LIT Redux: An Expanded Approach

So I was talking about the wonderful event that I experienced in NYC last Wednesday evening sponsored by the NARAS Producers and Engineers wing and the Audio Board of the CEA (I’m a member of both organizations). Andrew Scheps, a prominent engineer, made a very strong case for better quality (at least between MP3 and CD quality) sound by demonstrating examples of the same track in different encodings played back one after the other.

He first played portions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” from Sgt. Peppers from YouTube and then as a 44.1 kHz/24-bits PCM file. It was immediately apparent that the PCM file was better. It’s true that the YouTube version as encoded at 128 kbps (vs. a CD quality files which requires 10 times more data bandwidth). He played other examples including a section from a Mahler symphony and a tune by Esperanza Spalding, who won the “Best New Artist” Grammy several years ago. Each time the difference between the heavily compressed ogg vorbis, MP3 or AAC files and the full CD resolution files was readily apparent.

So it seems reasonable that there is a noticeable difference between the fidelity of lossy compressed music files and a file at CD quality. The Harmon Kardon survey established that kids can tell the difference and the demonstration put on by Andrew reinforced that finding for a mixed crowd of press and audio engineers. That means it’s settled, right? It is as far as that comparison is concerned. What I’m interested in goes well beyond the MP3 vs. CD debate. There are lots of questions that I want answered in a new survey…one that I may pitch to the CEA’s Audio Board for funding.

Let’s explore an entirely new set of questions that focus on the state-of-the-art developments of the past 10-15 years. Let’s not focus on the fidelity of tracks that were recorded back in the 60s. Wouldn’t you like to know if there is a statistical preference for real HD-Audio over CD quality? That seems like a pretty realistic place to start a new inquiry. But it can’t be the kind of test that the Boston Audio Society trumpeted as the definitive study that established that their members couldn’t tell the difference between so-called HD resolution music releases and a re-sampled version at CD resolution (I wrote on that sham in a previous post, you can check it out here: The take away from the article was that its impossible to test for an attribute when none of the samples tested contain what you’re looking for!

The new survey would have to be very rigorous and fully double blind A | B | X in nature. Yes, it’s true that I have a horse in the race so my own personal beliefs and preferences could play any role in the outcome. However, I believe that any new survey would have to be structured in a new an open-minded approach. It won’t work if the traditional short examples are played and participants are simply asked to identify one sample over the other. It might involve some extended listening and then an exit survey that asks how you feel after an hour or more of CD resolution vs. a session at HD-Audio specifications.

I’ve just gotten started thinking about the questions and the wording of those questions that should be included in the new survey. Here’s a short list of some of the questions that I would like to get answers for:

1. Which is perceived as more musically accurate, natural and pleasing:
A. A commercially mastered recording
B. An unmastered/unprocessed selection of music.

2. Which format is preferable:
A. A data compressed (mp3, AAC etc) version of a track
B. A standard definition track
C. A high definition track.

3. Which mixing perspective is preferable:
A. A monophonic mix
B. A stereo mix
C. A 5.1 surround mix

4. Which type of surround mix is preferable:
A. A “stage” 5.1 surround perspective
B. An “audience” 5.1 surround perspective

5. Which headphone experience is preferable:
A. A traditional “inside your head” experience
B. A “room realized” virtual surround experience

6. Does the knowledge of a format’s frequency response and dynamic range make any difference in what you enjoy and purchase?

7. If you prefer the sound of one recording to another, does that mean it has higher fidelity specifications?

8. What is more important, the sound experience or the level of the performance? Why?

9. Would be prefer to be able to stream 10 low fidelity “playlists” or 1 high fidelity “playlist”?

10. What role do the producer and engineer have in the ultimate sound quality of the released track or album?

So these are just a few ideas. I’m open to any and all suggestions. I think it’s time to get some reality back into the whole audio recording and reproduction arena. It’s been drowning in its own techno-babble and touchy-feely cesspool for too long.

The “Lost In Translation” presentation was a very good warm up to the really important questions that loom large in the digital music marketplace but it really just opened up an entirely new set of questions.

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.

4 thoughts on “LIT Redux: An Expanded Approach

  • May 27, 2014 at 5:29 am
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    Hi Mark,

    I recently discovered your blog through a couple of FB posts from Benchmark Media and Morten Lindberg. I have long been looking for a place where the current HD audio hype was discussed in depth, more than just promoted as the latest audio panacea. As a musician, frequent buyer of downloads, as well as a modest hifi enthusiast and amateur in the art of recording, I am as interested in the topic and outraged by the scams, lack of serious technical expertise and science behind the whole lobby trying to push consumers to buy into the HD audio formats.

    Needless to say, I absolutely support your take-no prisoners approach and your merciless and iconoclastic, yet respectful and fact based tone of your posts. It’s the best and most educational audio blog I’ve had the pleasure to read since I got down to reading NwAvGuy’s blog. As a matter of fact, I just have some 10 posts to go to cover the entire blog, and I just picked up reading yesterday. My sincere gratitude for your entertaining, challenging and ultimately necessary writing.

    Regarding your above outlined itinerary of questions that are urgently pending research, I have a briefly debated with Morten Lindberg on FB regarding the 4th question, but from the perspective of – what I would call – “Audience Stereo” (A/B, X/Y, etc. recordings) vs Stage 5.1 Surround perspective. A bit in the direction of the Dutch reader you mentioned in your “Establishing Your Listening Baseline” piece. I think that the preconceptions and expectations that you describe as a barrier to immediately appreciating the 5.1 Stage approach are significant, but I wouldn’t qualify or dismiss the Dutch listener’s point of view as the demand for a merely “documentary” audio recording.

    Firstly, because I think the kind of stereo recording he suggests, or the ones I appreciate (some of the ones made by MA recordings’ Todd Garfinkle, for example, and despite his predilection for recording in DSD, etc.), aren’t the predominant ones, and thus require some barrier breaking too when it comes to preconceptions and expectations we have from listening to highly compressed, edited, overdubbed, mixed and processed audio. They too speak a relatively odd vocabulary and constitute a minority like 5.1 audio – be it “Audience” or “Stage” mix -, which radically oppose the predominant recording techniques and characteristics we have been accustomed to.

    Secondly, regarding the argument of “delivering and entertainment experience” that you introduce with the film analogy, it is also ultimately a question of aesthetics and how our sensibilities have been educated by the music industry, since the objective of “delivering an entertainment experience” is in some measure responsible for our current and highly degraded experience of recorded music.

    As a musician, I am more inclined to view music – and film – as a “deeper” and more complex experience, that unchains reflection and introspection as much as its beauty conveys sheer pleasure, much in contrast to a mere entertainment or a sensationalist consumerist novelty that has to impact my senses with some new effect to secure my attention. In other words, I’d rather enjoy Tarkovsky’s Stalker than Avatar in 3DHD.

    What – in contrast to compressed tracks with overdubs and exagerated reverb effects – appears to be a flat and boring presentation which could be characterized as “documentary”, constitutes an aesthetical choice, which is in tune with a different musical sensibility (that arguably also depends preconceptions and expectations).

    As much as the second argument might sound ridiculous and conservative to some, it is as much a question of sensibility as the learned and acquired taste barriers that stand between listeners and what I called “Audience Stereo”. With this I don’t mean to disqualify any 5.1 mix as mere effects, not at all, just to overdramatize the contrast of different musical sensibilities – and aesthetic ideologies, if you wish – and how they can perceive eachother. I have enjoyed some of 2L’s 5.1 and 7.1 recordings (I have unfortunately not heard any of your recordings yet; inexcusable, I know, and I’ll get signed up to iTrax pretty soon, that’s for sure), but the soundstage – and “sound sculptures” as Lindberg puts it -, have not convinced me as much as binaural recordings for example (another technique I’d put under what I called “Audience Stereo”), and the 5.1 and 7.1 experience has managed to distract me from the music rather than “immerse” me in it. It is not that I don’t sensorially adapt to it, but I have a more immersive experience with binaural recordings. I think the spatial cues available in A/B, X/Y, binaural stereo recordings, could partly be responsible for the coherence of the listening experience, and that the sense of space contributes to immersiveness.

    I’m definitely not going to argue that stereo is somehow more “natural” and representative of how we hear, but at least for the inclusion of the diverse Stereo recording techniques in question 4, and binaural recording in question 5, that I felt you dismissed a bit too quickly in your “Headphone Surround: Smyth Style” piece. I know that 5.1 and 7.1 have great potential, but I don’t think they are anywhere near of making stereo obsolete.

    I didn’t intend this coment to be less concise than your post, so sorry for that.
    Again, thanks for your effort and all the learning I’ve done in the last 24 hrs.

    Cheers

    Reply
    • May 27, 2014 at 8:53 am
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      Thanks for the lengthy comment and welcome to the world of Real HD-Audio. With regards to mixing perspectives, I find the aggressive…and somewhat artificial…mixes to be the most exciting! And many of my customers have come around to this sort of listening as well. It may not be for everyone. I think stereo will dominate for many years to come but having the choice to listen in other perspectives is possible…so why not?

      Morten and I are friends. His style of recording has garnered him a great deal of praise and Grammy nominations. However, I find the distance from sound source to microphone too great. I like the close up sound. Todd Garfinkle and I see each other often and went to school together. His stuff is a documentary but again to drifty for my tastes.

      I can’t say that my goad is to create a natural representation of a concert or performance. As Steven Stone pointed out in the John Gorka vs recording that we did in Chicago…the proximity effect comes into play. But it would in a PA system as well. We have lots of choices…

      Reply
  • May 29, 2014 at 12:10 am
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    Hey Mark,

    Thanks a ton for your answer and comments. I was amazed that I got feedback on all three of your posts I commented. Thanks!

    I am working my way through the last juicy posts I have saved for last, so by the weekend I will up to date with the entire blog. I am having a great time reading and discovering tons of new stuff. New to me, that is.

    I am really curious about your recordings, and I’m lucky a friend of mine has aover a dozen of them, plus a fabulous Emotiva 5.1 system. I’am stereo dude, what can I do, that’s just my thing… maybe some day.

    I have heard Morten’s stuff from 2L through my friend’s rig, and I thought they sounded better than I thought they would precisely because of that distance and spatial feel they have. With the reference you make regarding the distance of the mics, I’m just imagining what your mixing sounds like, so I’m looking forward to listening to it.

    Since you mentioned Todd and you knowing him, I was thinking about provenance in his case. I know he doesn’t do downloads, but would his recordings make it to your HRA standard if he did? I think Todd’s recording are just beautiful, disregard how much of the 24/176.4 container he is actually filling up with his recordings. I also pretty much subscribe his philosophy regarding space as part of a recording and even the performance. As a musician I hate studios, and I just love to play where the space is one of the elements that’s part of what I’m doing. I think the sensual aspect of hearing oneself play is a great deal of the pleasure of playing and certainly has a vivid impact on the perfromance and the final outcome.

    Anyhow, thanks again for sharing your knowledge and valuable insights.

    Cheers

    Reply
    • May 29, 2014 at 7:00 am
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      Every engineer has their own preferences and style just as every musician tries to carve out their own style and “sound”. When I started AIX Records, I decided to do something somewhat unusual…a live recording in a rich acoustic space using stereo pairs of close up microphones. This is a hybrid approach that combines the reverberation of a real space (great for performers), the proximity of commercial recordings like Windham Hill and the flexibility of pop/rock records.

      Reply

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