I’m excited to finally be able to add digital downloads to my new music store! Why is that exciting, you ask? Well, in addition to your usual industry standard MP3 download, I can now offer 96K-24bit downloads, which sound a whole heck of a lot better than compressed MP3s or even a CD!
Most people do not realize that while video (TV, DVD, BlueRay, etc…) have been getting better and better in quality, audio recordings are moving in the opposite direction. Why is that? When you think about it, the home stereo, the Hi-Fi, used to be a very important part of everyone’s house. Even people who really weren’t that interested in music still had a pretty decent stereo.
Sound recording technology was progressing at a pretty decent pace through the 20th century, and the creation of the 33 & 1/3 vinyl LP was a breakthrough in sound reproduction for the masses. I’ll dig into the virtues of vinyl in another blog entry, but all you need to know now is there is a lot of musical information encoded into those tiny grooves! It has a pretty wide frequency range, and with a good turntable, has the ability to imitate sound with amazing quality and precision. The problem was, of course, it was hard to listen to an LP in your car, riding a bike, snowboarding, etc… Actually, someone did make a record player for an automobile, but I wouldn’t let them borrow any of my records!
From the need of transportation came tape, first 8 tracks, then cassettes, which gave rise to the Sony Walkman. That was a breakthrough product, but it sacrificed quality for portability. Here lies the long path to diminishing quality– ease of use over sound quality.
As we entered the digital age, Sony once again popularized a new portable format– the compact disc. The emphasis is on the word “compact”. Like anything that moves into the commercial realm, things become standardized. The final version of the compact disc was no exception. One of the goals of the medium was to be able to have all of Beethoven’s 9th symphony on one disc. To do that, you need to compress the music to fit the dimensions of the commercial CD, which is 4.7 inches in diameter.
Yes, you read correctly. Music is actually compressed to fit on a CD. When most people think of compression, they think you’re talking about mp3s, but in fact, there is a certain amount of compression that happens to music when you squeeze it onto a CD. They drop frequencies that they figure the human ear can’t hear. Well, yes, maybe from an academic standpoint you would fail a hearing text when trying to hear what they left off of a CD, but that doesn’t count for how those inaudible frequencies affect other frequencies that are well within our audio range. As a musician, I immediately notice how different a drummers cymbals sound on a CD compared to what I’m used to hearing in person. You can hear the initial attack, but it’s hard to hear the tone. However, on a vinyl record, you not only hear the tone of a cymbal, you can hear how thick it is and how thick the drummers sticks are.
The next evolution was prompted by Apple’s iPod. The first iPod had a paltry 5GB hard drive. Well, a 74 minute CD contains about 740MB on information on it. Who’s going to pay for something that only holds 10 records on it? In much the same way somebody figured out how to squish music onto a CD, somebody figured out an algorithm to drop even more “nonessential” frequencies from music so that you can fit more tracks in a smaller space. As Apple’s original catch phrase for the iPod said, “Imagine 1,000 songs in your pocket.” Sure, 1,000 songs are great, but when you compare those ultra compressed songs (i.e. MP3) to the actual CD, you will hear a drastic difference in the quality. Of course, if you’re commuting to work on the subway, it probably doesn’t matter much.
For those of you reading between the lines, the moral of the story is the only reason we had to start compressing music files was simply to fit them into tiny spaces. First, a physical CD, the secondly, expensive hard drives. Now a days, hard drives are cheap! Space is no longer a concern, but people seem to have forgotten what they’ve sacrificed to get to this point– sound quality!
Well, this is all beginning to change. musicians are now beginning to release downloads of their recordings in what is being dubbed “HD Audio”. Basically, the files have DOUBLE the music information of a regular CD. You can download them and listen to them through iTunes in your home stereo, or take advantage of any of the new affordable equipment out there that will let you stream the files over your home network. Of course, since they’re just digital files, you can also convert them to regular CD size files and burn them to a CDR and listen to them in your car. You can even, sigh, make them mp3s if you really feel the urge. Think of it as future proofing your music library AND enjoying quality sound production. I have to say that, even though I’m crazy about vinyl, HD Audio files are beginning to give vinyl a run for its money.
What is an HD Audio file?
These days, when you record a CD, the engineer captures the music at a very high bit rate, usually 96K 24bit. Compare that to a decent quality MP3, which is usually 44.1K 16bit (and further compressed to a measly 256kbs)… well, you get the picture. If you’re listening though music on tiny ear buds in the subway, you might not hear a difference, but if you play the two types of files though ANY kind of half way decent stereo or headphones, then you won’t believe your ears!
HD audio is the future of digital music. Think about the trend of video, from black and white TV sets to the giant 55″ LED LCD wall mounted monstrosities that we have now. That has been an amazing progression of quality, right? Now think of audio. In the late 1950s, we had amazing turntables and tube stereos, which progressed in quality at an amazing rate until the discovery of the iPod. Everything went downhill from there, in terms of consumer audio.
Why did that happen? Well, hard drive space was very expensive back then, so file size was a major concern. You can fit a whole lot of MP3s on the original 5GB iPod, but only about six recordings at the standard CD size. That is the ONLY reason MP3s were created– small file sizes for expensive hard drives.
Well, it’s now the 21st century, and hard drive space is not an issue anymore. Heck, even internet connection speeds are becoming less of an issue. Why pay for something that’s less? Would pay full price to watch Avatar in black and white? That’s really what it amounts to.
An HD Audio is a music file that contain ALL of the musical information that was captured by the recording studio during the recording process. As I mentioned earlier, those files were then chopped in half and mastered for CD, but now musicians are beginning to master the 96k files as well.
The sound quality is amazing. You can hear my fingers on the string, you can hear the hammers of the piano strike, you can hear the drummer drooling… You are pulled INTO the studio with the band. Music has so much more impact.
A Note About FLAC Files
The application iTunes doesn’t support FLAC, but don’t worry. One you have the files on your computer, you can convert them into any type of file you wish- MP3, Apple Lossless, Apple AAC… What’s important is, you are getting ALL of the musical information in the file. For the Mac, I use a free application called XLD, which you can download here.
To play these files in iTunes, simply tell the application you are using to re-encode the FLAC files as Apple Lossless files without compressing. Then you’ll have a set of files that are 96K-24bit Apple Lossless files that iTunes can work with.
Why About Me?
I am very excited to be able to offer a HD audio file download of my last CD RE:Person I Knew – A Tribute To Scott LaFaro. The download zip file contains all of the music tracks, as well as PFD files of the artwork and liner notes.
My co-op lead trio Tri-Fi also offers CDs in 88.2–24bit HD downloads, which you can order off of out website www.Tri-Fi.com. Some engineers like to record at 88.2 rather than 96k for reasons that expand beyond the scope of this blog! However, they’re still HD Audio files.
More To Come!
I will certainly be posting many more articles about stereo equipment and sound, so please check back often!