Getting Back To Basics

I wrapped up the AIX Records sales tables after the California Audio Show closed on Saturday evening rather than Sunday afternoon. It was tough decision but I was very worried about the traffic heading south to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. I don’t like to miss an opportunity to introduced new listeners to my high-resolution productions but I knew that I had some things to accomplish at the studio before leaving for a brief vacation to Mexico City. It was the right decision…I left San Francisco at 5:30 am and was home by 10:30 am…the traffic was very light.

On the final afternoon of the show, more than a few people asked about how to get started with high-resolution audio/music. It was somewhat surprising that visitors to an audio trade show are eagerly looking for the right gear, the right software players, the right content sources, and how to avoid pitfalls (how not to waste money!).

I was shocked when a gentleman that I’ve had several conversations with about how digital sampling works asked a question about the “stair steps” in digital audio. He wanted to know how it’s possible to get back to a smooth analog waveform from something that was sliced into a finite number of individual amplitudes. I’m sure I didn’t answer his question to his satisfaction. All I said was that PCM digital audio doesn’t have stair steps. The diagrams that are frequently used to demonstrate how higher sampling rates and longer words increase resolution provide a powerful visual but are very bad at explaining how things work.

In my senior digital audio class, I explain how analog to digital and digital to analog conversion works. In another course, I introduce the concepts of binary counting systems and basic computing…CPUs, busses, serial vs. parallel transmission, peripherals, synchronous vs. asynchronous data streams etc. Is it really necessary to understand all this stuff to embrace computer audio and playback high-resolution audio files? No, but I think it helps users troubleshoot and enhance the quality of their listening experience when you understand the scientific concepts behind a system.

Recently a customer wrote and wanted to know why his Astell & Kern high-end player wouldn’t play one of the files he had downloaded from iTrax. He told me that it worked in his jRiver based computer system but when loaded on his portable device, an error warning came up stating, “this file format is incompatible”. I looked at his order and noticed that he had purchased and downloaded the “audience” perspective 5.1 surround mix. The surround music files on my site consist of 6 discrete files that have been interleaved into a single file.

Before I could respond to his first email, he wrote again. He had done a little research and discovered what was wrong. He asked to allow him to re-download the 2-channel stereo versions in .WAV format. Those will work on the A&K player.

Being a “digital” audiophile can be challenging. We’ve spent most of our lives exploring and perfecting the world of analog audio recording and reproduction and now it’s time to relearn a whole new way of thinking. There’s new terminology, new ways to connect things (analog and digital), new formats, and a lot of competing forces at play.

So here’s the bottom line. Expanding your knowledge and exploring digital audio is well worth the effort. We live in a digital world and getting acquainted with hardware, software, and networking is the only way forward…and I guarantee it will be worth it.


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.

9 thoughts on “Getting Back To Basics

  • Dave Griffin

    Mark wrote: “Before I could respond to his first email, he wrote again. He had done a little research and discovered what was wrong. He asked to allow him to re-download the 2-channel stereo versions in .WAV format. Those will work on the A&K player.”

    You could have pointed him in the direction of (if he uses a Windows-based PC) Foobar 2000; this software would have “correctly” down-mixed to 2 tracks for him.

    • Thanks…very true. I would prefer that customers not listen to downmixes as opposed to the intended stereo versions. My point was that he choose and “audience 5.1” mix in the first place.

  • ~ CPUs

    Then, couldn’t you also convince the world that ECL is 25 times faster than CMOS ?

    ~ “stair steps” in digital audio

    To my best knowledge, the higher the oversampling rate [introduced directly prior to playback], the more embossed, more 3D, and generally ‘warmer’ becomes the sound. In other words, it gets more ‘analog’.

    • Others…including me…would disagree.

  • Good thing I stopped by with my toddler on Saturday rather than Sunday, then…

    The problem with audio is there are so many snake oil peddlers spreading disinformation, and it’s hard to rectify that when the financial incentives deck is stacked against you. It is also hard to explain fairly sophisticated concepts like the Nyquist sampling theorem and sinc function reconstruction in a way that is accessible to the layman while not patronizing. Dan Lavry has a good article available online, but it is way too long and involved for most.

    • It was nice to see. Dan’s article would be challenging read for most beginning audiophiles.

      • John Siau has some ‘very down to earth’ explanations on fairly complicated things on his Benchmarkmedia.com site.

  • Patrick J Sandham

    Very Pono column today!

  • But it is a difficult road. As we both know the demographic of the audiophile community is middle aged at best and for what ever reason the older we get the harder it becomes to grasp new concepts. Now in my later 60s sometimes it just plain makes my brain hurt trying to learn technical ideas that I have no background at all in. I’ll admit to some nights reading one of your columns that are getting deep into some digital subjects and after reading it three times and still not really understanding what is being discussed I just give up and move on.

    As to the stair step issue, it’s an easy target for the analog crowd to attack the sound of digital. Although not true it does just makes sense and is easy to apply to the claims of digitals weakness


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *