In September 2019 I was invited to London to hear the new edition for the 50th anniversary of the Beatles. Abteistrasse Album. The listening session took place in Abbey Road itself, in the hallowed Studio 2, where this album (and so many others) were made.
Technically, it was the best-recorded album in the Beatles’ career as the studio had upgraded from its original 3 and 4 track machines to 1/4 inch tape for everything up to and including the white album. The band and producer George Martin were now able to fall back on the latest 8-track recorders with much wider tape, resulting in much better audio. Abteistrasse is also my favorite Beatles album, a record that is so famous – I literally grew up with it – that I know every nuance of these recordings, no matter how small.
What I heard amazing.
Giles Martin, George’s son, was tasked with enhancing a 1969 recording of 21st century technology with the help of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. If I had to draw an analogy, it would be like removing a previously imperceptible haze from a window. The new view was clearer, sharper, and more alive. The vocals were more realistic, the steel guitar strings brighter, and Ringo’s drums stronger. I swear you can hear Paul’s fingerprints slide the windings of the strings on his bass. I love this version of the record.
However, this feeling is not universal. There are those who believe that classic recordings should be left alone. Not only were they good as they were, the change in their sonic properties changed the story itself. There was a lot of clamor, especially about the revised editions of other Beatles records Sgt. Pepper. When you change the sound of such a classic album, the way you perceive it, how you remember it, the memories the music conjures up, and even the emotions associated with the music changes. Music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz has made clear his displeasure.
It is no longer the important record you remember. It’s now artificial, a facsimile of what originally made it great, and is refined with a pinch of MSG in the same way that food is. Why should you mess with perfection?
So far, this argument has been limited to remastered and / or remixed re-releases of known albums. However, changes are now being made Ten million of songs. More on that in a minute.
It is a fact that the past generations of music fans have heard music of sub-par audio quality. They grew up with MP3s and similarly compressed digital music files that are squeezed out of their original state by removing up to 90 percent of the music information using algorithms based on the principles of psychoacoustics. They sound good, but if you compare them side by side with the original .wav file (which you have on a CD) you can tell the difference. Well, some people can anyway.
So here is the truth. The music that most of the world has consumed over the past 20 years doesn’t sound as good as what has been enjoyed in the past – even as far back as the 1960s. We have spent the last few decades going backwards when it comes to high fidelity audio.
Efforts have been made to correct this, beginning with DVD-Audio and Super-Audio Compact Discs in the early 2000s. I have a shelf full of these practically extinct discs, all of which were recorded at a much higher resolution than a regular CD. Some have even been remixed to 5.1 audio for use on home theater systems. They sound great but can only be played on DVD players. The industry has given them up.
Then came a push for high-res audio, forms of “lossless” (i.e., uncompressed) digital tracks. Listening to a carefully crafted 24-bit 192 kHz FLAC recording can be overwhelming. One of my favorites is the high-res audio version of Bob Marley’s Legends Album that reveals subtleties that have never been heard before. Just breathtaking. Take your breath away
High-Res Audio does not improve the audio; it’s just a way to get more of the information available on the original analog master tapes. If songs were recorded digitally – as has been the case with most recordings since the 1990s – there is a very good chance that they were saved to disk in better than CD quality before being scaled down for release. High-Res Audio simply gives us the ability to hear the fidelity with which the material was recorded. It’s what the artist and producer heard in the control room before it was all shipped out to be pressed onto vinyl, CD, or converted to a compressed digital format like iTunes AAC.
The latest offering to return to the future includes streaming music services that will enhance your audio play with their various versions of high-res audio. While Tidal has been offering lossless tracks in full fidelity for some time, you had to pay extra. Amazon Music did the same. But this month, Apple Music announced it was running lossless at no extra charge. Amazon immediately canceled its lossless bonus. And now Spotify is under pressure to accelerate the rollout of its lossless offerings.
However, Apple also has something called Spatial Audio, which creates an immersive audio experience through just two channels and directly especially for those who listen to music almost exclusively through headphones and earphones. Creating this 3D sensation requires a partnership with Dolby ATMOS, which applies some kind of electronic voodoo to the original recordings (here are some A-B comparisons to see what I mean).
But as Lefsetz recently revealed in a newsletter, over the past few years Apple and ATMOS have remixed the 75 million digital tracks in Apple Music’s libraries in studios in New York, LA, and Nashville – and here’s the key – without input from the artists or producers of the original work. You practically create the new standard versions of these songs. Ten million of them.
Some of these new versions actually sound better. But remember that ATMOS was made for cinemas, not music. A critical listening will show that the vocals are lost in the mix, reducing the singer to a different part of the song and fighting for attention with all the instrumentation. Lefsetz names the Spatial Audio versions of The Doors ’ Rider in the storm, Dead or alive from Bon Jovi, and What’s happening “Bastardized” by Marvin Gaye, a sacrilege like coloring Casablanca. With many Spatial Audio versions there is no center of the musical sound stage, which seems to take some of the performance from the recording.
Based on listening to the Spatial Audio tracks out there, he’s right. If you have an Apple Music subscription, I urge you to listen to things carefully.
Finally, I wonder how many people will even notice the better audio. Here, too, the last generations of music fans were brought up with MP3s, which were often heard through booming headphones, cheap earphones or laptop speakers. Unlike their ancestors, they did not invest in dedicated stereo systems to make the loudest, cleanest, clearest and most accurate music reproduction possible.
And now many of them are streaming audio from smart speakers which (unless specifically paired together) present music in a glorious way Mono. Streaming from smart speakers eliminates stereo from the music experience. What is it, 1961?
One more thing about the high-res audio offerings from streaming music services: You won’t hear anything with wireless headphones. The signal requires more bandwidth than Bluetooth can provide. You have to physically latch into your device to get the effect.
And since iPhones and some other Android devices no longer have headphone jacks, we are again using dongles and adapters. Is that progress?
This is not the end either. Don’t get me started with MQA, which is more of an electronic voodoo. MQA tracks can sound absolutely amazing and I personally love it. But here, too, some of the tracks encoded with it are created without the assistance of the artist or the producer. You can see why some people have problems with the technology.
We are entering a new era in consumer audio and music consumption. But instead of everyone agreeing on what “good” and the “final” version of a song sounds like, it gets much, much more complicated.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster on Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for News Gob.
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