It’s coming. Yes, the definition and “best practices” documents will be made public sometime around the third week of June…during the CE Week in New York. I wish I could tell that these past 6 months of discussions have produced a clear and concise document, but they haven’t. There has been progress. Consumers will get more information about the provenance of purchased tracks than they’ve ever had before, but it won’t be accurate. And there’s probably no way that it ever will be.
As many of you already know, I’m on several boards that are dealing with the emergence of high-resolution audio. There’s the CEA, the AES and the NARAS Producers and Engineers Wing. They all have a slightly different position on HRA given that their goals and focus are different. The AES deals with the hardware and science of audio and appeals to the gear heads. The P&E Wing of the Grammy organization is in touch with the producers and engineers AND artists that make commercial hit records. Finally, the CEA caters to companies that make hardware for the mass consumer. They don’t really know or care about what happens upstream from them. If it helps their members sell more hardware, they love it.
Today’s conference call was among a small group (maybe 12-15 people) of engineers. It was the P&E Wing’s second call to discuss high-resolution audio. I missed the first call because I was doing demos at the AXPONA show. But I did receive the minutes and read them with interest. Here’s a summary.
It turns out that virtually all artists, engineers, producers and label folks have no clue what high-resolution music is. And they can’t care about something that they aren’t aware of. And even if they do know what the current trends are for better delivery specifications (remember Mastered for iTunes), within their day-to-day engineering challenges they can’t concern themselves with ensuring that everything is done according to “best practices”.
Let me give you an example.
If an engineer is working on a project in Pro Tools, they routinely record at 44.1 or 48 kHz and with 24-bit words. It was mentioned on the phone call that longer words are more important than higher sampling rates (an assertion that I don’t agree with…since the dynamic range of most hit records is far less than even 10 bits). When it comes time to mixdown the multitrack to a stereo or surround mix, the same Pro Tools session is used as the mixdown machine. It used to be that a separate mixdown tape machine was used to capture the mixes. Not any more. A full-blown PT rig can cost well over $10,000 and most studios only have one. That means that when now mixes are “bounced” from a set of multitrack parts to a stereo mix, they are placed back on a new stereo pair of tracks within the same session (see diagram below).
Figure 1 – The signal flow for mixing a multitrack record in a single PT or double PT systems. [Click to enlarge]
Notice that the sample rate and word length have to be the same in a single PT system. This means that the project will likely be at 44.1 or 48 kHz. And if it is mixed to second system, what is the provenance of the resulting mixes? Are they 48 kHz or 96 kHz?
And a third option was talked about on the call. Many engineers prefer to mix through their favorite analog mixing console. That means they go through an extra set of converters. The PT rig is converted back to analog and the converted back to digital at 96 kHz. Some engineer believe that because they’re using analog signal processing and faders, the results are high-resolution. The analog stage “cures” the problems of recording at a lower sample rate or shorter word length during the original recording.
Figure 2 – Using an analog mixing desk and processing to move from one resolution to another. [Click to enlarge]
I’m not even going to talk about the plugins that say they’re running at 96 kHz and are really limited to 48 internally.
We’re in trouble.