Hi-Res Audio Symposium at Capitol Studios

On June 1, I attended a hi-res audio symposium at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, CA—you know, the iconic building that looks like a stack of records on a multi-disc turntable. The event was presented by DEG (the Digital Entertainment Group) with support from Universal Music Group (which includes Capitol Records and many other labels), the Producers & Engineers Wing (P&E Wing) of The Recording Academy (the organization that hands out the Grammy Awards), and Sony.

Capitol-Sign

First up was the well-known musician and producer Don Was, who has produced recordings for such luminaries as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt and is now the president of Blue Note Records. He told us about remastering Wayne Shorter’s album Speak No Evil in hi-res audio (24-bit/192 kHz) in consultation with legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who had recorded the original in 1964. Don wanted to reproduce “the truth” of the recording, which Rudy said was in the vinyl pressing. So they listened to the vinyl and tried to match its emotional impact while capturing as much of the frequency spectrum and dynamic range as possible from the original master tape.

Capitol-Don-Was
Don Was spoke about remastering Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil in hi-res audio.

Next was a synopsis of a series of research studies conducted by Music Watch and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA, the organization that puts on CES). Among the findings was that nearly 90% of those surveyed in the age range of 18 to 54 want higher sound quality, and over 60% of them are willing to pay more for it. A second study also shows that younger—i.e., millennial—music enthusiasts value “sound quality as good as the recording studio” second only to on-demand as motivation to pay for a streaming service.

The presentation moved on to industry support for hi-res audio. All the major record labels are on board, including those within the Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music. In addition, there are now about 10,000 titles available for downloading from 12 providers. On the playback side, there are over 100 manufacturers that offer hi-res audio-compatible devices. At the event, Sony demonstrated several such products, including a portable Walkman player, Xperia smartphone, AV receiver, computer speakers, and soundbar.

Capitol-Sony-Portables
There were several portable hi-res audio rigs from Sony on hand, including the NW-Z100HN Walkman with MDR-1A headphones, NW-A26HW Walkman with MDR-100A headphones, and an Xperia X smartphone with MDR-1A headphones.

Capitol-Sony-AVR-CAS1
The Sony STR-DN1070 AVR was on static display, while the CAS-1 computer speakers were playing from a Sony laptop.

Capitol-Sony-Soundbar
The Sony HT-NT5 hi-res soundbar was on static display.

Of course, educating audio consumers about hi-res audio is critical, and the best way to do that is via direct experience. Magnolia Design Centers within Best Buy stores have hi-res listening stations at 80 locations, and Sony has partnered with Whitledge Design to build a hi-res audio demo vehicle called the Magic Bus, which roams the country giving consumers the opportunity to hear hi-res audio for themselves.

To avoid consumer confusion about which products actually support hi-res audio, the Japan Audio Society (JAS) created a logo that it licenses to hardware manufacturers—more than 50 so far. The logo indicates that a product supports at least 24-bit/96 kHz resolution as defined by the JAS, CTA, and DEG.

Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in collaboration with the DEG and the P&E Wing, created a separate Hi-Res Music logo that applies to digital content, whether it be downloads or streaming. In this case, the recording must deliver a minimum of 20-bit/48 kHz resolution, which is better than CD—a core requirement of hi-res music—since the best available master might not have higher resolution.

It also allows the use of approved data-packing technologies, such as MQA and MPEG 4 Audio SLS, which is a big help for streaming. Interestingly, MPEG 4 Audio SLS is an adaptive, scalable codec that can vary from lossless to lossy. According to the latest Hi-Res Music press release, “If the resolution of a recording falls below the required minimum standards of the Hi-Res Music definition at any time, the user will be made aware of this change.” How users will be made aware of this change is not specified.

Hi-Res-Logos
The Hi-Res Audio logo applies to hardware, while the Hi-Res Music logo applies to software.

The last presentation was a panel consisting of Nate Albert, Executive VP for A&R at Capitol Music Group; Jim Belcher, VP of technology and production for Universal Music Group; and Maureen Droney, managing director of the The Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Wing. Among the points they discussed was the importance of provenance—that is, how the music was recorded, mastered, and delivered to consumers. Maureen said that the P&E Wing is working on standardizing a way to include this info with recordings, saying that this context gives the music more value.

After the presentations, it was time to hear some demos. I started in the Studio A control room, where engineer Steve Genewick played several versions of Frank Sinatra singing “What’s New?” from 1958, which was recorded in the same studio we were sitting in. First, we heard a 24-bit/192 kHz transfer of the original vinyl, which sounded noisy and honky to my ears. That was followed by the 1990 CD release, which had essentially no noise but also sounded pretty hard and brittle. Next, Steve played the 2000 CD re-release, which had been dynamically compressed as part of the “loudness wars”—yuk! Then we heard the iTunes version (AAC data compression), which sounded very thin and small.

Capitol-Studio-A
Long-time Capitol recording engineer Steve Genewick at the mixing desk of Studio A, where many famous tracks have been recorded over the last 60 years.

The last clip was a 24/192 transfer from the original 1/4″ master mix tape, which had been recorded at 15 ips (inches per second). The sound was greatly expanded from any of the other clips, with greater frequency range—including the low end—and an openness that was unheard in the other clips. I would not have believed it possible, but the hi-res transfer from the analog master tape really did sound substantially better than any of the other formats.

Jim Belcher of Universal Music Group was also in the room, and I asked him how that could be, since analog tape at 15 ips does not have the frequency response or dynamic range to fully exploit hi-res transfers. He said, “I don’t know; it’s a debate. I think transferring in hi-res captures more of the room and microdetails.” Of course, there are many possible reasons why the 1990 CD and the recent 24/192 transfer sounded different—for example, the recent transfer was performed with a much newer and presumably much better analog-to-digital converter than what was available 26 years ago. Also, the CD could have been mastered quite differently than the 24/192 transfer. I’ve asked Steve Genewick to provide more details about both processes, and I’ll share that info when I can. But clearly, this was not a formal, rigorous comparison, which would have to be blind, not sighted; it was just an informal demonstration, so take it for no more than that.

Interestingly, Steve added that Capitol had been recording on 24-track analog tape until about 10 years ago, when 24/96 digital recording became good enough that people couldn’t tell the difference. Also, they continued to use analog tape for mastering for another five years or so beyond that.

Before I left Studio A, Steve played Beck’s latest single, “Wow,” which had been recorded digitally at 24/96 in that room. It sounded mighty clean, but the level meters on the mixer were pegged during most of the song, and the waveform on the Pro Tools display was at maximum amplitude nearly the entire time. Obviously, the track had been designed as a combatant in the loudness wars, and 24-bit resolution was a total waste, since the dynamic range of the track was only a few dB. When I asked about that, Jim said it was up to the artist and producer, not the recording engineer.

Out in the parking lot, Sony had its Magic Bus, which was designed and built by promotional partner Jon Whitledge over seven years. Starting with a Mercedes Sprinter SUV-like vehicle, which was chosen for its acoustic properties, Jon installed six speakers and three 12″ subwoofers with a total of 4600 watts of amplification (3300W for the subs alone). Acoustic treatments include 34 Helmholtz resonators and 20 binary-amplitude diffusers. A 200-pound/300 amp-hour battery powers the entire system when the engine is off.

Capitol-Sony-Magic-Bus-1
Jon Whitledge and Maureen Droney hold open the back doors of Sony’s Magic Bus.

Capitol-Sony-Magic-Bus-2
Here you can see some of the acoustic treatments as well as the three subwoofers and some of the electronics in Sony’s Magic Bus. Much of the interior is also signed by various musicians, including Jon’s favorite—and, as it happens, a personal friend of mine—jazz-guitar legend Mundell Lowe.

The system is time-aligned for the driver’s seat, which is where I sat for the demo. A Sony RSX-GS9 head unit played hi-res audio files from a USB memory stick. We heard Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” (24/44.1), Delta Rae’s “Run” (24/96), Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” (24/96), and The Persuasions’ “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (24/192). They all sounded great, but that was in a stationary vehicle with the engine off. I’m still not convinced that hi-res audio has any value whatsoever in a car driving down the road; even in the quietest vehicle, the noise floor renders the dynamic range of hi-res audio moot, and many frequencies are likely masked by noise.

In the end, I believe that the benefits of hi-res audio recordings compared with CDs—the current benchmark for mainstream digital audio—are real, but they are subtle and depend greatly on several factors. First is the quality and provenance of the original recording and subsequent mastering. Then there are the capabilities of the playback equipment; the player, DAC, amp, and speakers or headphones must be able to reproduce frequencies and dynamic range beyond CD specs. Finally, the environment in which you listen to music plays a crucial role; if it’s not well-behaved acoustically and the noise floor is not low enough, you won’t hear the benefits of hi-res recordings, even if the other factors are favorable.

Capitol-Hallway
The hallway leading to Studio A is filled with photos and memories.

All in all, this was an excellent and enlightening event, and I thank DEG, Capitol Studios, P&E Wing, Universal Music Group, and Sony for inviting me. It was a real treat to walk the same halls as so many immortal artists. Even better, Capitol Studios is celebrating its 60th year in 2016, making the event doubly special. Happy 60th, Capitol; may you enjoy 60 more years of recording the best music in the world!