Let’s bring things up to date in the most audiophile digital way possible……ofcourse we’re talking lossless here….FLAC vs WAV……..and this is controversial…despite the fact that both are lossless formats…..WAV really does sound better than FLAC
There are loads of forums and evidence on this subject…so from my POV….I can hear a difference with my system…. shall I change the word hear to perceive??……it’s an awareness…a subtle depth and resonance…but recent experiments have proved it to be true…but it all depends on how big your ears are, trying to remain focused whilst trying to remember how many times you blind tested this piece of music…..consider that it takes more than 20 seconds for the brain to react to a change in high frequency content…and that everyone is different, whilst some listeners are nitpicking 1’s and zero’s…another maybe moving to the music physcially and/or mentally.
Now, if you’re anything like me, I love technology, but when it comes to physics, I start glazing over very quickly……there needs to be a Dummies Guide To Music Data Compression…. I’m lost as soon as the inverse laws reverse and transverse….and yes, this experiment which proves that WAV is better than FLAC is very very important, but If you do read and understand all of it…..good for you
So, whilst your FLAC files are smaller than your WAVS……your WAVS don’t contain the same amount of metadata (artwork and info)…so your music player has to decompress….no thats the wrong word isn’t it….unpack a smaller package with a lot more non musical data….unlke your WAV which doesn't have that much extra data, so with your FLAC file, the music player has to use more CPU to convert before it reaches your DAC. It’s also recommended that you set your music player to download the whole file of the music track from your NAS as opposed to download partially and convert on the fly which takes up more CPU…. So, the more CPU usage involved, the less pure the signal. (still with me??)
Since the advent of FLAC in 2000 by Josh Coalson, audiophiles have always plugged the virtues of WAV over FLAC…mainly in the context of Apple vs Microsoft territory and it is only in recent years that most digital music sellers have started to include FLAC as part of their HiRes Lossless catalogue….infact most reputable sellers will offer the complete range of formats whether they be lossy or lossless.
The one thing that does come out of the article above is that if you are going to go HiRes/Lossless, then go WAV or AIFF…infact the second paper of this experiment is more conclusive with less bafflement and a little more humour……as I write this post, Qobuz (a HiRes download site) have sent me a questionairre to see how important I rate artwork and PDF booklets with my music….I suspect a change is coming…admittedly I do find compressed artwork and an annoying PDF a very poor substitute for a double sleeve vinyl album, with a booklet and informative inner sleeves….but I do appreciate that if you’ve never been bought up with access to that pleasure, then you make do with what you’ve got!!
And that folks....is a very important aspect to this subject, which I'll bring up again later.
How many bits do you want?….and at what frequency do you want them?……without a doubt, 24bit 96KHZ is going to get you the best….whether you get the physics or not……and we are at the stage where 24/96 HiRes is becoming more common and 16/44 (CD Quality) is becoming a standard. If you’re going lossy, then 320kps MP3 is your max and that is becoming a standard too. (Listen, if you're going to do 320Kps, just make sure it's Constant Bit Rate) It’s just a shame that the majority of the population on this planet are more concerned about quantity than quality. The two most popular download sites (iTunes/Amazon) are still delivering at 256kps, with iTunes still having some very worrying privacy options…they may have ditched Digital Rights Management and upped quality from 128 to 256, but they still can gain access to your iTunes library and delete things you have bought from other sites or even created yourself.
Modernlife is rubbish……..it’s ok if you’re single…but if you live as a couple, have a family, then to listening to music on a dedicated HiFi system in an appropriate room is impossible, you’re never going to be in that room, you’ll be in the kitchen turning the volume up in the other room…pointless. The need to shrink something so that we can carry it around and have more, has become a basic human need. Greed and Convenience methinks…..and all that is before little Arthur and his sticky inquisitive fingers have poked holes in your cones and there's a kitten in your woofer!!!
From the 7” vinyl single to 12”…the sound quality is overwhelming…. depth, space and resonance, that’s it basically…but don’t forget to consider the quality of the plastic…(oil shortages never helped did they??)…..the thickness and weight…the depth of the groove….. obviously not what Madonna was going on about…..but if that stylus can get more movement, then it’s going to sound better….simple. And as for compression, put it like this..... remember those "Now That's What I Call Music" compilations which had about 15 tracks on each side of the album (I'm talking before CD), they always sounded quiet and flat..... that was due to the fact that the grooves had to be made closer together...that's basic physical compression, that means the stylus can't move around as freely as it should. that's why 12" singles always sounded better....simple eh?? Now remember this, because it's no different in other formats.
Ofcourse, there is a Hauntological aspect to Vinyl, Large artwork creates a more noticeable piece of art, something you can get lost in, something that the compressed artwork of a CD can't quiteemulate.....and really?? Looking at a PDF on your iPad whilst listening to your 256kps, really doesn't do it does it?? Oh, and vinyl can keep you fit, because you have to turn t over at the end of side one!!
Interesting Fact - Full Frequency Range Recording…orginally devised by Arthur Haddy for a Hifi Hydrophone to detect and catalogue German Submarines during WWII.
Magnetic Tape for audio recording purposes, first came about in 1930 (as a derivative of Magnetic Wire Recording) and tape has stood the test of time longer than any other format. Reel To reel truly is the god of professional analogue recording. Phillips designed Compact Cassette in 1962…it was portable and it became a popular recording medium both for the professional market and amateur DIY kids at home…. but all those Dolby Noise Reduction systems really were a pile of hiss….. JVC had a special thing called Super Automatic Noise Reduction System, which boosted the Dolby B Hi end loss, but the best was Dolby C…..by the time 89 came along and Dolby S was planted in Tape Decks, CD’s had already taken over…. and anyway any pre-recorded cassettes were always recorded with Dolby B. In all fairness, that compression suits some music…. and it’s all a matter taste, Eminem and Thurston Moore favour listening to tapes as many people do….
At the same time that Compact Cassette was being developed, the Lear Jet Corporation was inventing and introducing Stereo 8 Track Cartridges…… basically, the cartridge was annoyingly large, but made for increasing recording length to 80 minutes and sound quality was superior to that of Cassette tape. You’d usually find it in sporty cars (my dad had one in his Reliant Scimitar and I recall driving around the Sussex Countryside in overdrive mode listening to Waldo De Los Rios…Mozart in the Seventies.
Now the problem with tape as we all know is this…. it stretches, it gets dropouts if left near a magnet and if don’t clean your pinch wheel, it gets chewed up and that's before the reels get so tight that the motor can’t turn them…… so many intricate bits of mechanics…..now DAT (Digital Audio Tape) was first invented in 72 by Denon to raise the recording quality....(really?...yes!!!! doesn't that screw the timeline slightly...errr probably) and that had an even more complex mechanical set up!
So, way back in 82... Phillips and Sony got together and created Compact Disc.... it was promoted as the next best thing that you could smear jam over and throw at people without damaging the item... and whilst this had an entertainment factor for pain and messiness..... it was the first bit of commercial digital audio media that surpassed that from before it (like nothing before obviously...because it was all analogue before then).... now, we have a 44.1 Khz 16 bit disc of audio data.... and as with all digital formats..... it's only as good as the data you put on it.... put a load of shit on there (or even strawberry jam) and it will sound like very good strawberry shit. They aren't indestructable either... left in the sun.... they are useless the next day and every now and again some CD pressing plant in the world fucks up and makes a piss poor media product that won't read after it's first play.
and with the first commercially available Digital Media....came the Loudness Wars....something your average punter wouldn't notice...but what we all did notice, was a track or an album that was mastered louder that another... ooh that sounds good... yes and it probably did in the pub or the radio...and that was the idea. We are not talking about turning it up for your pleasure....we are talking about recording it (or re-recording it) so loud in the mix, that it distorts or you just can't take it any further...clipping clipping clipping....so that the quality is sacrificed for the loudness.... all because someone is too fat to get off their arse and just turn the volume up.
Ok, the loudness wars can be helped by Normalisation compression techniques on your software...... but that's just compressing something which is already clipped..... urgh...this is horrible isn't it??
But DAT was expensive...and yes....it did 48Khz for you and yes... it sounded bloody brilliant....and yes, unless you were a recording professional, it wasn't for you.
Interesting FACT - Factory Records were the first record company to commercially release an album on DAT...ofcourse, being the futuristic visionary that he was, Anthony H Wilson's idea wasn't going to work...commercially DAT wasn't going to be an affordable desire to the masses.
Not many people know this, but whilst DAT was being spooled up by professionals, Phillips and Panasonic designed a more cheaper and reliable format called Digital Compact Cassette. Whilst DCC wasn't supposed to be a replacement to DAT, it was designed to challenge the mechanical complexity....DAT had a swivelling head and DCC was stationary and if you think of all that tape you used to see lying in the streets throughout the 80's..... it's going to give your pinchwheel nightmares......get your alcohol buds and head demagnetizers out folks....oh and DCC was lossy too and it came out the same time as Sonys Mini Disc System..... a short lived Dodo!
In 1992 Sony Developed the Minidisc system. The uptake in popularity of this format was slow, as a commercial pre-recorded format, it never really took off. But as a way for the average consumer to record Digitally. Sony developed ATRAC, a form of psychoacoustically lossy data compression which had a 5:1 compression format. That doesn't matter, it sounded bloody brilliant. Sony put a lot of time and effort into developing MiniDisc and just as technology was getting to the stage that you could transfer MD data to a computer....CDr's and iPods wiped MiniDiscs out...just like that!!!
I had a huge soft spot of MiniDiscs, basically as a format to transfer my rare vinyl on, to prevent it from wearing out!! It was a sexy format too IMO!!
THE GHOST IN THE MP3
So this is where I get a huge bilious lump of heartburn...bear with me.....in 1991 just after the perceptual codec MUSICAM based on an integer arithmetics 32 sub-bands filterbank, driven by a psychoacoustic model. (still with me??)....MP3 was developed, it wasn't until 95 that MP3 was launched on the public via the Winplay MP3 player. Ofcourse, back then, Hard Drives had a very small capacity, so lossy compression was essential. As we all know, the evolution of Hard Drive capacity has been quick and very efficient and we are just round the corner from limitless liquid based Hard (soft and squidgy) Drive technology. In 1998 the first portable Digital Audio Player was invented...the MPman.
So without going into the intricacies of Bit Rate, Encoding and Decoding...(you can do that yourself), at the end of the 90's when possession of a computer was becoming the law, it seemed that Microsoft owners were lucky enough to have WinAmp and Apple owners were just about to have something called iTunes dumped on them. Now, you can't deny that iTunes has changed the way the world listens to music, it's just a bit of a shame that Apple's Digital Rights Management Policy was a bit shit... infact, although they may have lifted the DRM aspect of an iTunes account, they can still access the files in your iTunes Library and remove them. Ofcourse, anyone with any degree of basic common sense would keep a seperate file of their Music content which isn't linked to the App.. (you do...don't you??...after all, you would, wouldn't you?? especially after you thought you lost all your music files after that Hard Drive crash you had?? !!!!!)
When iTunes was first released in 2001 you only had the choice of downloading content from the store in 128kps...don't worry, we were all happy with this..millions and millions of us, paying full whack for music that wasn't complete... oh don't worry, the engineers were clever, very clever.....we will only remove the frequencies the average human being can't hear and then normalise it high and no one will know. Ofcourse, this form of deceit still exists, because you lot want to carry as much poor quality music around with you as possible (sorry, that's untrue, everyone streams now, so that the artist only gets about 0.003 pence per stream...hmmm), but iTunes and Amazon downloads are much better quality now...yes they're 256kps...brilliant!! Honestly, if you're going to go lossy, go 320kps, it's the best your gonna get and you won't get that off Apple or Amazon. Ofcourse, if you're an Apple user and you're going Lossless please be careful and don't get fooled, even if iTunes can play back AIFF/ALAC and WAV and 320kps lossy, it will only play them back at 256kps and if you stream through an Airport system, that will downsample to 256 too... arrrrgh.
Now, back to those clever scheming sound engineers...how would you feel if you'd taken the time to record a beautiful piece of music, where some of the frequencies that affect at least the five frequencies either side of themselves are removed (see above). Slide an equalizer frequency down and you'll see what I mean.
Check out the Tom's Diner experiment above....yes, this is all the information removed during compression....yes this is totally unacceptable and those of you that say, well it doesn't matter because you can't hear the difference..... well...I don't know what to say to you, because you probably wouldn't hear me anyway. Check out Ryan Maguires The Ghost in MP3... HERE
I'm sure you'll find it fascinating, even if you just click on a couple of the sound samples...the point is made...yes??
Anyway, the point being made...if it was recorded that way, who are you to remove the bits that make it how it should be listened to. Basic Physics folks....frequencies affect other frequencies and the things around them and us, whether you can hear them or not.
However, research is being and has been performed on fatigue caused by Digital & Compressed music, without reading too much into this, consideration need to be taken into account as to what the listener is used to.....vinyl and then listening to the same album on Compressed Digital... ofcourse that's going to have an affect. But if a listener has never experienced vinyl or HiRes...does that make a difference?? Something to think about.
MASTER AND SERVANT
Are we all at the mercy of the Mastering Engineer?…..since before the advent of digital media, Remastering was happening…now it’s a trend…. and quite rightly so. The role of the Mastering Engineer is to tweak the original artifact so that it sounds best on the media format it is designed to be played on…..excellent!!! Now this is where the whole point of this blog post comes into it’s own…..not everyone is going to have a top of the range HiFi system which is identical to that of the MastEng……so all that time and effort isn’t always going to sound the way it was supposed…there are too many external variables. This is where the role of a good Producer will have some consideration to Mastering and Media.
In the mid-eighties, Hit Factory Production team, Stock, Aitken & Waterman had a string of chart hits, a lot of their sounds were similar, dance pop with the addition of extended dance remixes which all sounded great on dance floors. SA&W final mixdowns were done on your average HiFi speaker so that they would sound good on Transistorised Radio (where most media is compressed before it gets to the listeners ears)…. so SA&W productions always sounded good on whatever you listened to them on …. think of it like this…if they had used the top of the range speakers and amps……the majority of the 12 year old kids listening to their music would not have got it….. so, to the majority of the population, SA&W always sounded good on the radio…. and then always sounded better, the higher res HiFi it was played on…. ok, what point am I making??.. bear with me and read on…..
One of my continuing top 10 albums is Grace Jones' Nightclubbing…I like it for it’s beautiful production thanks to the Compass Point Allstars and Alex Sadkin and Chris Blackwell. When this was released in 81, every gig you went to, you would hear a track from this album being blasted from the PA…it’s designed to be played loud…. roots down, it’s a Reggae record … the production is perfect…it’s designed for those basslines to be etching an indelible groove. Ironically the original Island Records album pressing was lightweight. The twelves (as most 12’s on Island) were pressed and mastered so you had maximum Full Frequency, they were deep and they sounded lush. (my copy was on a Chrome Cassette, so it sounded ok to me)….. 2014 and the album is remastered….I bought a CD copy and was happy , but not blown away……so that’s 16bit/44khz remember??…….I then buy a HiRes copy (24bit/192khz)…… and I’m even less impressed and quite disappointed. Well turn the bass up you fool…I hear you shout!!!….indeed…I should…. am I making my point??....Nightclubbing wasn't made on Digital technology, therefore it's unlikely to sound as it should on Digital.
So we are lucky if a Mastering Engineer can make an improvement...ofcourse, if the original recording was done digitally, then modern techniques might benefit. Anything before digital was mastered on reel to reel...that's tape remember.
For the last five years (when vinyl was supposedly out of fashion) artists were putting crackles on their digital recordings......unfortunately, now that vinyl is back in fashion, the irony of this is that it is difficult to tell if the Digital Hi Res copy of something recent with crackles on it...is a sound effect or someone has recorded a vinyl version to HiRes!!
Question: How do you know the HiRes copy you are buying, isn't an upsampled LowRes copy??
Is it my system? No, but if I had the money, I would be upgrading my system all the time, because I would always be striving for better….and when you use seperates…you’re never going to know what the item is that ….. isolated mains leads and interconnnects costing you thousands before you even start going down the hardware route. A retrospective consideration is that late 70's and early 80's Japanese HiFi seperates have better quality components than those of the late 80's and those throughout the 90's.... just a thought to throw in the equation.
Basically, after this little rant, here are some bullet point summarisations:
- If you can't hear the difference in anything and are happy listening to your music on whatever....good on yer!!
- I appreciate that most people won't have the facility to listen to music on different systems and compressions, so will get used to whatever they listen to
- Consider the past and never forget
- Obsession isn't a problem unless you make it one
- Top end goes as you get older and as long as you've got an end that works, then nothing else matters
- Digital is less forgiving as Analogue
Ring Modulator currently listens to his music on the following components:
JVC AX30 Stereo Integrated Amplifier driving B&W DM603 S3 Floor Standing Speaker
NAD C320BEE Stereo Integrated Amplifier driving Eno/Hafler Ambient positive custom made speaker.
JVC SEA E50 Graphic Equalizer
Arcam irDAC Digital Analogue Convertor
Apple MacBook running JRiver Media Centre
Technics SLD202 Record Deck with Ortofon VMS10E Mk2 Cartridge x 2
Technnics SLPG4 Compact Disc Player
When Mobile I listen to HiRes files on a Sony NWZA15 with Sony MDR-XB50AP Ear Buds
N.B. - when asked to go to presentations on Mediums, ensure it’s about recording mediums and not psychic mediums (Paul Zenon, it was still interesting!!)
Hopefully I've raised quite a few conversation points....please feel free to raise them here on this Blog(try and avoid social media as it is compressed and I find it tiring!!)