Dr. AIX's POSTS — 23 May 2014

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The ground continues to rumble under the impression that Apple is readying a move to “high-resolution audio” downloads through the iTunes store.

And according to music blogger Robert Hutton (I hadn’t been aware of Mr. Hutton or his blog…but from reading few of his posts and his explanations of digital and analog audio, I have some doubts about his overall grasp of high-resolution audio…so take whatever with a grain of salt.):

“For several years, Apple has been insisting that labels provide files for iTunes in 24 bit format – preferably 96k or 192k sampling rate. So they have undeniably the biggest catalog of hi-res audio in the world.

And the Led Zeppelin remasters in high resolution will be the kick off event – to coincide with Led Zep in hi-res, Apple will flip the switch and launch their hi-res store via iTunes – and apparently, it will be priced a buck above the typical current file prices.

That’s right – Apple will launch hi-res iTunes in two months.”

Robert’s got some of this right but he simply doesn’t understand what constitutes a high-resolution audio file. Apple has been working with the labels for a long time to up the specifications of the files that are delivered to iTunes. As a small label that makes tracks available to iTunes as well, I send 96 kHz/24-bit files for conversion and uploading to the Apple site. But my files actually have dynamics and frequencies that occupy the more space in the “fidelity boxes” than virtually ALL of the tracks being sent by the major labels.

The pipeline from the major labels to Apple has been increasingly moved to 96 kHz/24-bit uncompressed audio files. Just yesterday, at a supply chain event here in Los Angeles, I spoke to technical representatives from Warner Brothers and UMG about the delivery of better quality files. “All of the labels have been preparing assets for Apple and other high-resolution licensors for a while now,” they told me. Some writers have then made a major leap and stated, “Because Apple has already accepted 24-bit files for years, it does, presumably, have a large catalog of high quality audio files that could be offered for sale, reportedly at a premium of $1 over traditional iTunes tracks.”

This is where things fall apart. Just because the labels have been sending bigger files to Apple doesn’t mean that the “high quality audio” files will sound any different or better than what we’ve been getting for years. Remember that bits are associated with dynamic range. I’ve not experienced any mastered audio from a major artist of label that uses the full 16-bit range of a standard CD. Yes, it’s important to record, mix and master with 24 or even 32-bits but consumers of pop/rock music won’t be able to tell the difference. And audiophiles won’t be interested.

If Apple plans to roll out an upgrade iTunes in early June with the first three Led Zeppelin albums in HiRes, it will be another misstep in the march towards real high-resolution audio. These reissues and lots of other so called high resolution content will not be able to sustain the additional $1 that Apple is rumored to be charging. If customers can’t tell the difference in the sound, why pay roughly twice the amount.

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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. I don’t think apple, or the like, will ever be responsible for reporting what’s inside the bit bucket. It will be the labels responsibility because they are the only ones that can know the provenance. I do see an opportunity for a third party, an inspector (for lack of a better term), to report to the public on album specifications. Maybe, by monetizing realhd.com, it could be worth your time?

    • You’re right. It is the label’s responsibility…or even further upstream, the responsibility of the producer/management/engineer to deliver better quality. This is where is gets very sticky.

  2. While I understand your concern and mostly agree with you on how the “industry” defines high resolution audio and the associated files, I will welcome Apple’s (potential) move to offer downloads with higher bit-rate information. Displaying my technical impatience, they may not offer higher quality but they will offer me more raw data to play with.
    Corporations, generally, focus on the bottom line and their marketing pushes that agenda onto the ill educated consumer. That, also generally means the lowest acceptable file format. And, if your audience doesn’t know or hear the difference why should they care? So, your efforts towards a clear simple definition of high resolution audio definition are needed. One that can’t be obfuscated by the marketing departments. However, please don’t combine the two separate issues-one, a consistent, clear, simple and accurate definition of high resolution audio and, two, the ability and responsibility of companies involved with audio to offer higher density data downloads at a reasonable cost.

    • I do too. I took off the last line of today’s post, which said that moving from compressed files to losslessly compress file downloads will improve things…but don’t we already have that with ALAC?

  3. I think in this article, Dr. Mark, you’ve gotten everything right except the predictiob that Apple Hi-res will fail because listener-buyers wont hear any difference.
    Do you really think a buck will make any difference?
    No.
    As long as purchasers ‘believe’ they are better files, that’s all they will need to justify the extra dollar in cost.

    Barry

    • We’ll see…won’t we. I’m betting against people paying the extra dollar. They might for a few special releases like the Led Zeppelin stuff and the Beatles but in general “good enough” will rule the day.

      • Mike Wrote: “As a small label that makes tracks available to iTunes as well, I send 96 kHz/24-bit files for conversion and uploading to the Apple site. But my files actually have dynamics and frequencies that occupy the more space in the “fidelity boxes” than virtually ALL of the tracks being sent by the major labels…

        ..This is where things fall apart. Just because the labels have been sending bigger files to Apple doesn’t mean that the “high quality audio” files will sound any different or better than what we’ve been getting for years. Remember that bits are associated with dynamic range. I’ve not experienced any mastered audio from a major artist of label that uses the full 16-bit range of a standard CD. Yes, it’s important to record, mix and master with 24 or even 32-bits but consumers of pop/rock music won’t be able to tell the difference. And audiophiles won’t be interested.”

        This is obviously going to be genre specific, pop and rock albums will be subject to the mastering dynamic range constraints of the last two decades “loudness wars” (and there’s nothing anyone can do about that, unless the tracks are remastered) but other types of of music: jazz, classical, folk, etc, wont. I bet major labels who will be sending Jazz or classical tracks to Apple will fully exploit the relevant bit depth of the tracks they send, as you do.

        • It is somewhat true of other genres…but in reality, almost all releases go through the mastering stage and lose the benefits of high-resolution. The loudness wars impact jazz, folk etc as well…even classical.

  4. Apple just updated iTunes last week. The description of the update didn’t mention anything about HD audio, but it may already be in there. Mac supposedly will already play 96kHz directly via iTunes. PC iTunes already plays 196kHz files, but I don’t know if it downrezzes it before playing it. The sale pages can easily be updated to provide options without changing iTunes.

  5. “All of this has happened before and all of it will happen again”. -Battlestar Galactica

    Why the BSG quote? Remember in the early CD days with the small-print disclaimer that “Due to the high resolution of the CD format, you may hear flaws and limitations i the original recording” (or words to that effect)? That was a fairly accurate statement, and “roll the tape” half-assed mastering jobs didn’t help either. There was a lot more difference between those two formats than between a redbook master and a “hi def” remaster of the same material. Long story short, except for AIX and maybe a few others, it seems like most vendors could care less whether their customer is informed or not, or whether their product is presented honestly or not as long as it “moves”. Considering that we live in an age when audiophiles spend $800 on power cables and then gush on forums about the “night and day” differences they hear, It should be no problem for them to convince people that 192/24 of the same analog source material they now have in 44.1is worth shelling out for… again. Sorry to say, it’s probably only the beginning.

  6. Like wd stated, garbage in garbage out, all the higher resolution bit rates do, is better track to what is being fed to it, if I understand correctly, the higher the bit rate, the more closely it resembles the analogue wave form, so if a lousy master is sent and converted to 24/192, you will have a more precise version of a lousy master, This is why some SACD’s or DVD-A , sound worse than some of my cd’s, and many masters are not real masters after getting butchered by the mixing, Someone needs to wake up the music companies to the reality of this

    • The “higher the bit rate” is a little off the mark. It’s really about the format, the sampling rate and the word length in establishing the fidelity potential of a given recording. We’re not trying to get the raw digital data to resemble the waveform but knowing that the PCM system is capable of reassembling the waveform in the DAC.

  7. I’d settle for lossless Redbook audio, it’s absence is why I never buy music from iTunes.

    On the Mac, it would help if iTunes automatically adjusted the sample rate and bit depth to match the music, something it doesn’t do today.

    Apple could easily run analytics on frequency extension and dynamic range on their files to determine which subset is worthy of the HD label.

    • Good points…lossless CD quality would be a huge step forward.

  8. It is not clear in my mind what Apple may do for HiRes files. If they deliver lossless 44.1K @ 16 bits then that is better than 256Kbps lossy compression. But $1 more for each song??? That translates to $20-$25 range for an album. Just buy the CD from Amazon. On the other hand if it is a true 96KHz @ 24 bits HiRes file, then $1 more per song seems reasonable.

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