“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.