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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Comment of the Moment: Losing My Religion on Audio Quality

The Comment of the Moment is concerns audio quality from the Steve Jobs, MP3's & iPods thread by rkennke:
Not sure why most discussions about audio quality need to be so religious. The fact is that you can make very fine CDs (just take NY's CDs starting from mid-90s to today) as well as very crappy vinyl records (oh boy have I listened to crappy stuff in the 80's and early 90's).

The thing with CDs is that 16bit depth and 44KHz resolution is just fine for human ears. Sure you can create much higher-resolution audio, and it carries tons of more information, but it's effectively inaudible. That is a consequence of the inability of human ears to hear anything beyond 22KHz (heck, most people probably cannot hear beyond 16KHz already) and Nyquists laws.

Similar things can be stated about MP3s. At a high enough bitrate, they are indistinguishable from CD quality. Double-blind listening tests shows that beyond 192kbit/s MP3s basically are indistinguishable from CDs or MP3s of higher bitrate.

The problem as far as I can see is CDs that are not well done. There's so many ways that CDs can be screwed up. Digital is very unforgiving with regards to clipping. Go beyond the dynamic range of the CD (i.e. turn the mix up too loud) and you get very bad distortions since the signal will be clipped off (whereas in analog you'd 'only' distort the signal). Unfortunately this is a very common practice nowadays (loudness wars). One reason why SACDs sound much better is that the mastering process for SACD strongly discourages this cranking up to the max loudness. Another problem with digital lies in the mixing and mastering process. Each transformation of the original recording means loss of information. Mix 2 tracks together and you loose information. Adjust levels of a track and you loose information. Etc etc. That's why it's important to record, mix and master with high-res audio. That has not been done in the first decade(s) of CD audio and that's one of the reasons they sound bad.

On the other hand, analog recordings and vinyl have their own share of limitations that the guys in the studio need to have in mind. The resolution of magnet tape and vinyl is not infinite either. At some level you get crystals of stuff which ultimately define your possible resolution, and the depth of the groove and mechanics of the tonearm severely limit the dynamic range of vinyl records (that's why the RIAA curve has lower levels for the bass: when the bass gets too strong the needles would simply hop out of the groove). Also, the resolution of the signal depends on the running speed of the needle over the groove. You get higher quality on the outer end of the LP than on the inner tracks (and that is audible!). Well-made records only have stuff on the outer range for this reason. The best sound you get on EPs that only have one track on the outer end and run at 45rpm. Of course the same considerations apply with regards of the recording, mixing and mastering process: you need to use much higher-quality material during the process than you use for the end result because of all the inevitable loss in between.

Please stop being religious.

Listen to the music not the technology. Give me any well done CD, vinyl or MP3 and I'll be happy! It doesn't get better only because I listen to it on the highest resolution format on the most expensive stereo ever. Music is good when it touches our hearts. And I remember how some music touched me very deeply even when I listened to it on the crappiest cassette player ever in my parents house.

Thanks rkennke!

Our take on this isn't so much that folks get religious on audio quality as much as that they are passionate about how their music sounds.

More on Steve Jobs, Neil Young, MP3's & iPods.


At 2/07/2012 06:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Live Music Is Better Bumper Stickers Should Be Issued !

-- Eric

At 2/07/2012 07:21:00 PM, Blogger Raincheck said...

Great post! It depends on the use too. On the move? Background? Or really LISTENING?

One thing for sure - buds suck. I listen to my iPod with a nice pair of headphones, and that makes more difference to my ears than the CD / mp3 difference.

But then there is Archives on my blu-ray. That is a religious
experience (though for some reason Cinnamon Girl seems to sound like crap).

At 2/07/2012 08:21:00 PM, Blogger Kimball said...

I was initially bothered by some of the absolute statements in the original post, like CDs are fine for the human ear and people can't distinguish CD vs 192kbps MP3.

Perhaps its absolute on some equipment but there are certainly examples where I notice it like a sore thumb. Now admittedly, 90+% of the instances that come to mind have to do with the sound of cymbals in a recording, but when I hear that seamless, smooth sound of high resolution digital or LP analog cymbals, it just makes me feel like I'm living it instead of listening to it.

I certainly agree that there is way more low-hanging fruit to be harvested in the early stages of music mic'ing, recording and mixing, than in the media difference between high rez and CD. Virtually all poor sounding CDs are poor-sounding because of poor mic'ing, recording and/or mixing.

Here's where I'm (we're) coming from: When it oomes to getting lost in the music, I'm greedy as hell. I want it all. I don't see any reason why some dollar snatching record company suit should keep me from having access to the whole kitten kaboodle. By that I mean, BOTH impecable production AND the option of high resolution deliver (be it digital or analog). I'm not saying ALL music shall be delivered in high rez and high rez only, just that it should be available to the consumer. Why should we have to settle for less if we're willing to pay reasonably more for the whole kitten kaboodle? Please don't push to take away a feature that I find critical just because you (the collective you) can't hear the difference; that's what it comes down to and why some of us get protective and territorial about the subject.

Patiently waiting for the Riverboat show to be released on vinyl.... Kimball

At 2/08/2012 07:33:00 AM, Anonymous ordinaryperson said...

Have we forgotten we're talking about NEIL YOUNG's music? The guy who is known much more for grit than technical proficiency or "cleanness?"

Neil is an audiophile, certainly. From all I've read (i.e. Shakey) and from all I've heard Neil say on this topic in interviews (which could seemingly fill volumes), it seems that his desire to record audio in such high resolution is to capture the imperfections and the realness of the live recording.

It's about the feeling, the energy, the things that can't be notated on staff sheets. So if I want to crank up a CD of Ragged Glory and not hear all the dynamism, so be it. That's how it's meant to be listened to... right, Neil? Rough edges and all?

His job is to capture it. He's done that. My job is to enjoy it as I see fit, in all its ragged glory.

At 2/08/2012 10:04:00 PM, Anonymous Top Geezer said...

I’m a big Neil fan but he either changes his mind quite a bit, or just talks a lot of shit and then moves on. I remember going for the LP rather than the CD of Ragged Glory when it came out in ‘89 and being dismayed at how compressed the grooves on the vinyl were and wondering why the hell he & Reprise didn’t release it as a double LP. With between 25 and 30 minutes per side, the vinyl was disappointingly super quiet; not at all what you want out a record as great - and what should have been staggeringly loud - as that one. Not a peep out of him about that when he could have badgered his label into doing anything he wanted them to do at that point [hell, they even released a commercial CD single off that record with a non-LP/CD bonus track.] It’s not like they didn’t have the technology or knowledge in ‘89. And to the best of my knowledge, Ragged Glory still has not been re-released in a proper hi-fidelity version. Of course if it were, it would probably cost an arm and a leg. The Live Archives stuff he’s been releasing is outstanding but why on earth was the vinyl of NY & Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East a c.$35 list price?! Granted, nice pressing, great sound, tip-on style gatefold jacket, etc, but almost every other record like that that receives the same treatment is in the $18 to $25 range. I call bullshit. Yes, of course I bought it [thankfully with a peer discount at a local shop] but it’s this kind of stuff that makes me wary of his grand pronouncements about audio quality, the music biz, etc. And these are just a couple examples. I remember reading ‘Shakey’ and just shaking -my- head sometimes. Love [most of] the man’s music, but…..
And though I have thousands of records [LP, 45, 78] and a few hundred CDs, I love my five year-old 80GB iPod. I burn a lot of vinyl to CD via my stereo [Tascam TC222 plugged into the DAT function on my receiver] and rip it into my mac at 320kbps. Yeah it’s compressed compared to the originals but the away-from-home convenience of 7K+ tunes on one little box is pretty sweet. It is not and never will be a replacement to my stereo, but is instead more like pocket-sized adjunct. As it should be.

At 2/08/2012 11:53:00 PM, Blogger doc said...

good comments from all above... each with a difffrent gripe and observation!


At 2/09/2012 03:52:00 PM, Blogger rkennke said...

Hey, that Unknown guy was me, I messed something up with my blogger config. :-)

I just found this very interesting article:

And yeah, I love my BlueRay Archives as well :-)

Cheers, Roman

At 2/09/2012 10:53:00 PM, Blogger BIGCHIEF said...

I got the cheapest I-Pod they sell, one of those little I-Pod Shuffles. I filled it up with some Neil songs that I had on I-Tunes. Most of them actually sound pretty good to my surprise! Of course, I'm not using the little ear bud that came with it, but rather some inexpensive headphones I bought for my Walkman. For whatever reason, all of the songs off of Freedom sound like crap. Otherwise, for what it is, I'm pretty impressed with the quality of sound that comes out of that little thing!

At 2/09/2012 11:11:00 PM, Blogger BIGCHIEF said...

Top Geezer, I sympathize with you on the quality of the Ragged Glory vinyl LP you purchased, however, I still contend that the biggest scam the industry pulled was when they made the transition from Vinyl to C.D. When you consider the pennies it cost to produce a C.D. as opposed to pressing a vinyl record not to mention the high cost of petroleum based products. Most importantly to me is the savings for the industry by not having the expense of the album jackets with the elaborate art work and cost of materials involved, now they just stick a photo in a plastic jewel case and if there are any 'liner notes', you have to view it through a micro-scope. Did any of the savings get passed down to the consumer?, Well, you know the answer to that. Furthermore, the first few years of reproducing the analog to digital was nothing short of an abomination. Yet the prices continue to spiral upwards! The joke was and still is on us at the expense of convenience and what we thought was a cleaner sound, only to find out later that at high volume levels its as painful to listen to as scratching your dinner plate with your fork!

At 2/09/2012 11:21:00 PM, Blogger BIGCHIEF said...

Just out of curiosity, we all are aware of the passing of David Briggs and I'm certain that for several post-Briggs albums Neil and whomever produced them resorted to Davids techniques, as much as possible. But whatever became of Tim Mulligan who did a lot of Co-Production with David Briggs?

At 2/11/2012 10:05:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

From "Science Friday" Feb. 10, 2012 Sean Olive (Director of Acoustic Research Harman International
Valley Village, California) and
Scott Metcalfe (Director of Recording Arts and Science
The Peabody Institute
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland) demonstrated EXACTLY what people are missing listening to mp3, CDs, and vinyls.

Most of the people they interview couldn't tell the difference.


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