Thursday, August 28, 2014

Audiophiles, High Fidelity, and Why Sound Quaility Should Matter to You as a Recording Artist.

I just stumbled on this interesting documentary, which in my experience, is mostly true. Distortion of Sound is a documentary put together by the high fidelity audio company Harman. It talks about a few of the problems in our record industry today including the sound quality of mp3's, streaming audio, and consumers who don't know any better. But I've heard the difference and not only is it mind blowing, once you hear it, you can't unhear it.

Many years ago, in the late 80's and early 90's one of the popular things in stereo were high fidelity component sound systems, you bought a receiver, tape deck, record player (that's vinyl for those of you who aren't familiar), CD players all separately, Some of these systems could easily cost in the thousands of dollars. But you could buy very high quality components for around two hundred bucks. I did a lot of research and decided on a Kenwood system. It sounded better to my ears, was well made, and received high marks in audiophile magazines. I also had a walkman for portability and convenience . I made many mix tapes and spent hours listening to albums. But at some point in the digital revolution I stopped listening to it, I got busy and the stereo got put away. I tried selling it a few times but no one would buy it. I've looked it up on eBay and found the different components selling for fifteen or twenty dollars (people ask more but seldom get it).

Then a few years ago I was talking to a customer of mine, who told me he had spent a large sum of money designing some new high end audio speakers. I was intrigued. He asked me to bring three CD's that I had been listening to, that I thought sounded like they were recorded well. I have a pretty large selection of CD's in various genres so I grabbed a couple I thought would be interesting and brought them to his house. This guy had designed his own audio amplifier and showed me and a couple of other guest some differences that the speaker could make, as well as the room. Then we started with my CD's, the first one, a local band that was a mix of the Stones and punk, sounded just awful, it was actually painful to listen to and we turned it off before the first song was over. I was floored, it sounded fine in my car and on my computer, what happened?!?! The next CD I put in was a different experience, it was a string quartet that had recorded instrumental versions of Tool songs... it was amazing! I heard details I had never heard before, and everyone in the room was swept away into the song. We all sat there listening to this track with our mouths hanging open. It was magic. As the song finished my customer and one of the other gentlemen as me for a copy of the CD.  He then played a couple of CD's he felt were recorded at well and you could almost hear the band in the recording room. Later when I jumped back in my car to leave, I heard it. I couldn't unhear it! While not as pronounced as sitting in his living room the one album sounded awful, and the other album sounded great. I pulled my old stereo back out when I got home, it still sounds great.

So here is the Harman documentary The Distortion of Sound. Below I've made a few notes where I agree and a couple where I don't.

At 3:30 in they talk to the artist about how much time they spend getting those sound right only to lose them to mp3 compression. But as I mentioned above, a lot of albums really aren't recorded well. The sound quality just isn't that great, and when I throw a CD on my stereo it's very apparent.

I think this documentary get's it right for the most part, one of the things they don't do a good job with is comparing audio compression with digital compression. It's not the same thing but at 9:35 they explain how mp3's digitally compress audio files. WAV files that CD's use do a much better job and there are other lossless audio formats out there. Still we've discovered that WAV files could be improved upon.

 At 15 minutes in the guy talking about the "head-bob-test" is dead on about the problem. People don't know it but subconsciously your missing something. If your familiar with the better quality version your brain fills in what isn't there. But if your not familiar with it, you can't replace it. He says four times more people get into the song! What! Yeah, I totally believe it, because I've seen it.

Lastly the irony of listening to the this documentary on YouTube is rather amusing. YouTube has increased it's quality but it still compresses the sound quality quite a bit. Andy Timmons is one of my favorite guitar players, I love his style and tone. A few years ago when he released his Beatles tribute Andy Timmons Band plays Sgt. Pepper, I listened to a few tracks on YouTube. I wasn't that impressed with what I was hearing, I liked the playing but the songs didn't blow me away. Then someone gave me the CD and one day I threw it in my stereo, once again I was floored! It's a breath takingly beautiful sounding album.

If you want to find out more about what Harman is doing to make audio quality better start at

I think this documentary points out a small part of a much larger problem that I'm not ready to tackle in this already lengthy post but for now, just listen.

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