Hope for the future

June 9, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

There are many reasons why we launched Octave Records, but chief among them was to add to the small supply of high-resolution recordings as well as to help set standards of what we as the high-end audio community demand in the way of well-recorded material. To that end, I think we’re on the right track.

Part of the reason we felt compelled to add our voice into what seems like an empty wilderness is the deplorable state of most modern recordings. Seems the state of the art has been sliding backwards for years.

I was heartened to learn that a committee formed by the Grammys has been pushing to set some standards for high-resolution recordings. Though they are not taking a stance on either heavy-handed compression or the loudness wars, they are at least addressing the issue of resolution and…get this…pushing hard against not only MP3, but raising the sample rate above CD quality!

Imagine!

“THE REAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 44.1/16, 48/24, 96/24, 192/24 AND BEYOND
Is there truly a noticeable difference between MP3s and 192/24 files? Absolutely, but everyone owes it to themselves to listen and compare. In most cases the differences between CD-quality and 192/24 are at least noticeable, and frequently, they are stark. Skillfully mixed and mastered music with a wide dynamic range benefits dramatically from a hi-res workflow. For recordings such as symphonic film scores, classical music, or other recordings that feature acoustic instruments, hi-res audio is a perfect fit—the increased audio quality can be appreciated by virtually anyone who hears it. In the experience of this committee and the audio professionals we interviewed (including numerous rock, pop, and urban producers and engineers whose work is aggressive and powerful), recording, mixing, and mastering at resolutions 96/24 or better results in a final product that is both sonically superior and faithful to the sound of the final mastered mix.”

You can download the paper here.

I realize this is a task akin to steering the Titanic away from danger, but we gotta start somewhere and I am heartened to read that recording engineers are being told resolutions higher than 44.1kHz are audible and preferred.

Maybe there’s hope for the future.

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43 comments on “Hope for the future”

  1. ” … is the deplorable state of most modern recordings.” This is simply not true. In my experience, the vast majority I listen to are beyond reproach. Magazines like Gramophone, that has been independently reviewing recordings for almost 100 years, would agree.

    The single sentence that strikes me from this report is on page 6:
    “Can people really hear the difference, and do consumers care?”
    The answer is probably that, generally, they do not.

    As far as a recording standard, the report recommends: “Set your system default preferences to record at 96/24 [PCM] unless intentionally set otherwise.” For most of the high quality classical I buy, for example from Hyperion, this is the recording standard. It also seems to reflect the cost considerations of small studio operators with limited budgets.

    The report explains the basic problem with DSD: “The higher sample rates are intended primarily for studio use but there are very few available multitrack mix/edit systems at this writing with Sonoma, Sadie, and Pyramix leading the way.”

    I appreciate the limited audiophile predilection for DSD, but the analogy would seem more to be raising the Titanic than steering it away from disaster.

    1. SNTBCWS,
      You are right. Resolution is not the issue for great recordings. It is the quality of the recording session per se that matters. You don’t get any better above 16/44 for reproduction, even if you do get more leeway for recording.
      There are many amazing recordings today, and many poor ones. The same happens in every period. We have false recall where we only remember the good ones, or the good songs.
      Yesterday, by chance, we heard on Youtube a new tiny desk concert by some old Welshman, you may have heard of him. His name is Tom Jones. He recorded the tiny concert at Peter Gabriel’s studio. The sound quality is very good. And you can tell how they modify the microphone signal for him between songs. Highly recommended. Musically and sound quality. Even on Youtube. Which tells you that the technique is the biggest issue.

  2. To quote. “ Part of the reason we felt compelled to add our voice into what seems like an empty wilderness is the deplorable state of most modern recordings. Seems the state of the art has been sliding backwards for years.”

    I absolutely agree with this!! Sliding backwards from full and lush dynamic recordings is 100% true, but the politics as to why that is may be more complex than we think. It isn’t always the case where the band simply “wanted louder” while the engineer of course knows better but still just gives what the client wants. The other evil doer would be the record company and of course Radio-stations, which Jack up their recordings with a 5 band EQ compressor.

    I support Octave records and like what Paul said Octave records is kind of like an audiophile reward to those who have truly listened over the years and know the difference and understand and hear the modern decline.

    What my ears tell me is that sample rates in some cases really matter and that modern music, especially metal need to shape up into a fully grooving sine wave. 😉
    The last truly great audiophile grade metal recording I heard was 2019’s Fear Innoculum by TOOL. I was absolutely shocked for how good this recording sounded and it gave me hope that the tide can turn towards that kind of craftsmanship once again even for the metal genre.
    That album perfectly mixes old and new technologies just beaming with full potential.
    Don’t believe me? You gotta listen for yourself. 🙂

  3. I totally agree with Paul’s post – there is no substitute, in my opinion, to excellent audio quality. Lesser audio quality can be tolerated in numerous day to day situations but to sit down and listen to outstanding recordings on my digital set up is a little bit of ‘heaven on Earth….’

    Carry on the great work Paul and all at PS Audio – inspiring stuff !

    Richard Peace

  4. Paul, you should use octave Records not only to improve new recordings but also to cut older LP’s from their original master analog recordings and sell them that way. The same with CD’s. Burn them onto gold CD’s in high resolution. This would be similar to what Mobile Fidelity does. Of course you would need to get a license from the copywriters to do so. Audiophiles want their Pink Floyd Dark side of the Moon, their Rolling Stones Sticky fingers or Supertramp Breakfast in America preserved on higher grade LPs and CD’s. They don’t want a high speed digital recording spun onto an LP. Todays LPs are crap. They also want their favorite recordings preserved on gold CD disks not the cheap silver that oxidizes.

  5. Again, Paul you are to be commended for your ‘Octave Records’ venture,
    & all that that venture entails.
    Ultimately the audio market will decide on it’s viability by future sales.
    I listen to a great number of Redbook CDs that I am still impressed
    with regarding their ‘musicality’ to my ears.
    However, as you quite rightly say, “…we gotta start somewhere…”

    My hope for the future is that the WTO & the WHO will eventually
    grow some balls…we gotta start somewhere.

  6. An approach that raises recording standards has got to be welcomed but it becomes a niche within a niche. The majority of what we listen to is obviously already out there and not recorded at these higher resolutions. Can we expect that all existing music will be remastered (again) at higher resolution, I doubt it. If it were, would I buy it again, for the n’th time? My surprising answer to that question is “I might”, but only for a very few favourites. There is no way I would consider replacing everything.

    To return briefly to yesterday’s post and Paul’s first question. What is lacking in what I have? This is something you may well not be aware of until you’ve heard better. Equally it still applies to all of us, all of the time. Who can say they have perfect sound? Ignorance can be bliss though ultimately less satisfying.

    1. I’ve been buying music for many years. Every new format touts its advantages: Reel tapes, 4 Track, 8 Track, Cassettes, half – speed mastered 45 RPM albums (if these exist!), now CD’s. Music on DVD movie soundtracks can sound good, because of the higher speed & bandwidth. If converted carefully. (Not always true for the music mixed INTO soundtracks!) Try 2 or 3 formats, decide what sounds good, to you! As Paul says, “Nothing is perfect,” but some things sound pretty good! Today, with advanced A to D conversion, CD’s mastered from original studio masters, usually sound good, more consistently than the many records which I’ve purchased, over a long time. Sometimes, a bargain! One nice example I’ve recently acquired, which I like: “Jimmy James and The Vagabonds,” four albums on two discs plus bonus tracks, 2 CD’s. On the British BGO – ‘Beat Goes On,’ label. This label issues some exceptional material, including original U. S. issues. It would be very difficult for me to locate & acquire all of this material on original records. Not to mention, expensive! Atlantic released some of this in America, but Atlantic frequently makes ‘cheap,’ not so great pressings, especially singles. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Being a fan of the genre, it’s encouraging to read that symphonic film scores are mentioned as an example of a ‘perfect fit’ for higher resolution recordings. (I include symphonic video game scores in this genre.) I’ve noticed that even 44.1/24 recordings generally sound better than their 16-bit stable mates when both are offered and no higher resolution is available. Of course, I can’t say for sure whether or not it’s only due to the higher word width at that sampling rate or it’s because the engineers who use 24-bit already care enough about how their productions will sound so take greater care anyway. Either way, I’m certainly heartened by this push for recoding in higher resolutions.

  8. Picking up on Joe’s comment about CD oxidisation. It’s something we hear a lot about but is it actually that common? I have a lot of CD’s and seen many more. I can recall one that didn’t discolour but was such poor quality that it had holes and you could see light through the silver layer. I can think of two or three at most that have discoloured but it hasn’t affected playback, yet. I wonder if these are random discs or if it’s common to the pressing. The only specific one I remember is ‘The Best of Joan Baez’ on A&M from 1977.
    I know this is off topic but at least I kept it hi-fi related, today. 🙂

    1. Hey, Richtea, great name! I now have many CD’s. Looks like you want a low humidity environment, OR be very careful! (`True’ record collectors, have special rooms with temperature & humidity control.) Please don’t leave them lying around all over the place, outside of the cases, scratching up! As some do! I read. CD’s are SUPPOSED to be applied with a thin coat of lacquer, to retard corrosion. Obviously, some don’t.* I always replace my CD’s into the original containers, & carefully remove & replace the thin plastic outer wraps. Or, place the CD case into clean plastic `baggies.’ This works for me! I can only recall one CD years ago, which developed spots of corrosion which caused the CD to skip on some players. It was a ‘discount series’ CD by B. B. King, made by MCA. Years ago, MCA tried to build a factory to manufacture CD’s, in Southern California. Failed, had to stop, probably because they tried to cut corners. Today, CD’s are made in automated factories. Including expensive CD’s! * – I worked in Aerospace, fabrication, for many years. Whenever possible, planes just LOVE aluminum. Frames, outer skins, internal tubing. It’s relatively light, inexpensive, ‘gives’ with the flexing, during flight. Also worked for years, in large, complex tank farms. There are a number of precise, specific, expensive processes to protect airplane materials, including aluminum, steel AND titanium, from corrosion. Important, because, for example, many planes, commercial & the P3 – C, fly over the ocean. Salt air, is corrosive. Perhaps you will recall when a EP – 3E Aries, a P3 – C with special Top Secret Surveillance Electronics, was captured, years ago, by North Korea for `allegedly entering’ North Korean Airspace.

  9. Yes they demonstrate their cluelessness, but at least it’s a good sign as you say. Too few know what’s really important unfortunately.

    I recently talked to Audio Note UK’s Peter Qvortrup who consulted on my favorite Mozart Opera Recordings under Currentzis for Sony. I called him because those digital recordings sound so gorgeous for a digital one and even better on LP, so I wanted to ask how he got this so good as I couldn’t imagine Sony records analog.
    He confirmed they are hires sourced and yes his consulting on recording matters helped and the mastering/monitoring on an Audio Note setup used by the Sony crew and him, too.
    He said he made tests with the Sony colleagues for those performances for an alternative analog recording. Sony confirmed it clearly sounded better but unfortunately they are not equipped to process analog recordings anymore.

    Those albums are fantastic already, but they would be an absolute killer in AAA, oh man.

  10. The paper was published in 2018. So it hardly seems like new news. FR should check out who’s on the committee. 🙂

    It seems that resolution in and of itself is not the panacea. It also seems that the techniques used to produce any given resolution of a recording are more important. The higher res formats, when in the hands of those who have great techniques, allow recordings to excel even further.

    So why not record and use higher sample rates and more bit depth? If for nothing else preservation.
    After all if the 44.1/16 format is all one desires it’s very easy to down sample and produce the cd.

    Squashing the scourge called MP3 is admirable. Even Apple is headed into the higher res business this month, along with immersive.

    As the bandwidth to stream higher resolutions has increased, the D/A technology easily fits in a cell phone, along with unlimited data plans, then why deal with low res music. After all how many here are still satisfied with 78’s 8 tracks or cassettes? You want portable music you don’t even have to carry a cd or separate player anymore.

    1. One of the most interesting things that pops out at me from the paper Paul links to is…

      “So, it is generally held that A 2.8224 MHz DSD recording is similar in quality to a 96 kHz/20-bit recording and that with each increase in the sample rate, from double-, to quad-, and to octuple-rate DSD, the audio quality increases.”

      I’m in JB4’s camp as far as getting the music you love.
      As far as hi-res, doing some research before hand is essential if you are interested in that route.

  11. Fortunately my redbook cd’s sound from good to great. Absolutely not “deplorable”.
    But my “message” today is this : I am in John Darko’s camp…Buy music you like/love, NOT because it’s “hi-rez”. A well recorded redbook cd can sound fantastic and sounds better than most so-called hi-rez music of today.
    IMHO “hi-rez” is overrated. Besides, how much is RECORDED in hi-rez ? 5%, or not even that much…
    Buy equipment that sounds good to your ears. Not because it can do hi-rez and/or MQA.
    Hi-rez and MQA, at the moment still a niche world.

  12. There are two problems and they each must be faced. The sentence Steven pulled out of PDF sums it up.

    “Can people really hear the difference, and do consumers care?”

    First, why can’t some people hear the difference between CD sample rates and higher sampling rates? I believe some people cannot hear the difference. It is understandable that people who do not really care about music would not hear the difference, they simply don’t care. But we know from our own experiences here that there are people who love music and who have good sound systems ( I would call them audiophiles, but that might offend them ) that cannot hear the difference. How do you teach someone how to hear?

    Second, will consumers care ( i.e. will the buy hi-rez digital music )? Well, obviously, those of us who are already buying hi-rez digital music care. But, is that enough to sustain the business of hi-rez digital music? I define audiophiles as people who love music AND want the bbest SQ possible. Now I do not think that music lovers are a niche. I do, however, think that audiophiles are a niche. And right now I think that using my definition of audiophiles, that hi-rez digital music is bought mostly by audiophiles. Thus the current market is a niche within a niche. Is that enough to sustain the market for hi-rez music?

    I think that what Paul posted today is wonderful, however, it is going to be an uphill battle to enlarge and sustain it.

  13. “Do consumers care” is the antithesis of “build it and they will come.” It’s an irrelevant question to those with vision and guts.

    1. Here’s a line from the paper that probably sums it up best…

      “And now, most record companies require the delivery of hi-res masters because they recognize new opportunities to monetize better-sounding music. “

    2. I agree with you and tonlyplachy, but I think recording/distributing in DSD is preaching to the converted. I really wonder whether Octave Records will get anyone listening to DSD who aren’t listening to it already. Commercially, SACD tried and failed in the early 2000’s and DSD downloads have been a drop in the ocean of available music.

      Personally, I think audiophiles and Paul who argue HD PCM v DSD are mostly looking from the wrong end of the stick. It’s a difference, if it exists, that most can neither hear let alone care about. I’m currently installing a multi-function product in my house, which is aimed at the market that would normally listen to mp3, that sounds so good it easily encourages use of a 16/44 streaming service.

      CD and HD downloads, and streaming, have been around long enough that I suspect people who do listen at CD quality and above have already made their minds up what they are willing to pay for. I read recently that only about 10% of Qobuz/Tidal subscribers go above CD quality.

      1. 10% hi-rez streaming is better than I expected.

        I think a segment that should be courted by the higher quality audio industry is the young ( I’m talking under 30 ) vinyl junkies. These kids clearly are interested in music and are not just listening to MP3. I think this is the group that could be turned on to hi-rez and where future audiophiles could come from.

        1. My elder son is 24, been mad on music all his life, good guitarist, goes to lots of gigs and festivals, done student radio, has a large vinyl collection and now works for a company that designs audio systems. He’s never had any interest in anything beyond CD quality and you won’t persuade him otherwise. He will never be an audiophile either, it just doesn’t interest him. Most of his listening is on a decent pair of headphones, about $250.

          My younger son is 20 and his listening life started on YouTube and then moved to Spotify. He doesn’t know what CD quality is as he is of the post-CD generation. It is presumptuous of Paul and anyone else to assume kids their age know anything about bit depths and sampling rates. Most only know what formats work on their phones.

          1. Holy generalizations batman… Wait -there MAY be hope:
            My shop has dozens of pieces of cool vintage audio gear in my office – visible from the window and I am quite amazed at the amount of keen young ‘kids’ coming inside visibly hot & horny to look at it all and enthusiastically engage in conversations about their desire to start in or their current level in this hobby. They are into vinyl, often older music of all genres, LOVE the vintage gear, and are quite aware of the varying degrees of sound quality and eager to achieve better sound. And they are fairly well informed as the main focal point to the dialog and questions (yes they have MANY questions) are pertaining to speakers. I have a few pairs of (older) speakers including Magnepans, a massive Rotel and a Cocktail Audio, Niles speaker selector setup in my shop (buried amidst several half built police vehicles) that I am more than willing provide a short demo (when I have time). I also will let folk take a pair home for a month to demo if they show interest. (With placement instructions!!)
            So I’d say the passion IS alive and well at all ages – I assure you! And they remind me of the wide eyed & pleasured ear excitement I had in the late 70s – early 80s when perusing the audio stores listening & dreaming of owning. The advent and mass popularization of MP3 fast food did not extinguish the love of fine dining…
            If I’ve learned anything – it is that Altec Lansing Model 846Bs are “sick”, a McIntosh MAC4300V is “dope”, the Pioneer SX-D7000 is “lit” and the Magnepans are “swag”. Along with multiple odd hand gestures. I’m guessing this means they like them.

            1. My son bought his audio system when he was 15 at a well-known vintage audio store – they have a big business renting vintage kit for film and TV productions – it cost $1,000 and he still has it 9 years later. I doubt he’s ever heard of DSD and the last CD player he had was probably made by Fisher-Price. Vintage is good because it is cheap. High end audio is anything but.

              1. Cheap?? Priced out things like 70s Pioneer SX-1980, Altecs, Akai Reel to Reel, Western Electric tubes, transformers or drivers lately? $5 – $15K….

  14. Off Topic…

    Nice pic of Kevin in the latest Stereophile
    Is that you Paul slightly out of focus in the background selecting something from a parts bin? 😀

    1. Hey, let’s not be sarcastic! I’ve just ordered some items from Music Direct, high quality, unique albums, & CD’s: they only sell SACD, CD’s! Looks like, as with vinyl albums, SACD is selling enough to convert & perpetuate -. Paul should market some of his music through this company!

  15. Many of my friends are passionate about music. Since I and they are old coots, most of them do not have any reproduction equipment that I consider capable of playing even CD’s at their potential. I am the only person in this group that has a reasonable system in my view, but I have recently spent over $5000 in upgrades.
    So the elephant in the room is how much money does one have to spend on a system to enjoy the benefits of hirez. I can hear the difference, I only do digital now, but I am not going to spend over $10,000 on just the amplification section on my stereo.
    So I read with interest in these pages, but when Paul says he can hear the difference on his reference system I have to roll my eyes as his reference system probably costs as much as it did to build my house.
    My observation is, most people can’t hear the difference because the system that they are using is not capable of reproducing hi-Rez and thus they are not interested in purchasing it. And to them, their system is good enough…..

    1. As a `nascent’ Audiophile, I insist on proper grammar! It’s, “They and I are Old Coots!” And, please see my – mercifully brief – comment, below!

  16. The true secret is to make music good enough to benefit from a High Rez recording! Most new music I’ve heard is not that good putting it politely.

  17. Artists wanting higher audio quality. I wonder what their motivation might be? Do you think that the high rez recordings might sell for substantially more than the current LPs and CDs? It couldn’t have anything to do with the artists making more money could it? Most listeners (Paul’s audiophile audience excepted, quite possibly) probably don’t have the equipment to deliver the difference in sound quality. They’d be paying more and buying sound resolution that wouldn’t be reproducible on their systems. Don’t get me wrong. Improving sound quality over time is a laudable and worthwhile goal. But let us not forget that there may be motivations other than satisfying the sound-quality cravings of a public probably not capable playing, and quite possibly hearing (it does take deep listening), the difference.

  18. “they are not taking a stance on either heavy-handed compression or the loudness wars”
    So in other words they aren’t taking a stand on the issues that really matter. There’s absolutely no point putting out ‘high-res’ releases that are full of clipping distortion because a lazy mastering engineer pumped it all through a brick wall limiter.

    This document is dated 2018, BTW.

  19. Paul,
    While I’ve moved on to basically 100% digital, the nostalgia of setting a record on a platter, or better yet feeding a real-to-real, and viewing the cover often produces the best audio experiences (even if a bit limited and with their inherent intermittent cracks and pops).

    I wish more labels produced / issued real-to-real tapes, both new and reissued recordings (Octave Records?) as the years are not kind to this media (tape) and the selection of older recordings are limited and quite expensive. Any takers?

    1. There’s a post on You Tube concerning high quality dubs of Blue Note albums, from original master tapes, onto Reel tape at 15 ips, probably half track, on 10 1/2″ reels. So, you need a high quality reel deck to play back. The price? $750.00. I’m certain that this is a wonderful experience, though a ‘little pricey!’ (This could actually, believe it or not, be better than a high quality album – the famous engineer at Blue Note, `equalized’ the sound for the ‘average record buyer,’ rolling off the bass a bit, & so on! Is nothing, `Sacred!’) Back in the 1960’s, I had some of the prerecorded 7 1/2 reel tapes. Some – though not all – were spectacular! Wonderful fidelity, feels like you’re sitting right next to the double bass! Clear sound! The Audio Fidelity Dixieland tapes made me want to leave for New Orleans, immediately! Columbia House continued to make these for a time, though at the last, at only 3 & 3/4 ips.

  20. First, I would like to say that from my first comparison between DSD and Redbook, my thought was “I thought it was going to be subtle!”

    What I LOVE about DSD as a recording engineer is you can’t modify a one bit track. Those “DSD workstations” like Sony Sonoma all decimate the DSD to equalize, compress, splice, mix, and master the recording – in other words, any mixed, mastered, equalized, compressed or reverbed track is FAKE DSD (Octave Records). You can’t ‘multiply and add’ a one bit signal.

    Not only can I hear every processing knob, function and plug-in in a recording studio, I can hear mixing, panning and the INTENTION to splice. It has to be cutting edge music to make me listen even once to a mixed and mastered recording, and yet more extraordinary for me to pay for it. Most of the music I am following is streaming at 24/96 on Primephonic from boutique record labels, or my own DSF live concert recordings near coincident, small diaphragm condenser pair to 2track with ZERO KNOBS.

    That is when DSD really stands out, and you can hear the difference from 24/384 and DXD.

    I flunked a test comparing Redbook and 320K MP3 because it was all equalized, compressed, reverbed, mixed and mastered cuts. NO THANKS!

    1. Thanks for these thoughts. Indeed, DSD is sooooo much better than PCM it’s hard to quantify it – though as Richard Murrison has pointed out in his Copper article, DSD is another form of PCM. But let’s let that argument ride because I have yet to be convinced of that.

      I did want to correct one thing you mentioned. That Sonoma decimates DSD to do its work these making it fake DSD. To be accurate, that is what it does but only at the point where it actually does something. So, if we splice then the decimation happens only at the splice and everything is left DSD. Also, we never use Sonoma to do any level shifting or EQ thought it is capable of that. We just never do that.

      At the moment, everything at Octave remains either analog or pure DSD.

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