I call it the 'Paradox of Digital Audio'.
You start with a microphone into a digital mixer
to a digital master to a CD to a digital receiver, and even
out digitally to the speakers, and the sound is actually
'perfect' right up until it meets the air.
Suddenly, the music is subject to everything from
your furniture and wall paper choices to the size and
shape of the room and the number of times you've stood
next to a jackhammer.
'Bull', you say.' Records (I mean, uh, CDs) sound
incredible nowadays. Try getting that kind of sound out
of your scratchy old LPs!'
Well, yeah, they do and no, you can't. That's the
bone of contention.
As the Emperor cranks up his new stereo. "Sounds
We are now awash in the mystical world of digital
audio- inundated with new products. The claims are the
same- ease of use, and of course, 'HD quality' sound.
Sadly, all this hoopla is based on a consumer
product specification that is already below professional
industry standards, let alone the 'cutting edge'. The
average joe accepts CDs as being 'audiophile quality'
(the highest). The lack of tape hiss or clicks and pops is
enough for most people to hear the improvement. But is
that all there is to 'audiophile' sound?
Anyone on the pro side of the biz would roll over
laughing at this point. Speaking strictly digital, the
reason modern music sounds so incredible is that it's
usually recorded, mixed and edited at a higher quality
than CD. In fact, the quality is reduced to make a CD!!!
(For you tekkies that need numbers- CDs are 44.1khz/
16 bit, but for editing and mixing, the standard is
48khz/16 or 24 bit, and recently as high as 192/24, not to
mention the Sony 'Superaudio' or 'SACD'.)
So, your CD may be 'perfect', but it's not the
That's what 'audiophile' used to mean (and still
should). Audiophile records have been around for a long
time, and most bear the phrase 'master tape quality'.
Yet these were once vinyl LPs - subject to all the dust,
heat and scratch dangers of any old record. Why were
these better? Aren't they obsolete because of the CD
This is where the Emperor's New Stereo begins to
sound a little fuzzy.
I mean, it's digital, right? So it must be a perfect
digital copy of the master tape, right? We're hearing
exactly the same thing as the artist at mixdown, right?
Unless you've heard one of the high quality LPs I
spoke of, and in a pristine environment, you've probably
never been exposed to master tape quality to even hear
the difference. Anyone with healthy ears (a majority of
the population) can tell, given a chance to compare.
The audio industry would be nowhere without all
the masses of FM rock fans demanding better and better
sound and stereo systems throughout the 1970's. The
integrity of the record business stood on it's ability to
adequately deliver the soul and nuances of a diverse
array of intense, sophisticated artists. FM radio allowed
the detailed arrangements of groups like 'Steely Dan',
'Pink Floyd', and 'Yes' to reach average ears.
From headphones to big speakers, from car
stereos to hand held radios, these mixes had to stand up
to total scrutiny by the listener. So, a vital part of the
recording process underwent an evolution.
That would be 'mastering'. Most people are
unaware of this delicate part of the process, and few
know what is really involved. The simple answer is,
every recording has to be 'tweaked' - the 'EQ', the
volumes, the song order, the gaps or crossfades between
two songs- all these things are part of the ever- growing
art of mastering.
Every major label CD you buy has been mastered,
just like in the old days, to sound good on every kind of
system you could hear it on. This is why you hear all the
different instruments whether you listen to your music
on a boombox, a big stereo or the radio. The sound is
balanced so that all the music is there all the time. You
just hear way more of it on a bigger or better stereo.
Still, though, not audiophile or a copy of the
master. When an engineer masters a direct copy of the
original, you need a comparable system to hear what he
or she hears. Once you do, you will be astonished. But
why? What are you hearing that's suddenly so much
better than a CD? You may not like the answer.
It's, (shudder) ANALOG!!!!
Yes, amazingly enough, sound, being analog to
begin with, has way more going on than any digital
'whatsit' could calculate. No matter what kind of tape or
disc or computer you record to, the same old analog
rules of audio apply.
A 'Class A' circuit (military grade) is a 'Class A'
circuit, and all the great gear is made of them. Use any
microphone made of Class A circuits and a big
diaphragm to hear the sound, (tubes are optional) and
you can have Bob Dylan seem to be right next to you. A
great performance, a distinctive voice, a well-balanced
guitar, and the highest integrity circuits and wire
carrying 'My Back Pages' straight to the tape. This, my
friend, is as good as it gets!
These standards for professional audio quality have
reigned for over 60 years. Like playing the best violin,
using the best recording materials also enhances the
song- not by altering it- but by capturing ALL of it.
It appears that the Emporer's NEW Stereo is
really no better than his old 'uncle emperor's'
custom-quad 8 track system was in the '70s!
But wait, if all the good circuits and microphones
are analog, and digital is in the computer, doesn't the
computer need those circuits too?
Darn right it does. In fact, digital audio is so
standardized that the analog section of a machine is the
most critical part! Once you get that high class wiring
sending your music into a digital 'whatsit'', it's usually
gonna sound great. Well, OK, it's going to be almost
indistinguishable from the noise I actually made.
Making something sound great is, always was,
and always will be the result of human ears making the
decisions that shape the music for the medium that will
carry it to the audience. The producer, engineer and
mastering engineer all play their crucial role in
transporting the artist's song, story and personality to
And you, my anxious listener, where do you fit
into all this nonsense about sample rates and file
You are actually in charge. (Ssshh, they don't
want you to know.) You now the difference between Star
Wars on a TV and on a home theatre. You know how a
concert sounds, a cinema, a guitar by a campfire or a
piano in the den. You know if someone made their own
cassettes when you hear tape hiss. In other words, you
know great analog sound already.
So can you be an 'audiophile'? (Is there a
treatment if you are?)
Much of the music business says no, you don't
have the time or the sophistication to justify the
But your stereo reciever, CD player, VCR, TV,
car stereo, PC and especially, if you have one, your DVD
player are all screaming that you can. They all sound
better every year at every price range.
The audio industry is constantly toying with new
formats and styles of merchandise to sell you music in
various forms. Cards, sticks, disks, software files- you
name it- everyone is putting a bet on the table to see
which one YOU pick as your favorite form to cuddle and
cherish and fight over. That's why none of them are
compatible with each other, and that's why all of them
Coming up with the patent that everyone else has
to license (like Phillips did with cassettes and CDs) is the
point of this venture- not improving audio quality for
you, my 'more-educated-than-anyone-before-but-for-
some-reason-sonically-illiterate-to-them' music buyer!!!
Remind them that you drive their business at the
broadest level imaginable. As you grow wiser and more
articulate, they must rise to your occasion. They can.
Unless you're bamboozled with gadgets, hype and
'Now you're getting between me and my music!'
The interent is spawning a new level of tolerance
for low quality audio. Even as home theatres and DVDs
are taking off bigtime. Why?
Yes, you've guessed it.
The Emperor's New PC plays MP3.
And they sound, uh, well, er, ahh, great?!?!
Not compared to that video you rented last week.
Certainly not compared to that CD you just listened to
in the car. Do you really want to download someone's
home recordings? Lord knows what they'll sound like.
Surely, you can hear it, can't you?
The record biz, however, is all aflutter over what
you're going to do next. They are quite fearful that you
will collectively decide to trade songs on the internet
oblivious of them or quality. They legitimately don't
know what to do. They will really only listen to one
Yeah, you again. It always falls on the listener's
shoulders. Well, that's good. We musicians are only
here for you, and we only make it if enough of you say
so!!! So the more you tell the record companies, the
more you help every listener and every musician.
Here's some 'inside info' to help you out a bit.
- There are 'master tape audiophile' quality
96khz/24 bit DVDs. Stunning sound on any DVD player.
The better your system the better the sound. Obviously
better than any normal CD, to just about anyone.
- Some software audio players have the ability to
play 48khz/24bit audio files from a CD-ROM. (24 bit
audio hardware is needed.) Pro standard CD audio files
can also be stored on a CD-ROM.
-Back in the 'good old days', we had a way to
listen to music at great convenience, but with low mono
quality. We called it AM radio. The highs and lows were
chopped off a bit, but the sound was fine for just groovin'
to the tune. (Sound like a kid with a tongue piercing and
an MP3 player?)
So there is a place for MP3. It is the new AM
radio. As such, it needs to be properly respected and
governed for it's best purpose. You, listener, are in
charge. Tell the industry that you want THEM to supply
artist approved, stereo AM quality files to audition
songs, and you want all the info on the artist, the music
and label sales info embedded in it instead of
unremovable alien pop-up ads.
Tell them you want them to control the free stuff
so you can find the highest quality version to buy- online
and at the mall.
For now, let's get the Emporer a DVD, and maybe
we can get around to mentioning that new suit......
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