Linn Asks, “What is a Studio Master?”

I had planned to write about a new analog tape machine from Sonorus but a reader comment changed my mind. You can read Dave’s comment and my response at the bottom of the article called “Who’s Responsible?”. He included a link to a page on the Linn Music Store site about Studio Masters. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“A Studio Master download is the highest quality music file available anywhere. It allows you the listener to hear a recording exactly the way the original artist and producer intended it to sound, before it was altered to fit on a CD or squashed down to MP3 size.

Read on for a bit of the history of the Studio Master and for a more technical insight into what makes it sound so good.”

Here’s the link to their article click so that you can read it for yourself, “What is a Studio Master?”

First, let me say that I actually think that Linn Records does a very good job of producing high fidelity recordings and they make some of the best equipment on the market. But whoever wrote the article missed a lot.

The arrival of digital music had nothing to do with convenience as they claim in the opening paragraph. The driving force behind digital music was to improve the fidelity of audio recording. The quality of analog tape with the latest Dolby SR noise reduction system and the improvements in disc cutting had just about reached its pinnacle. There was just no more room for improvement. Existing formats had squeezed all of the fidelity out of mechanical transport systems, analog tape, rotating platters, cartridges and the electronics that stood behind them. The development and quality curve leveled off a long time ago or refinements became so minute that it was time to look elsewhere for greater fidelity.

Engineers and product developers in the R&D departments of the major electronics companies and research universities had been working on converting analog audio signals to 1s and 0s, storing them and then restoring them back to analog signals. There were early attempts by SoundStream and 3M Corporation…and they worked! There wasn’t a soul on the planet that was thinking about having 10,000 digital songs in a pocket-sized player. When the manufacturing and distribution decisions were finalized back in 1982, the 44.1 kHz 16-bit PCM compact disc arrived…the Redbook specification.

I can remember that time and was thrilled at the flexibility (track access), the sound quality and the lack of noise. The first disc that I heard was of a chamber music ensemble playing Schubert…the sound was clear and detailed in a way that vinyl LPs weren’t. And while the use of pre-emphasis and inexperienced mastering procedures did cause some to complain that CDs “lacked all the great qualities of vinyl”, it wasn’t the fault of the CD format. The Redbook specification is more than capable of delivering terrific audio fidelity…much more accurately than analog tape and vinyl LPs.

But according to the article, “CDs were actually the lowest quality music format – even 8-track tape was capable of holding much more information than this optical media.” This statement is just plain false. If it wasn’t wouldn’t we still be cramming 8-tracks into our audio systems? I’ve written extensively on the merits and shortcomings of analog tape (dynamic range of around 10-12 bits PCM equivalent). Linn’s position that; “there were still those that remained firm that vinyl and the original analogue formats just sounded better” is still true today. I simply won’t engage in a debate on the issue of “sounding better” because that’s a very personal decision. To me an accurate reproduction of a selection of music is “better” than something that isn’t.

We got the ubiquitous MP3 format after the Internet happened AND CD-ROMs began to be connected to personal computer around the late 80s. CDs could be ripped, encoded and sent through the net…at 64 and 128 kbps (compared to full CD resolution at 1411 kbps).

The Linn piece continues, “This is when the music really started to suffer, all that chopping and compressing sacrificed even more dynamic range, squashing the subtleties, and adding noise in the holes where there once was music.” I don’t really understand this statement. They’re saying that the digitization process (the “chopping”) associated with PCM audio “reduced dynamic range” (it most definitely did not…in fact, it allowed more dynamic range!) and the psycho-acoustic encoding methods like AAC and MP3 damaged it even further. Not true. I’ll have to write an entire post on these algorithms but I can tell you that they didn’t “chop” thing us even further and they didn’t affect dynamic range. Most of the degradation produced by MP3 and other lossy encoding schemes is in the frequency domain.

“So how do we get back to the place where we left vinyl behind – all that great musicality and almost intangible qualities of the rich analogue sound – but still take the best bits of the new digital world? Step up the Studio Master download.”

In the world according to Linn, we should be striving to get “back to the place where we left vinyl behind”. Ridiculous. We need to be moving ahead with better fidelity, more accuracy and more channels from the production studio to the living room.

I’ll get back to the issue of Studio Masters tomorrow. The last section of the article asks, “Why is Studio Master the best quality?” See you tomorrow.


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.

11 thoughts on “Linn Asks, “What is a Studio Master?”

  • I was a kid in the early 70’s and remember trying to get a decent record player, finally getting one, then trying to find records that actually sounded good and were recorded well, not always a easy task.
    I started collecting the Mobile fidelity records as they were the best you could get back then. Then I heard about CD’s, my first one was Peter Gabriel’s SO I bought before I even had a CD player back when my friend got a early one and we were arguing about whether it really was a good album.
    I also remember being loaned a cheap CD boom box that had outputs for my stereo system and firing up a disk for the first time in my setup, MAN, DEAD QUIET to start out, then the music started and the dynamic range was just astounding.
    I was so happy to finally hear my music the way it was meant to be and eventually got my own player and started collecting disks and never looked back. I eventually got rid of my reel to reel, and used a tweaked cassette deck to record so I could have the music in my car too. After a while I stopped playing vinyl and bought CD’s new and used whenever I could. I would still buy records but only old hard to find ones at garage sales just to add to my music collection because I could buy whole boxes for next to nothing.
    Until the loudness wars started I don’t think there was anything analog was better at and I always tried to find music on disk and also upgraded to universal HD audio players when the price came down, though finding either format was expensive and got worse as both formats got forgotten.
    Everyone seems to hold vinyl in some kind of awe like it was the best format ever invented and I sure don’t remember it that way. It was nice to have something that sounded way better and didn’t destroy itself every time you played it.
    I just like music and will listen to it in any format that doesn’t make my ears bleed but I WANT the very best fidelity I can get.

    • Terry, I’m certainly with you. Even this week, I’ve been dealing with incredible difficulties trying to get a vinyl LP version of the album that I did last summer. This test pressing sounds noisy on SIDE A and that one has too much surface noise. The CD has been finished for many months and still they struggle with vinyl LPs!

      • AMEN guys, my life experience mimics yours completely.
        If you enjoy the ritual of cleaning the lp and the stylus, then dropping and raising the tonearm for each side of play that’s great! All things being equal a good analog system can deliever amazing sound.
        BUT, if you really believe that antique tech can deliever any thing close to state of the art sound your kidding your self.
        BTW I’m 63 and a 50 year audiophile

        • Sal, you’ve got a couple of years on me. I think you’re absolutely right about analog and vinyl LP. They are wonderful but they are not the future.

      • Not surprised, I don’t think they have the excellent quality vinyl that MOFI used to have that was dark but clear when you held it up to a light even though the records looked black. Doubt many have the better equipment to do a decent pressing either.
        You’d think with all the folks wanting analog LP’s that somebody could still do a good job on them. I have heard some great pressings that are new, but many even though they are new and expensive don’t sound any better then my originals in good shape. Sometime I’ll have to drag out my B&0 linear tracker I found cheap, or the HK I bought when I realized my records could sound a bit better then I remembered but I’ll still prefer disks if done properly.

        • Thanks Terry. Other than as a part of job (transferring some old tapes and LPs to digital), I can’t recall spinning a vinyl LP for enjoyment. At the trade shows, I also see vinyl enthusiasts lining up to purchase old or new vinyl at premium prices and am amazed. I recognize that it’s a cool thing AND there are couple of pressing facilities that can still do it right…but for me it’s just not going to happen.

    • “I also remember being loaned a cheap CD boom box that had outputs for my stereo system and firing up a disk for the first time in my setup, MAN, DEAD QUIET to start out, then the music started and the dynamic range was just astounding.”

      My experience exactly. I remember very clearly the first CD I ever heard, Prince and The New Power Generation, when I was 16 years old. I pressed “play.” Utter silence. From nothing, a massive a-cappella “THUNDER. ALL THRU THE NIGHT” boomed from the speakers. The silences between the vocal bursts were absolute. After the a-cappella beginning, two-seconds of silence (utter silence), then a viscera-rattling thud of sub-sonic bass, followed by the full band. The clarity of the high percussion was unlike anything I’d heard before on LP or cassette tape. Even my brother, who’s never been too crazy about music, was astonished by it and, like me, wanted to hear it again and again. It was literally marvelous.

      LP fetishism is purest sentimentality and nostalgia, nothing more. When Sony/Phillips called CD “perfect sound forever,” they were basically spot-on as far as stereo goes.

  • Warren

    “We need to be moving ahead with better fidelity, more accuracy and more channels from the production studio to the living room.”

    I know you mean distribution, but when I first read it I thought 5.1. I would like more music in 5.1. When I listen to music on my receiver, I do not like Dolby Pro Logic IIx or DTS Neo:6. They sound fuzzy to me and reduce the high end sparkle and low end punch. My preferred listening mode is Multi Channel Stereo. It plays just as clear as stereo, but on all the speakers. However, I sometimes have to reduce the volume on the surround speakers. Anyway, native 5.1 flac music files would be nice.

  • Kit Kimes

    Despite what their website might say about Studio Master quality, I think that LINN Records produce or make available some of the best high quality files available. What I like is their honesty about the quality of the files they have available. If the best quality they have is 44.1 khz/16 bit files, that is what they sell and call them that. Only some of their music is listed at 92khz/24bit quality.

    My only problem with LINN is that there really isn’t much music there that I would really want to buy. A few classical albums, but that’s it.

  • Zoeldyeck

    Vinyl and CD does sound much different, it’s not as simple as just the difference in SNR & Dynamic ranges ..
    I hate how some people try to break in down into such quantities… The difference is so vast in the sound characteristics that it’s completely incomparable. Even if you made a digital format that shared the SNR and Dynamic’s of a turntable, do you honestly believe that the CD player would sound remotely anything like a turntable?

    maybe if the DAC used is expensive enough it will give digital more merit. but while using a VDAC v90 through Jriver, i still prefer analogue.

    I’m going to buy a Musical fidelity MX-dac, maybe with that level of upgrade, i will finally go over to the dark side ( digital side ) completely.

    Maybe this also has to do with me preferring albums recorded before the digital studio, i love those really old recordings back from the Analogue tape days, i just happen to like that sound 🙂 maybe this is why i like this sound translated through analogue means..

    • Admin

      You seem to want everything to sound like a piece of vinyl playing on a turntable. That format is not the most accurate among current delivery options. And yes, a CD has more fidelity than the best piece of vinyl…certainly in terms of dynamic range. But why would I downgrade my CDs to sound like vinyl? That makes no sense.

      You prefer analog. That’s your choice.

      Have you downloaded and listened to any of my recordings? You might want to check them out…they’re free.

      I love the classic recordings I grew up with as well. But I don’t want to make recordings with those sound compromises now.


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