Dr. AIX's POSTS — 29 July 2015

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At last we’ve arrived at the end of my list of ten things that industry organizations, record labels, download sites, and celebrities should do to enhance that chances that “high-res” audio/music will not only survive but also flourish. And it’s very basic…tell the truth. Audiophiles are a very passionate bunch. And in spite of having a reputation of being easily swayed by products that could graciously be called “audiophile tweaks”, the audiophiles that I know are dedicated to their hobby and only want the very best sound they can achieve within their limited means. They deserve to be told the truth about “hi-res” audio/music…as well as other aspects of high-end audio.

If I’m suggesting that the interested parties give us the straight scoop going forward, then there must have been a few falsehoods, exaggerations, or outright lies issued in the promotion of “hi-res” audio/music. Here’s my list of the most important things to know about high-resolution audio/music:

1. There are only about 1500 real high-resolution music productions according to my definition of “high-res”, meaning recording that have been produced using at least 88.2 kHz/24-bit PCM or DSD 128 at the time of the original sessions. Just today I received and email from an engineer that wanted to know if he should upconvert a 48/24 project to 96 kHz to meet the contractual commitments between the label and the artist. I told him no. You can’t hide the truth from those willing to do a little investigating…analyze the work with a spectrograph. The fidelity of his 48/24 project could be amazing…but lying about it would damage the credibility of the artist, production team, label, and distributor. There are no secrets in high-resolution audio.

2. There are only about 10-15,000 “hi-res transfers” in the music for download universe. The stuff pitched as “ultimate high-res” tracks or “tunes that restore the soul of the music” are actually transfers of analog masters. And analog master reel-to-reel tapes may or may not possess more information (frequency response and dynamic range) than a well-done CD of the same master tapes. A standard CD is capable of far exceeding the dynamic range of analog tape and vinyl LPs…but analog tape can have frequencies…musical partials…higher than 20 kHz. I can’t guess how many albums offered on HDtracks or the others hi-res download sites have ultrasonic frequencies but I can assure you that any sonic improvements a hi-res file has over the CD version is subtle and requires you to have a very top notch playback system. The majority of so-called “high-res” downloads being offered should really be called, “the best digital version of the source currently available”. All of you PonoMusic fans might recognize this wording. While not actually telling you a lie, it is deliberately misleading to group ripped CDs in with the “hi-res transfers”.

3. High-resolution audio/music (both high-res PCM and double or quad DSD) offers a marginal improvement in fidelity. If moving the bar only slightly is worth the expense and trouble, then by all means keep buying your favorite music in your favorite format. But don’t expect any perceived enhancement to “blow you away”. I know that audio enthusiasts can be “blown away” when listening to new real high-res productions.

4. There are very few new audio productions being released by the major labels that qualify as “hi-res”. I’m planning to create a poll that asks my engineer friends what percentage of new commercial/urban/rock/country releases were recorded at 48 kHz /24-bit PCM. There are some…but I would bet a few bucks that it’s not more than 20-30%. I’ve been mixing a project that was recorded by a Grammy-winning engineer in 5.1 over the past week or so. The native format is 44.1 kHz/24-bit PCM. This should not come as a surprise.

So there you have it. I’ll post all 10 of my suggestions tomorrow…who knows I may even create a podcast or YouTube video to gather the items in a single place.

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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.

(15) Readers Comments

  1. “Tell the truth”? When we can sell much more product using fear, uncertainty and doubt?

    • I know it’s a strange concept for a lot of people and companies.

  2. As someone that regularly reads your HRA blog I just want to thank you for the time and effort that you put into promoting HRA and educating people about the truth of HRA. I continue to be amazed at the work you put into your daily blog and just wanted to say a big thank you! I continue to experiment with different audio formats and try to tweak my modest system to get the best fidelity possible. Your blog has helped my to sort the wheat from the chaff and enjoy all my music formats for what they are.

    • Thanks Kyle…it’s become part of my day.

  3. I would be far, far happier with a 5.1 channel, 48kHz/24-bit PCM recording than anything in stereo at any bite rate. As you said, the differences between regular CD and hi-res, even true hi-res, is fairly subtle. And in my opinion, totally pales in comparison to the difference between stereo and multi-channel. That difference is extremely obvious.

    • I’m with you…I’d much rather listen to surround sound at 48/24. The 96 kHz sample rate is a plus but a subtle one.

  4. Hi, Mark! Your list of 10 is great, well written and unambiguous.

    Question: Strictly speaking it is not enough to record at 96/24, is it? Isn’t it true the chain upstream (mic, preamp, board) must be capable of flat response up to almost 50 kHz? And then that is only significant when recording instruments that produce sound in that range beyond 20 kHz to almost 50 kHz, right? I suspect this would be depicted in the info-graphic, but I’m worried that someone might get the wrong idea and think they are recording hi-res when their upstream chain is limited to under 20 kHz. Then you may be faced with trying to communicate a second time about the necessary steps to record in high resolution.

    • Alex, I’m not sure I’m understanding you. I believe it is enough to record at 96 kHz/24-bits. It allows ultrasonics up to 48 kHz and dynamic range way past human hearing.

      • Hi, Mark! Sorry for being unclear. What if I recorded a triangle with a mic that’s down 6 dB at 16 kHz? None of the triangle’s ultrasonics would make it to the 96 kHz sample rate ADC and the recording would fall short of being hi-res, wouldn’t it? That was what I was trying to say. You’ve clearly made the point in the past that mics and preamps must be flat up to 48 kHz, but people popping in and out of your blog may not clearly see that constraints in the upstream chain must be overcome. Maybe you could use a short qualifying phrase that reminds us and informs newcomers about the need for each link in the chain to be hi-res–capable. Long road to a small, pedantic house. Thanks for hearing me out.

        • Alex, thanks for the additional information. The concept of high-resolution audio capture is one that describes the potential of the higher spec capture…not the actual frequencies and dynamic range that are present. That’s impossible to know or guarantee because the tunes or instruments are what they are. An ensemble made up entirely of male voices is not going to benefit from having a 96 kHz sample rate…except for the better filtering available in that system. The key here is the potential fidelity of the system.

  5. “A standard CD is capable of far exceeding the dynamic range of analog tape and vinyl LPs”
    I disagree strongly with this statement. The perceived dynamic range of CDs, to me, is inferior to that of analog. There simply is so much less dynamic range, perceptually, than analog that it’s a joke to compare the two. Many musicians would agree with me. Hi-Res seems to do great in this department.

    “but analog tape can have frequencies…musical partials…higher than 20 kHz”
    And this is why CDs will always be inferior. Those ultrasonics are important in recreating the accurate sound of an instrument, to sound realistic.

    • You can’t really have an opinion about a technical specification. It’s OK to prefer one format over another but the statement you quoted is true without question. Even a first generation analog tape with noise reduction gets to the high 80 dB range. CDs spec to 93 dB. What you’re experiencing might your experience listening to most commercial releases that are highly compressed vs the capabilities of a well done CD. I can’t be sure.

      The ultrasonics of analog tape and vinyl LPs are not usually present…third generation copies and mastering make sure of that. But if they did have ultrasonics AND you believe (as I do) that it matters, your system would have to be equipped with supertweeters in order for them to be delivered to your ears.

      CD trumps analog tape and vinyl LPs in so many important specifications…most critically the noise and dynamic range. There’s just no getting around it. Go ahead and prefer what works for you…but recognize that there realworld specifications that help define the acoustic parameters of various formats.

      • Mark, first off, thank you for your daily blog and for this nice series in the last few days. As you have been saying, education will play a big role. Many music enthusiasts that have listened to commercial releases do not understand when you praise CDs versus analog formats (vinyl or tape). Of course, you are correct in that the CD format has better specifications than those analog formats but they are also right when they say that the CDs of the music they like do not sound nearly as good as say the vinyl version. You know that they are not listening to the same mastering. For whatever reason, the master engineer many times decides to compress the heck out of the CD version.

        So, just because a CD CAN sound better than vinyl doesn’t mean that is what you typically find in commercial releases. A while back, you made a series of posts on mastering and had samples of “Mosaic” with different levels of mastering and the differences between them were very obvious, much more obvious than 44/16 vs 96/24 difference. I thus completely understand where some vinyl fans come from when they have listened to some of their favorite music on a heavily mastered CD and they didn’t like it. If the music they like sounds better in the vinyl version than in the CD version, I can’t blame them for choosing the vinyl version. The people making the CDs need to be educated too, they should know better what the CD is able to deliver.

        Your recordings are jaw-dropping not because you deliver them to us in 96/24 but because of your great recording techniques, little processing and enveloping surround mixes. 96/24 delivery is just an subtle plus, as you put it. If more people would follow your approach, people could listen to more digital recordings “done right” and not long for a turntable.

        Thanks once again for your educational blog posts and your recordings.

        • Very well stated, thanks Fernando. I do try and say the potential fidelity of the formats is a very different thing than the realized fidelity produced by the engineers, producers, and labels.

  6. How can “Sound and Vision” magazine have a whole editorial in their issue that hit the stands today talking about Hi-Rez and provenance and truth in the industry and not mention your name or all of your efforts? If they did and I missed it then I apologize because I was reading it in a hurry between appointments. Either way you were not mentioned prominently enough even if you were. They did however, as a magazine, admit that they have not done nearly enough to educate their readers on this issue.

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