There continues to be a lot of confusion in amateur and professional circles regarding the subject of high-resolution. One would think that after more than a decade of research, discussion, and debate, we would have an accepted definition of high-resolution audio AND a business proposition to support it. Unfortunately, we’re still stuck in the mire of misinformation, marketing hype, sales pitches, and professional self-preservation. And the sad reality is that there is no hope that high-res audio and high-res music are going to impact the music business or become part of consumer consciousness. The myths continue.
I came across an article by Steve Guttenberg on c|net titled, “Mastering engineer says the LP is the most accessible high-resolution music format”. The piece was written in 2014 and focuses on a visit the author made to Alex DeTurk’s mastering studio at New York-based MasterDisk (with whom AIX Media Group once had a joint partnership). In the opening paragraph DeTurk is quoted as saying, “Vinyl is the most consumer-friendly high-resolution format around.” And Steve supports that nonsensical claim by stating, “Right, more people are buying LPs than true high-resolution 24-bit/192 kHz files, the ones that can sound better than CD-quality FLAC or Apple Lossless files. I agree with DeTurk’s assertion, well-recorded old and new LPs, played on a decent turntable care capable of delivering high-resolution sound”.
BTW This ridiculous claim was contradicted by Sony’s own “hi-res audio” guru Bob O’Donnell, during his “Ask Me Anything” session on AVS Forum last week. When asked if a vinyl LP could be high-resolution, he assured the individual that posed the question that it couldn’t be because it doesn’t exceed the specifications of a CD. This sort of makes you wonder about the veracity of the Hi-Res Audio logo on the front of the new Sony turntable.
These guys are supposed to be “experts” but apparently haven’t done enough research to know that vinyl LPs can’t even match the specifications of a standard CD. And if you accept the definition promoted by the labels, CEA, NARAS, DEG, and others that high-resolution audio must be “better than CDs”, then clearly Steve and Alex have some explaining to do. Of course, they and other vinyl advocates will revert to the “it just sounds better to me” position without admitting that there’s actually some science involved in evaluating audio fidelity.
Vinyl is not a high-resolution format and neither are the analog master tapes from which most vinyl LPs are cut. It’s not until you record a new session using 88.2 or 96 kHz and 24-bits that you can potentially make the claim that a given selection is really high-resolution. And even if a recording is made using high-res specifications, there is little chance that you will experience it at that resolution. The record production process these days demands that tracks are “peak limited” and “dynamically compressed” to compete with other new recordings played on the radio and other media. There is so much more to know about fidelity than the numbers that are printed on the spec sheet or the presence of a sanctioned logo on the packaging.
Then there are celebrity audio engineers like Toby Wright, engineer for Alice in Chains’ “Jar of Flies” project, who was interviewed in Music Insider Magazine (click here to read the entire interview). As successful as Toby is, I find his assessment of digital tools at various sample rates seriously lacking. It’s one thing to have subjective preferences and another to make claims of fidelity that are just plain incorrect.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
MIM: What are some of the ways you’ve found to get around the sterile sound of digital recordings, and maintain the warmth of the old analog recordings when you’re tracking new music?
Wright: Use it. I mean, I’ll still track bass and drums (in analog), depending on budget, and sometimes guitars; usually, it’s just bass and drums that get tracked in analog. Since digital is so good at preserving (already recorded in analog) sound, I don’t go to 88.2, I don’t go to 96, I don’t do any of that nonsense because there’s inherent things in the code that amps up the top end on 88.2 and 96, and it’s just super unnatural to me. The most natural sounding format to me is 48k, 24-bit. I’ve gone back and forth, back and forth, beating myself up over it.
When ProTools first came out, it was 16-bit software, and their reps came to the studio and said, ‘Hey, you wanna try this out?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to try it out, but if it doesn’t live up to what I already know, it’s outta here.’
I tried the original 16-bit stuff, and I could tell instantly, so I told them that I could hear the difference and to get it out of here. They got really mad at me for a while and then they said, ‘Well, maybe you’d like this 24-bit stuff?’ So they brought in their Beta 24-bit stuff, and I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s something wrong with me. I can’t tell the difference!’ So I said, ‘This is interesting, let’s give it a try …’
Then I tried 44.1 24-bit, and I could tell the difference, but it was really close. And so when they brought me the 48k 24-bit stuff, I said, ‘Whoa, I can’t tell the difference between analog tape and this. Let’s keep this.’ But then they got the bright idea, ‘Oh, we can do 88.1 and 96k…’ Higher sampling rates are not necessarily better. When it comes to audio, a lot of manufacturers, and I think the public, especially, have missed the boat. They’re into ease and convenience, so they listen to MP3s. I just can’t. It actually hurts my ears.
My first thought is why is the interviewer persists in reinforcing the notion that digital is “sterile sounding” and to be avoided. Maybe clarity and sonic accuracy is simply another option among producers and engineers instead of a flaw. And then to believe that using 88.2 or 96 kHz sample rates is “nonsense because there’s inherent things in the code that amps up the top end…” Craziness! But Toby is an “expert” at what he does and plenty of impressionable young engineers or consumers will buy into his wrongheadedness.
All of this stuff is just so much fodder for the mill. Audio can’t advance because there are simply too many self professed “experts” that insist on maintaining the status quo and companies and organizations that insist of spinning old concepts into new money. It’s really that simple.