Catching Up

With 19 months having passed since the last entry in this blog, yes, it is high time to do some catching up.

One of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on since the last entry in this blog was the newest album by Jason Vitelli, whose Confluence I had the good fortune to produce, record, and release on Soundkeeper Recordings. For his latest, Head Above Tide  (extended-res version here), Jason needed a different approach than the one we used for Confluence. Where the latter was recorded live to stereo, for this project he needed the ability to overdub and to record different parts at different times. The project utilized the technique of recording the various parts with a stereo microphone array, similar to what I use for Soundkeeper projects, but with provision for laying each of them down at different times. (I wrote about this technique in Recording in Stereo (Part 2)). 

The basic tracks and many of the overdubs were done at Top of the World Studios, which I designed for my good friend Art Halperin. Art and Jason recorded it and the three of us mixed it there. Then I mastered it back at my own studio. Those familiar with mastering know that it involves listening to an album repeatedly. After doing the mixes and mastering this record, I think it notable that when I wanted to relax afterward and listen to some music, I kept going back to this album. Kudos to Jason for creating another original that challenges the listener (as all great music does) and rewards the effort with new joys on each hearing.

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The first time I mentioned Metric Halo in this blog was back in November of 2013 in the entry called Three Decisions (Part 1). For those who may be new to MH, they are a premier supplier of pro audio hardware and software, with a fiercely loyal following among those who’ve been lucky enough to use their gear. The hardware consists of computer interfaces that serve as microphone preamps, A-D (analog-to-digital) converters, headphone amps, and D-A (digital-to-analog) converters, with more features than I will list here. The software consists of various plug-ins, an audio analysis application, and the MIO Console with Record Panel, the latter being built into their hardware units. Granted I have not heard every single competing product out there, but I believe I’ve heard the contenders (many in blind comparison tests). That said, to my ears, the MH gear excels in each of these categories to the point where, in terms of ability to simply get out of the way, I have not heard anything that comes close to matching it, much less besting it.

A while back, Metric Halo announced an upgrade was coming for their hardware and software. They called it 3d – a step up from the 2d boards it was to succeed. Keeping in mind the last sentence in the previous paragraph, I was curious to hear what the new hardware and software would achieve. Earlier this year, the hardware upgrade for my ULN-8 became available. The 3d hardware was in, but the beta software was still to be developed. And the unit wouldn’t run without it.

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Toward the end of 2017, I spoke with Markus Schwartz about the idea of doing a follow-up to the Equinox project I produced and recorded back in 2010, and which was selected by Stereophile as their Recording of the Month in February of 2011. Thus the seed was planted for the next Soundkeeper Recording. Markus had ideas about the music and direction he wanted to go in, and about the players he would select for this outing. I told him about the upgrade to the recording gear from Metric Halo, and that there was time since I couldn’t record until I had received and tested the new software. More on this project in the next entry in this blog.

By the Spring of 2018, the software component of the 3d upgrade arrived and the listening tests began. Somehow, designer B.J. Buchalter had taken what I’d already felt was the best recording gear I’d ever experienced (particularly when used to make high-resolution, 24-bit, 192k recordings), and raised it up another level. It feels like dynamic resolution has been improved, adding a sense of realism and allowing the gear to get even further out of the way than its previous iteration. Sometimes you have to hear something better to know how something can be better. Congratulations B.J. and Metric Halo.

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When Soundkeeper first started with downloads, we were breaking up the extended-resolution (24/96) and high-resolution (24/192) versions of our albums into gigabyte-sized files in order to keep download times as short as possible. Somewhere along the way we realized this was not necessary, and that a full album at any of the resolutions we offer could be provided as a single downloadable zip file.

Another development related to downloads is that most customers now seem to prefer these to the files-on-disc formats we offered before we got into downloads. For those who play files on their computers or via a dedicated music server, this makes sense as there are no shipping costs and the music arrives in minutes. With this in mind, the next Soundkeeper Recordings release will be offered as a CD and in six downloadable formats: 16/44, 24/96, and 24/192, as .aif and .wav. There will be no files-on-disc formats and no CD-R version. (We do have some stock of these for our previous releases but they will not be replaced once they’ve sold out.)

Next time, the new album.

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The Lowdown on Downloads

(This entry was updated 12/2/18.)

Three years ago I posted the entry in this blog called Listening to Tomorrow.  I wrote about the wonders I experienced after loading my music library onto a computer hard drive and using the computer as a “music server.”  Since then, the idea of music existing as computer files—as opposed to physical discs one loads into a player—has expanded.

Today, there are a myriad of music server applications for the various computer operating systems.  For those who want to take the fidelity beyond the capabilities of their computer’s sound card, there are countless external digital-to-analog converters (DACs) to choose from.  There are also numerous online sources for downloading music.  Some still offer the data-reduced formats such as mp3.  Others now tout “full CD quality”—in some quarters, an oxymoron.  And some offer extended-resolution and high-resolution files.  (For more information on the different formats, see the blog entry cited above.)

My music server has become the way I listen, whether via Wi-Fi feeding smaller systems in the house, or via direct connection to the music library drive when listening on the main system.  Yet for several reasons, as a consumer I have been hesitant to purchase downloads.  Early experiences with more than one provider were disturbing in that what was often sold as “high resolution” turned out to be upsampled Redbook—in other words, plain old CD sound, in a high res “package”—sold at a high res price.  Whatever the reason (or reasons), this was so rampant I feared the fledgling market might never get off the ground.

I was also not enamored of the .flac format in which the vendors delivered their downloads.  While called a “lossless” way to reduce file size, making for convenient, faster download times, the results were not so lossless according to everyone participating in the comparison tests we ran in my studio.  (Based on what I see on the Internet and in many printed audio journals, it seems many listeners are not bothered by flac.  In our tests however, the results were unanimous—everyone heard a difference between the source .aif masters and the .flac files created from them.)

In time I was glad to see some vendors offer what appeared to be the raw PCM formats I prefer, such as .aif and .wav.  These are the formats used to make the recordings.  However, it turned out that at least with some of the vendors, what was being delivered to the customer was still a .flac file.  The “download manager” software the vendors provided for use on the customer’s computer expanded the file back to .aif or .wav.  For my own purchases, I avoided the downloads and stayed with CDs or with the high resolution files-on-DVD versions that some of the vendors sold.  When the discs arrived, I’d extract the files—this is called “ripping” a disc—and add them to the server myself.  For all the files on my server I chose the uncompressed .aif format—the same format I use to make and master recordings.

As the owner of the Soundkeeper Recordings label, I stayed away from offering downloads for several reasons, even though many folks have requested them over the years.  The prime reason is that I seek to deliver our recordings to our customers with nothing less than the very best sonics, and from my perspective the download schemes I’ve seen involve compromises.

A full album at high resolution (24-bit/192 kHz sampling rate) can be larger than four Gigabytes in size.  Where others reduce file size—and by that means shorten download times—by utilizing so-called “lossless” compression formats (such as .flac or .alac), to my ears these result in subtle alterations of the sound, hence I don’t consider them lossless.  Trading fidelity for convenience is not what Soundkeeper wants to offer our customers.

Another common approach taken with downloads, is to break albums up into “singles”.  Our artists go to considerable efforts to create whole albums, so this is the only way we want to deliver their work to our customers.

It took a while for the answer to come but I believe there is another way.  Soundkeeper Recordings will soon offer downloads without any of the compromises cited above.  How to deliver full albums at up to 24/192 resolution?  Fans of the so-called “lossless” formats compare them to zipping a word processor file.  Yes, the zipped words come back intact, even though I can’t say I find the same to be true of flac’d music.

So what about zipped music?  We’ve used zipped music files before, such as those on the Format Comparison page of the Soundkeeper Recordings website.  And when unzipped, no one who participated in our tests could differentiate between the source file and the copy that had been zipped.

What about file size?  Converting an .aif or .wav file to a .zip file does not reduce the size to any significant degree.  It does make for simple downloads though, without exacting a sonic price.  When the files have been downloaded, the user unzips the file and simply drags the tracks into the server application of their choice (iTunes, Amarra, etc.).

One of the reasons I prefer .aif format for my music files is that the files can contain metadata (artist, album title, track title, composer, album cover art, etc.).  This metadata becomes part of the file.  The .wav format does not support metadata, so when the user adds this information in their music application, it resides in the application and not in the file.  If the file is moved out of the application, the metadata is lost.  In contrast, move an .aif file and the metadata travels with it.  The .aif file downloads from Soundkeeper Recordings will have the full metadata in them when they arrive on the customer’s machine.

Within the next week, we’ll begin offering downloads in six formats: 16/44, 24/96, and 24/192, .aif or .wav.  For those who prefer disc formats, we plan to continue offering CD versions.  The downloads will replace our files-on-disc formats and are just a long overdue addition that will please a different set of Soundkeeper listeners.