The Lowdown on Downloads

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.  This would make for unacceptably long download times, even on today’s fastest networks.  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.  A CD-resolution (16/44) download can fit comfortably into a reasonably sized downloadable file.  To keep file size manageable, we’ll separate extended-resolution (24/96) downloads into two or more .zip files (depending on album length), and we’ll separate high-resolution (24/192) downloads into four or more .zip files (depending on album length).

For the extended-resolution and high-resolution downloads, each .zip file will be a Gigabyte or less in size and contain some of the tracks on the album.  One of the files will also contain a .pdf of the liner notes and a .jpg of the album cover.  When the files have been downloaded, the user unzips the files and simply drags them 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 these.  The downloads are just a long overdue addition that will please a different set of Soundkeeper listeners.

Everything Still Matters

Soon after the previous entry in this blog—Everything Matters—was posted, I heard from a friend who recently purchased a 24-bit, 192 kHz, high-resolution download of a classic album.  Like many of us, he sought an even better “view” of the recording than is offered by the CD version he already owns.  To his surprise, he prefers listening to the CD version, and finds the high res download as sounding “a bit bright.”

The authors of some recent tech website articles denigrating high resolution might see my friend’s comments as vindication.  In my view, this says more about the authors than it does about the audible reality.  Why these websites didn’t choose authors more experienced with systems for music playback, and more interested in sound quality, remains a mystery.  (Vide John Atkinson’s very well considered Access Journalism vs Accountability Journalism.)

In order to determine whether high resolution is the source of the problem (any problem), it must be compared with its standard resolution equivalent.  This means for a valid comparison of delivery formats the only difference must be the delivery format.  Both versions must be created at the same mastering session, by the same engineer, using the same channel (signal path).  There, as the man once said, is the rub.  In most cases the two items being compared were created at different mastering sessions, often by different engineers, in completely different mastering studios.  Right away any sort of equivalence is out the window.

Different mastering engineers have different ears, different sensibilities, different approaches, different talents, and different weaknesses.  Even the same engineer might take a diverging tack when remastering something they’ve mastered in the past.  When the two versions are done by different engineers the likelihood of variance in their methods is pretty much a sure thing.  This is expectable since they don’t share a common set of ears, and no two engineers I know of will do things the same way.  With regard to new masterings, in Everything Matters I said, “Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.”

There is also a very good to excellent chance the signal path for the two versions differed.  Even in the same studio, things tend to change and evolve over time.  For an album like the one my friend purchased, which was originally recorded on analog tape, the A-D converter used in mastering can have a profound effect on the results.  This is particularly true at higher resolutions, where I have found many converters are stretched beyond their capabilities.  To wit, a lot of converters specified for 24/192 actually perform worse at this rate than they do at lower rates.  This I attribute to the significantly increased demands on clocking accuracy and on analog stage performance at the wider bandwidths.  It would seem to be easy to put 24/192 on a spec sheet but not so easy to design a device that can perform to the potential of the format.  And the converter is just one of several components comprising the signal path, each of which will have its own sonic consequences.

All of the above assumes the same source tape was used for the different versions.  This is a big assumption, even when “original” is claimed.  I’ve experienced a number of instances where, having handled the tapes myself, I knew the subsequent claims from some quarters of “original” were at best mistaken. Whether original or not, if different source tapes were used, the outcome could be acutely altered.

The bottom line here should not be surprising: A carefully made CD (or CD resolution file) will easily outperform a not-so-carefully made 24/192 file.  This has to do with how effectively the capabilities of each delivery format are realized—or not realized, as this case illustrates.

I concluded Everything Matters by saying “Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.”  In my experience, when everything in the production of an album is the same except for the delivery format, a 24/192 file should reveal so much more of the source as to make the 16/44 (CD) version sound coarse, ill-defined, airless, and broken by comparison.  So either my friend’s 24/192 file was created from an inferior source, or the mastering was just not up to that achieved for the CD.

To my ears, properly done digital audio at 24/192 fulfills the promise digital made back in 1982 when the sonically hamstrung CD format made its first appearance.  I have said elsewhere that 24/192 is the first format I’ve ever heard where I have not yet been able to distinguish the output from the input—the first format I know of that is capable of giving us a virtually perfect rendition of the source.  In view of this, I must admit to being somewhat astonished at the negativity from some quarters of the tech web and tech press.  Nevertheless, if music lovers are to receive the benefits of this wonderful fruit of technological progress, the folks creating it must tend their crop more carefully.

Everything Matters

In my earliest days as an assistant in a recording studio, I learned the ropes as basic tracks were laid down on tape, overdubs and “punch-ins” were added, stereo mixes were created, and the final, edited mixes were mastered.  From those early days onward, I frequently heard what I came to refer to as The Three Most Heard Phrases in Record Making:

“We’ll fix it in the mix” (when something in the recording was not quite right)

“We’ll catch it in the mastering” (when the mix didn’t exactly fix it)

“They’ll never hear it at home” (when it still wasn’t nailed in the mastering)

Rumor has it that Frank Zappa once said “We’ll fix it in the shrink wrap.”

There has been some discussion on the Internet recently about which aspect of record making has the greatest influence on the sound of the finished product.  Some say the space in which the original recording is made makes the greatest difference.  Others say “it’s all in the mastering.”  Asking three people will elicit at least four different answers.

The space where the recorded performance occurs will impact the musicians, influencing the sound they hear from the instruments and from the environment, thus influencing how they play.  But with typical recordings, where the microphones are placed close to the instruments, the sound of the environment is often minimized.  Alternatively, some recordings are made using very few microphones, which are placed to deliberately pick up the environment as well as the players.  Here, the space becomes in integral part of the final sound, as it is when a listener attends a live performance.  Still, this does not suggest the space has the greatest influence on the sound.  One might be in a fabulous room but the wrong microphone selection or the wrong microphone technique can very easily override the sound of the space.

Typical major label recordings involve three main production phases: recording, mixing, and mastering.  There are those who feel the mix—where a multitrack original is turned into a stereo (or in some instances, surround) version—is the biggest factor in shaping the final sound.  Instrumental and vocal level balances are determined during the mix.  Tonality is often adjusted, placement of instruments and vocalists on the “stage” is determined, and special effects might be added.  There is no doubt about the magnitude of influence the mix has.  Yet the final result will always be influenced by the ingredients used to create it.

With the advent of the remastering phenomenon, labels have given new life to older releases.  Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.  Either way, through these re-releases, many music aficionados have discovered the influence mastering has on the sonics of a recording.  As the last stage of production and the first stage of manufacturing, mastering is the last opportunity to make small—or large—changes to the sound.  While the degree of influence on the final sound can sometimes be quite surprising, here too, the final outcome is always fundamentally impacted by the source material.  A pachyderm’s aural appurtenance does not a silken wallet make.

To my ears, an mp3 of a Keith Johnson recording, listened to in the car, on the highway (with the windows open!), can reveal more Life than many a typical studio master played on the finest, most carefully set up systems in the most optimally treated rooms.

In my experience, once the signals are leaving the microphones, 90-95% or more of the recording’s ultimate quality ceiling has already been determined.  Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.