Dr. AIX's POSTS — 23 February 2015

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High-resolution audio will never become a mainstream phenomenon. It just won’t. And it’s not because David Pogue, Seth Stevenson, and Brent Butterworth have written uninformed articles claiming that high-res recordings don’t matter or that listeners failed to hear a difference between the output of their iPhone and a new Pono player. The primary reason that high-resolution audio recordings and in fact, the whole high-resolution initiative is bound to fail on mainstreet is because there is no compelling difference between standard and high-resolution audio recordings. We…the advocates for high-resolution audio and the audiophiles that are with us…are kidding ourselves if we think that our non-audiophile friends are going to spend more money on high-resolution versions of the records we love. Even if you agree with me and other believers that there is merit to the whole high-resolution thing, the fact remains that it’s “subtle to hear” any improvement or change by moving from 44.1 kHz/16-bits to 96 kHz/24-bits.

Helen M. Jackson, Michael D. Capp, and J. Robert Stuart investigated whether subjects could tell the different between high-resolution sample rates and down converted versions of the same tracks and Robert presented a paper at last October’s AES Convention on their results. I attended the session. It was given the “best paper of the show” by the society. The title, “The audibility of typical digital audio Filters in a high-fidelity playback system” says it…and their conclusion was “there exist audible signals that cannot be encoded transparently by a standard CD; and secondly, an audio chain used for such experiments must be capable of high-fidelity reproduction.” There is little doubt that under the right circumstances that there are differences…but not enough to warrant the kind of wholesale marketing push that is being attempted.

The organizations, companies, artists, websites, reviewers, and labels that are promoting high-resolution audio don’t have a clue how misguided their efforts are. They believe the road to high-resolution audio success will happen by adopting a common logo (although the current high-resolution has multiple definitions), taking a well-equipped motor home to malls, audio trade shows, and universities to play CDs and then high-resolution downloads, and setting up events with artists like Neil Young to act as cheerleader-in-chief for high-resolution audio. The average consumer…and it turns out the tech press as well…don’t believe there’s any difference. And the country agrees.

Instead of concentrating on selling older recordings remastered to 192 kHz/24-bits, we should be pressuring the labels and artists to make better recordings. It is possible to do better but the industry just isn’t interested in higher fidelity recordings.

I have a Grammy-winning audio engineer friend that raves about the sound quality of my tracks. He’s just recently been hired to produce and engineer a new project for a legacy band that had some hits 15-20 years ago. In spite of his enthusiasm for high-resolution and surround music mixes, he’s located a studio in east LA that has an old Neve console, lots of classic analog processors, spring reverbs, and vintage microphones where he wants to work. Here’s a guy that has the opportunity to make something really special in high-resolution and he retreats to the comfort and familiarity of old gear. Pretty disheartening.

We need to reel in our expectations…and so far we haven’t.

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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.

(26) Readers Comments

  1. Sad is we read your stories I guess its going to take time but I do agree HiRes is like pulling sharks teeth. New studio standards and new recordings are whats needed to give the format a boost into the 21st Century. The few I have, done well are amazing.

    “a studio in east LA that has an old Neve console, lots of classic analog processors, spring reverbs, and vintage microphones where he wants to work”

    They are chasing a sound that made the musicians famous/money at the time of origin. Bit like trying to reproduce Spectors Wall of Sound. If you want that sound I guess you need to use the equipment of the day.
    But its the misguided myth/belief that the old equipment they used would still work. It will but not to the HiRes standard. Interesting to note when this old gear was first used it was experimental and new. People do seem reluctant to change and I think the so called “Baby Boomers” are part of the problem. I’m in this bracket and they have the money and what do they want, 60’s,70’s and 80’s material whether its remastered or not. I think a lot prefer the clicks and pops from vinyl and they miss it when its not there. Some new age musicians are in fact adding vinyl scratchy noise to there new digital recordings. But in saying this a lot of new music has no soul or originality and me for one still loves the old. The music was better but will never sound much better. I will help this along with another glass of wine amazing how it improves the sound.

  2. I’m not sure I disagree here. Just to say that differences that are not noticeable to the naive and uncritical listener may be very apparent to those who like to spend hours listening attentively and with no distractions to a musical recording. Critical listeners, like critical wine drinkers or critical diners will notice differences that are subtle but which enhance the experience for them. So I don’t think it’s a particularly good test to ask people who don’t spend a lot of time listening critically to determine if a recording is CD quality or hi resolution.

    The real test would be to see if such critical listeners can tell an MP3 from CD quality from 24/96 from 32/196 etc. I suspect that many of us could and some couldn’t. Personally, I doubt that over 24/96 I could tell, but I think CD vs. 24/96 of the same high quality master…I could tell….I think….

  3. Hi Mark,

    This is by far your most realistic and down to earth post that I can remember, and I totally agree with it despite the obvious downsides of the reality that you accurately portray.

    This phrase pretty much sums up what I believe to be the most important task when it comes to making music sound better and at its best:

    “Instead of concentrating on selling older recordings remastered to 192 kHz/24-bits, we should be pressuring the labels and artists to make better recordings.”

    And even though you say that “It is possible to do better but the industry just isn’t interested in higher fidelity recordings.”, I believe that the whole High-Res noise might actually make some people and labels go in the direction of making better recordings.

    I think that as much as most people don’t care about HRA, and as much as most labels care even less, we have a bunch of “audiophile” enthusiasts like 2L, who in the belief that higher word lengths and bit rates sound better, are willing to push for something better. Morten recently made the following claim on Facebook:

    “DXD, linear PCM at 352.8kHz/24bit, is our original production format and my personal preferred listening source. But if you like the sound of DSD then 11.2MHz 1bit is the resolution that best preserve the time domain and most suppress the inherent HF noise in the bitstream world.”

    2L releases some of the greatest recordings out there, and although they push for the best they still believe in inaccuracies like these.

    I think that many of the labels that will jump on the bandwagon of HRA as their next marketing and sales strategy, will end up doing better recordings thanks to a few – in this case – fortunate misunderstandings, and that in the end there will be some benefit to the whole HRA hype.

    I totally believe that provenance is the key, and I believe there’s a good chance that recording practices might just benefit from the current HRA hype by moving in the right direction.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks Camillo. It’s going to be very difficult for the mainstream labels to actually create and promote high-resolution audio…the real deal. Morten and others get it…although his insistence on DSD is curious to me (Why put up with the ultrasonic noise to start with?).

  4. Someone once quipped, “don’t bet against Apple”. Seems Tunes will remain the underachieving pulse, followed in concert by the listening world. Generations tuned via Pods, convenience trumps all. Now we learn, snake oil has no bounds.

  5. You hit the nail on the head about the whole issue.
    On sound quality sometimes I think things may be worse than we realize. Mark your recordings and others with correct provenance are the exceptions but I think it may be true that the remasters of the old catalogs as sold on HDTracks, etc may just be giving us a clearer window threw which to hear just how bad sounding many of those cherished baby booomer recordings really were. I found this was true for me in my middle years of the audiophile quest, the more I spent on better equipment the worse much of my preferred rock music sounded. I didn’t realize why this was until I started buying some audiophile recordings just to hear what they sounded like even tho I had no interest in the music. My jaw dropped, I couldn’t believe how beautiful my system could really sound with high quality recordings.
    After that I became a “tuner” for a while. Buying tube amps, speakers, and other components that tended to smooth the hard edge of the recordings ugly top and mid-range. High power/quality solid state amps to drive my huge subwoofers to tighten and speed up the bass best as possible, etc.
    Now I’m retired, sold off all the hi end stuff and replaced it with a mid level 5.1 home theater system and spend a little more on music itself. I’m no longer tortured by audio-nervosa and as happy as I’ve been in my 50+ year quest for better sound. LOL
    Without a crystal ball it will be interesting to see how this whole High Def war that’s developing will shake out?

  6. Lamentablemente las grandes compañías quieren ganancias a corto plazo y no quieren invertir en nuevas grabaciones en Audio HD. Echan mano de los viejos catalogos, aumentan el volumen, remasterizan y a vender aceite de serpiente…Los buenos amantes de la música y el buen sonido sabemos apreciar una buena toma de sonido y una buena grabación, por eso no nos importa gastarnos un poco mas si la calidad merece la pena. Por el momento es como Don Quijote, que se lanza contra los molinos de viento. Ánimo Mark.Saludos desde España.Federico.

    Unfortunately the big companies want short-term gains and do not want to invest in new HD Audio recordings. Take hold of old catalogs increase the volume, remasterizan and sell snake oil … Good music lovers and we appreciate good sound good decision and a good recording sound, so we do not mind a little toil away but if the quality is worth it. Nothing is like Don Quixote, who pitches against the windmills. Mark.Saludos encouragement from España.Federico.

  7. I believe Hi-Res will be widely accepted over the next ?5 or so years.

    Younger audio engineers will want to work with the latest technologies.

    Manufacturers will create much-improved technologies for no-more cost and use these advancements as differentiation.

    Artists will want the benefits or at least the choice.

    Price comparison sites will help constrain prices.

    Hi-Res will become normal and no-one will see the need to pay extra.

    Streaming sites will offer Hi-Res at competitive prices.

    For me, it’s now just a matter of time.

    • Julian, a number of things on your list have already happened. There are certainly a lot of studios using 88.2 and 96 kHz with 24-bit words. The higher word lengths are especially relevant to making new recordings. But making high-resolution recordings is more than just adopting a new set of specifications and a some new hardware. The recordings themselves aren’t getting any better in spite of using higher quality gear.

  8. Mark,
    You finally hit the nail on the head at the end of today’s blog. I think that getting the recording industry to get onboard the high resolution wagon is a much tougher problem to solve (by orders of magnitude). In other words, if the issue of having any real hi-res audio available is not going to be driven by consumers who are a small segment of the market, it has to be driven by engineers such as yourself. It’s also a marketplace that for most part has no idea what it’s missing-how many 20-something year old people have ever heard anything except low fi music on marginal systems ? Maybe they won’t be able to distinguish the differences between 44-1/16 & 192/24, but I’d bet they would notice, and perhaps feel swindled, hearing their favorite material with dynamic range for the first time.

    • The high-res motor home should visit all of the studios that are busy making new tracks. Getting the artists, producers, and engineers to hear something really great is what’s needed.

  9. Quote:”I have a Grammy-winning audio engineer friend that raves about the sound quality of my tracks. He’s just recently been hired to produce and engineer a new project for a legacy band that had some hits 15-20 years ago. In spite of his enthusiasm for high-resolution and surround music mixes, he’s located a studio in east LA that has an old Neve console, lots of classic analog processors, spring reverbs, and vintage microphones where he wants to work. Here’s a guy that has the opportunity to make something really special in high-resolution and he retreats to the comfort and familiarity of old gear. Pretty disheartening.”

    Interesting.. I see now where here where you, Mark, offered your friend to use your modern studio. Maybe he is intimidated by those computer thingamabobs.

    High Quality recording should be the focus of the music industry and not a numbers or format game.
    Case in point: Ernest Ranglin – Order of Distinction is a great sounding disc from AIX records. Because the recording was of high quality, listening to the album on Spotify still sounds incredibly good.

    • You’re right. My friend is an old school guy and is going to work in the way that he used to work… and that’s fine. I used to work that way too.

      BTW Have you heard Ernest Ranglin’s – Order of Distinction on Spotify. I guess I should see which tracks of mine are being streamed. I don’t Spotify.

  10. I can tell you that recording in high-resolution at either 176 kHz/24-bit or 196 kHz/24-bit is wonderful and EVERY nuance and dynamic presence is captured, of course when using the best microphones and mixers, and other associated equipment. Anyone who could experience such master recordings would be “blown away!” There is a discernible difference when the recording is recorded in true high-resolution. But such recordings will remain a niche until the mass market completely shifts to high-resolution audio production and source devices, and people purchase decent true high-fidelity playback systems.

    • Thanks Gary…I would only add that moving to 176.4 or 192 kHz over 96 kHz doesn’t make any audible change. The wonderful sound you’re experiencing is due to excellent engineers, great players, and great equipment.

  11. Mark,
    1. Couldn’t you attempt to put a swift boot up your engineer friends butt and get him to do a HDA recording instead. 🙂
    2. Maybe we need to lower our standards and become a bit of snake oil sales people our self’s. With enough promotion of the HDA logo to the general public no matter what the provenance it may become important to the general public even if its a lie. People do want to brag about having better. Trick will be the price, it has to come down to SD level. Then if enough people are looking for the logo to buy, the record companies will may start to care. Just a thought.

  12. Here’s how Pono will “re-create” hi-res for the masses, according to Bruce Botnick:

    “The Pono Provenance refers to the original master tape-recording, be it stereo or mono, that was created in the recording studio. Our mission is to work with the artists, producers and the record companies to bring to you the very best recording available for your listening enjoyment. The process includes searching through extensive tape vaults then archiving. The archival process entails taking the master tape, if it’s analog, baking it in a convection oven at 108° for eight hours, letting the tapes cool at room temperature for 24 hours and then very carefully transferring them using state-of-the-art analog tape machines and A/D converters. From there begins the mastering stage for Pono in high-resolution 192/24 bit.”

    • I’ve met Bruce and he is a very fine engineer. However, the relevant question would be “How many of these new 192 kHz/24-bit transfers are you guys actually doing?” My guess would be very few since they are selling the same tracks as all of the other “High-resolution download” sites. The record labels don’t let just anyone have the masters. And I was told by the former CEO of Pono that they weren’t going to be remastering analog tapes. Maybe there will be 10 new 192 masters but that’s nothing to get excited about.

  13. I went to college in 81-85 and listened to Husker Du, The Replacements, Black Flag, etc. I believe the quality on those recordings was just fine for the content. It did not matter what you played it back on, vinyl, CD, cassette. the music was awesome just the same. I believe highly commercial music today has the same emotional pull (my 14yo daughter gets so excited about a Hozier song on Spotify, FM radio etc.) no need for hi-res anything for her.

    on the other hand it is the responsibility of engineering professionals to promote the best and most effective (including cost) technology to further music reproduction.

    So keep fighting the good fight, it will make a difference over time – especially for classical, folk, indy type recordings. It’s just an uphill battle for sure.

  14. Your friend could take advantage of non-anti-alias-filtering fully digital 44.1 kHz 16 bits stereo recording technique using some quite high oversampling possibly by means of a Texas Instruments 768 MHz analog oversampler. The rest would depend on the listener provided {s}he has already got a non-anti-alias-filtering DAC.

    Obviously, recording at 16-bit is a harder task than at 24-bit, and requires better skill.

    • Huh?

  15. I wonder what’s driving the Earbud users to headphones? I spoke to a guy in the gym who had just purchased $300 red headphones, and he replied that they sound better; he was listening to mp3’s…hmmm.

  16. I have been waiting for a post such as this – by anyone. We are economic creatures, always balancing pain with gain, whether it be making breakfast or selecting our music playback system. Most people purchase play-back systems based upon cost, physical appearance, and their perception of beneficial technology. The pain of investigating HiRes audio supersedes the anticipated benefits. If they are comfortable with what they have, it will be factors other than HR to prod them to purchase something new.

    I do concur, however, that any noticeable difference in musical quality between two recordings is a result of the care taken in the recording phase and that can be applied to Redbook releases. That might work (if the price differential is modest) as there is little to no pain involved. And among all the discussions, left out is the fact that not all of are still less than 30 yrs old. Our hearing (and yours…) is diminishing and no sampling freq or word length can restore that.

  17. It’s come to the point where I don’t even wish for a high-res version of new music. I just want a good recording that hasn’t been compressed to hell and back. Really, what’s the point of paying through the nose for a high-res download when the album rates DR6 and you can’t play it even somewhat loud because it is so fatiguing to listen to for any length of time. The potential for good sound is getting better and better, but what we’re actually getting is worse and worse. Depressing and disappointing.

    • You’re absolutely right, the key is to produce recordings that have great fidelity at the outset.

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