24/192 Music Downloads …and why they make no sense

(via xiph.org) 

Articles last month revealed that musician Neil Young and Apple’s Steve Jobs discussed offering digital music downloads of ‘uncompromised studio quality’. Much of the press and user commentary was particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of uncompressed 24 bit 192kHz downloads. 24/192 featured prominently in my own conversations with Mr. Young’s group several months ago.
Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.
There are a few real problems with the audio quality and ‘experience’ of digitally distributed music today. 24/192 solves none of them. While everyone fixates on 24/192 as a magic bullet, we’re not going to see any actual improvement…

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How Can 30-Year-Old Receivers Sound Better than New Ones?


(via C/net)

by Steve Guttenberg

It’s a strange turn of events, but mainstream manufacturers long ago gave up on the idea of selling receivers on the basis of superior sound quality. I’m not claiming today’s receivers sound “bad,” but since almost no one ever listens to a receiver before they buy one, selling sound quality is next to impossible.

Back in the days when brick-and-mortar stores ruled the retail market, audio companies took pride in their engineering skills and designed entire receivers in-house. Right up through the 1980s most of what was “under the hood” was designed and built by the company selling the receiver. That’s no longer true; the majority of today’s gotta-have features–auto-setup, GUI menus, AirPlay, iPod/iPhone/iPad compatibility, home networking, HD Radio, Bluetooth, HDMI switching, digital-to-analog converters, Dolby and DTS surround processors–are sourced and manufactured by other companies. Industry insiders refer to the practice of cramming as many features as possible into the box as “checklist design.” Sure, there are rare glimpses of original thinking going on–Pioneer’s proprietary MCACC (Multi Channel Acoustic Calibration) auto-setup system is excellent–it’s just that there’s precious little unique technology in most receivers…

Read more: http://www.cnet.com/news/how-can-30-year-old-receivers-sound-better-than-new-ones/

The Loudness War: Good and Bad News from the Front


(via msn entertainment)

by Matt Medved

In honor of last month’s Dynamic Range Day, mastering engineer Ian Shepherd made an infographic comparing the loudness of popular albums — and the results may surprise you.

Take Taylor Swift‘s 1989, which clocked in at a fairly compressed DR6 rating. While Shepherd says that’s pretty standard for modern pop music, it’s still much louder than classic heavy metal LPs like AC/DC‘s Back in Black (DR12) and Metallica‘s The Black Album (DR11). Metallica’s more recent Death Magnetic reached a blistering DR3 level, while Skrillex‘s Recess charts at DR4…

…There may be hope on the horizon. As YouTube joins platforms like Spotify and iTunes Radio in employing loudness normalization to even out track volumes, Shepherd believes artists and engineers will realize the audio arms race is “pointless.”

Read more: http://www.msn.com/en-us/music/news/taylor-swifts-1989-is-louder-than-ac-dcs-back-in-black-heres-why/ar-AAbEi07

Adobe Photoshop PDF

Is the Sound on Vinyl Records Better than on CDs or DVDs?

(Reprinted from HowStuffWorks)

The answer lies in the difference between analog and digital recordings. A vinyl record is an analog recording, and CDs and DVDs are digital recordings. Take a look at the graph below. Original sound is analog by definition. A digital recording takes snapshots of the analog signal at a certain rate (for CDs it is 44,100 times per second) and measures each snapshot with a certain accuracy (for CDs it is 16-bit, which means the value must be one of 65,536 possible values).

Comparison of a raw analog audio signal to the CD audio and DVD audio output

This means that, by definition, a digital recording is not capturing the complete sound wave. It is approximating it with a series of steps. Some sounds that have very quick transitions, such as a drum beat or a trumpet’s tone, will be distorted because they change too quickly for the sample rate.

In your home stereo the CD or DVD player takes this digital recording and converts it to an analog signal, which is fed to your amplifier. The amplifier then raises the voltage of the signal to a level powerful enough to drive your speaker.

A vinyl record has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound’s waveform. This means that no information is lost. The output of a record player is analog. It can be fed directly to your amplifier with no conversion.

This means that the waveforms from a vinyl recording can be much more accurate, and that can be heard in the richness of the sound. But there is a downside, any specks of dust or damage to the disc can be heard as noise or static. During quiet spots in songs this noise may be heard over the music. Digital recordings don’t degrade over time, and if the digital recording contains silence, then there will be no noise.

From the graph above you can see that CD quality audio does not do a very good job of replicating the original signal. The main ways to improve the quality of a digital recording are to increase the sampling rate and to increase the accuracy of the sampling.

The recording industry has a new standard for DVD audio discs that will greatly improve the sound quality. The table below lists the sampling rate and the accuracy for CD recordings, and the maximum sampling rate and accuracy for DVD recordings. DVDs can hold 74 minutes of music at their highest quality level. CDs can also hold 74 minutes of music. By lowering either the sampling rate or the accuracy, DVDs can hold more music. For instance a DVD can hold almost 7 hours of CD quality audio.

CD Audio DVD Audio
Sampling Rate 44.1 kHz 192 kHz
Samples per second 44,100 192,000
Sampling Accuracy 16-bit 24-bit
Number of Possible Output Levels 65,536 16,777,216

DVD audio discs and players are rare right now, but they will become more common, and the difference in sound quality should be noticeable. To take advantage of higher quality DVD audio discs, however, you will need a DVD player with a 192kHz/24-bit digital to analog converter. Most DVD players only have a 96kHz/24-bit digital to analog converter.  So if you are planning to take full advantage of DVD audio be sure to look for a 192kHz/24-bit DAC.

(Thanks Dave!)

Neil Young Explains Pono to David Letterman…Sort Of

Pono will give us “the best sound anybody can get” and Neil Young is already starting to transfer classic Bob Dylan albums to the new “Mother of all formats”.

Here’s hoping it truly makes the woeful mp3 obsolete one day soon.


Will Neil Young Save the Sound of Music?

neil young pono

(Photo and article reprinted from Rolling Stone)

Neil Young Expands Pono Digital-to-Analog Music Service

By Patrick Flanary

Aretha Franklin had never  sounded so shocking, Flea decided last year, as “Respect” roared from the  speakers of Neil Young’s Cadillac  Eldorado. Stunned by the song’s clarity, the  Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist listened alongside bandmate Anthony Kiedis  and producer Rick Rubin while Young showcased the power of Pono, his  high-resolution music service designed to confront the compressed audio  inferiority that MP3s offer.

Beginning next year, Pono will release a line of portable players, a  music-download service and digital-to-analog conversion technology intended to  present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions. In his book  out this week, Waging Heavy Peace, Young writes that Pono will help  unite record companies with cloud storage “to save the sound of music.” As Flea  raves to Rolling Stone, “It’s not like some vague thing that you need  dogs’ ears to hear. It’s a drastic difference.”

Pono’s preservation of the fuller, analog sound already has the ear of the  Big Three record labels: Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group and Sony  Music. WMG – home to artists including Muse, the Black Keys, Common and Jill  Scott – has converted its library of 8,000 album titles to high-resolution,  192kHz/24-bit sound. It was a process completed prior to the company’s  partnership with Young’s Pono project last year, said Craig Kallman, chairman  and chief executive of Atlantic Records.

In mid-2011, Kallman invested with Young and helped assemble a Pono team that  included representatives from audio giants Meridian and Dolby, according to  insiders. Once WMG signed on, Kallman said that he and Young approached UMG CEO  Lucian Grainge and Sony Music CEO Doug Morris about remastering their catalogs  for Pono distribution. Neither UMG nor Sony officially acknowledged those  conversations.

“This has to be an industry-wide solution. This is not about competing – this  is about us being proactive,” Kallman tells Rolling Stone. “This is all  about purely the opportunity to bring the technology to the table.”

The title of Waging Heavy Peace refers to the response that Young  gave a friend who questioned whether the singer-songwriter was declaring war on  Apple with his new service.

“I have consistently reached out to try to assist Apple with true audio  quality, and I have even shared my high-resolution masters with them,” Young  writes, adding that he traded emails and phone calls with Steve Jobs about Pono  before the tech king’s death last October. Apple declined to comment on whether  a collaborative or competitive relationship with Pono exists.

Apple’s Mastered for iTunes program, which launched last year with the  release of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You, requires mastering  engineers to provide audio quality based on a listener’s environment – such as a  car, a flight or a club. Those dissatisfied with Apple’s AAC format argue that  it still represents a fraction of the high-resolution options that Pono promises  to deliver. Engineers have debated the value of sound quality for  years.

In early June 2011, after filing a handful of trademarks for his cloud-based  service idea, Young traveled to the Bonnaroo Festival to perform with Buffalo  Springfield. While he was there, he invited fellow musicians into his Cadillac  for a Pono demo, including members of Mumford & Sons and My Morning Jacket,  and videotaped their reactions for a potential marketing campaign.

“Neil’s premise is cool, and I think it’s exciting as a traveling musician,”  My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James tells Rolling Stone. However, he  adds a caveat: “I think that’s somewhere that he has to be careful: I’ve already  bought Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ a lot of times. Do I have to buy it  again?”

While Young acknowledges in his book that existing digital purchases will  play on Pono devices, he points out that his service “will force iTunes to be  better and to improve quality at a faster pace.”

“His reasons are so not based in commerce, and based in just the desire for  people to really feel the uplifting spirit of music,” Flea said in defense of  Young. “MP3s suck. It’s just a shadow of the music.”


“We Stomped On The Quality of the Art of Music”: 20 Record Stores Weigh In on Vinyl’s Return

(Reprinted from Paste Magazine)

The emergence of vinyl fans among a generation that didn’t necessarily grow up with it left some scratching their heads, but its success is undeniable. Vinyl records, which some thought had taken the same forgotten route of 8-tracks and laser discs, are the one format that’s seen an increase during a notable slump in record sales. With artists like Arcade Fire, the Black Keys and the Beatles leading the vinyl march, the format is here to stay, at least for a while.

We asked record stores across the United States what they thought about the return of the waxy, black format. Here’s what they had to say:

(excerpt follows)

Terry Currier, Music Millennium: Vinyl Records are one of the greatest inventions ever made. They’re the purest form of sound of any format of recorded music that has been introduced to music fans. The industry did a big disservice to music fans by forcing vinyl out in the ’80s. Not only the great quality of sound but the get quality that went into many of the packages.

Vinyl was treated more like art than the CD and especially more than digital downloads. You interface with the packaging much more with a 12″ × 12″ than you do with a 5″ × 5″ cover of the CD, thusly you learn much more about…the music you are experiencing.

…We are a society of convenience and because of that we stomped on the quality of the art of music. Vinyl may not be the salvation of the record industry but this new renaissance in vinyl is here to stay.

Read more: http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2011/11/18-record-stores-weigh-in-on-vinyls-return.html

Neil Young Trademarks New Audio Format

It’s just a shame that this kind of thing falls to Neil Young, and no one at Sony or Apple has bothered doing it years ago. Here’s hoping Neil succeeds in helping us reclaim the other 95% of our music!


Neil Young and the Travesty of mp3 Audio

Any music consumer who cares about the audio quality of what he listens to ought to give half an hour’s time to the interview Neil Young did at The Wall Street Journal’s Dive Into Media conference.

We’re losing the battle for great-sounding music because of the assumption that we must choose between audio quality and convenience of use. In the 21st century there’s no reason we should have to choose between the two. And no reason to settle for digital sound that’s nowhere near that of 1970’s analog. Most of us haven’t heard music the way it’s supposed to sound for decades now. Some of our children never have. Why have we demanded ever larger, higher-resolution TVs but settled for the backward trend in audio reproduction? Because we think we must sacrifice great sound for the portability we want. The truth is: what we demand will be what is produced and sold, even made affordable. We just have to stop settling for a false compromise–we can have both convenience and high-resolution audio.

Neil discusses that issue and touches on a few others too, such as audio piracy, the presumed demise of the album, and how 5.1 Surround failed because women wanted furniture–not five boxes–in their living rooms.

The point Young makes in the very last minute of the interview is key: the larger and higher-quality the sound system, the better it will reveal the difference between a high-quality music file and the skimpy 5% of the music that an mp3 actually contains. And that’s why a DJ should never rely on mp3 audio to entertain wedding guests, unless his goal is to make an early night of it.

An informative and provocative 30 minutes.


The Loudness Wars: Is Music’s Noisy Arms Race Over?

High-volume sound engineering may finally be falling out of fashion

(Article reprinted from The Atlantic)

Sleigh Bells flickr userErica Cassella.jpg

Sleigh Bells

The loudest album of 2010 was almost certainly Sleigh Bells’ acclaimed Treats, a collection of songs with the volume and distortion of nearly every element pushed into the red. Drums became blasts of noise, the lyrics were nearly impossible to decipher, and even though it was very much a pop album, it was almost painful to listen to. That, of course, was precisely why it thrilled.

Sleigh Bells had designed the album to sound that way. “I love the physical aspect of music,” guitarist Derek E. Miller said in an email to The Atlantic. “I want people to have that experience of standing in front of a rack of sub-woofers, being blasted with air and feeling the center of your chest crush a little. I usually blur the vocals so people spend less time thinking about the lyrics and more time responding on a purely emotional level. Overdubs, hard pans, extremely short delays.”

Then one day, his own music took him by surprise. “Our song ‘Tell ‘Em’ came on a friend’s playlist once sandwiched between a few songs, and I jumped,” he said. “It kind of annoyed me.”

The phenomenon Miller experienced with his own song is familiar to anyone who’s put their iPod on shuffle. You turn the volume up for an older song like Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” but then you have to turn it way down again if, say, Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” comes on next. That effect is the outcome of what’s been called “the Loudness Wars,” a phenomenon that NPR saw fit to include as one of the major stories of music in the ’00s. Through a technique called brick-wall limiting, songs are engineered to seem louder by bringing the quiet parts to the same level as the loud parts and pushing the volume level of the entire song to the highest point possible.

“I’m done blowing things out,” Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller says. “Not a single thing is in the red, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

Think of a song like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Without limiting, the volume of the loud parts in the chorus would be at a 7 and the volume of the quiet parts in the breakdown would be at a 4. With limiting, it’s like someone’s sitting next to your stereo, playing with the volume knob so that both the quiet and loud parts are at 10. They still have the same emotional feel—Brian Wilson isn’t playing the piano any differently—but everything sounds louder.

This dynamic limiting both tires the ears and makes instruments sound worse, turning bright drums into dull thuds and letting small details get lost in a blaring wash of sound. But because of the need to stand out on radio and other platforms, there’s a strategic advantage to having a new song sound just a little louder than every other song. As a result, for a period, each new release came out a little louder than the last, and the average level of loudness on CDs crept up to such a degree that albums actually sounded distorted, as if they were being played through broken speakers. It’s a phenomenon that began with the advent of CDs and digital sound processors in the early ’90s, and only got worse as time went on. (This is the sort of thing that’s better explained through sounds than words, so you may want to give a quick watch to a good YouTube video on the subject before moving on.)

For genres like pop and rap that already used heavily-processed sounds, this wasn’t a big problem, and some say limiting has been a productive tool. For music that uses live recordings of drums, guitars, and piano, however, such processing arguably ruins the experience of listening to music made by humans. The biggest furor surrounding loudness centered on Metallica’s 2008 album Death Magnetic, a piece of music so loud that some fans called it “barely listenable” and prompted one person to complain that “to hear this much pure damage done to what was obviously originally a decent recording, in the mistaken belief that it sounds good, is hard to stomach.” At the time, the outlook seemed bleak. If there was no impetus to get quieter but every advantage to pushing volume to the maximum level technology could achieve, why wouldn’t the trend toward increased loudness continue forever?

To counter this seeming economic inevitability, some critics of loudness turned to legal remedies. Audio engineer Thomas Lund has been working in Europe to lobby for governmental regulations on a standard loudness limit on all CDs and digital music. (The limit has so far been adopted as a universal standard by the International Telecommunications Union, which describes itself as “the UN agency for information and communication technologies.”) You already have something like this at home if you use iTunes: Just check the box that says “Sound Check” in the preferences menu and the volume level on all of your songs will be equalized. Lund’s proposal would do the same thing for any music you could buy.

Taking advantage of the trend towards listening to music from the digital “cloud”—via services like Pandora, Spotify, and Apple’s forthcoming iCloud—the proposal would institute a volume limit on any songs downloaded from the cloud, effectively removing the strategic advantage of loudness. “Once a piece of music is ingested into this system, there is no longer any value in trying to make a recording louder just to stand out,” said legendary engineer Bob Ludwig, who has been working with Lund, in an email. “There will be nothing to gain from a musical point of view.  Louder will no longer be better!”

But while the proposal has seen some success in the EU, it seems unlikely that audiophiles could rely on the US government to take a similar stand, in large part because it isn’t a matter of public concern. “I don’t see it happening,” wrote Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever: The Aural History of Recorded Music, in an email. “I think the general increase in awareness regarding the issue is more than counter-balanced by the fact that, by and large, nobody (in a sweeping, generalized sense) cares about music sounding ‘good’ in some sort of rarefied way. It’s more important that it be heard above the noise of everyday life, since we hear so much of our music on the go.”

Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer at Sterling Sound who has most recently worked on Adele’s 21, Beyoncé’s I Am….Sasha Fierce, and Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale, also saw little push-back to loudness on the part of the industry. For labels, he said, “It’s always louder,” adding, “it should be something the public’s concerned about, but I don’t think it is.”

Despite this, many say that the tide seems to have turned. “In the past year I have had more requests for the final mastering to be dynamic than I have in a long time,” said Ludwig. “This has been very encouraging as before the only instruction was to ‘make it hot'”—which is to say, loud. Milner has observed a similar phenomenon, and said that “mastering engineers have eased off the hyper-compression.” While the industry might not be taking concerns about loudness into account terribly much—even Ludwig notes that “not much has changed in the best-practices department”—the race to the noisy top seems to have stopped, and maybe even turned back. A recent article in Mix Magazine even declared that “the Loudness War is over.”

What might have caused this reversal of fortune? Experts say that while record companies and the public are still part of the problem, all the media attention last decade to loudness may have made artists more aware of the destructive effects of dynamic compression. And though labels and fans may have a say in how music sounds, the ultimate decision is still the musician’s. Metallica, for instance, wasn’t in need of any competitive advantage when they pushed Death Magnetic into the red; they just liked how it sounded. “It was the artist’s choice to make it that level,” Coyne points out. “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. But don’t tell them what they can or can’t do. It’s the sound they wanted—you can’t fault them for that.”

But if artists can decide to make their music sound loud, they can also decide to make it sound quiet. There are some scattered examples of this happening already. Indie songwriter Owen Pallett went so far as to record all of the vocals for his 2006 Polaris Prize-winning album He Poos Clouds without compression, a step not taken since the early days of sound recording. Compression has come to have a negative connotation. Jack White recently posted a lengthy response to fans’ concerns that some releases from his record label, Third Man, were mastered too loud.

That’s where Sleigh Bells comes in. Treats might be the best thing to listen to if you want to know what compression sounds like, since there it’s used not as a way of tricking the listener’s ears but as a deliberate technique. Miller said that the band’s earliest tracks achieved the effect “by pushing the master fader up until the entire mix clips, literally brick walling it.” They subsequently applied compression all to the tracks, and Miller said he “used it to make everything sound like it was fighting for the surface,” the very effect that made Treats such an exciting experience.

Things will be different for Sleigh Bells’ second album, though, Miller said. “I’m done blowing things out. Not a single thing is in the red, and I couldn’t be more excited about it,” he said. Asked about the loudness wars, he expressed the same concern about increased loudness as Ludwig and other critics of the technique. “Coming from me that sounds absurd, especially considering how loud Treats is, but at the time I didn’t really compare it to any other records or know what I was doing, ” he said.

Miller’s comments speak to why loudness, for all its problems, is here to stay. Coyne reported that clients have begun to ask for a “gritty” sound somewhere between distorted and not-distorted, a sound that has its origins in pop production. “That’s where it started, in the older days, making it sound a little dirty or a little raw. And now it’s accepted, so much so that if a record doesn’t have that little bit of grit, it seems like it’s missing something,” he said. (Think of, say, the production on Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.”) Miller, too, said that compression is satisfying because of its particular effect on the music, and said he originally used the technique because it “makes the songs sound more intense.” And, as Milner pointed out, “compression is basically a musical instrument at this point in a lot of genres. The ‘sizzle’ of percussion in hip-hop and R&B depends on that hyper-compressed sound.”

At the same time, Miller’s comments also explain why noisiness may be on the wane. Ludwig pointed out that loudness makes an album sound dated, “like a bad drum machine from the 1980’s.” Coyne, too, saw a growing awareness of the phenomenon, and reported that two recent electro-pop albums he worked with were created with a very deliberate avoidance of loudness. “Everything comes full circle, so I think at some point things will calm down and people will be more into extreme dynamic ranges.”

That, then, may be the end of the Loudness Wars: As brick-wall limiting became more popular and attracted more attention, it became something gauche, ugly, uncool. And there’s no better way to keep something out of music than to make it seem uncool.

Listen to Sleigh Bells’ “Treats” here: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/Tell+Em/4uHa4D?src=5

What does the distorted sound of the extreme volume and compression do for you? Is it “an exciting experience” or “almost painful to listen to”?

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