Strange artifacts

May 2, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Bit Perfect engineer and friend, Tim Murison, sent me an interesting note about a strange artifact added to about 1/4 of all the music we stream.

In a blog post from software engineer, Matt Montag, he describes the following:

“A while ago, I wrote about my confusion regarding Weird Spotify Compression Artifacts. It turns out the artifacts I was hearing are not due to compression, but a result of audio watermarks that Universal Music Group embeds in digitally distributed tracks. This watermark is embedded in UMG tracks on Rdio, Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, and others. The watermark can also be heard in Universal tracks broadcast over FM radio. Universal Music recordings make up about 25% of most online catalogs, and its labels include Interscope, The Island Def Jam, Universal Republic, Verve, GRP, Impulse!, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Geffen, etc.”

While subtle, it surely ain’t nothin!

If you’re interested in discovering more about this added distortion to the music you’re downloading, go here for the info and examples.

I have long suspected something’s going on because to me Tidal doesn’t sound as good as Qobuz and Qobuz doesn’t sound as good as my stored original rips. Something’s afoot and perhaps this is the beginning of uncovering the truth.

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29 comments on “Strange artifacts”

  1. “afoot” or amiss?
    And then there’s the problem with ‘MQA’
    …maybe quality affected.

    My Geffen CDs are all pre UMG, the others that Paul has
    listed I don’t have in my CD library…except maybe for, “etc.”
    I still can’t see the point of streaming when I have over 1,000
    CDs in my collection & the sound quality is superior.
    I guess that I’m just one contented Dinosaur 😀

    1. FR how do you listen to new stuff? I’ve been able to listen to a whole lot of artists that I didn’t know existed, or explored genres that I would never have bothered buying the CD.

      1. I agree that something like Spotify is amazing for discovering new albums and artists. Even older stuff, I love going down rabbit holes reading about one artist then their old bands or influences.
        Perfect for background or parties etc.

        Then if I find something I really like I will go out and find the original on CD or Vinyl for my critical/listening on good system.

      2. Try FIP, French radio streaming on-line. One main channel, and several specialty channels. I don’t actually know, but I’m guessing selections are made by people, not algorithms.

      3. Hi Michael,
        I have a few friends who do, from time to time, suggest that I
        check out this new album or that new band.
        But I have to say that there is very little ‘new’ music that
        interests me long-term these days.
        I’m more likely to discover music from yester-year (pre-2000)
        that I wasn’t into back in the day, but I now find worthwhile
        listening to.
        And there’s always YouTube & headphones for music previews.

        1. I’m with you. I do stream and look for new music but end up down at the record store combing through the $1 and $5 bin for that overlooked gem.

  2. I had mentioned in a Paul’s post a number of years ago that I didn’t think music streamed through the regular services sounded as good as when I streamed my own ripped file through JRemote to my computer. I had mentioned this fact to a guy I met who writes for a number of audio publications and he said his research had shown that the ISP’s employed some kind of filtering for streamed music which he felt accounted for my observation. Since the Internet providers don’t know what my home computer/JRemote streaming is they did not employ the same filtering.

    I recall when I posted that here and a few other places the general consensus was I should have my hearing checked lol. Perhaps it was not filtering but these watermarks (which my home files ripped from CDs would not have) and that I wasn’t so daft after all!

  3. Paul,

    There is an update regarding watermarks in above link, dated 2015!, so old news – Matt now says, as of 2020…
    … “April 2020 Update: Most UMG tracks are now watermark-free on Spotify.
    It appears that watermarks are gradually disappearing from the Universal catalog “

    Unfortunately, folk that downloaded files from streaming sites that don’t allow further downloads after a month or so this won’t help them.

    https://www.mattmontag.com/music/an-update-on-umg-watermarks

  4. Theoretically perfect, lossless, accurate…practically compressed, jitter affected, bit-imperfect, not 1:1 copy-lossless with lossy production processes, too …brave new world 😉
    I expect further insights, just as in the last 30+ years, as probably all those who listen do.

  5. Yah. It seems like they’ve been talking about the same old crap for the last twenty years.
    For an industry where most of the artists are peace love dope – no matter what decade – they all sure want to make sure nobody can copy their product. And make sure that if you want the first 10 rows – you pay a premium to the tune of 500 a ticket.
    Where does the teenager or ‘regular Joe ‘ fit in here. I’m kind of tired of their politics while they are asking these kind of prices … probably being ‘pro’ watermark etc… maybe a bit off topic but …I find today’s artists to be ‘commercial’ artists. Heck they were complaining about cassettes in the 70s.

  6. When will they ever learn? I have never seen one group of people ( I mean the the suits who run the major music groups ) try so hard to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. 😮

    1. In case you missed my comment above, since 2020 “watermarks are gradually disappearing from the Universal catalog”, so folk streaming from Quobuz and other are getting updated files without the watermarks.

      Folks that have already downloaded would still have old files with watermarks. The industry is also changing so it’s difficult to keep up – e.g. some folk will have watermarks while others don’t in the same albums, also the watermarks that are still being used seem to be changing to.

      Only with spectrum analysers can you be sure it’s a watermark and no some other issue.

  7. I still remember the 1K notch from the early days of consumer digital. They never seem to run out of dumb ideas.

    There are ways of watermarking audio files that are inaudible. I ran some watermarking tests on the songs we mastered for American Epic and surprisingly the watermark was detectable even after low bit rate mp3 coding.

  8. Without listening to the examples my first thought is someone somewhere who was ripping or transcribing the files assumed they were perfect.
    When these identifiers were noticed they were excused by calling them watermarks. Early monty python flying circus digital versions had some of the laziest undiscovered errors I have ever come across.

  9. I guess I am not so picky when it comes to sound. I consider my setup to be pretty resolving and yes there are lousy recordings and great recordings in just about all formats, but what you are talking about seems to be no worse than the ambient drone of traffic, wind or the sound of your HVAC system in your home. Maybe it is because I am aging and my hearing is not what it used to be but I try not to let minor distortion distract me from the enjoyment of the music. By the way, I have Qobuz and my listening is about 75% classical.
    Maybe I,m just not an audiophile, at least not to the extent some people are.

      1. Alan, I saw your comments but I have had Qobuz for a couple of years and have never noticed any extraneous noise. I’m not saying it wasn’t there, I just haven’t noticed it.

        1. Hopefully, you’ve been lucky, as watermarks seemed to have been removed from streaming around two years ago, with less noticeable ones tweaked even before that. Sounds like you are an audiophile to me, in that you care about what your music sounds like, but prefer to just enjoy what your listening to rather than analyse it.

          My hindrance is tinnitus, very minor from what I understand, but for me it can oddly seem to make me more susceptible of sound ‘issues’ in recordings. Mostly I try to just listen to the music, which I can do when the mood takes me. It’s just annoying that noise is added we don’t need, like watermarks, that academics decide can’t be heard, then they create new versions because ‘some folk’ can hear them…

  10. And it’s strange, so strange
    You’ve got to pick up every stitch
    You’ve got to pick up every stitch
    Must be the season of the witch*

    — Donovan (a not unreasonable minor paraphrase)

    * and her/his/its corporate attorneys. Well, somebody had to say it.

  11. I really appreciated this post.

    The watermarking sound is something I had noticed before but could never really put my finger on. If you were to examine my Google search history you would probably find a monthly check on “When is Spotify HiFi being launched?”… I—apparently, like many others—have been bothered by this sound and figured it was a compression issue.

    Unfortunately, the more I learn about the music industry, the less I like it. Between the loudness wars and this, it seems like most of their recent innovation has been focused on how to make a worse-sounding product.

  12. My LPs occasionally have watermarks on them, but a quick spin through my record cleaning machine usually gets rid of them. 😎

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