Article About Recording Sound Quality

[This was originally an email to a musician friend, so that's why the tone is a little off, and why it's somewhat technical.]

I’ve been saying this for years, but Neil Young is trying to solve this problem. CDs and mp3s are a subtle, insidious destruction of music.





As long as people are listening on low-resolution formats like mp3 it’s doesn’t matter what you do in the studio, everything gets dithered down to low-rez before it hits the listener’s ears. So people don’t value music because they don’t even know what music sounds like.

For digital recording the highest frequency (Hz) generated is roughly half of the sampling rate (Nyquist Theorem). So CDs on paper should be fine, (44.1kHz sampling rate, 16 bit depth) because human hearing doesn’t really go above 20k Hz, but the inaudible high frequencies, or lack of them, affect the lower audible ones. Another example of the left brain failing to comprehend the big picture. In A/B lab tests no one can hear above 20k Hz, so it takes stoner musicians to point out that CD sound still sucks no matter what the lab tests say.

High quality analog gear may not generate frequencies above 20k Hz in reality, I don’t know, but the frequencies do not hit a brick wall at 20k Hz as they do on a CD. There is probably a gentle roll off after 20k Hz if one could see it on a graph. So even bad analog gear doesn’t have a brick wall at 20k Hz, just a steeper roll-off that starts lower.

Rupert Neve is considered one of the best audio designers in the world, The Beatles used his gear, Neve Consoles are the Rolls Royce of consoles, pretty much, if Rolls Royce was a performance car, not a luxury car. http://www.rupertneve.com/company/history/

Why was he making consoles in the ’60s that could carry frequencies up to 100kHz? That’s a lot of trouble to go to for something that doesn’t matter. So old Rupert must be an idiot, and all the people that spent millions of dollars on his consoles, like Sir George Martin, must be a deaf idiots as well. Neve consoles are not consumer items.

The following is from an article entitled There’s Life Above 20 Kilohertz! A Survey of Musical Instrument Spectra to 102.4 KHz, By James Boyk, California Institute of Technology.

“Given the existence of musical-instrument energy above 20 kilohertz, it is natural to ask whether the energy matters to human perception or music recording. The common view is that energy above 20 kHz does not matter, but AES preprint 3207 by Oohashi et al. claims that reproduced sound above 26 kHz “induces activation of alpha-EEG (electroencephalogram) rhythms that persist in the absence of high frequency stimulation, and can affect perception of sound quality.” [4] Oohashi and his colleagues recorded gamelan to a bandwidth of 60 kHz, and played back the recording to listeners through a speaker system with an extra tweeter for the range above 26 kHz. This tweeter was driven by its own amplifier, and the 26 kHz electronic crossover before the amplifier used steep filters. The experimenters found that the listeners’ EEGs and their subjective ratings of the sound quality were affected by whether this “ultra-tweeter” was on or off, even though the listeners explicitly denied that the reproduced sound was affected by the ultra-tweeter, and also denied, when presented with the ultrasonics alone, that any sound at all was being played. From the fact that changes in subjects’ EEGs “persist in the absence of high frequency stimulation,” Oohashi and his colleagues infer that in audio comparisons, a substantial silent period is required between successive samples to avoid the second evaluation’s being corrupted by “hangover” of reaction to the first. The preprint gives photos of EEG results for only three of sixteen subjects. I hope that more will be published.”

For $600, today, one can buy an audio interface, which converts analog to digital and back again, that will go to 192k sampling rate. (That would generate frequencies roughly up to 96kHz, Neve territory!) Mine goes to 96k sampling rate (generating frequencies up to about 48kHz), but I don’t record there because I know that no one will ever hear it. It takes a huge amount of CPU in the recording and mixing process, and it will end up being released as an mp3 or worse. So I reluctantly record at 44.1k Hz sampling rate. A producer told me you have to mix for the format your listeners are using, so you have to mix for mp3.

Hi-rez digital and hi-quality analog compared to medium-rez CD quality is like fresh squeezed orange juice compared to Sunny Delite (orange drink). Mp3s are like Starburst candy. A recognizable representation of fruit flavor.

The sampling rate for CD was established by deciding how big the CD box would be, how fast it would spin, and then that it would fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on it. So nothing could go wrong with that. Mp3s were just a nice way to cram 10,000 songs onto your computer. They are certainly recognizable as the song, just like orange flavor Starburst are recognizable. And if you raise a generation on Starburst candy and tell them that’s what fruit tastes like, how are they to know any different?

People have complained about the album artwork being lost in the jump from LP to CD or that it’s nice to hold the music (LP) in your hand. That’s the left brain struggling to describe that fact that good quality analog sounds better than CD. It’s a left brain, visual culture. People don’t have the vocabulary to describe what they are experiencing. Since everything in this culture has to be filtered thru, and approved by, the left brain, if there is no vocabulary, there is nothing. Because vocabulary itself is a left brain function.

Fortunately, these ancient rock stars still carry a lot of status so people will listen to them and forget that I ever said this.

My student’s 15 year old step son pulls out his father’s LPs and listens to them. She knows that because he doesn’t put them back. That kid is a digital native if ever there was, what is the pull of analog sound to him? The artwork? Then just look at the artwork on your computer while you listen to your mp3s with earbuds. iTunes has all the album artwork available. It comes with the mp3 when you buy it. And it’s not small or bad quality.

Every citizen I have talked to about this in the past 20 years has gone to tremendous lengths to explain the appeal of analog sound. The only thing people haven’t said to me me is this: It sounds better.

That’s the Techno-Narcisssim and Techno-Grandiosity of our culture. If it’s newer it has to be better.

No one has come up with a better design for a bottle or a jar than the one that existed 5000 years ago. No one is using glass boxes to drink out of. Maybe because that’s the best design for a container that holds liquids. But you can pack more glass boxes in a crate, so logically it’s a better design for shipping. If it was up to the music industry that’s what we would be drinking out of now. It’s not because we grew up with that shape that we think that’s the best shape, it’s because it is the best shape.


AverageBarBand Copyright 2013