The Problem With Experts
There continues to be a lot of confusion in amateur and professional circles regarding the subject of high-resolution. One would think that after more than a decade of research, discussion, and debate, we would have an accepted definition of high-resolution audio AND a business proposition to support it. Unfortunately, we’re still stuck in the mire of misinformation, marketing hype, sales pitches, and professional self-preservation. And the sad reality is that there is no hope that high-res audio and high-res music are going to impact the music business or become part of consumer consciousness. The myths continue.
I came across an article by Steve Guttenberg on c|net titled, “Mastering engineer says the LP is the most accessible high-resolution music format”. The piece was written in 2014 and focuses on a visit the author made to Alex DeTurk’s mastering studio at New York-based MasterDisk (with whom AIX Media Group once had a joint partnership). In the opening paragraph DeTurk is quoted as saying, “Vinyl is the most consumer-friendly high-resolution format around.” And Steve supports that nonsensical claim by stating, “Right, more people are buying LPs than true high-resolution 24-bit/192 kHz files, the ones that can sound better than CD-quality FLAC or Apple Lossless files. I agree with DeTurk’s assertion, well-recorded old and new LPs, played on a decent turntable care capable of delivering high-resolution sound”.
BTW This ridiculous claim was contradicted by Sony’s own “hi-res audio” guru Bob O’Donnell, during his “Ask Me Anything” session on AVS Forum last week. When asked if a vinyl LP could be high-resolution, he assured the individual that posed the question that it couldn’t be because it doesn’t exceed the specifications of a CD. This sort of makes you wonder about the veracity of the Hi-Res Audio logo on the front of the new Sony turntable.
These guys are supposed to be “experts” but apparently haven’t done enough research to know that vinyl LPs can’t even match the specifications of a standard CD. And if you accept the definition promoted by the labels, CEA, NARAS, DEG, and others that high-resolution audio must be “better than CDs”, then clearly Steve and Alex have some explaining to do. Of course, they and other vinyl advocates will revert to the “it just sounds better to me” position without admitting that there’s actually some science involved in evaluating audio fidelity.
Vinyl is not a high-resolution format and neither are the analog master tapes from which most vinyl LPs are cut. It’s not until you record a new session using 88.2 or 96 kHz and 24-bits that you can potentially make the claim that a given selection is really high-resolution. And even if a recording is made using high-res specifications, there is little chance that you will experience it at that resolution. The record production process these days demands that tracks are “peak limited” and “dynamically compressed” to compete with other new recordings played on the radio and other media. There is so much more to know about fidelity than the numbers that are printed on the spec sheet or the presence of a sanctioned logo on the packaging.
Then there are celebrity audio engineers like Toby Wright, engineer for Alice in Chains’ “Jar of Flies” project, who was interviewed in Music Insider Magazine (click here to read the entire interview). As successful as Toby is, I find his assessment of digital tools at various sample rates seriously lacking. It’s one thing to have subjective preferences and another to make claims of fidelity that are just plain incorrect.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
MIM: What are some of the ways you’ve found to get around the sterile sound of digital recordings, and maintain the warmth of the old analog recordings when you’re tracking new music?
Wright: Use it. I mean, I’ll still track bass and drums (in analog), depending on budget, and sometimes guitars; usually, it’s just bass and drums that get tracked in analog. Since digital is so good at preserving (already recorded in analog) sound, I don’t go to 88.2, I don’t go to 96, I don’t do any of that nonsense because there’s inherent things in the code that amps up the top end on 88.2 and 96, and it’s just super unnatural to me. The most natural sounding format to me is 48k, 24-bit. I’ve gone back and forth, back and forth, beating myself up over it.
When ProTools first came out, it was 16-bit software, and their reps came to the studio and said, ‘Hey, you wanna try this out?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to try it out, but if it doesn’t live up to what I already know, it’s outta here.’
I tried the original 16-bit stuff, and I could tell instantly, so I told them that I could hear the difference and to get it out of here. They got really mad at me for a while and then they said, ‘Well, maybe you’d like this 24-bit stuff?’ So they brought in their Beta 24-bit stuff, and I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s something wrong with me. I can’t tell the difference!’ So I said, ‘This is interesting, let’s give it a try …’
Then I tried 44.1 24-bit, and I could tell the difference, but it was really close. And so when they brought me the 48k 24-bit stuff, I said, ‘Whoa, I can’t tell the difference between analog tape and this. Let’s keep this.’ But then they got the bright idea, ‘Oh, we can do 88.1 and 96k…’ Higher sampling rates are not necessarily better. When it comes to audio, a lot of manufacturers, and I think the public, especially, have missed the boat. They’re into ease and convenience, so they listen to MP3s. I just can’t. It actually hurts my ears.
My first thought is why is the interviewer persists in reinforcing the notion that digital is “sterile sounding” and to be avoided. Maybe clarity and sonic accuracy is simply another option among producers and engineers instead of a flaw. And then to believe that using 88.2 or 96 kHz sample rates is “nonsense because there’s inherent things in the code that amps up the top end…” Craziness! But Toby is an “expert” at what he does and plenty of impressionable young engineers or consumers will buy into his wrongheadedness.
All of this stuff is just so much fodder for the mill. Audio can’t advance because there are simply too many self professed “experts” that insist on maintaining the status quo and companies and organizations that insist of spinning old concepts into new money. It’s really that simple.
21 thoughts on “The Problem With Experts”
Great post and I am passing it on.
It’s really disappointing, no….make that soul destroying.
What hope have we got of educating people in the delights of hi res audio when we have clots like this running around? Honestly!
Our major music retailer here in Australia is selling vinyl at a great rate. Beatles albums at $40 a pop.
As my father used to say: “You can’t educate statues”.
$ 40 for a Beatles album is quite cheap compared to prices for records being offered here:
Okay, most of his best records offer “master tape” quality so prices might be justified :-).
These prices cannot be justified for any conceivable reason. This site is simply ripping people off. $499 for Cat Stevens’ “Teaser and the Firecat”? The compromises demanded by vinyl LPs cause them to have less fidelity than a 96 kHz/24-bit PCM soundfile of the same master tape. How can a site like “Better Records” stay in business?
Because part of being an audiophile is making bad decisions about audio.
Honestly. Where is the “Head-desk” emoji when you need it!
Mark, Maybe you could comment the blog so I can figure out where the interview stops and your words begin. I had to got to the actual article to get it right.
Of course I agree with all your points, HDA is a mess and has been turned into a joke with all the inaccurate statements made in the sake of the almighty $. I fear the real pursuit of true High Fidelity reproduction will never recover from the damage done by people that have put profits first. Plus the promotion of the magic dust believers by the print and web media have combined to mock any discussion of science and measurements in today’s community. 🙁
What surprises me even more is when respectable audio engineers also start to tout the praise of the LP! Last week I listened to an episode of The Next Track, a podcast from Kirk McElhearn, a well-known writer who writes about Macs, music and Audio. It featured Sangwook “Sunny” Nam, two-time Grammy nominated mastering engineer. He not only claims that the vinyl LP has a superior sound, but also stated “All the processing I’m doing is done on the analog side.” Even though he receives digital files for input, and has to deliver digital output files as well.
What do you think about that?
Of it is funny you mention “The Next Track.” I too listen to it as a recommendation from Chris at Computer Audiophile. I have not been thrilled with their guests and some of their responses, which are very misleading.
I am still trying to figure out how you measure “warmth” – as in “it’s sound warmer.”
Sarcasm aside, sterility is a form of cleanliness or accuracy. Some people prefer it, some don’t. Just like some people like the look of a freshly pressed suit, some people prefer faded, torn jeans. It’s a matter of personal preference. With a science background, I struggle between the questions of “Is it accurately reproduced?” and “Do I like it?” Both, and everything in between can exist, and should be allowed to exist in a free and democratic society. Let the consumer choose. The issue is with marketing and other agendas that are trying corral everyone to a specific side/product.
Comparing LP’s to HRA and only picking the elements that suit your argument is just what people do, but is unfair to the consumer. For example, an LP may have extended frequency response that would align to higher sampling frequency, but may only have the dynamic range that corresponds to smaller digital word lengths. Then there is the question of “if the LP’s pressing plates are derived from an HRA digital source, why isn’t the LP also HRA?”
IMHO, the only reason vinyl and HRA are being discussed at all is a result of the current vinyl fashion fad. When people tell me vinyl sounds warmer, I typically respond saying “That’s because it’s wearing a noise and distortion sweater.” So, it turns out that releasing a recording on LP is akin to adding an effect to the entire mix. It’s not necessarily better or worse, it’s *Different*.
A lot of people identify a released recording/song by Artist &Title only. Many people don’t realize that there are different variants (reissues, remasters, resolution, media format) of a recording over time and each is different. Experts should know this and include this in their conversation. I doubt many of the people marketing products and formats even understand all the nuances and differences. I think the real issue is that all of this provenance information isn’t out there for the consumer to use in qualifying a preference.
At least he got the “mp3’s hurt my ears” part right!
“Vinyl is not a high-resolution format and neither are the analog master tapes from which most vinyl LPs are cut.”
But HDTracks, PONO Music store … practically offer these non high-resolution master tapes in their 24bit – 96kHz/192kHz downloads.
I wonder whether offering this high resolution (for old tapes) is really necessary? Maybe the same mastering transferred to Redbook CD standard would sound as good as those high-resolution files and be decent enough even for critical listening?
To back this up I found some quotes concerning “Tea for the Tillerman” by Cat Stevens. It was issued lately on LP by Quality Records, on SACD/Hi-Res downloads and many praise its sound quality. But according to the quotes the sound quality that the CD issue offers may already be enough.
Here are the quotes:
“Now I wanted to add my pennies worth to the bandwidth debate. It does not matter whether it is transferred to 192 or 96K as you will not extract anything above 20 KHz from the master tape.
I handled this tape at Island back in 1985 when they were doing some re-issues. It was two reels and all the recording dates and other information was noted inside. Now the big point is that this was / is a quarter inch 15 ips stereo tape that has been recorded with “A” Dolby encoding so was the 16 track multi track lay down also had “A” Dolby on all tracks then mixed to the stereo quarter inch tape.
Now the problem is the Dolby units of that period had 36 dB / octave filters to avoid bias and these are in both record and playback so it accumulates. these are set in the early units to be dead flat to 20K and roll off from 24 K so the master has had at least 4 steps on the way so there is nothing above 20 KHz period. Like clutching at straws. The tape is indeed very good for other reasons and well mixed tidily but there are very large dynamics and many so called mastering places do not any longer care to be accurate about peak levels.
Later “A” Dolby units were supplied modified to 30 KHz before roll off.”
“I have just posted on an older thread of analysis of the HD tracks
and pointed out that I handled this master tape at Island records back in 1985 when
some transfers were being done. The master is a quarter inch stereo at 15 ips recorded with “A” Dolby encoding, the 16 track multi was also “A” Dolby on all tracks so that is 4 lots at minimum of in and out through “A” Dolby units with their 36 dB / octave HF filters that are flat to 20 KHz but start at around 24KHz later units not used back when this was recorder had modified 30 KHz point.
However this means there is nothing above 20 KHz apart from the inherent noise floor of amplifiers of say 80 dB.
So there is no magic just that the tape was very good in both dynamics and production studio standards. Just don’t waste time trying to find something that is not there.
This applies to many masters from 1970 to the early eighties.”
“The tapes are stored in the UK and were shipped to US for this conversion. Still I do not expect Ted Jensen to know the history or technical details of Dolby “A” . Does not make it superior to make by magic something that is not there. The only thing that concerns me is that if he used an Ampex ATR 100 series, did he have US 2 track heads or European stereo 2 track head which cover a larger track width per channel? US 2 track as in most consumer as well as pro is 1.8 mm wide per channel compared to 2.5 mm totaling 5 out of 6.35 mm width. 1 dB better noise floor.”
“I have not heard every version ever done. But I do know what the master sounds like. I think the original Island records issue of this album on CD back in the mid 80s as about as defintive as I know.”
(all quotes by Tinytim on Computer Audiophile)
Thanks very much Alex. The quotes by someone in the know are very telling — and identical to the things that I’ve been saying for over a decade with regards to provenance etc. If I worked in one of the mastering rooms at the major labels or one of the ones doing the transfer work for the majors, I would transfer the best analog master or safety copy I could find to 96 kHz/24-bit PCM. There’s no benefit to moving to 192 kHz but if push came to shove, I wouldn’t object. There is a chance that the analog tape masters (although it doesn’t seem so in the case of “Tea for the Tillerman”) have ultrasonic frequencies below the bias frequency but the dynamic range would fall very far short of 24-bits or even 16-bits (just as most contemporary productions would — by choice!). So you get the best transfer available. If someone feels the need to tweak the new digital version, by all means go ahead but that’s where it becomes a matter of personal taste. Is there a definitive version of a “classic” album from the analog era? No. Some will like one version and others will appreciate a different one. The record companies love to exploit the same properties over and over. Does the analog to digital transfer qualify as a high-resolution music product? No, it absolutely doesn’t because it doesn’t exceed the Redbook CD spec. Are these so-called high-res transfers worth the money…one never knows until you hear it. In most cases, they aren’t.
The original poster has certain technical details a little wrong, such as the track width of the wider, quarter-inch European (or DIN stereo) format and its resultant signal to noise gain, but the overall point is correct.
At Audio Transfer Laboratory, our own long-held suspicion on the matter of transfer quality is that if the public knew that the vast majority of legacy analog tape transfers have been (and continue to be) done with complete disregard for such things as selecting and matching a playback head to the exact track width, track spacing and track location (track format geometries can be different on each master tape making inspection of each master tape under magnetic imaging equipment mandatory) there would probably be great outcry from those who care deeply that the transfers are capturing everything still there on the surviving master tape.
As you know, in over ninety-nine percent of the cases, they are not and the resulting transfers are sub-optimum.
We are running out of time for these tapes and I have not yet seen anyone in the audio press ever show any interest in reporting on, or exposing this on-going tragedy of incompetent transfer work. So the same poor practices continue.
The studios at the labels and the labels themselves are only interested in the short term gain from selling so called High-Res tracks. They will do the same thing if and when they get behind MQA.
please let me post a short remark.
Since I was a young teenager I bought records.
The very first one was “Komm gib mir deine Hand” by the Beatles way back in 1964.
( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komm,_gib_mir_deine_Hand_/_Sie_liebt_dich )
Since the I bought records in vinyl and afterwards on CD.
With the advent of DVD-Audio and Blu-Ray I began to buy my favorite records on these media.
I own only four SACDs.
They are much to expensive for what one gets.
I never bought the so called “Remastered” records of a record I already owned.
Why should I pay twice for the same music?
I really do not like streaming (tried it a few times), I like to have any kind of media to touch – yes I know I’m a silly guy.
What I really do not understand is that there are to kinds of HiRez media – the ones done purely PCM and the DSD ones. I have no clue why DSD is still on the market. I sincerly think nobody really needs it.
Till now I’ve only bought a singe record from AIX which is the AIX Records HD-Audio Sampler 2013.
I wanted to know how you do your work.
Although, with the exception of the Schostakovic Piano Quintett, there is no music that I like and a must have for me, I’ve to say that this is by far the best sounding record I own.
I do not understand why such self-proclaimed experts, like the guy whose interview I read, are still talking so much nonsense.
I guess it is because of profit.
Please excuse me if the remars were boring but I was driven to post it.
Regards and Greetings from Germany
Thanks Bernd. Funny, the copy of “Something New” by the Beatles that I got for Christmas in 1964 had the German version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”.
funy too – I bought the “Something New” two years later because there was no chance to get the Larry Williams “Slow Down” cover and the Carl Perkins “Matchbox” cover by the Beatles on any other media. What a coincidence 😉
Another case of science vs the marketeers and profit motives. We’ve seen this movie before and know which wins, at least in the shorter run.
IMO you’re talking to the wrong experts. As I understand high resolution audio it has to do mostly with two principal factors, extended frequency response and extended dynamic range. Electrical engineers, audio engineers, and others in these general fields of study do not have the expertise in these areas to make critical judgments. In other words while they may be qualified to design and build them they are not qualified to determine their value. Their opinions and those of their customers are anecdotal and no more authoritative than the average man or woman on the street.
The experts to refer to are audiologists and in specialized areas of clinical psychology who study the range and sensitivity of sensory perception. Like most such studies, they probably wind up with a bell curve, a description of where the bulk of people land, those with extraordinary perception, and those with less than average or impaired perception. Only they can tell you what the minimum performance criteria should be and what you must design to. I don’t think they have much doubt.
Devising tests to determine audio acuity of just one aspect of sound at a time requires expert skills in setting up tests and procedures. The rest who haven’t done this even as amateurs are just guessing and have not even tried to figure out what a valid scientific test in this respect is.