Angry Metal-FiAngry Metal-Fi is a series of articles that are cross posted on Angry Metal Guy and Metal-Fi as a collaborative effort to evangelize dynamics in metal.

Written By: Alex-Fi

With bands like Iron Maiden, Opeth, and even Megadeth releasing their music in high-resolution audio these days, it seems like the format has finally arrived. So in today’s episode of Angry Metal-Fi we’re going to put our spotlight on high-resolution audio and hopefully help you avoid the many pitfalls and traps that plague this very misunderstood topic.

So what exactly is high-resolution audio anyway? Let’s consult Wikipedia: “High-resolution audio, also known as High-definition audio or HD audio, is a marketing term used by some recorded-music retailers and high-fidelity sound reproduction equipment vendors.”

Notice something? Not one mention of bit-depth, sample rate, or even format to speak of. Not a one. That’s because there is no industry wide accepted standard of what high-resolution audio really means. So from a purely technical standpoint, the term “high-resolution audio” is as Wikipedia states, purely a marketing term, and a very nebulous one at best. Its connotation however is usually defined as any digital audio file that has a higher sampling rate than the venerable CD, or 16-bit/44.1kHz to be precise. But as you will soon learn, that loose definition doesn’t really tell you whether or not a digital file is truly high-resolution either.

John Siau, Benchmark Media’s head engineer, has a very insightful blog post entitled, “What High Resolution Audio is Not“, that strikes at the heart of the problem with high-res audio these days. I encourage you to peruse the entire post but its main takeaway is this: high-resolution audio is not high-resolution audio unless the entire recording and playback chain is performed in high-resolution. As Siau astutely points out, if any single low-resolution device or process is introduced in the recording or playback chain, it’s sufficient to render a low-resolution result. For example, if you needle drop an album at 24-bit/192kHz that was originally recorded in 16-bit/44.1kHz, then the resultant digital file is not high-res. Same is true when an artist introduces low-resolution audio to the mix; that’s not high-res audio either.

Metal-FI 01

Worse yet is even the engineers themselves get confused when they talk about high-resolution audio. For example, when Iron Maiden announced they were releasing their entire back catalog in high-res, this is what Tony Newton, the band’s recording engineer, had to say, “When a lot of these tapes were last captured it was in the 1980’s, early days of digital and only 44.1khz/16bit files were possible. On top of this the new A/D convertors are far superior now, and of course it is possible to produce files of far higher resolution.” Oh it is possible, but not from those original analog tapes. The best Newton can muster is a high-resolution digital copy of a low-resolution analog recording.

The industry has tried to address the problem of recording providence but so far they’ve had very little success. To make matters worse, even if you do trust the artist or label to do the right thing in the studio, the mastering engineer typically ruins the recording in the end anyway. Again, Iron Maiden is another shining testament to that fact. Even if I put aside the technical discrepancies of trying to create high-res audio from low-res recordings, most of the new Iron Maiden remasters are significantly more compressed than their original versions. So what’s better: Loudness War style mastering in HD or highly dynamic “low-res” CD quality recordings? Personally, I’ll take the latter every single time.

But putting all the production issues aside for a moment, do high-res recordings always sound more transparent than their equivalent CD counterparts? Statistical speaking, the answer is no. Put simply, the average listener will not be able to tell the difference between a CD quality master versus its higher resolution one. Even using a Pono.

However, that’s not the right question to begin with. The real question is this: does a high-resolution recording chain offer any significant technical advantages over a standard-resolution one? Absolutely. Even though 16-bits has 96dB of dynamic range (and 120dB effectively), a larger bit-depth of say 24-bits gives even more room for engineers to work with (144dB), which is especially important when they’re adding a lot of DSP generated effects. Here, 24-bits can be a godsend since it can mitigate any unwanted noise or distortion that might trickle in during the mixing process. Same is true for oversampling which has been employed since the dawn of the CD to make digital-to-analog conversion more fluid. Though the Gibbs phenomenon will probably not ruin your day like it does for so many audiophiles, higher clock rates can make filter design a lot easier. In fact, many ADCs oversample the incoming analog waveform regardless of the release’s ultimate target sampling rate anyway. Moreover, the techniques of upsampling and oversampling have been shown to help reduce quantization noise, jitter, and many other technical buzzwords that may or may not even audible in the end. Still, provided one does not go overboard with insane clock rates, the bottom line is that these techniques are invaluable tools to engineers and help solve real world problems in digital audio design.

Metal-FI 02

Yet the biggest reason of all to be on team high-res is that it gives labels a release vehicle to produce high quality masters – just like vinyl. Provided a recording was not completely ruined in the mix a la Fallujah, a label can go back to the original recording and right the wrongs performed in the name of the Loudness War. And any band that commits to releasing their next magnum opus in high-res hopefully realizes that like vinyl, the high-res version doesn’t need to be subjugated by the same volume requirements as the CD, and as a result, a dynamic master pops out. Obviously, it doesn’t always work that way (DR5 and 0dbFS. Stay classy Jens. -Dave), but hopefully labels and bands will hear our cries and act accordingly.

So in the end I want you to make a higher resolution when it comes to, well, high-resolution: it’s not the sampling rate that makes or breaks a recording, but how the whole recording was actually made. Understand that until the industry standardizes high-res audio as a format and even more importantly, has a labeling system in place to guarantee said format’s recording providence, every single high-resolution release should be approached with extreme caution. Put simply, do a little research first before plunking down your hard earned change for a high-res release because in the end, you just may wind up wasting a lot hard disk space. Caveat emptor.

 

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  • Kalsten

    Yes. Yes. I know some of the words used in the article.

    • “What do you read, my lord?”

      “Words, words, words.”

  • Roquentin

    I know, I know, talk about the immeasurable advantages that DSD brings next! /s

    P. S. Great, informative post that touches upon all the most important aspects of the HIREZ OR BUST myth.

    • I am planning to do a whole segment on DSD soon (actually that was this article’s follow-up).

  • I want a whole Angry Metal-Fi on the Iron Maiden remasters.

    • sssgadget
      • Wilhelm

        It’s so sad that these engineers who supposedly love Iron Maiden’s music would release this garbage, It also begs the question – why the fuck do you need to remaster all Maiden albums a third fucking time?

        • sssgadget

          Because $$$$. OCD people want complete editions of every release.

      • DIMENSIONAL BLEEDTHROUGH

        It was the same with those Judas Priest reissues from a couple of years ago. Just squashed into oblivion.

  • AlphaBetaFoxface

    Pffft… noob

    Clearly your ears aren’t tuned well enough to fully comprehend the momentous depth of sound High Resolution Audio files produce. My fellow scholars mock your poor taste of hearing with a mighty laugh.

    I agree 100% on being cautious. Never understood High Resolution. While there are some mighty fine EQs designed to make certain old-but-golds sound great (take the Ultra HQ re-issue of Onset Of Putrefaction on YouTube), you are right. It will happen again and again until the whole world knows that High Res doesn’t = better audio

  • ronin1572

    I find, I much prefer re-release packages that contain extras such as rare tracks or live performances, to ones where the sound was tweaked. These days i listen to a lot of music off my phone as opposed to sitting at home. Also is Iron Maiden in the Guinness book, for most released albums. If not they should be.

    • JJnetZach

      Nah, there are other artists who have released loads of albums compared to Maiden; The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Johnny Cash are good examples.

  • manimal

    Inquiring minds want to know… what else could Newton do but make a high-resolution copy of a …low-resolution… analog tape? We’re discussing high fidelity audio here, so for the sake of the argument let’s assume his final print to the bus tapes didn’t degrade since he last gave them a spin in, uh, what…1903?

    • Not a whole lot. He could do for instance a direct transfer to vinyl I suppose?

      • manimal

        OK, so why would a transfer to vinyl help? As you said yourself, the new digital transfer could not be a better than the analog source material. And now you’re transferring your analog tape, probably with a dynamic range of around 80dB, to a vinyl, which would have an even smaller dynamic range of say, 70dB. Compare this with the much-maligned CD, which has a dynamic range of 96dB. So unless I misunderstood you, it kind of… doesn’t make sense.

        What I’m driving at is that Newton was (in my opinion) quite correct in assuming that he’d get a higher quality digital version of the record by doing a tape transfer with better A/D conversion.

        Given that you concur with Siau, and that you feel that top of the line analog tape is “low resolution”, I can only draw the conclusion that you feel that no recording chain featuring high-end analog tape can be high definition (whatever what term might mean to you). If this is indeed so, I can only state that I kindly, but firmly disagree with you.

        Analog tape is still around in high-end commercial facilities, and it’s not because of nostalgia. It’s because, despite an inferior resolution, it uniquely and positively influences the sonic qualities of the recording. Engineers who can afford a hybrid mixing system choose the best of both worlds and combine that by doing OTB summing, quite often to tape.

        Let’s take 10,000 days by Tool as an example. It was engineered and mixed by Joe Baressi and mastered by Bob Ludwig. All instruments got tracked through a Studer tape deck, then converted to digital from the tape. Eventually Bob Ludwig finished up with a 24bit, 96kHz master. So according to your line of reasoning this master is most definitely not high definition? I can assure you they used a money signal chain. I can assure you that the tape machine would not have been there if it really provided an inferior medium.

        So, again, my opinion: it doesn’t make sense to discuss HD outside of the digital realm. What’s the point of recording straight to DAW at insane bit-and sampling rates if the end-product is, subjectively-speaking, not going to sound as good as something that first wound up on analog tape? If you bypass the analog tape you’ll get something that’s unarguably more “accurate” in terms of dynamic range, but you’d be missing out on the wonderful subtleties of tape saturation and compression.

        “High definition” can, in my opinion, only be considered at the first point of A/D conversion.

        • Wait a minute, you are conflating multiple issues here.

          Just real quick, the vinyl comment was not saying to transfer it to vinyl for vinyl sake, but to actually release the analog tapes as a vinyl release. There are some who are actually advocates of this and feel anytime ADC involved, the signal degrades (AnalogPlanet right now has an interesting idea of pressing one master from an analog source where one side will be a pure analog transfer while the other will go through ADC conversion and then have everyone ABX it).

          In the Iron Maiden case the fact is you ONLY have analog tapes to work with. And tape as a medium as you pointed out and my link shows has a lot of limitations, and is certainly not the same resolution as a true 24-bit/96kHz digital recording. Tape is notorious for FR roll off and its characteristics change depending on the tape deck used, the tapes themselves, and even the time they sit in the backroom closet!

          But the bottom line is that when the signal was processed through tape it added noise, hiss, and others form of distortion (whether you think it will ultimately sound better or not is immaterial to the core discussion at hand).

          So yeah, as I said in the article, he can make a high-resolution copy of a low-resolution or *lower-resolution* recording if you prefer. However, there is no doubt to what Norton said, the ADC conversion here will be better than it was many years ago and as a result, the original analog signal will be better preserved (for better or worse).

          But more importantly, it allows him to use a full 24/96 mastering chain which was the goal here and a laudable one (see my 2nd to last paragraph). Unfortunately, the Loudness War got involved in the end. Bummer.

          I would argue you that analog tape is still around mainly for nostalgia or the band/engineer wants to add a little “natural” compression and second-harmonic distortion an analog chain brings to the table instead of having to use digital processing to simulate it – not because it is somehow a higher-resolution format compared to its digital alternatives. No friggin way.

          Btw, can you point me to a modern classical performance that uses 2″ analog tape to track it? If there is ONE medium of music that has the most spectral information to capture, I think we can all agree it’s classical. Since the mid-90s, the classical recording industry has been completely and utterly dominated by digital recording gear. Why? Higher-resolution of course! :-)

          In conclusion, I respect that there are folks out there who love the sound of analog and love to work in the medium. however I don’t accept that it is a high resolution format in itself.

          • manimal

            While I suspect that we’re going to end up agreeing to disagree, I’d like you to answer the following yes/no questions. :)

            1. So, yes/no: given that Tool (by way of example) have always tracked to tape before doing the A/D conversion, would you consider them delusional in believing that their 96kHz / 24bit master is of a higher quality than if they just went along with garden variety 16bit/44kHz?

            2. Your linked article takes issue with tape because of frequency response and dynamic range. Given that a well-maintained analog deck operated at 30 IPS can accurately capture frequencies up to 30kHz, may I, yes or no, assume that you are a sentient bat?

            3. Still on your linked article, and the dynamic range… you cannot meaningfully compare the dynamic range of analog tape and a digital file. If you believe it’s possible to do this, then you’d come to the conclusion that analog tape is what? 12-14bit with that modest maximum of 80dB range? In other words, (and according to the logic you apply), it’s not worth it to capture your analog tape master in anything exceeding 12-14 bit. Yes or no?

          • 1. No, and as I said, because the original tapes were ADC’ed at 24/96, they got a higher-resolution copy of a lower-resolution recording. They could have most certainly used 16/44.1 ADC but then they or Bob L. might have had to upsample it again since he may want to use DSP effects or other plugins without relying on the plugin’s ability to upsample and downsample the bitstream properly, i.e. it would be cleaner if he did the whole mastering stream at one sampling rate instead of having different plugins constantly reclock it potentially adding phase and indirectly unwanted distortion. This is in addition to the archival one I will make in my answer to question 2.

            2. No. I have no idea what your point is. The idea is to get the highest-resolution archive of the original analog tape so it can go through a modern mastering chain. Yeah, like I said, you can do that at 16/44.1kHz but you do risk cutting off inaudible noise and so from a purely archival perspective, that is a bad idea. Ideally, you want to capture all that spectral content tape has to offer for better or WORSE.

            3. No. See response to 2.

            Your argument as I understand it is because a) famous bands uses tape and b) well respected engineers use tape and c) analog tape has “enough” resolution to cover the audible spectrum for humans, the format is “good” enough to still be eligible for a high-resolution recording.

            I’ll let John Siau do the talking for me:

            “Analog tape may exceed the frequency response of the CD, but it cannot achieve the noise performance of the 16-bit PCM encoding used on the CD. A high-resolution digital copy of an analog tape may provide a wider frequency response than a CD, but it will contain more noise, distortion, and time-base errors than an all-digital recording. These defects probably disqualify tape from the high-resolution recording and playback chain. Nevertheless, a high-resolution digital copy is valuable in that it preserves and transmits everything that was captured on the original tape.”

            I’m on Team Siau.

          • manimal

            I’m going to focus on point 1 because it contains the essence of what I’m disagreeing with you about.

            1. So “no”… but you mean “yes?”

            Because…

            “high-resolution audio is not high-resolution audio unless the entire recording and playback chain is performed in high-resolution”

            According to your main premise, their 24/96 master cannot be considered high resolution because they tracked to tape. Simple as that, end of story. Refuting this statement means refuting the main point of your article.

          • Hold on, that’s NOT what you asked:

            “….would you consider them delusional
            in believing that their 96kHz / 24bit master is of a higher quality
            than if they just went along with garden variety 16bit/44kHz?”

            My answer is still “No”, they aren’t delusional. Using ADC at the time of transferring to a digital chain is probably a better idea than using garden variety 16/44.1 because there is, as Siau also points out, cruft above Redbook Nyquist. So from an archiving perspective (as I keep saying), using 24/96kHz is a fine way to do the conversion into the digital world.

            Do I think that they can ultimately have a high-res release from it? No! That’s the whole point of the article as you stated. I don’t see any inconsistencies between my answers and the article as it is written.

          • funeraldoombuggy

            Hey Alex, I’m really getting a kick out of this debate! I totally understand Manamials point that Tool is using the tape machine pretty much as an effect or effect processor.

            Let’s say a band record digitally using all high res 24/96 (or whatever the highest is) but the guitarist used an old 16 bit delay pedal before the mic captured his amp in hi res, or an 8 bit drum machine in parts, or maybe even used an old outboard reverb that is only 16 bit… you get the point hopefully. Then they mixed and mastered in 24/96. Would you consider this high res audio?

          • manimal

            “…but the guitarist used an old 16 bit delay pedal before the mic captured his amp in hi res…”

            No, I think Alex is only referring to the recording chain – how accurately you’re capturing the sound, regardless of how it’s being produced.

            The tape however, is part of the recording chain and therefore subject to debate.

          • I just want to say that again, I’m not anti-tape as a recording medium. But I do think digital is light years ahead and that only because of Loudness War style production do we fail to reap the benefits of a full digital chain in popular music.

          • manimal

            Agree. We finally have a medium with massive dynamic range… but we choose to stand on a ladder and focus on the 10cm left between our heads and the ceiling.

          • Funny enough, if you are a classical music buff, all this talk about 2″ tape is certifiable. They got the memo back in the mid-90s and never looked back.

          • manimal

            It makes sense though – classical music tend to have enormous dynamic range. Given that there’s no competition to see who can turn in the most heinously brick-walled version of Paganini’s violin concerto #1 they tend to use a lot more what digital can offer.

            I suspect a lot of it also has to do with (at least that’s my perception) mobile recording rigs being more prevalent in classical music. With commercial facilities big enough to house an entire orchestra closing down left right and centre, the market shifted (again, my perception, might be wrong) towards favouring mobile recordists. And lugging around (and maintaining, calibrating, fixing, tearing out remaining hair because of) a good old Studer deck during a live gig is insanity.

            The big problem with tape is… it’s a bit like THAT eccentric uncle that most families seem to have…. an enormous embarrassment in public, cheats on your aunt, gets pissed at weddings… disappears for days on end… but everyone keep in his good books because he’s a multi-millionaire.

          • Yeah, I don’t buy it. I think the classical recording’s industry now swears by digital and scoffs at anyone who tries to bring in reels of 2″ analog tape.

            Of course, as we both agree and as my article points out, it is how the recording is made and produced that is much more important than the primary format it was recorded on.

          • manimal

            OK, thank you, this kind of settles it for me. This is what I wanted to hear you say:

            — “Do I think that they can ultimately have a high-res release from it? No!”

            From interviews with Bob Ludwig on that specific project where they tracked to tape:

            — “And with 96k, 24-bit masters, we’re ready for any kind of high-resolution digital projects.”*

            These two statements are very much at odds with one another, don’t you think?

            Yes, agreed. One should think for oneself and not take a statement as gospel truth because (FAMOUS ENTITY X) endorses it. I can fully appreciate not supporting anything purely out of marketing hype or nostalgia. And I agree with your statement that the majority of sources claiming that a release is HD is in fact peddling snake oil.

            But to make a claim contradictory to a production and mastering team with decades of accumulated experience at world-class facilities, I dunno about that one. Neither am I so sure about Newton not quite understanding a fundamental aspect of his craft.

            You side with Siau on this one, I’ll side with Bob and Newton. Can we agree to disagree? :)

            ===================
            final notes:

            I said this:

            “Refuting this statement means refuting the main point of your article.”

            and you replied with:

            “I don’t see any inconsistencies in my answers to your questions above and the article as it is written.”

            I honestly didn’t mean that as you contradicting yourself, because to your credit, you pretty much stick to your guns. Instead, i meant that i’m following a certain line of logic, and either you’d be disagreeing with me (and I’d consider you to be wrong), or you agree with my line of logic, thereby refuting the point of the article.

          • Btw, yes we can agree to disagree. Bare in mind that Siau is the guy who designs the tools Ludwig and Newton use. Just saying… ;-)

  • sssgadget

    Spending $18 on HDTracks with “Higher resolution” vs $10 on a CD is just ridiculous IMO. You can rip the CD to FLAC and still not notice the difference between the two (only you lose $8) in an ABX test.

  • tomasjacobi

    Tony Newton in an interview from the latest Iron Maiden FC magazine about the recent remasters:

    “All the original 80’s mix tapes sounded so good straight off the tape. But back then digital converters were in their early days of development, as were serious computers, and they weren’t particularly very good. Nowadays we have a big choice of really good equipment to choose from. So before I could get work on (sic) any EQs or mastering I had to select the right converters that wouldn’t “colour” the sound in any way simply because the original mixes were so good. Even when I played the originals to Steve he couldn’t believe just how good they were straight off the tape with no mastering!
    No-one has heard these for thirty years, and of course you’ve got the raw material sounding so good that it made the mastering job a lot easier. Of course we had to make them ‘louder’ but we didn’t have to do it by compressing the hell out of them. We used very minimal bits of EQ on a few songs, but they have been left alone as much as possible and that’s how the band would have originally heard them.”

    Interesting that he doesn’t think he compressed them.

    • I don’t know how he can say that given the level of compression applied on these masters.

  • What I don’t get is why you say the old analog Maiden tapes are low resolution and why wouldn’t it benefit those recordings to be digitized again with better converters, new poor mastering aside.

    • They would most certainly benefit from that but as the link I provided shows, analog tapes in themselves are not high-resolution formats. In other words, how do you convert a low-resolution format to high-resolution? Hint: You can’t.

      The best Iron Maiden can do is take those analog tapes, use the best ADC money can buy and make high-resolution archives of them. After that, put it through a modern chain and release them in the wild.

      They did some of that, but someone forgot to read the memo that compressing them down to DR6 really sucks the life out of a release regardless of sampling rate.

  • Mustafa Metallic

    Very interesting and useful article, by the way what do you say about Vinyl rips, i have a friend who has a nice metal collection on Vinyl, he ripped some of them on his computer, are these rips better than CDs, to me, I listened to few, I’ve notices a better sound and lesser noise than my CD version, for example the Divine Wings of Tragedy by Symphony X, or may be I am just Imagining!!!!

    • Mustafa, that’s because as we have been saying for some time now that the vinyl version maybe sourced from a less compressed master and as a result, will sound a lot better. But again, it’s not the sampling rate that is really the issue here, but how the recording was made.

  • I know most people who care about this nuanced fidelity have the equipment to appreciate it, but for those of us who spent a whole $50 on speakers for our computers so we could listen to music while coding aren’t going to benefit from it at all (at least I doubt it.) With the exception of ultra-hardcore-gamers who spend $500 on headphones, $50 is above the average for speakers on the PC. (Or I’m just old.)

    Granted, I’m no audiophile, but I think we’re witnessing another in a long line of shams designed solely to separate money from our wallets. I bought a couple of remastered Iron Maiden CDs, and other than the fact that my original vinyl is long since just for decoration… I didn’t notice the music’s new-found “enhanced” quality. It could be that decades of metal music has screwed up my hearing, or it could be that on my $50 speakers, it didn’t make much difference (FLAC or not.)

    I remember one remastered CD that blew dead bears (for whatever reason). The “remastered” version of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” It sounded horrid. I am glad I never got rid of my original CD or vinyl version. The one that’s in shops today (new) sucks.

    Another set of remastered CD’s that really stunk compared to the originals (well most of them did) was Megadeth’s back catalog. “So Far, So Good, So What” had a positively re-worked (and reduced quality) “Into the Lungs of Hell” (I think he might’ve re-recorded it), but suffice to say most of the albums were stark and tinny. The notable exception was “Rust in Peace”. It sounded better to me…. but that is subjective I guess.

    Bands I like in passing are stored as mp3’s on my computer. Bands I love are stored as FLAC. Bands I REALLY love I still pop the CD in from time to time. I guess I’m just too old to care, since I remember the SUPER-SPECTACULAR audio fidelity of my Sears turntable with cassette… in faux woodgrain awesomeness. :)

    • Nutty, seek out the Black Triangle Edition of Peace Sells (you can find on eBay for like 20-30 bucks from time to time). You can even probably download it off the FaceTubes if you look hard enough. You will be amazed what a great digital master sounds like! Amazed.

      • I’m going to have to give that a look-see. After my disappointment with So Far, So Good… you can understand my apprehension of Megadeth’s remasters. It was 50/50 when I stopped buying. :)

        Thanks for the info…

        • I bought ALL of the remasters back in the day. Trust me, I know! :-(