MOTTOsound founder and mastering engineer Russ Hepworth-Sawyer questions, yet again, the argument for High Resolution Audio.
I met up with a good friend the other night. He’s a researcher and academic, but also is an exceptional musician and producer in his own right. He knows his bacon, some might say. We got to talking over a few pre-meal drinks about high resolution audio. For me, another phase of the eureka moment had struck me some months before. If you like, I’d fallen in favour of the sound quality that high resolution audio files can provide. I’d noticed once again that my Pono Player had a function on long train journeys again (Bose Noise Cancelling cans required!).
This caused me to go out (well online) shopping again (don’t tell our admin person who happens to be my wife!) for some high resolution albums and purchased a couple of Talk Talk’s seminal records at 96kHz 24 bit. You can blame me reading the excellent Phil Brown book Are We Still Rolling for that revival. I noticed first of all, listening in the studio with our excellent convertors and ATC Monitoring how detailed and simply wonderful these records were. It is not that I don’t recall them being amazing the first time around because I do. But this time though, I was hearing them like I’ve never heard them before. I’ve heard them on LP and yes, the resolution of sorts is there plus some warmth. I’ve heard them on CD, and yes the crisp top end and decent fail-safe reproduction (as promised by Tomorrow’s World if you recall) was also present. This time, through the 96/24 Flac files, I noticed things I’d never heard before, both musically and sonically. The depth of the music, the care and attention to capture, noise floor and so on can be heard clearly through the ATCs. These high res albums made me do something I’ve not done for a long time – stop and actually listen for listening’s sake.
This got me thinking. Why has this happened. I’d like to believe I know most of the decent arguments we’ve all been having for many years about vinyl and its revival over mp3. We’ve also had tons of debates here at MOTTOsound about Mastered For iTunes (MFiT) and Apple’s strategy, long term. We’ve also had many conversations about listening systems for the customers who buy the music we master, whether that be iPod headphones, one of those mono bluetooth players in your home to decent, yet EQ-destroying, over-branded headphones also now owned by Apple. However, something did come over me. I suddenly realised something, and I apologise if you’re reading this and going – ‘Russ I knew that already’!
It suddenly dawned on me that we’ve a high-res issue, a time bomb… perhaps.
Think of it this way. I’m, like a few others, becoming a little nuts about high-res and its benefits (and I’ll come onto the jewel in the crown if technologies permit it later). I had to stop and breathe a sigh of disappointment at the realisation that there’s going to be a near-20 year period of masters that will never, ever, be any more than 16bit 44.1kHz files. Now 16bit 44.1kHz is not bad by any means and the music mixed onto it will still be in circulation for a long time to come, well eternity.
However, those seminal albums from the advent of widespread consumer stereo to the advent of DAT can, baking permitted, allow us to return to the 2-track open reel masters and transfer to 192/384kHz and 24bit if necessary for security. Do you remember those letters on the back of CDs which told you the format of the preproduction, production and mastering (AAD, or ADD, or best so we thought DDD) The SPARS code was used in the early advent of CD to inform you about who has chosen to use digital processes, perhaps even to encourage sales of those albums done all in digital (DDD). Today, it is likely, that anything with that D in the middle or end is doomed to remain constantly a lower resolution file in the future of high resolution.
Well here’s the crux of the matter. As far as consumption is concerned we are constrained globally by the way we choose to listen to our music and the overall speed of the networks the streamed music data is sent over. This is, of course, ignoring any market forces, such as reselling a music catalogue at the next incarnation of a data reduction format, when we could give people 16bit 44.1kHz (PCM I shall call it for ease now) CD quality audio straight away in theory (networks permitting).
Imagine a world where streaming was king. Imagine a world where PCM quality audio was the quality our streaming services kicked out as standard, perhaps with adverts as the business model is currently. Imagine if you paid the extra to get 24bit 96kHz Flac streaming? Well I would. Naturally there are technical issues to overcome to event permit the majority of British networks to get up to the speed necessary to handle CD quality streaming, let alone high resolution. So there’s time to get to grips with my hopes and fears.
Now I’m imagining my streamed audio provider delivering the quality I want at high res. But imagine if the new base-level standard was back to PCM CD quality audio for everyone who consumes the mp3/AAC standard today? Would this educate a whole generation of ears back to the standards we all once enjoyed? Would this educate the masses away from the Loudness Wars – no I think R128 will do that if ever properly adopted within music. Will high resolution make us all care about our music the way it used to be, or not to be?