How Does It Sound?

“I remember being in a car on Neil’s ranch with him when CDs first came out, and he was lamenting how the sound was so damaged. He was pretty horrified by it, and I was kind of amazed. He really made me aware of the damage the fidelity had taken.
“I don’t have Neil’s ears to really get as bothered as he is by it,” Lofgren says, “but it is an extraordinary difference when you know what you’re doing and you get the sound right.”

This week’s obsession is the fantastic article The Pagan Mechanic Rides Again: Neil Young’s Adventures on the Hi-Res Frontier in Wired.

Stuff I learned, down various internet wormholes, which you all probably know already:

A CD holds about 600-700 MB of data. At the time the format was invented, that was 50X as much as a hard drive, so it seemed incredible. But music takes a lot of memory. The goal was to compress an album (say, 60 minutes of audio) onto that CD. That can be done if you sample at 44.1kHz (roughly twice the max frequency of adult human hearing) and limit the bit depth to 16 bits per sample. That gives a maximum dynamic range of 96dB between the quietest and loudest sounds – thought to be decent enough for the human ear.

A good way to start a fight among audiophiles is to suggest that we don’t need anything better than 44.1kHz/16bit. Many people insist that they can hear a difference; double blind studies do not necessarily bear this out. This blogging nerd set up a great test including the Goldberg Variations, to see if audiophiles could tell the difference between 24 bit and 16 bit. They pretty much couldn’t.

When mp3’s came along, they allowed us to compress musical data by a factor of ten. A 30 megabyte, three minute CD song becomes a 3 megabyte mp3 abomination. It sucks the life out of the music!
Neil Young says so!

His attempt at a hi-res audio player – Pono – is now wreckage in the compression and loudness wars won by lo-res streaming like Spotify. He wrote a book about it: To Feel The Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio.

But lo! Nowadays since we’ve all got bandwidth coming out our ears, with cloud storage and whatnot, audiophiles are excited about bigger, uncompressed audio files.

– wav: 10 MB per minute
– aiff: 10 MB per minute
– FLAC: 5 MB per minute
– DSD: 40 MB per minute

“DSD [Direct Stream Digital] has become the audiophile standard, higher than the 96-kHZ/24-bit FLAC-based audio of Tidal Hi-Fi, and even higher than the 192-kHZ/24-bit FLAC favored by Neil Young Archives.”

Listen to the inventor of DSD! You won’t understand a single word! Noise shaping and pulse-code modulation! That looks like a damn oscilloscope behind him so you know he doesn’t fuck around:

You can now obtain DSD files of a few of your favorite artists. And Amazon and Apple are getting into the hi – res game. To play hi-res files back, you’ll probably need at least a high quality DAC (digital audio recorder).
The company Qobuz has hi-res Replacements!
Itrax has other power pop like Mozart, Stravinsky, and Glenn Gould.

Mr. Young, in the meantime, has set up the cool steampunk, idiosyncratic, wonderful $1.99-per-month Neil Young Archives where you get what the artist intended. I’ve been enjoying my time there.

7 Replies to “How Does It Sound?”

  1. As for Neil Young’s CD’s sounding bad, many early CD’s sounded bad because they were sloppily mastered in the rush to get product on the shelves. Many were just flat transfers of the analogue masters rather than remasters to suit digital playback. Many early digital recordings also sucked because it took a while for engineers to adjust to the new medium. Old habits die hard, and techniques that worked in analog resulted in dry, claustrophobic recordings where everything was in your face. These problems led to the belief that “digital sucks” and analog is by nature superior. Many great digital recordings have disproved that, but when it comes to audiophiles, you’re in the realm of superstition.

    It is also true that recordings on average have sounded progressively worse in the digital era, but that’s the result of the loudness wars, not any inferiority of digital media. If you’re consciously using all your bandwidth for volume, you will not have any depth.

    But I’m off the real topic: high rez audio vs. the CD standard of 44.1kHz/16bit. I don’t believe anyone can really hear the difference. No one has been able to prove it. All you have is a group of people rather angrily insisting that they can. I have no doubt that they truly believe that they can, but some of them also believe that using expensive power cords to their amplifers improves the sound of their stereos (the three feet of miracle wire somehow improving the signal that has passed through 200+ feet of standard Romex house wiring and many miles of non-audiophile power lines before that). Anyone who believes that can fool himself into believing anything. I think Randi issued a challenge on this that no one could take up, as he wouldn’t allow any takers to manipulate the rules in their favor.

    And then there are MP3’s. Once again, early problems in the medium set opinions. Early MP3’s had a standard bitrate of around 130 mbps. It sounded ok for background music, but not good enough if you were paying attention. So MP3′ suck, right? Not anymore. I can’t hear any diffrerence between higher bitrate MP3’s and CD’s. But I’m also over 60, so I’m not denying that someone in his teens or 20’s could. But a human being able to detect the difference between CD standard and high rez really strains credibility.

    Here’s a good article on this with links to other good articles. “Good article” of course means “fits my bias.”

  2. A couple of other things: even if you could hear a difference between CD standard and high res (you can’t, because CD standard frequency range already exceeds human hearing), it wouldn’t mean a thing unless the music you’re listening to was recorded in high resolution. That would exclude anything recorded before the late 90’s, and all analogue recordings. So it’s odd that some people who see old, well-recorded analog as a gold standard are also plugging high res. Any analogue recording by definition has far worse frequency and dynamic range than even CD standard, much less high res. So if you believe that high res is the gold standard, then anything anologue is by definition a joke. You can’t have it both ways. Conversely, if a great analogue recording is the best thing you ‘ve ever heard, high res is completely unecessary.

    And really, although it’s nice of Neil to want to protect the great unwashed from bad sound, not many have ever cared enough to pay extra for better. Even in analog’s golden age, most people listened to their albums on shitty record players. And they didn’t care, becuase the songs you love sound good on anything before you’ve been spoiled by better equipment. As far as playback, streaming is an improvement over what most people heard back in the day.

  3. I can’t help myself, I just love Cranky Neil.

    I knew one of you geniuses would offer some perspective.
    There seemed to be a consensus out there to record in 24 bit, mix in 24 bit, and export to 16 bit.

    I have no idea what the kids do nowadays. A few times I’ve been listening to an obscure band on Bandcamp or wherever and hear a GREAT FUCKING SONG that was recorded terribly. Or at least I can hear the great fucking song in there, trying to get out. It makes me so pissed off!

    1. Yeah, 24-bit chips are a very good thing at the recording end because they provide recording engineers room to monitor their editing and mixing in real time. But once the recording is downsampled to 16 bit the sound will be indentical to two-legged creatures.

    2. Monkeystador, I hope I haven’t come off like a dickhead in this discussion. If you like listening to high res, then please enjoy it and ignore know-it-all blabbermouths like me. I went off on it because I got interested in it a few years ago, did some comparative listening, some research, and came to some conclusions. It’s fun to listen and compare, and everyone interested should do that for himself. And regardless of whether people can really hear differences, sometimes it’s just nice to know something has been done to a higher standard.

  4. Oh not at all! I’m just genuinely curious if anyone here had dabbled in the hi-res.

    I fear I have blasted my own cochlea with years of abuse and am now part of the WHAT?? WHAT?! OKAAYYY crowd. Fancy acoustics may be lost on me, but I definitely still hear songs that are recorded by swamp trolls. I wonder why in the modern age this happens. I may have to pick out a few poorly-recorded otherwise hits and ask everybody what’s up.

    My freshman roommate in college had the first CD player I’d ever seen, and some solid 100 Watt speakers.

    I asked him what the big deal with CD’s were, and he said “THIS!”

    ***cranks intro to Money For Nothing by Dire Straits***

    I was stunned at how pristine and obscene that sound was. Just glorious. A benchmark for me.

    Also aiding Brothers in Arms’ steady ascent to No. 1 on the charts was Knopfler and Dorfsman’s decision to record using a digital deck. What saved the tracks … was the studio’s Neve console…”the board was so good that anything you put through it just sounded great.”
    Although the album wasn’t completely digital, it came close enough to be marketed as one of the few titles whose sonics took advantage of the new CD format’s capability for cleaner sound, and the sales bore that out: Brothers became the first record to move a million compact discs, and the first whose CD sales outmatched its LP’s. For a variety of reasons, it was the right album at the right time — not that Knopfler ever professed to understand the huge surge in popularity that followed.
    “It was a sheer fluke,” Knopfler said years later. “If it hadn’t been that album, it would have been something else. It was just an accident of timing.”

  5. My hearing tests pretty well for someone my age, but that’s still not very good. I think the maximum frequency for a normal middle-aged person is 15khz, which is why I’m suspicious that an old rocker like Neil Young can hear differences above 20khz.

    I’m guessing that great sound is rarer nowadays because of two things: the loudness wars, and the DIY trend. As for the former, it doesn’t matter how well something was recorded if you’re going to compress the hell out of it to squeeze out more volume. There is enormous commercial pressure to engage in that.

    As for DIY, it’s great that a struggling band can order a few hundred bucks of equipment from Guitar Center or wherever and record some stuff to put on Bandcamp. But for great sound, you need a great engineer and usually a great studio. Those are expensive, and nowadays you won’t find as many labels willing to invest in an unknown band. Artist nurturing seems to mostly be a thing of the past.

    Yeah, there’s nothing like great sound coming through great speakers. There are many great recordings from the 50’s on up that can sound like musicians are in your room, given good enough speakers. The only recent great ones I’ve heard are classical, though. I’m not saying great rock recordings aren’t still happenening, just that I haven’t heard any.

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