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Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Audio Police are Listening...

On the audio front arstechnica reports that Neil Young claims to have been collaborating with Steve Jobs before his death on changing the standard for audio in things like iTunes.

Today's standard is 16 bit 44.1kHz - which is what CD's are created using.  That's a 16 bit (2 bytes) sample 44,100 times per second (values range from about -32,767 to +32,768). 

With "lossy" compression like MP3 its at an even lower resolution that 16 bit 44.1kHz.

Neil Young apparently thinks this should be basically 24-bit (three bytes from -16.8 million to +16.8 million) at 96kHz - maybe 1,000 times the resolution of a CD.

This later resolution typically used for professional mastering of digital recordings.  Now to hear differences at this level you need not only reasonably high-end studio-quality monitors but also a room where you can properly listen, i.e., one without ambient noise and one that does not color the sound too much.  Not something to be found in even a high-end audiophile's home.

This higher quality would add at least 200% to the file size being uncompressed.

Interestingly most (more likely nearly all) consumers cannot tell the difference between these resolutions and its unlikely they have the same quality of audio equipment as old Neil.  (I don't think, for example, you could tell much of anything on the subway with earbuds.)

So while the higher resolution would always be nice it would most likely be a waste.

At the same time we have the RIAA opposing the latest anti-piracy OPEN Act - no doubt because its not "strong enough."  Piracy, of course, being any non-blessed version of these songs.

But as I posted the other day the RIAA seems to have little interest in actually pursuing obvious YouTube-based piracy.

Taken together this all leaves an almost a comical (or maybe sad) situation:

1) Folks like Mr. Young wanting to make the online music quality even better (what's on his iPod)?

2) The RIAA ready to go after any source of misuse of that music (can Neil even legally listen to his own, original masters or is he a criminal like the rest of us...)?

3) Consumers who cannot hear the difference and are perfectly happy to share low-quality audio on crappy earbuds.

4) Tons of pirated content all over the internet on "blessed" sites with very low audio quality.

Most consumers are happy to listen to "low res" audio for free on YouTube, for example while Mr. Young wants to hear only pristine 24 bit 96kHz audio presumable on an expensive home-based audio system installed by experts.

I suppose this means that consumers, if offered free or cheap "low res," would go with that as opposed to paying extra for Mr. Young's "high res."

There's another interesting aspect to "high res".

Check out this page that talks about recording Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

There's a section at the bottom that has an MP3 with some of the original horn parts.  What you will hear besides the horn parts is all kinds of noise.

In fact, according to that page, Stevie wrote out the words to the songs and had the producer read them to him over his headphones while he was singing them because he couldn't remember them.  In the recordings you can supposedly hear this (the headphone sound washes into the mix) if you listen very carefully to a high res file of the original album version.  (You can hear this on the MP3 but everything but the actual horn parts was cut out via faders for the final mix.)

I think that the RIAA does not understand what consumers like about music.

Its not so much the quality as it is the actual sound of the song - even with huge levels of noise and distortion. 

That's why YouTube is so popular for music.

The basic sound of the song even noisy and distorted still draws out the original feeling from the listener.

Once its in the listener's head the quality becomes much less an issue - unless you're "really into it" as Mr. Young is...

Hearing even a bad rendition causes you to "play" the song in your head and if you're, for example, working in a noisy environment.   You really "hear" your own mind's version triggered by the noisy distorted audio track playing on the cheap radio in the back room.

(Don't think this is true? Ask people the words to the unclear parts - there's even a TV commercial along these lines - of these songs and you'll have to agree.  Elton John's "Rocket Man" - what does he say exactly?  "Burning out of fuel...???")

But not knowing these exact words does not take away from your enjoyment of the song.

That's why companies like Muzak re-record songs they license.  It costs more to play the original version than just license the right to use it with your own musicians.  As long as the key elements are captured in the re-recording people will be happy because what they hear will trigger their internal "music player."

That's why people hang reproductions of great art in their homes - no one looks that closely and you can still enjoy the feeling the art elicits.

Though few realize it simply singing a song to yourself out loud is a violation of copyright. 

If the RIAA could get away with it they'd charge you for this as well as simply "playing" the song in your mind.

Along the lines of "Thinking, Fast and Slow" I am sure there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained in understanding how people listen to and play music in their heads...

Maybe someone can do this an win a Nobel Prize like Kahneman did.

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