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As a corollary to my last post, here’s an analogy for you:

The difference between 16-bit (CD-quality) and 24-bit (“HD”) audio is 8 bits, and 2**8 = 256. That means that 24-bit audio can provide up to 256 times the amplitude “depth” of 16-bit.

Let’s compare audio bit depth with water depth. The surface of the water is analogous to unity gain, 0 dB. Unity gain is the loudest representation of sound a digital audio signal can provide. When multiple successive samples hit unity gain, the signal isn’t describing anything during that time. It’s just being loud. Severely brickwall-limited audio can have lots of samples whose value is 0dB. Think of this audio as a swimmer that stays on the water’s surface. They always swim on the top of the water, regardless of the depth.

Let’s say 16-bit audio is like a part of an ocean where there’s a 16-foot-deep coral reef. If a swimmer holds their breath, they can swim down below the surface and explore a bit, and find lots of neat stuff. There’s probably more interesting stuff under the surface of the water than at the top. When audio waveforms steer clear of unity gain (i.e. by not being clipped), more of their original resolution is present.  They can be heard more accurately, just like diving below the surface of the water helps the diver to see the objects that are under water more accurately.

Now, let’s say 24-bit audio is water that’s 256 times deeper than that 16-foot section: about 4100 feet deep; almost a mile. Again, the swimmer could stay on the surface, but they’ll be able to find much more life underneath. Putting on some scuba gear or deep-sea-diving equipment, they’ll be able to go even deeper than when they hold their breath, and potentially find lots more stuff. When audio waveforms don’t hit unity gain and can use at least some of the extra resolution that 24 bits provide vs. 16, they can be played back with even more accuracy. However, if the swimmer (in the case of recorded music, the mastering engineer) stays near the water’s surface, they won’t find much.

Mastering engineers need to learn to swim below the water’s surface before the music industry moves to 24-bit formats by default.

With the CD medium nearing its 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking about what formats and tactics much of the recording industry is using to pull us away from it.

When originally introduced, I don’t think the industry expected that less than 15 years later, it would be possible for users to digitally extract the audio data from the media and compress, tag, and file it on computers. Because there’s no security in the format, the CD is a great compromise of potential audio quality, durability, and accessibility. The only things that hold it back are its resolution (which isn’t as limiting as some in the industry make it seem) and the fact that it’s a stereo format. Since multi-channel, higher-resolution, secured formats like SACD and DVD-Audio haven’t taken off in the market, I think it’s fair to say most users are happy with what the CD delivers. I think if either of those newer formats didn’t include copy protection, more users would embrace them. Especially SACD, which can include a CD-compatible layer.

But the industry shows contempt for the CD and its users. Originally introduced at a higher price point than LPs and cassettes, presumably due to higher quality and to subsidize investment in new manufacturing capabilities, their average price has never decreased. Many of the CD’s of the 80’s were mastered with the ideal of preserving the dynamic range of the original recordings, but over the years, the loudness war has made the audio quality of most popular music a joke.

They’ve tried to kill the jewel case with the Digipak and its ilk for years. The only way that cases with less plastic can be sold as a sustainability issue is if it’s assumed that CD cases are throwaway items. I don’t know anyone that ever bought a CD with the intention of throwing it or its case in the garbage.

Listening to the excellent Home Theater Geeks podcast the other day, guest Steve Guttenberg (no, not the actor) made the point that the industry is building up a catalog of high-resolution masters of up to 24-bit, 192kHz quality. I think they’re hedging their bets on possible successors to the CD. Think about it: in many cases, they’re not even trying to use the full resolution of the CD format. Brick-wall limiting shaves significant chunks of available dynamic range off the content. Many users have migrated from home, speaker-based listening to mobile car- and headphone-listening, which makes the dynamic range issue less noticable. Those are noisy environments. Instead of leaving the dynamic range intact on the recording and letting playback devices handle dynamic range compression (DRC), such as what is available on DVD players, TVs, and set-top boxes, the industry chooses to dumb down the product for the greatest audience.

I think this is all a play to upsell the next disc-based and digital-file formats. Higher quality will be available and may actually be realized, but at a higher price point. Blu-Ray discs with high-res stereo and multi-channel audio along with videos are going to be sold at a premium, probably at least 25% more expensive than the comparable CD. This will help drive up the cost of digital-file versions of the higher-definition content that will most likely use some form of DRM. Even though the industry might have convinced consumers that it caved in when it allowed the sale of unprotected MP3, it didn’t. MP3s aren’t of equal audio quality to CDs, but they’re priced similarly. The industry has the opportunity to make a lot more money selling single digital tracks as well: those offer less profit in physical form. Consider the case of a multi-channel lossless file of the future, with DRM, purchased from a service that restricts the applications or hardware it can play back on. It may be cheaper than its physical counterpart, but the lack of playback flexibility will cripple the benefits of not having to worry about the media.

Via Scott: Slashdot: Apple in Talks to Improve Sound Quality of Music Downloads:

Apple and music labels are reportedly in discussions to raise the audio quality of of the songs they sell to 24-bit. The move could see digital downloads that surpass CD quality, which is recorded at 16 bits at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. It would also provide Apple and the music labels with an opportunity to ‘upgrade’ people’s music collections, raising extra revenue in the process. The big question is whether anyone would even notice the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit files on a portable player, especially with the low-quality earbuds supplied by Apple and other manufacturers.

The recording industry can’t even use 16 bits effectively, and they want to make consumers think that 8 more bits is automatically better in quality. I can just see the ads now: “New 24-bit iTunes HD; it’s 8 louder!”

Louder is not better. Demand better quality CDs. Take a seat and listen on speakers or nice headphones every once in a while. There’s still music out there that sounds great; purchase it and perhaps the industry will realize there are still people who demand a quality product, not just one with higher resolution. A brickwall-limited recording won’t sound any better with 8 more bits.

Mentions:

Update (2012-Mar-10):  Chris Montgomery (Monty @ Xiph.org) posted a fine essay about this that blows mine away.  Go read his take!  Monty is a personal hero of mine, having developed the Ogg Vorbis codec.

As noted here several times since it’s release (and most famously by Rip Rowan on ProRec), Rush‘s 2002 comeback album, Vapor Trails, was poorly mixed and mastered compared to their earlier albums.  In certain circles it became the poster child of the downside of the loudness war; in fact, it’s referenced as an example on that Wikipedia page I just linked to.  Many Rush fans have begged for a re-release with more dynamic range that’ll allow the music to “breathe” as opposed to being just a wall of sound.

The 2009 release of Retrospective III featured remixes of “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” from Vapor Trails that showed the benefits of re-treating the album.  To my ears, much of the mud from the mix has been drained out.  I think the individual instruments can be heard better and there’s a bit more ebb and flow in the different movements of each song.  They are more of a joy to listen to.

Here are some short samples of the original and remixed songs that might help the reader to compare:

One Little Victory (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC
Earthshine (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC

Now that there’s concrete news of a remixed Vapor Trails from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, the promise of the 13-song epic being cleaned up for good is palpable.  I will gladly buy the new CD and keep the old one as a collector’s item.  However, based on the two remixed songs from R3, I’m concerned that a reissue with Richard Chycki‘s mixing and Andy VanDette‘s mastering might not be as optimal as it could be.  A few humble suggestions:

1. Don’t master the reissue with any digital clipping whatsoever.  Audible or not, clipped waveforms are a symptom of audio that’s had it’s amplitude increased beyond what should be the maximum.  The Replay Gain values of the already-remixed tracks are less than 1dB different than the originals, which indicates that their overall loudness is similar.  I’d rather the loudness and dynamic range resemble the Rush albums of the 90s, the Rush MFSL releases, or Porcupine Tree CDs.  Heck, use Steven Wilson as a sounding board.  Which gets me to my next point:

2. This CD is for the fans.  It’s to right a wrong.  It shouldn’t be meant to compete with other CDs in a changer or other MP3s on an iPod, both in terms of loudness and price.   Release it cheaply, without a bunch of marketing.  Rush has one of the largest audiences on the internet; believe me, the word of the re-release will get around with much advertising.  And the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of us that want to buy it will think twice if it’s priced like new material.  $10 seems good.  One suggestion to keep the price low: offer a packaging that’s just a cardboard sleeve, meant for owners of the original CD to swap the replacement CD into the original case.  Also, consider an online release option that uses losslessly-compressed FLAC files.

3. Please use this an opportunity to reassess what “quality sound” means when associated with Rush music, whether it’s on CD or DVD.  Using the “Caravan” single as a harbinger of what we can expect from the next Rush album, Clockwork Angels, it’s due to be just as loud as the original VT was.  We have volume knobs and aren’t afraid to use them.  Radio stations and many playback devices have dynamic range compression.  Geddy, Alex, and Neil, please use your influence to improve the audio quality of your band’s product going forward.  I’m looking forward to the next decade of Rush music.

Update (2011-Feb-07): Rich Chycki comments on the issue [via Blabbermouth.net]:

A while back, I remixed ‘One Little Victory’ and ‘Earthshine’ from RUSH’s 2002 release ‘Vapor Trails’, to be included on their 2009 release, ‘Retrospective 3’. The remixes were very well-received so the band has decided to let me move ahead and remix the remainder of the CD.

To put rumors to rest, there was no re-recording or performance correction done on the first two tracks and that will continue for the remainder of the CD. The reason ‘new’ details may seem to have appeared in those songs is due to the fact that I listened to the multitracks and interpreted the mix structure without first analyzing the original [deliberately] — so tracks either muted or turned down in the original mixes may shine through differently (the acoustic guitars in ‘Earthshine’ might be a good example of this). As well, the same technical tweaks will continue for the remaining songs and I still will not have a buss limiter on the mix set to stun.

In any case, both the band and I are really excited to re-visit ‘Vapor Trails’ and hope you’ll all enjoy the remix.

The “buss limiter … set to stun” quote gives me some hope, but the mastering engineer needs to play along as well to get better quality than the mixes that were on R3.

Just got done listening to Cindy and John DJ a fun mix of classic and modern rock with a focus on indies.  Great stuff.  Go check out RadioUgly.com.  They’re on Saturday evenings at 8-11pm.  There are several other shows there as well.  I’ll be back!

@aharden

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