Dr. AIX's POSTS — 15 April 2015

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“It’s all about the art,” says Madonna on the promotional video for TIDAL, the service owned by Jay-Z and his music industry icon friends. Baloney…it’s about money. It always is. Whether it’s the owners of the technology companies that facilitate the distribution of music or the artists/producers that create the stuff. High-resolution music delivery…in name only…made it into the mainstream press thanks to the efforts of Neil Young and his Pono initiative and now, thanks to Jay-Z and friends, streaming for audio enthusiasts that care about audio quality is on the ascendance. Or not. But just about everything I’ve read and heard about this emerging area of the music business is off track.

Everyone is talking about the end result and the pipeline that delivers the music. But hardly anyone is lamenting the lack of fidelity and “soul” in the music that is being sent into the front end of the pipe. Artist, producers, engineers, and labels are content with the current model…and fidelity.

Madonna and the rest of the TIDAL promoters don’t even know about audio fidelity and frankly they don’t care. Everything they create and release is heavily overmastered and sounds like cardboard. They hear the records they release and give it their blessing.

Last evening, I hosted about 20 of my advanced recording students at the AIX Records studios. For these young people, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Tool, and Kanye West are the models. Prior to last night, they hadn’t heard any high-resolution audio…and neither have almost all of the artists screaming about their “art” and the “soul of music”. The students know that I write about HD-Audio, produce it, and believe in it, but hearing is very different than hearing me talk about it.

So last night, my first order of business was to have everyone in the class sit in the studio’s sweet spot and experience a recording made without heavy processing, equalization, mastering, samples, beat machines, plug-ins, compressors, and endless overdubs. Each student got the chance to hear real high-resolution audio coupled with production techniques that strive to maximize the emotional connection and the “art” of the performer. The exercise succeeded.

The students were exposed to some of the best of the best in terms of audio fidelity and immersive mixing. As was the case in every previous student field trip, comments were plentiful and were universally positive. The group was blown away. I had a student stop me today after class and plead with me to include him in any future sessions. He has discovered an area of audio engineering that he didn’t know was available. And he wasn’t alone. It didn’t matter whether it was country, folk, jazz, or every classical (I played the Rondo from the Scarlatti Woodwind Quintet…and practically everyone smiled at the sound of the bassoon, flute, clarinet, horn, and oboe coming from individual speakers). Making recordings in high-resolution and mixing them in 5.1 “stage” perspective surround is dramatically different and very impressive. All of my students heard it and loved it…Madonna and Jay-Z have no idea. And they never will.

TIDAL (Wimp, the original name of the service) was the first to move to lossless CD spec streaming. For an extra $10 a month over the price of AAC at 320 kbps (or 96 kbps on mobile devices), subscribers get better quality music streams. Is this a marketing ploy or “shtick” as Vox reporter Kelsey McKinney called it in a public radio program “On Point” hosted by Tom Ashbrook. Do consumers of streaming music care about CD quality over very good “lossy” audio (as represented by 320 kbps AAC)? No. They can’t even tell the difference! And they shouldn’t be faulted for confusing the two? It’s very difficult to tell them apart.

The music that’s being streamed on TIDAL or Rdio lacks the fidelity we old types enjoyed 30-40 years ago. So why bother with MQA and other high quality codecs? If the source isn’t worthy, then why strive to deliver all of it?

We live in era when music provides a background soundtrack to our very busy lives. Those of us that enjoy terrific sounding music well recorded are a small but passionate group. And we don’t matter to Jay-Z, Neil Young or the major labels. We’re a source of “found” money when we buy so-called high-resolution audio from the usual sites who in turn pass 70% of their revenue to the major labels. TIDAL claims to have 580,000 paying subscribers, but according to Wikipedia only 17,000 are shelling out the extra $20 dollars per month for the lossless CD spec fidelity. If you can’t tell a difference, there isn’t a difference.

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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.

(21) Readers Comments

  1. Thanks for your succinct statement on MQA. As I read the article in this month’s TAS, the interview with its creator and related sidebar, I couldn’t help but think, “garbage in, garbage out”. If the source material is less than HRA, then all MQA will do is faithfully reproduce it. What you have made so abundantly clear is that if the source material is less than HRA, then whatever is done with it or to it downstream is not going to raise it to the level of HRA. In my opinion, if one’s source material is not HRA, and one conflates the downstream technology handling/delivering such source material with HRA, that is marketing at best and fraud at worst.

    • I know Robert Stuart at Meridian and have great respect for his knowledge and technical expertise. MQA is undoubtedly a breakthrough process. But until I hear my own recordings through the MQA ecosystem, I’m holding back on my thoughts. I believe it’s a great technology that solves a problem that doesn’t really need solving…there isn’t enough real HD audio content and there is no mass market for streaming HD content.

  2. Hi Mark

    I’ve enjoyed reading your daily blogs for several years now and I met you last November at the Toronto Audio Video show and have 5 of your Blu-Ray’s and enjoy the sound immensely. However, it’s music that I wouldn’t normally listen to on a consistent basis. I recently ordered the Tidal music service at $20 per month and agree with you that the celebrities now endorsing the service could care less about the sound quality……it’s all about the money. Having said that, I can’t imagine me ever buying another physical piece of music! I think this service is terrific. I’ve listened to more artists in the last two months that I would never have heard had it not been for Tidal. I was listening to some new tracks from Ringo tonight that I never would have purchased, and they sounded terrific to these 59 year old ears. I have discovered more artists that I know I would have never listened to before. I hate to think how fast things are changing in, well, everything, but I know this steaming music format has been the best change I can recall in 45 years of listening to music and has opened so much more variety in my listening pleasure that I can hardly wait for even more changes in the years to come.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Interesting that I get one comment that is very positive about TIDAL’s lossless streaming service and another that isn’t. The discovery of new music would happen without the lossless service. You’d get the same exposure at 320 AAC. The entire streaming world will be at CD spec very soon…but most people won’t realize it. You’re right that streaming is a big part of the music distribution model these days.

  3. Mark, I think we all know the tune by now. It seems as if the same message is being re-iterated, with cynicysm and sarcasm that almost seems to be increasing in bitterness. I wish you the best, but the “big picture” is out of our control, let’s face it. Nothing you can print will change that.

    Personally, I hope that Tidal doesn’t go downhill sound-wise. All the gear in my shop says ‘44.1’ when Tidal is streaming.This is the FM of today, what folks play for everyday listening while otherwise active. If they are really into it, hopefully in the evening they either play ‘real’ hi-res, or ‘best possible’ semi hi-res, a well done CD or yes, vinyl, the appeal of which is in fact not based on the presence of ‘better sound’, but by THE COMPLETE ABSENCE of low-rate MP-3 distortions. Let’s get back to enjoying the music .

    • Your comments have become very predictable whenever I present facts regarding the state of the digital music world. Reporting on the current state of affairs in the fantasy world of “high-resolution audio” seems hard for you to accept. If you don’t want to recognize the realities of false marketing and the quest for money not audio quality, then so be it.

      TIDAL and lossless streaming are a small step forward. Pretty soon every service will be delivering CD spec audio…that is of very poor fidelity thanks to the lack of interest in audio quality at the artist, producer, engineer, and label level. If you don’t have great sounding recordings to distribute then neither TIDAL nor MQA can do anything about it.

      I spoke with a producer/engineer here yesterday. All of his work for Interscope, Republic and other labels is being done at 44.1 kHz because of track counts AND the fact that they don’t care about high-resolution. We’re a niche…get used to it.

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful post. I was going to sign up with Tidal last week, but after some research I came to
    the decision that there’s a lot of nothing there…….. So there not getting my hard earned money.

    peter H.

    • TIDAL is trying to play the quality card but no one (or at least very few are taking them up on the offer). I believe in streaming but you can get very good quality and save $10 per month at 320 kbps AAC files.

  5. This is a thought provoking piece.
    From a personal point of view, I have been using the Tidal CD quality service for several weeks, but have never thought to question whether I would be just as well off with lower resolution files from Tidal or Spotify. I will now make a comparison!
    I recently purchased some more AIX tracks and upon playing these after several weeks of Tidal the sonic differences were astonishing.
    I envy your students the opportunity they have to listen in your studio and this begs the question of whether I am hearing the full potential of your recordings on my system, which currently consists of a Woo Audio WA7 dac/amp and Senn HD800s. I like what I hear very much, but would love to know how to release the full potential locked up in your files.

    • Thanks Alan.

    • Definitely not trying to sound stupid here, but the full hit of AIX killer recordings will be best experienced over high-grade loudspeakers and a system with the ability to unleash the full bandwidth, dynamics, and soundstaging characteristics Mark has worked so hard to capture. Great headphone sound can let you hear into the inner fabric of the music, but when it comes to full-scale sound, loudspeakers remain king.

  6. Dr. AIX,

    I downloaded the real HD-Audio track and really loved the music. Thanks!

    I am not (yet) a classical music buff, but I am interested in the one (I played the Rondo from the Scarlatti Woodwind Quintet…and practically everyone smiled at the sound of the bassoon, flute, clarinet, horn, and oboe coming from individual speakers) that you mentioned in the post above.

    I searched for it on iTrax but I had no luck in identifying the album.

    I want to “SMILE” too.

    Harry Jones
    Marietta GA

  7. Mark what you may not be aware of is that Tidal has been plagued with steaming issues since launch. I must say they have now ended for me and it runs pretty seamlessly, although others still complain of problems.Interestingly, the improvement in the service coincided with the recent awful press conference in New York when Tidal’s new owners presented themselves and, as you hinted, made out as if this were the latest Bob Geldof crusade, when in fact it’s all about the down payment on a bigger yacht.

    The figures for uptake of the CD quality offering are horrendously underwhelming and another reminder that we audiophiles occupy a miniscule amount of real estate in the wider context of things.

    From what I can see, the original premise of Tidal to bring lossless music to the masses is now largely forgotten, as some of the richest musicians on the planet have so clearly decided to use it as a means of getting a better deal from the other streaming services, I.e. “if you won’t play ball we’ll take our music off your service and offer it exclusively on ours.”

    Sadly the last person to be considered in all of this is the music buyer.

    • Good points. Thanks. I was offered a free subscription but they never followed up on the offer.

  8. I believe that $10 a month for Spotify is about the best $10 a month one could spend. However, the day that Tidal was available I gladly dropped Spotify and subscribed to Tidal for $20 per month. There is no doubt that it sounds considerably better than Spotify (which really wasn’t bad – especially since I play all of my digital music through a pretty good DAC). And given Tidal’s commitment to high resolution music, I am eagerly awaiting the ability to hear what MQA sounds like. Most people think that different quality of music is appreciated in different venues. Very few people would think that you need 192/24 files when working out at the gym. But CD quality audio and higher can be appreciated everywhere. There’s no downside to higher quality music for higher dollars for those who are willing to pay. We are all very fortunate to have free Spotify (ads), all the way up to $25 for an HDTracks download. No one is being shut out to great music.

    • Just wait until Apple, iTunes, and Beats music gets into the game…

      • Seems ironic that Steve Jobs had an audiophile music system back in the day. iTunes is as you know not cd quality. I have heard that if you exposed someone who is used to an AM radio to a state of the art sound system, they would prefer their AM radio. If you took away the AM and made them listen to the better sound system for a month, then they might appreciate it. Seems that MQA tries to address the time smearing issue and hopefully we will have a way of hearing this sometime this year. The Hans Beekhuyzen Channel nicely talks about this in https://youtu.be/T5o6XHVK2HA.
        Mark, I love the Paul Smith Album you did and wish there were more from him. He is missed.

        • I have to admit it’s a little unsettling to see your name pop up on the comments list…”Waldrup” is pretty close to “Waldrep”. In fact, I’m sure they came from the same root somewhere back in time. I watched Part I of the linked video…and I wasn’t particularly impressed with his explanations and charts. There are a number of problems in his insistence on 192 kHz.

  9. Having used both Spotifys best quality and Wimp´s (now Tidal) CD-quality via a high quality Arcam airDAC in a reference system most audiophiles do not have in their homes, I can tell of own experience, not subjective thoughts.

    Wimp/Tidals CD-quality streaming services sounds WAY much better than Spotify 320 kbits. All my friends can hear the difference. It is a no brainer to pay the 100 % added monthly fee to get the better soundquality.

    Wimp via iPad to an Arcam airDAC do not provide as good sound as my Arcam CD33 in the same set up but good enough to keep the CD-player unused as Wimp is so much more userfriendly.

    Sum
    I am eagerly awaiting to hear what MQA sounds like via an audiophile DAC.
    Until then I tell all people I meet to get rid of iTunes and Spotify and change for Wimp (Tidal).

    My conclution is that if you still use Spotify you are not an audiophile and you have not listend to real streaming services yet.

    • The days of MP3 at an rate should be numbered…we’ll see. Thanks.

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