Quality is (Once Again) Our Most Important Product: High-Resolution Audio Downloads for Consumers

By: In: Entertainment Services On: Jul 23, 2012
Quality is (Once Again) Our Most Important Product: High-Resolution Audio Downloads for Consumers

Even at the outset of digitally recorded music for consumers (during the introduction of CDs in the early 1980s) there were artists, engineers and producers who simply did not like the way it sounded. As a matter of fact, they hated the way it sounded because, despite the fact that those annoying vinyl snaps and pops and occasional distortion were gone, the full frequency response and dynamic range they wanted (and needed) in their music were also gone. Chief among the opposition, in my opinion, both in terms of his degree of dissatisfaction with CD sound quality and in being persistently vocal about it, was Neil Young.

Then, in the late 1990s, things seemed to be looking up for those interested in audio quality. As DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD) were developing, there was some genuine interest on the part of the recording industry, hardware manufacturers, and consumers in improving the quality of the audio available on prerecorded media, and even in increasing the number of channels from stereo to surround sound. Everyone agreed that 88.2 kHz/24 bits or 96 kHz/24 bits or 192 kHz/24 bits (stereo only) was an innovation that warmed up digital music, made it more aesthetically pleasing, and replaced what had been missing all along in CDs.

But, alas, just as high-res physical media was gaining momentum, Apple was launching its iPod and iTunes. Within a few years, it was obvious that the consumer was more interested in convenience and price than in quality, and both the DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD formats faded into obscurity. And then, based on Apple’s success, the highly compressed 128 Kbps MP3 download, profoundly worse than CD quality, was deemed satisfactory by the marketplace.

But it was not satisfactory for everyone. Not then and not now.

Neil is still at it. He says on his website, “Since the advent of the CD, listeners have been deprived of the full experience of listening. With the introduction of MP3 via online music services, listeners were further deprived. The spirituality and soul of music is truly found when the sound engulfs you, and this is just what 2012 will bring… this is what record companies were born to give you and in 2012 they will deliver.”

He is talking about high-resolution audio files that have recently become available for sale (download) on the Internet. So far, majors Warner Music and Universal Music have licensed masters for encoding through Chesky Records and Apple respectively. Further, he is talking about something he and his staff have been working on for some time, a high-res audio download format designed to his own specifications that will deliver via the Internet a 192 kHz/24-bit stereo audio file to consumers.

As yet, there is no standard for high-resolution consumer audio files. The alphabet soup of currently available codecs is: FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec; HD AAC, or High Definition Apple Audio Codec; ALAC, or Apple Lossless Audio Codec; and PPCM, or Packed PCM, Meridian Audio’s lossless coding scheme. Neil’s version, not yet available, is currently known as PONO.

And there is also something new going on in the mastering process used to prepare these files. It is called adaptive coding, the idea being that based on the mastering engineer’s intimate knowledge of the music he is working with and the entire process from encoding to electronic delivery, he prepares (adapts) the finished products (files) in such a way that they are best able to survive uploading, downloading and decoding, and thus deliver the best possible quality to the consumer, that quality being as close a match as possible to the audio characteristics of the master.

Although high-resolution audio of necessity entails larger file sizes, longer download times, and somewhat higher prices, I think this rebirth of interest in audio quality bodes well for those of us who are sick of squashed music. The full-frequency response and stunning dynamic range lost long ago with the demise of analog and high-res digital media could reappear as a viable consumer product and, as a result, actually make listening to music (instead of relegating it to a background double task) a reality again.

But the return of high-resolution audio for consumers, of course, brings to the fore an issue that has been under discussion since the early digital recordings were reissued as DVD-Audios or SACDs. Is releasing content that was originally recorded at a resolution lower than the resolution at which the new, re-released high-res format is marketed fair to the consumer, or is it a misrepresentation? Or, more to the point, what is the definition of high-resolution recorded music for the consumer?

To crystallize this rather theoretical question into a potential reality, consider this. There exists what a good friend at WMG calls the Dark Years, an era that extends from the time analog masters disappeared from the scene (about 1982) to the time high bit-rate and bit-depth converters became available and work began on the DVD-A and SACD formats. It was a time when audio was limited to 44.1 kHz/16 bits. An unfortunate result of these Dark Years is that the only things now sitting on the library shelves representing that period of time are multi-track masters at this frequency rate and bit depth, and/or PCM 1610 or 1630 cassettes. If masters from these Dark Years were remixed and/or remastered and then re-released as high-resolution audio files, say as 96/24 FLAC files, what would they in fact be?

Some say the quality of the finished product is only as good as the quality of the original recording. So would they really be high-res audio? Or, for that matter, could an old analog recording from the ‘70s, even given that the high-res version is taken from the best analog master available, be expected to sound like anything more than that old analog master? And is that good enough?

Others say a high-resolution sampling codec of the best master available, along with painstaking quality control, add-ons like the original liner notes and all relevant metadata, are good enough to make the product worth more.

And that brings us to the question of price. These HD files will, of course, cost more, anywhere from $1.29 to $2.49 per track depending on the resolution of the file offered to the consumer, the provable provenance of the source and the various add-ons.

But one thing is certain. Everyone agrees that any of the high-resolution files being made available now are many times better than plain old MP3 or AAC files. And although there is presently no standard for high-resolution audio files, perhaps one based on the realities of audio engineering and the marketplace will, given time, emerge.

Yes, as with anything new, there are lots of questions and not so many answers. But personally I’m betting that Neil, who has been right about a lot of things in his long career, will be right again on this one.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

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About the author

Edwin Outwater

Edwin Outwater, a thirty-year plus veteran of the entertainment industry in technology-related areas such as archive restoration and management, format standards negotiations, studio management and quality assurance, started his career in the music business with MGM Records as a recording and mastering engineer in 1970. He moved to Polygram in 1975 when they purchased MGM Records, and was put in charge of the reorganization of their archives which included, among other priceless assets, the original MGM Movie Musical soundtracks (Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, Singing in the Rain, etc.) the entire Verve Records archives and the work of some the early country music giants such as Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Ultimately, he directed the entry of these assets into an electronic database (one of the first in the industry) while at the same time acting as the re-mastering engineer for some of the early Verve re-issue anthologies. Ultimately, he was responsible for the move of the entire physical and electronic archive from Los Angeles to New York. More info here.