A New Commitment to High-Resolution Audio

Looking at the above title, you may be asking yourself, ” A new commitment to high-resolution audio? We’ve barely just started on high resolution!” In reality, those making the first “professional” sound recordings at Thomas Edison’s laboratories and elsewhere more than 100 years ago were striving to make the most true-to-life sound recordings the available technology of the time would allow. It’s no different now — we’re simply going to the next logical steps in the evolution of recording technology. I’ll explain further…

I recently shared a BBS posting on the Surround Professional forum (www. surroundpro.com/forums.shtml) that had been posted elsewhere by a 24-year old female audiophile — not a 50-something male audiophile curmudgeon. I mention the “curmudgeon” because of this young audiophile’s stance: that “Joe and Mary Six-Pack” have no interest in surround, no interest in high resolution, no interest in quality music releases, and cannot tell the difference between SACD/DVD-A and MP3. The writer continued that high-quality music recordings only serve a niche market and will never be embraced by the public at-large. She mentions that her father doesn’t notice if the home stereo system or car audio system is misadjusted and laments that people do not really listen to music anymore.

While sounding somewhat elitist, I felt that the young audiophile had made some good points that we in the professional recording and entertainment industry should pay attention to. The “dumbing-down” of the public, of popular music, and of entertainment in general has been written about many times in the press. We all have the brother-in-law with the out-of-phase, misadjusted stereo system. We know that data-reduced MP3 copies of music recordings are enthusiastically embraced as being “CD-Quality,” but are actually popular because of the convenience that MP3 offers. We know that grossly inferior pirated copies of music, video, and movie releases are available at the corner convenience store — and that a certain number of people accept those wretched copies as being “good enough” quality.

Does this dumbing-down effect mean that audio professionals no longer need to care about audio quality, or should stop producing high-resolution or surround music recordings for a consumer market that perhaps “doesn’t care” (yet)? I do not buy into that defeatist thinking, and neither did our predecessors when presented with similar circumstances in their time.

The first ads for Edison phonographs of the early 20th Century proclaimed that completely lifelike music reproduction was now available in the home. The ads had pictures depicting famous musicians of the time performing in the front parlors of an appreciative home audience. What more could anyone ask or wish for? “Perfect” music reproduction was here at last — that is, until the next innovation came along. Innovations such as: Gold Moulded cylinders replacing the one-at-a-time mastered cylinders, 3- and 4-minute cylinders replacing the 2-minute cylinder, shellac instead of bees wax, flat disks instead of cylinders, lateral cut 78’s vs. Edison’s vertical cut 78’s, electrical microphones instead of a recording horn, the 33-1/3 LP with longer playing times, dual-band Cook Labs stereo LPs, mono-compatible (45/45) stereo LPs, and compact discs — all had been instrumental in the progress of recorded music technology. Few, if any, of these innovations were asked for by the music-buying public. All have led us to where we are now.

People were generally satisfied with what they already had in recorded music until they were shown what was further possible. The innovators of the time were always pushing the envelope of what was possible. It was often up to those individuals to educate the industry and then the public about the possibilities. Those earlier innovators did not accept the idea that the present technology was “good enough” and that no further improvements were needed. Nobody was knocking the doors down clamoring for the stereo LP in the 1950s.

Did that stop the format from being developed?
Of course not.

How is it different today?
Past the fact that there is far more competition for the entertainment dollar, it isn’t really. The innovations are simply coming faster and in more varieties and combinations. Every new idea is screaming for attention at the hi-fi and home theater dealers and the mass merchandisers. Which ones will ultimately be accepted? Only the marketplace will determine that — and it’s not always right or fair. However, the marketplace cannot make any good choices if it does not know what’s available, what the respective qualities and differences of formats are — or be educated in why any new product makes any difference at all.

The audio professional is often the first to make any improvement, innovation, or change in audio recording technology. As such, we have a lot of power for change of the marketplace, yet many don’t see what power they actually can possess. For instance, a pair of Irish brothers had an idea for improving sound in movies and in music recordings. They developed their idea and enlisted the help of others to further develop and promote their product. No marketplace asked them for their product. No hardware manufacturer asked them for their “innovation.” Try to find a current home theater receiver or DVD player that doesn’t have a DTS decoder in it — the Smith brothers’ product is right there beside the equally innovative products and ideas of Ray Dolby and Dolby Laboratories.

Working in high-resolution audio doesn’t have to mean jumping into 96/24 or DSD recording. Your commitment to high-resolution audio can begin today with small, easy steps: choosing to use a higher quality mic cable, bypassing unnecessary console opamps, and using microphone preamps closer to the mic position. Make the extra effort to reduce noise and improve clarity in the recording chain even if you think no one else will ever notice — you’d be surprised by how many do notice! Employ control room or mixing monitors that can reveal small mic, EQ, and compressor changes. Be conscious of the effect of placing that extra plug-in or outboard processor in the recording chain or mix. Dynamic range can be a good thing! Consider what the best format for your next project may be, even if it may require a bit more work or management of new technology. Think carefully about when to employ sample-rate conversion or dithering and what you’ll use for the task. Try to project where the signal will ultimately land as you are placing that first microphone in your next session. Don’t accept that an end product in MP3 format is good enough. Everyone’s taste changes and matures. Teenagers downloading MP3s today will want the “real thing” down the road somewhere after college.

Will the quality of your recordings still hold up then?
The bigger commitment to high resolution is for you, the audio professional, to get out there and promote what’s possible with better audio recording and reproduction. Educate yourself about the higher-resolution recording formats by getting an SACD and/or DVD-A player now. There are already lots of great releases on the market showing what’s possible.

Evaluate whether working in high-res is right for your next project. Talk up surround and high-res to your local newspaper writer, talk to your favorite industry writer — talk to Surround Professional! Make your thoughts and opinions known to the hardware manufacturers at the tradeshows. Enroll your local home theater and hi-fi dealer or mass merchandiser in displaying a properly setup music surround system at their store, and to have great surround music releases to demo on it — maybe one of yours! Convince them that surround sound is actually useful for something other than Super Bowl ambiance tracks. Heck, go fix that brother-in-law’s out-of-phase stereo system — he really will hear the improvement. Then you can talk to him about why high-res surround is even better. Better yet, show him. Set up demos of your own on a local or regional basis.

I happen to think Joe and Mary Six-Pack deserve — and will appreciate — better audio. They just don’t know it yet. You can help make that change happen with your new commitment to better and higher resolution audio.

Surround Professional Magazine