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James Taylor’s recent release is available in high-res (I got my download from HDtracks) and as a standard-res compact disc (Dave O’Donnell the producer and engineer of the project gave me a copy). It’s a great album. In fact, it’s his first No. 1 album…ever! Yep, when I was a junior in high school back in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan “Sweet Baby James” hit the shelves. It was huge record but only made it to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. It was his second studio album and the first released on Warner Brothers Records.

The new album “Before This World” was released a few weeks ago on Concord Records. It’s JT’s first release of new tunes in 13 years and thus far has sold over 96,000 copies…and it’s high-resolution music! The real deal…at least the version you can download at HDtracks.

I’ve gotten to know Dave O’Donnell over the past few years and recently spent some time with him in New York City. He was kind enough to come to the CE Week demo that AIX Records, NAD, and PSD put on in the Altman Building. During our subway ride uptown to the Sony/Legacy Recordings event at Battery Studios, he and I chatted about the production of the record.

The tracks were essentially recorded live at JT’s home facility known as The Barn. Check out the promotional video that Concord put together for YouTube:

Figure 1 – James Taylor’s “Before The World” promo video.

Dave produced, engineered, and mixed the project using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM to a Pro Tools rig. The whole project was kept at 96/24 until the mastering stage. Ted Jensen prepared a high-resolution version and a version for iTunes and CD. According to Dave, the high-res version contains more dynamic range and wasn’t tweaked as much as the CD version. Having listened to both versions in my studio, there is a distinct difference between the two. The CD is more “commercial sounding”, punchier, and less dynamic. The high-res rendition has still been mastered and isn’t as open and pure sounding as I would have liked but it is still miles ahead of most commercial releases. James’ voice is consistent, warm, and as expressive as ever. The rest of the band plays tastefully around his vocals and with special guests Yo-Yo Ma, Sting, a couple Taylor family members, the project includes a diversity of instrumental and vocal colors.

Here’s a chart that compares the standard-res CD with the HR version:

150715_james_taylor_chart

Figure 2 – A spreadsheet comparing the dynamics of the CD vs. the HR version. [Click to enlarge]

As you can see from the chart, the differences are not huge. The HR version actually has higher peaks but shows a slightly higher dynamic range and the loudness is a couple of dB higher (indicating a wider dynamic profile).

Finally, I took a look at the spectra of the two versions. Take a look at this illustration:

150715_JT_spectra

Figure 3 – The spectra of both the CD and HiRes version of “Today, Today, Today” [Click to Enlarge]

You can clearly see in the upper left hand plot that the CD version is louder and denser. This is the result of the mastering compression. The CD version is therefore punchier and will pop through the radio more easily. If you look carefully at the lower left hand plot, the high-res version, you can see where Dave punched in sections near the beginning of the track and later about half way through.

There is also a curious line of ultrasonic noise running through the high-res version at around 24 kHz. This could be some sort of equipment oscillation or other interference…it is not musical.

To be continued…

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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.

(16) Readers Comments

  1. Incredible sounding album. I’m a huge JT fan seeing him live a number of times beginning in the early 1970s.
    Were the microphone and instrument feeds captured directly to a digital or analog media?

    • The album was recorded into Pro Tools at 96 kHz/24-bits.

      • WOOT, That raises my admiration for him even higher. So glad to hear he’s not stuck in the old school ways of “it has to have that analog sound” that we’ve heard from a number of major artists lately.

        By the way I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Neil Young has pulled his catalog from all the streaming sources.
        He says it’s not about the money but that he doesn’t want his music being served to his fans via such a low quality feed? HUMM.
        http://wcbsfm.cbslocal.com/2015/07/16/neil-young-removes-music-from-streaming-services/

  2. What legitimate reason would there be for the sound to be different on the CD version from the HR version, when there is nothing in the album that comes anywhere near the limits of CD capabilities?

    • Take a look at the specs and spectra on yesterday’s post. You say there is nothing that comes anywhere near the limits of a CD. What about all of the frequencies above 22 kHz? Those musical partials existed in the room where the musicians were playing…why shouldn’t the be reproduced in the room where you’re listening? I know you’ll say that you can’t hear them…but they still should be there for true fidelity. And the CD version is more highly mastered…and produces a different sound because it’s a different master.

      • I was referring to this: ” the high-res version contains more dynamic range and wasn’t tweaked as much as the CD version. Having listened to both versions in my studio, there is a distinct difference between the two. The CD is more “commercial sounding”, punchier, and less dynamic”

        • There is a difference and there are components of the sound on the HD version that eclipse CDs capabilities.

  3. Will it be released in 5.1?

    • I’m trying to get them to mix it in surround and release it but it probably won’t happen.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Sounds like a good example of things been done right.

    Any chance that the new Marshall phone – that’s right, Marshall – with HRA capability could bring some good news?

    https://www.marshallheadphones.com/mh_se_en/phones/london

    Cheers!

    • Very cool, thanks.

  5. The hi-res version is also available at Super HiRez for the same price as HDtracks. The entire album is available on 180-gram vinyl for $2 more at Acoustic Sounds. The LP version includes a download card (presumably MP3). You can also stream the entire album in CD quality on Tidal. I’m not sure I would opt for the vinyl, since Pro Tools was used to produce the 24/96 master, I think I will go with the hi-res. I like the fact that I can listen to the entire album on Tidal before plunking down the cash for the hi-res files. Sound quality is important, but it’s really the music that creates the experience.

  6. I can’t really accept the fact, that I’ll have to buy the download version of the album just to get the ‘non dynamic compressed and tweaked’ version of these recordings.
    On my equipment I have no benefits from the highres quality of a 24/96 download, but I don’t want a ‘tweaked version’ of an excellent recording.
    Seems to me, that they want to dig deeper in my pocket, just because I prefer recordings with a ‘higher dynamic range’.
    Is this one of the new tricks of the music industry?

    • It is frustrating. The CD sounds great so the mastering and “tweaking” has not been over done.

  7. Thank you for this suggestion. “Before this World” was my first HD purchase and I’m impressed with the sound of it relative to my LP version. Unfortunately my second HD purchase (Jason Isbell’s Something More than Free) is not as impressive relative to the vinyl. Anyway, please continue to make HD release suggestions. There seems to be a mixed bag of choices out there.

  8. Thanks for the review. This will be my first true high res audio purchase.

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