatic and immediately perceptible improvement over the fidelity of past formats (including CDs) that customers will become jaded, discouraged, and frustrated about this new HRA opportunity. And they will tell their non-audio enthusiast friends and post messages on social media that will go “viral” and doom any chance that we might have had in advancing the sound fidelity of the music we consume. It will be a huge case of “the emperor’s new clothes”. It’s already happening…just look around the web.

Is the short-term gain worth the destruction of the long-term viability of high-resolution audio? It is if you listen to the audio companies, labels, organization, cable companies and those with a vested interest in selling millions of CD specification tracks to the masses as high-resolution.

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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.

(20) Readers Comments

  1. I feel your pain. I spoke with a SONY rep at the NY show regarding Hi-Res audio. He presented CDs as Hi-Res. To my question why, he said that it is “easier to sell MP3s as regular resolution and everything above it as Hi-Res and It is easier for the marketing people as well as the common music fan”. A great way to sell you the same music catalog over and over again.

    • This type of thinking is pervasive. They think we’re stupid.

  2. I don’t think anyone will be surprised that a beleaguered recording industry desperate for usp’s and sales opportunities will clutch at straws at what actually constitutes hi-res audio.

    In the end, CD quality is actually vastly better than the formats most people have been commonly using for years. As much as one might/should question the integrity of calling CD quality hi-res, at least it’s pointing the music buying public in the right direction.

    Given also that much legacy audio can never really be truly hi-res, and also considering the continual aging of master tapes, maybe 16/44 is as good as it gets for many classic recordings.

    • Well put…I agree.

  3. Even with all the back and forth info, no one knows how the next few years of audio developments will shake out; repeat, no one. I prefer to stay positive with the position that hi-res will remain an audiophile game, and that such as Tidal raising the available streaming median from 128 MP-3 to 16/44 is a big improvement.

    Funny about CD, and all this format war stuff; we’ve all heard some CD’s that more or less made the question of hi-res moot, satisfaction-wise, and also plenty that cause us to wonder how artists can live with what their horrendous ‘final product’ actually sounds like.

    If every CD sounded like an XRCD or other ultra-careful transfer process, that would be different. For all the ‘vinyl resurgence,’ we’ve all also heard LP’s that sounded terrific, and others that were drek. This seems to be overlooked by the vinyl religionists.

    A fair ,wide-angle perspective is the only way to approach our current, ever-changing scenario. Better sound for most, and superb sound for the fewer; what’s so bad about that?

  4. Could we add, Apple had it right all along ? That is, convenience wins the day, when perceivable(audible) differences, go wanting. Cronyism is pervasive, whatever the venue, this they can not be accused of. Not an Apple fan, just refuse to ignore reality.

  5. I don’t even think that there is a short-term gain from lying to people at this point, since people know way too well and suffered enough.

    I believe I said this before, but here we go: record music industry, the industry you are in, had lost trust among customers, a long time ago.

    The trust was gone when it was discovered that label companies were putting CD quality music sources into SACD and tried to sell them with higher prices.

    The respect was gone when music industries did their earnest best to sue and ruin people’s lives for music sharing, in which biggest sharers are also the biggest buyers.

    The trust was gone AGAIN when people discovered music files from HDtracks were upsampled and not true high-resolution music.

    I mean, there is no more trust to be lost at this point, and people around my age (20~30) just do not listen to any words from the music industry people in serious manner. As I said before on one of previous blog posts here, the music industry has successfully bred people who are apathetic toward listening to music, let alone buy/rent music. It happened because the music industry lost trust and respect due to lies and greed. Did I mention that younger people only use youtube, not even bothering using spotify?

    Courtesy is given, but respect has to be earned. There is more than one reason why people tend to use streaming rather than buying a music. It is not just convenience… It is because people think the value of listening to music is just that. They have little respect toward the music they are listening to.

    The most important and urgent goal for the music industry is to raise the value of music in people’s mind, and I don’t think it can be accomplished by lying to them further.

    Think about it. That article written by Monty of xiph.org is flawed and discussed to death on AVS forum and WTB forum, but people still use that article to dismiss hi-res music’s value despite countless explanations from people who know better. I believe it happens because people have absolutely no trust in the music industry that they refuse to hear anything positive on the music industry even if it’s true.

    I think the damage was already done, and I am afraid that it might be permanent.

    • Is there an article that refutes Monty’s article? Something that is as well written as Monty’s article and which one could use as a citation?

  6. “It’s bad for enterprise” is not just applicable to HRA. It is a guiding principle, if not THE guiding principle, of business and government.

    • I certainly appreciate being able to make a reasonable return on my investment of time of money, but the “business” of music and audio seems permeated with snake oil and spin.

  7. Do you think your decision to commit to 5.1 surround sound is limiting your product’s appeal? Audio ads promote 7.1, 9.1 and even 11.1 (or 2!)! Yet I don’t see any movies or music disks advertising music/soundtracks in anything more than 5.1. Even cheap theaters have 4 or 5 speakers on each side of the seating space. Yet 5.1 may seem “old fashioned” to the consumers of hi res music. I recently added five more AIX recordings to my library, and although my rig is 7.1 they sound just fine, better than anything else I have purchased.

    I would hate to think the “5.1” was limiting you 1n any way. Lots of so called “Hi rez” releases are stereo only. Folks with more channels have decoders/processors in their rigs to “expand” that music to “X point whatever.” I don’t think they switch off their processors. BUT, does the two channel crowd automatically reject anything with the 5.1 label on it?

    Viewing the performing musicians sitting in a circle, tells the viewer it was never “stereo” anyway. Whatever they are hearing is a construct produced by; judicious mixing. Is that working against you? To see a player on the left of the screen as the camera pans, while his music is anchored to the right speaker is somewhat disconcerting. Watch the video accompanying the production of “The San Patricios.” Great music, disturbing presentation. Is that happening when folks watch your musical collaborations, however great the “sound” may be?

    I’m sure I’m not the first to ask the question. The pioneers still have to make a living and deserve to make that living. I’m wishing you all the best!
    Sincerely, Boomer Bill Calkins, audiophile, speaker and amp builder, musician and LAOCAS type.

    • Bill, thanks for the note. I regard my productions as meeting the aesthetics of ALL audio enthusiasts. There are stereo mixes as well as the two 5.1 surround presentations. I personally prefer the surround mixes but I understand they may not be for everyone…for a variety of reasons. The video dissonance is unavoidable. As a record label, I’m not sure how to take criticism for adding an HD-Video presentation to my audio discs. These are purely bonus videos. What other label do you know that shoots HD-Video of their productions?

      I designed and have produced products that I would like to purchase myself. Multiple mixes, bonus features, and video etc. And now I make the files available with every disc purchase. What’s not to like?

  8. I have no problem with downloads at 44/16 as long as they’re represented honestly. It’s plenty good for anything from an analog source. If I could have bought the Plangent-processed HDTracks version of ‘Kind of Blue’ at those specs, I would have done it. Unfortunately, ‘Sell the sizzle, not the steak’ is the order of the day, and ‘hi res’ means ‘better than mp3’ to many people. To a business that has convince many that a power cord makes a difference worth hundreds of dollars. It’s not that hard a sell.

    • Very well put. I agree…CDs are more than enough for 99% of the music we love and want to hear…when done right. Cables, accessories, tweaks, and power cords…don’t get me started.

  9. First off, I want to say that I’m a fan of yours, Mark. I read your blog every day and your recordings are, without a doubt, the best sounding audio I’ve ever heard on my system. I think you’re a critical voice in all of this and I’m sorry to hear you feel discouraged, even if only for the moment.

    I wanted to add a couple of thoughts from my perspective. I’m a little over 50 and have been an audio enthusiast since high school. I’ve been through the vinyl/CD debates. Have had to, as Agent K said in Men in Black, “buy the White Album again”…and again. And what I’ve decided through it all is to be a “Multi-Format Guy”. I enjoy my vinyl from the 70s and 80s. I love my AIX recordings. I have SACDs and DVD-Audio disks. I listen to stereo and surround. I’ve been sitting on the side-lines waiting to see what format “high-res” recordings I’ll download because I’m really not interested in buying new vinyl, as much as I like the idea of it. (You can bet I own an Oppo.) One thing’s for sure – if a recording had your seal of approval it would mean a lot. I’ve never actually owned Led Zeppelin IV, for example, but when Page re-masters it it will be good to know if 192/24 is really worth any extra money than 96/24. MQA? Lots to wonder about.

    I’m also a home theater enthusiast and it struck me the other day that we would never really be having these arguments in film. We would not expect the studio to determine whether a director was shooting in 35mm or in 5K or 4K and declare it in packaging, we would just talk about the result. (I imagine if a film was advertised as IMAX but was shot 100% in 35mm that might be a different story.) I do think the integrity of what is being sold in audio is critical – especially if people are paying extra for larger files based on lower resolution masters. However, I also think at some point the proof should be in the artistic quality of the recording and here is where experts such as yourself could ensure the listener they’re getting what they’re paying for. I’d like to see a mix of new high-resolution recordings (of your caliber) of major artists and technical reviews of digital masters of classic analog recordings (with your integrity). I think this is about a mix of things. Quality, variety, transparency, integrity.

    People need to not only know what they’re missing but be confident in what they’re getting. I think you will continue to play a vital role in both of these areas. And I’m thankful for it.

    • Thanks Devin. To this end, I’m moving forwards on my HRADB.com site. It’s in the early stages but when operational, it will provide technical information, provenance information, spectra, dynamic range analysis, and mky personal ranking with regards to “high-resolution” status. There are only 5,000 to 10,000 “high-resolution” analog transferred albums and another 1500 actual HRA recordings. It’s doable and could serve as a portal for those looking for the scoop on high-res recordings.

    • I could not agree more with Devin. I am 68 and have been an audio enthusiast since my senior year in college with a McIntosh amp, preamp and performance indicator as the setup I had then (and wish I had now). These days it’s headphones for me.
      Anyway, here is the dilemma. Not only is CD quality sufficient for much of the equipment folks have, it’s magical to the kids who have only heard MP3’s. And for me, I am not sure my hearing is what it used to be, and CD quality is pretty good.
      I do have a Hi-Res setup. Woo Audio Firefly as a DAC w/ an AK240 as my DAP. I also use a NAD MD50 to rip CDs and the MD52 as my digital storage bank. Still I love the idea of true hi res. Maybe we all just need to find a new name for that which Mark has been struggling to standardize a definition. OK the battle may be over: The big boys are going to promote CD quality as Hi Res. But that may be good news, because now there is no reason for someone to up sample from CD to higher resolution and pretend it’s a better recording.
      Anyway without Mark here for us we would not have the ability to discern the truth. Thank you Mark.

      • You’re very welcome…I’m going to push until I can’t any longer. I had a brief meeting with Don Was and Ed Cherney…I’ve known them both for a long time. I hoping they might be able to help.

  10. Do you apply noise-shaped dithering to your recordings before the release ?

  11. “How many will listen to the truth when you tell them?”

    Old Yiddish Proverb

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