MOBILE FIDELITY SOUND LAB
A SMORGASBORD OF QUALITY SOUND
By Mark Waldrep
I love listening to music. The magic way that a great song or composition can excite and connect with both your emotional and intellectual self is something that I believe is unique to music. That's why I learned to play the guitar when I was a teenager and why I continued my studies in an academic setting years later (I ended up with a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA). I wanted; no I had to somehow be part of this incredible art form. After moving from the Midwest to Los Angeles and discovering that I wasn't the only one dreaming about a career in front of a microphone, I turned away from the performing and writing side of music and became a recording engineer and producer. I've been doing it for over 30 years now.
During my career, I've recorded and released recordings made on a variety of formats. I started with analog tape, purchased one a couple of the first Digital Audio Workstations (Sound Tools AND Sonic Solutions) back in 1989 and currently own and operate a state-of-the-art HD-Audio studio near Santa Monica. I also started a music label 12 years ago. When we first started, I released my tracks on DVD-Audio/Video discs. These days, my specialty label produces and releases new "high definition" audio recordings on Blu-ray discs, which is a great format for movies but is also capable of reproducing music in high definition. We also make them available through high-end digital download sites.
And we've garnered a pretty loyal following of audiophiles that seem to appreciate the unique "sound" of our tracks in both stereo and fully immersive 5.1 surround. It's feels pretty nice to get 5 star reviews or have a customer write the words "Holy Grail" in reference to one of our productions via email.
But there are a whole variety of labels (large and small), musicians, engineers and producers that produce and issue remarkable recordings that follow a different production trajectory than my own…and they appeal in their own unique ways. If your goal is to produce a "hit" electronic dance track, your sensibilities and production techniques will be tailored to meet that goal. Each "target" category demands its own production path. They are all valid.
I spent part of last weekend at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. It's an annual event that brings out musicians and audio geeks of all stripes. As I made my way through the crowded halls looking for the latest gadgets in the recording arts, I happened upon Laurence Juber (who has recorded a number of projects with us). He's widely recognized as one of the finest finger style guitarists in the world and a former member of Paul McCartney's band Wings. After he finished performing, we chatted briefly and he told me that he had a new project coming out. He told me that it would be available as a vinyl LP as well as a traditional CD. The session tracks were recorded on a multi-track analog machine AND digitally at 96 kHZ/24-bits. He wanted to know if I would be interested in releasing the HD-Audio files through my digital download site. He went on that the 176.4/24-bit transfer of the mixed and mastered analog version "sounded the best" to him. I'm not sure that I would agree. The project that we did over ten years ago has become a "recorded guitar reference disc" for its dynamic range and extended frequency response. And I didn't do any mastering on it at all.
His assessment could have been the start of a passionate argument over recording formats. There are a lot of forum and FB discussions over vinyl vs. analog tape vs. CDs vs. DVD-Audio vs. SACD vs. Blu-ray or HD soundfiles. I've had these discussions and they never end well. Music software and hardware bring forth some of the most passionate arguments this side of politics and religion. When the plain fact is that everyone is entitled to enjoy music on whatever format works for him or her.
Just today I was reading a piece about a couple of producers that are using a 1940's era 78 rpm lacquer recording device to capture the soundtrack to their movie. Others are entranced by the "warmth of analog" while others appreciate the sonics of analog tape (yes, there are many reel to reel machines still in operation and individuals dedicated to playing quarter in analog tape). For me it's about the hyper realistic, purist sound of a voice or instrument delivered without the heavy processing that is part of most productions and in full surround. They are all "flavors" of sound to be enjoyed on their own merits. Some may measure better than others but the end result is the connection that a listener feels.
After a lifetime of seeing formats that deliver better and better levels of fidelity, we've actually entered an era when consumers have a choice between heavily compressed MP3 soundfiles for their portable devices (less than ideal fidelity) and ultra high end, surround music that is played at home or in high end car system. They're all flavors to be tasted and enjoyed. However, even lowly MP3 files can be infused with more fidelity and dynamic range.
The variety of formats available to music lovers is wider than it has ever been. You owe it to yourself to audition as many different "sound flavors" as possible. Who knows you might find a new "sonic food" that moves you in way you've never experienced before. I know that's what happened to me when I started producing and listening to new high definition, surround music tracks.
LET YOUR MUSIC OUT!
I admit it, I love music. Music has followed and surrounded me my entire life. From my earliest memories I enjoyed the sound, the feelings and the experiences of music. I have made it and studied guitar, piano, brass instruments and played in a band both in and out of school. When no music is around I may hum, or whistle and like most have sung in the shower. I do not think I am unusual in the love of music, I think it is a universal part of the human experience. It is not just film or video but life with a soundtrack. So, it has been a great pleasure and bit of a mission to work on the improvement of the audio experience and fortunately my career has allowed me to move sound forward.
I worked for years in the analog world trying to control noise, boost fidelity and allow mobility to sound. While we made a lot of progress, the physical realities of vinyl records or cassette tapes remained an Achilles Heel to fully freeing the sound to move and play where and when we wanted. Fortunately, we were successful in developing digital recording and playback systems, and I am honored to have played a role there
Digital systems allow us to separate the content from the medium, so no more record scratches or cassette noise. The lack of physical parts has allowed us to make portable playback systems that don't skip or flutter. Today, more people than ever are listening to more sound, at more times and in more places than was ever possible before. While digital audio has made that possible it has taken some compromises and a lot of work.
The first digital recordings were under watch from content creators for fidelity to the music and experience. Almost all of us wanted to ensure that when we lost the scratches and noise, we did not also lose the life, air and experience of the music. We adopted the then 16 bit 44.1K sampling system as it pushed the limits of our technical capability at the time while giving us the full range of sound the human ear could hear and ALL the music. While some of the marketing speech may have been a bit hyperbolic we did feel we gave the world "pure, perfect sound forever" at least as well as we could. As with most things, we have continued to work on technology and today we often record at 24 bit with 192K sampling and sound continues to improve.
Meanwhile, one of the dreams of setting music free was to let you listen whenever and wherever you wanted. We tried making portable players, but those using CDs or tapes still suffered from the physical issues of moving motors and parts and the limits of how much media you could carry. The reality of storage cost and processor power meant the units we could build had very limited song lists, and with such little improvement in experience we could not improve the mobile music experience.
Then came the development of mp3, which as an audio subset of how we were digitizing video provided a highly efficient (translate low amount of data) alternative. mp3 and the other "lossy" compression variants changed a lot and we could make portable players that carried hundreds or thousands of songs in your pocket. History is clear, people loved it and so we have a world today that enjoys music all the time and everywhere.
Unfortunately though, mp3 and other variants throw a lot of data away in order to work. It remains amazing indeed that we can recognize and enjoy the music when as much as 95% of the data is gone. This is much like some of today's ads where we can recognize maps with very little data on them, but nonetheless much is lost. This is why I am so excited about the new High Resolution Audio devices and tracks that are now available. They keep our first promise of retaining the whole sound without the troubles of the medium, while also giving all the benefits of portability that mp3 offers.
Since the technology of processors and storage have advanced so much, we can now handle these larger files and pay no price in convenience for doing so. A Hi-Res player can hold hundreds or thousands of songs in your pocket and there is no reason popular streaming services or download sites cannot also adopt these formats. There is a whole of music too, as ALL music is recorded to start in Hi-Res.
All the sound, with all the convenience sounds good to me. So, as a music lover I invite you all to hear the latest and gain the immediacy of what your favorite artist or producer wanted you to hear. Bring more life to your music experience and own the sound as the artist intended. Please join me and let's listen. The differences are dramatic and obvious and the soundtrack of life just got better.
By Robert Heiblim
BlueSalve Professional Consulting and Interim Management
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