Dr. AIX's POSTS — 11 March 2015

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The Wall Street Journal published an article written by an avid music lover his take of high-resolution audio. And the results weren’t good news. You can read the piece called, “Hi-Res Audio Hijinx: Why Only Some Albums Truly Rock” by clicking here and the first part of my article here. Essentially, Wilson Rothman expressed a very common opinion that “so-called” high-resolution music downloaded from the usual suspects doesn’t guarantee an upgraded experience. He tried listening on a $5K system and then again on a state-of-the-art $250,000 system with his friends and couldn’t convince himself that there was more music…or “richness” to be found in the high-resolution versions. And he’s right.

In part II on this WSJ article, I’m going to discuss the second portion of the article, include some comments by other engineers, and get back to the issue of provenance. I was heartened to learn from a reader that the Norah Jones track “Feelin’ the Same Way” was, in fact, produced on an analog 24-track tape machine. There is an article written by Tom Doyle at the Sound on Sound website about Arif Mardin that includes the following statements:

“Norah Jones’s only request when it comes to recording is that tracking is done to analogue two-inch, in this instance using a Studer A827 with Dolby SR in conjunction with an SSL 9000J desk.

‘We eventually go to Pro Tools,’ says Mardin. ‘but only after we’ve done all the session in analogue. I obey the artist’s wishes and she wanted that. If you ask me, I’m all for using the latest technology. I’m not a those-were-the-good-old-days person. The only thing is, if I’m using the newest technology, the sound has to be sweet. There were a lot of new technologies in the ’80s and ’90s, digital tape recorders and things like that, and the sound was terrible because the converters weren’t good’.”

We haven’t talked about Dolby SR noise reduction. This was one of the best noise reduction schemes ever invented for multitrack analog tape machines. It was hugely complicated and required top-notch technicians to calibrate the system but it did push the dynamic range of analog tape very close to CD spec.

In reality, Wilson didn’t ever get the chance to experience new recordings that were done using high-resolution audio equipment. Perhaps if he and friends checked out Laurence Juber or John Gorka instead of Norah Jones and Paul Simon from analog originals, he would have endorsed HRA.

To his credit, he continued his exploration into high-resolution by looking at the sources that are used to create the new high-resolution tracks. He correctly answers his own question of why a high-resolution audio download could actually sound worse than the corresponding CD this way with a quote from renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, “The answer lies in the version of the recording that was used to make the CD or hi-res files, said Portland, Maine-based mastering engineer Bob Ludwig.

This information should come as no surprise to my readers but I can assure you that there are lot of professionals and consumers that haven’t figured this out yet. Bob continues by confirming my own thoughts about whether all music should be concerned with high-resolution or stick with the sound that works best for that genre of music. Jazz, acoustic, and classical music definitely benefits from high-resolution recording and reproduction but Nirvana…not so much.

Ultimately, the catalog of so-called “high-resolution” classic albums is highly dependent on the decisions made during the remastering process. Here’s a very telling paragraph from the WSJ piece:

“This is most apparent on some classic albums that have been remastered in the past decade or two. For instance, when you compare the original 1986 version of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ to the 25th-anniversary edition, released in 2012, you’ll find that the new tracks are much louder even though you haven’t touched the volume knob. Mr. Ludwig said that the new version was known for being highly compressed, which would mask the benefits of hi-res; this would explain why I didn’t notice a difference in hi-res. (A Sony spokesperson said that the 25th-anniversary edition that the hi-res was created from was approved by the original producer of ‘Graceland’, Roy Halee.)

So there you have it…there are no guarantees that the new “hi-res” items available on the popular download sites are going to possess higher fidelity than your original vinyl LP or CD. In fact, it’s assured that ALL of these early albums will only measure up to the audio fidelity of analog tape, which is no capable of reaching high-resolution standards. No marketing campaign, demo, or rigorous study is going to change that.

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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. Thanks Mark. Another great pair of articles debunking the lack of a good source for Hi-Rez files to test. I hope you tried to contact Mr. Rothman with an offer to provide some good files for him to listen to.

    As with many others, I have a hard time telling the difference with my 71 year old ears between a good 320k MP3 and a good 96 khz/24 bit hi-rez file. So after many personal tests, I determined that spending the extra money for hi-rez files was a waste if I could get the same master in 320k mp3 for less money. I have bought a few albums from LINN Records in the UK that way. Besides your albums, I also like MA Recordings. They record digital end to end and without compression.

    I have recorded a lot of my old LPs to digital on my computer. MP3s are fine for those. The same is true for most of my CDs I rip. The only excption are my old Telarc albums from the 80’s. Remember when CD’s used to be defined as AAD, ADD, or DDD? Telarcs were DDD for the most part and I have ripped those to WAV files and them converted them to FLAC files. They are the only ones that seem worth the trouble to me. And they do sound good that way but obviously they aren’t hi-rez since they came from a CD but they still sound great because the source was as good as it could get for the day.

    • I thought about reaching out to the author and I will. Thanks.

  2. Mark,
    I have three NJ albums in (HDtracks) versions. The first ‘Come away with me’ is 100% 16-44.1. ‘Feels like home’ seems to be the album recorded in analog, because there is a lot of noise above 25-26 kHz. ‘ Not too late’ from 2007 is 100% digital in HD as it goes well into 38 kHz with no noise visible what so ever.
    cheers

    • Thanks for the insights…of course, we know there’s a lot more to the art of high-resolution production than just the format, but at least she’s off of the analog thing.

  3. The online (and PDF) audio magazine, Tone Audio http://www.tonepublications.com/ regularly review High Res downloaded tracks of older albums and compare them to the original (Vinyl in most cases). They often comment on the poor quality of the Hi Res version. Unfortunately they don’t review a ton of music this way, but when they do, it can be quite helpful.

    • I used to take a look a Tone…and perhaps I should revisit them. Usually, I found them so vinyl LP biased that it just didn’t make sense.

  4. I’ve been using the Dynamic Range database lately ( http://dr.loudness-war.info ), and, looking at the several versions of given album, I’ve notice two things I didn’t expect.

    1. Often the 96/24 version downloaded from hdtracks.com has the lowest (worst) dynamic range of all the versions.

    2. Often the vinyl version has the highest (best) dynamic range.

    These are of course choices made in the mastering process, and not an indication of the capabilities of the medium, since the capabilities are the exact opposite.

    This explains to some degree why some people like the sound on the vinyl better–because, in at least one dimension, it is better!

    The real crime is that whoever masters the 96/24 downloads at hdtracks.com is compressing the dynamic range to something that fits in 8 bits and then sells it as 24 bits. What a lost opportunity! I think this is false advertising and approaches fraud.

    The dynamic range of the 44/16 CD version is often somewhere between the two. Which is also a crime.

    To think that after all these years we’re still not exceeding the dynamic range of vinyl, and that it’s by choice (!), just kills me. I don’t understand it.

    If you want it louder, then just turn the volume knob on your amplifier. And if you’re a producer, then depend on loudness normalization available in modern receivers, streaming services (iTunes Sound Check), and typical processing equipment in most radio stations.

    • Just a note on the HDtracks question…they don’t remaster the materials, that work is done at the labels.

  5. “Jazz, acoustic, and classical music definitely benefits from high-resolution recording and reproduction but Nirvana…not so much.”

    I know and understand the reasoning behind that comment but the popular music world deserves the attention of engineers interested in HD ever more so than the other styles listed. We have raised a generation listeners and artists that believes their mp3 players, smart phones and ear buds sound wonderful and are delivering the SOTA.
    Jazz, acoustic, and classical music are for the most part dead art forms and we need to focus our attention in the progress of High Fidelity on the groups of listeners that matter in the realm of sales numbers.
    When the Norah Jones of this world request analog tape, the Mardins of this world should be saying “well if you insist but analog tape really is obsolete and inferior quality to what we can offer you in a HD digital domain. Why don”t we do a few takes and let me show you what I me”.
    If you write off educating the by far largest music audience in the world your cutting off your nose to spite your face. We now have reasonably affordable tools in HD portable players and headphones capable of delivering HDA specs, but we need to have the software to make these tools worthwhile
    The audio engineers of this world MUST stop placating the lie that analog tape sounds better and get the giant audience that is popular music to understand the truth and become part of the techno progress that is HDA.
    It will be only by focusing on the popular music form that HDA will not fall from interest and die along with the mostly dead music styles you want to worry about, they are irrelevant in today’s sales market.

    • My point was that I can understand that certain genres of commercial and popular music require heavy handed compression…it’s part of the sound. Is there room for dynamic range in pop/rock/country…of course.

      • Your answer confuses me???
        “popular music require heavy handed compression”
        “there room for dynamic range in pop/rock/country…of course.”
        Which is it”\?
        Popular music does not require heavy handed compression, it’s part of it’s current destruction by all those involved and not a requirement for its sound. They do it to attract attention and it’s a dollars war in reality. Popular music was recorded for decades without being crushed to death by the engineers. It’s only in the last decade that this loudness war has become the norm. It must be stopped somehow and excuses that “its part of the sound” are not exceptable. No disrespect meant Mark.

        • Maybe I should have expressed myself more clearly. Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Metallica etc depend on the massive walls of sound and their recording process must use compression. Other types of pop/rock/country would benefit from less compression during mastering.

          • I guess we’ll have to agree to dis-agree. Heavy metal bands were recording in the 70s – 90s without using the ridiculous amount of compression they are using today. Everyone from the labels to the engineers to the artists themself have been convinced that this destruction of any type of dynamic range must be done to sell records. It’s a shame whats been done and will be there for future generations to wince over.
            I am in no way a metal fan, I just hate to see any form of music have it’s fidelity destroyed for future generations to suffer.

  6. Its to bad a number wasn’t included on the high res badge that confirmed the provenance of the song being purchased.
    A third party (such as yourself) would need to review them individually but in my opinion this should be done anyway if they’re going to label them high res.
    A new rating system, say a scale of 1-100, would need to be implemented but it would remove some of the guess work in a purchase. It would be critical that the reviewer be unbiased and not judge the song from their personal preference but rather only judge the provenance.

    • This is exactly what I’m working on.

  7. Hi Mark, I was just wondering if you have read the Pono player review and general Pono overview in this month’s Stereophile magazine. John Atkinson is certainly a very, very experienced person in this capacity.

    Funny that almost everything I’ve said about the pointlessness of poking holes in a man who has the public’s ear and makes clear his wish that better sound quality become widely available was repeated by Mr. Atkinson. I guess I’m not the only one who flat-out cannot understand the largely baseless negativity that has been aimed at not just Pono, but hi-res in general by ill-informed journalists who probably wrote the travel article the week before and have ears filled with mud.
    Oh, and he also makes very clear the exceptional sonic beauty of the Pono player w/ electronics by Ayre. That’s why I bought it, and not for any other major reason; I don’t have 400.00 to throw away. The folks who know and appreciate your label don’t have to be protected from anything; they generally know their way around the audio block, and can make their own judgements; the facts are out there for all to weigh.
    Pono has and will continue to succeed.I’d stop wasting energy on the Pono thing were I you, and turn negative energy into positive by proclaiming the knockout sonic qualities of your stuff. Dumping on someone else’s product has never been a good way to sell one’s own.

    • I’m certainly glad that you like your Pono player. No, I haven’t yet read the piece by John Atkinson. I have had a chance to read an inside and confidential review of the player by a well known acoustician and professional that was asked by Pono for his opinion. He sent it to me this morning after following up from the AES Conference last weekend. It’s confidential but in general is positive…it’s not stellar but very well designed for a portable device. It doesn’t really compete with the real thing.

      You’re a broken record on this issue. I’m not going to stop reporting on Pono with facts and opinion. Pono and PonoMusic are struggling financially, I know that. I will not be surprised if they aren’t around in 6-12 months. Their model is flawed, their integrity questionable, and their offerings misrepresented.

  8. All I have ever tried to get across is that by denigrating Neil Young’s efforts, you may or may not be hampering your own. I have continually espoused “better sound for everyone” as the most important consequence of the hi-res buzz,not the ins and outs of it, and while neither Tidal nor Deezer is hi-res, someone obviously figured out that folks will happily pay more for CD 16/44 sound than for 128 MP-3, and I have wireless steaming products in my shop that do 24/192..
    This is called genuine progress, and the Pono thing has been the spoon that stirred the pot. As I’ve said, no matter how fine your work, or David Chesky’s work, it’s invisble to the majority of music fans. If your label was as well known as Neil Young, you wouldn’t be complaining because you’d be too busy going to the bank.

    As for the future of Pono, I will here happily bet you 100.00 that Pono will outlast your prediction of doom.

    • Craig, I’ve reported on what I know about Pono and PonoMusic…that is doesn’t match your assessment is yours to like or not. But it’s not denigrating to report facts. I don’t give Neil that much credit…I believe he’s done far more negative to the effort for high-resolution audio than he’s done to make it real.

      We’ll have to wait and see on the longevity of the company…but the word behind the scenes is not good.

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