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Article: Audio Engineering Matters, Not The Format


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Great article, I’ve been saying this for years, but many people just don’t get it or are offended because they’ve got to justify their purchases. 

 

We are at a point in history where we can technically make the most realistic recordings, yet we are stuck with some of the worst. This applies to live concerts too...sound engineering in the auditoriums are as hot as the recordings. 

 

This is the new normal folks. 

BattleScarze,

 

More is only better when less is no good!

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On 12/14/2018 at 9:13 AM, The Computer Audiophile said:

Take a step back and please think about the difference between the delivery format and what happens as part of the playback process. 

 

We must separate the file format or music format (PCM/DSD) from what happens “inside” the DAC. Many DACs oversample to 768kHz internally. This shouldn’t be a call to find 768kHz recordings because they must be better. 

Exactly. When HD music started to become readily available, I was unfortunate enough to have the first few HD albums I purchased be spectacularly produced and engineered. I thought, hell, I'm not buying that 256K Apple junk ever again. And screw the CD. 

 

Then I had a few things show up that were reissues of various sorts, where I owned the music on CD, or Apple's better quality compressed format. Hearing near zero difference between what I owned and the new releases on some albums and massive differences on others kicked me into analytical mode. Where I ended up was, not rebuying ANYTHING unless I can hear a sample to see if it's been well re-engineered. Interesting that's hearable on a 256k streamed sample.

 

I also started messing with upsampling to exotic PCM levels, or to DSD. No surprise... for some albums it sounded better, for reasons I couldn't explain. (Thanks for the images, Miska... now I do understand what changes.) For some albums it sounded no different. You can't fix bad engineering with upsampling, and albums with a DR of 3 don't sound any different as an Apple AAC as-is than they do in an HD form upsampled to 4x DSD. I would guess that some things might end up sounding worse upsampled, because you could better hear annoying things. I also found that it only made a large noticeable difference on one of my systems... and not the one with the most expensive DAC, and way more with headphones than through speakers.

 

Where I've ended up is, if I buy stuff that's a casualty in the loudness wars (my first live concert was the MC5, so yeah, I do...), I buy it in a cheap format. The good things that higher def and upsampling can do for sound just don't improve things for flat DR music- or at least not in a way I can hear. An artist I love, clumsily engineered, red book format it is. The good stuff is worth the extra cost for HD. I don't upsample what I stream from my server - only when I'm sitting down to listen deeply in, with headphones, on the one DAC where I know it matters a lot, with a local source. If I'm writing, or printing, or cooking, just living, playing through speakers in any of the four imperfect listening environments I've got, bit perfect is perfect enough.

 

There is such a thing as "good enough." 

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On 12/13/2018 at 5:30 PM, PeterG said:

Hi Joe--nice post. A couple of thoughts.

 

First, I agree completely, that engineering, recording, mixing, etc is WAY more important than format, at least once we're at PCM.  The loudness wars are my personal bogeyman in all of this.  It is terribly sad that so many artists are reduced (or reduce themselves).

 

Second, I take issue with your argument on the room.  I agree that the room is critical.  But the room is often not controllable, or controllable only at great expense.  While $1,000 dollars in bass traps, just for example, might get be better bang for the buck than $10,000 on a new DAC or power treatment or whatever; you are assuming that each of us has complete control over the room itself.  But architecture and wives have a say on the room that can be more in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range.  Seriously, I could drop $10,000 on a DAC, and my wife would barely raise an eyebrow, but it would be a complete nonstarter to drape the living room in treatments.

 

Many people still willingly ignore what DSP can do to correct some major/minor room problems, all because of the so called purity of the signal, while in fact it is the room that destroys their so called pure signal. 

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There are also interesting two twists to the topic of high-resolution playback and emotional involvement. For one, not all types of emotional engagement aid objective quality evaluation: to maintain objectivity testers should avoid specific tracks that stimulate their own emotional responses prior to the test; feeling rather than hearing is quite natural. For that, my personal remedy is rather simple: use speech (or music with talking/shouting musicians) and all types of noise making recordings as the best source to test the audio path objectively. Another one is that cats very seldom react to noises coming from speakers but sometimes (as confirmed by certain professional reviewers) they do as it would be made by something alive in the room. That, alone, might be an ultimate grade for passing an audio test without any music-related emotional involvement at all. LOL. 

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On 12/24/2018 at 7:02 PM, eworkflow said:

There are also interesting two twists to the topic of high-resolution playback and emotional involvement. For one, not all types of emotional engagement aid objective quality evaluation: to maintain objectivity testers should avoid specific tracks that stimulate their own emotional responses prior to the test; feeling rather than hearing is quite natural. For that, my personal remedy is rather simple: use speech (or music with talking/shouting musicians) and all types of noise making recordings as the best source to test the audio path objectively.

 

You raise an interesting philosophical question--should we evaluate a system's ability to reproduce art which is (presumably) created to move us by removing the system's ability to move us?  My answer would be absolutely not, but there are obvious arguments on both sides of the equation and I would not expect unanimity on this point.

 

To the specific remedy you propose--a system's ability to reproduce voce is critical, but so is a system's ability to reproduce bass and everything else in between.  So I would describe your voice test as perhaps helpful but not sufficient.

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  • 2 months later...
On 12/26/2018 at 10:52 AM, PeterG said:

So I would describe your voice test as perhaps helpful but not sufficient.

I agree. Using a high-quality recording of speech/shouting/knocking to test audio system is not sufficient to test the performance of an audio system but it is a darn good starting point because they are instinctively familiar to us. I am also referring to a path synergy I experienced a few times while testing various installation: being startled by a sound right in the room (feeling like it couldn't come from the speaker or headphones). We must agree that it's always a good thing.

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  • 5 months later...

A relevant article in The N.Y. TIMES Magazine today about Neil Simon:

But he is stumped. Let’s take a moment to look at the future of recorded sound, the topic that has got him so overheated. The invention of the phonograph in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison, a k a the Wizard of Menlo Park, and one of the great visionaries in American history, marked the culmination of several decades of attempts to capture the magic of sound in physical, reproducible form. Early sound recorders used a large cone to capture the air pressure produced by sonic waves created by a human voice or an instrument. The cone directed sound waves against a diaphragm attached to a stylus, which thereby inscribed an analog of those waves onto a roll of paper or a wax-coated cylinder. The use of electrical microphones and amplifiers by the 1920s made it possible to record a far greater range of sound with far greater fidelity.

Magnetic tape, which was pioneered in Germany during the 1930s, propelled another giant leap forward in fidelity, while also beginning the process of freeing sound from the physical mediums on which it was recorded. Tape could be snipped and edited and combined in ways that allowed artists, producers and engineers to create symphonies in their own minds and then assemble them out of multiple takes performed in different places and at different times. The introduction of high-end consumer digital-sound-recording systems by companies including Sony and 3M further loosened music’s connection to a physical medium, thereby rendering sound infinitely plastic and, in theory, infinitely reproducible. Then came the internet, which delivered on the mind-boggling promise of infinitely reproducible sound at a cost approaching zero.

[Read more about sound fidelity and the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.]

At ground level, which is to say not the level where technologists live but the level where artists write and record songs for people who care about the human experience of listening to music, the internet was as if a meteor had wiped out the existing planet of sound. The compressed, hollow sound of free streaming music was a big step down from the CD. “Huge step down from vinyl,” Young said. Each step eliminated levels of sonic detail and shading by squeezing down the amount of information contained in the package in which music was delivered. Or, as Young told me, you are left with “5 percent of the original music for your listening enjoyment.”

Producers and engineers often responded to the smaller size and lower quality of these packages by using cheap engineering tricks, like making the softest parts of the song as loud as the loudest parts. This flattened out the sound of recordings and fooled listeners’ brains into ignoring the stuff that wasn’t there anymore, i.e., the resonant combinations of specific human beings producing different notes and sounds in specific spaces at sometimes ultraweird angles that the era of magnetic tape and vinyl had so successfully captured.

If you want to envision how Young feels about the possibility of having to listen to not only his music but also American jazz, rock ’n’ roll and popular song via our dominant streaming formats, imagine walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Musée d’Orsay one morning and finding that all of the great canvases in those museums were gone and the only way to experience the work of Gustave Courbet or Vincent van Gogh was to click on pixelated thumbnails.

But Young hears something creepier and more insidious in the new music too. We are poisoning ourselves with degraded sound, he believes, the same way that Monsanto is poisoning our food with genetically engineered seeds. The development of our brains is led by our senses; take away too many of the necessary cues, and we are trapped inside a room with no doors or windows. Substituting smoothed-out algorithms for the contingent complexity of biological existence is bad for us, Young thinks. He doesn’t care much about being called a crank. “It’s an insult to the human mind and the human soul,” he once told Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune. Or as Young put it to me, “I’m not content to be content.”

 

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13 minutes ago, CVJ said:

A relevant article in The N.Y. TIMES Magazine today about Neil Simon:

But he is stumped. Let’s take a moment to look at the future of recorded sound, the topic that has got him so overheated. The invention of the phonograph in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison, a k a the Wizard of Menlo Park, and one of the great visionaries in American history, marked the culmination of several decades of attempts to capture the magic of sound in physical, reproducible form. Early sound recorders used a large cone to capture the air pressure produced by sonic waves created by a human voice or an instrument. The cone directed sound waves against a diaphragm attached to a stylus, which thereby inscribed an analog of those waves onto a roll of paper or a wax-coated cylinder. The use of electrical microphones and amplifiers by the 1920s made it possible to record a far greater range of sound with far greater fidelity.

Magnetic tape, which was pioneered in Germany during the 1930s, propelled another giant leap forward in fidelity, while also beginning the process of freeing sound from the physical mediums on which it was recorded. Tape could be snipped and edited and combined in ways that allowed artists, producers and engineers to create symphonies in their own minds and then assemble them out of multiple takes performed in different places and at different times. The introduction of high-end consumer digital-sound-recording systems by companies including Sony and 3M further loosened music’s connection to a physical medium, thereby rendering sound infinitely plastic and, in theory, infinitely reproducible. Then came the internet, which delivered on the mind-boggling promise of infinitely reproducible sound at a cost approaching zero.

[Read more about sound fidelity and the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.]

At ground level, which is to say not the level where technologists live but the level where artists write and record songs for people who care about the human experience of listening to music, the internet was as if a meteor had wiped out the existing planet of sound. The compressed, hollow sound of free streaming music was a big step down from the CD. “Huge step down from vinyl,” Young said. Each step eliminated levels of sonic detail and shading by squeezing down the amount of information contained in the package in which music was delivered. Or, as Young told me, you are left with “5 percent of the original music for your listening enjoyment.”

Producers and engineers often responded to the smaller size and lower quality of these packages by using cheap engineering tricks, like making the softest parts of the song as loud as the loudest parts. This flattened out the sound of recordings and fooled listeners’ brains into ignoring the stuff that wasn’t there anymore, i.e., the resonant combinations of specific human beings producing different notes and sounds in specific spaces at sometimes ultraweird angles that the era of magnetic tape and vinyl had so successfully captured.

If you want to envision how Young feels about the possibility of having to listen to not only his music but also American jazz, rock ’n’ roll and popular song via our dominant streaming formats, imagine walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Musée d’Orsay one morning and finding that all of the great canvases in those museums were gone and the only way to experience the work of Gustave Courbet or Vincent van Gogh was to click on pixelated thumbnails.

But Young hears something creepier and more insidious in the new music too. We are poisoning ourselves with degraded sound, he believes, the same way that Monsanto is poisoning our food with genetically engineered seeds. The development of our brains is led by our senses; take away too many of the necessary cues, and we are trapped inside a room with no doors or windows. Substituting smoothed-out algorithms for the contingent complexity of biological existence is bad for us, Young thinks. He doesn’t care much about being called a crank. “It’s an insult to the human mind and the human soul,” he once told Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune. Or as Young put it to me, “I’m not content to be content.”

 

Do you think posting a quote in giant bold letters improves your point? I think it actually makes it less likely to be read. 

Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>QuietPC Low Noise Server>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>Stack Audio Link II>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: Server with Audiolense RC>RPi4 or analog>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)+Schiit Freya>Kii Three .

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup.
Living Room/Kitchen: RPi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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20 minutes ago, firedog said:

Do you think posting a quote in giant bold letters improves your point? I think it actually makes it less likely to be read. 

 

That was exactly the effect it had on me, as I scrolled through the mess quickly and then landed upon your post.  

 

One must also wonder about the necropost motivation.

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