High Resolution Audio and Standards: Uh-oh! Some Production Professionals Have Their Say

I know, I know! I promised you that I was done with resolution issues. But as I wrapped up my rant, a couple of industry pros really got on my case about some of the things I was saying.
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I know, I know! I promised you that I was done with resolution issues. But as I wrapped up my rant, a couple of industry pros really got on my case about some of the things I was saying. What they had to say is important enough that it seems wrong to me not to share it with you – there is always another side to the story.

First I heard from a guy who said, "I'm a postproduction engineer for a major network television show. We record and remix a weekly show that contains 72 tracks of discrete material." He went on to point out that he really hears an improvement when he works with 24-bit source files instead of 16-bit source files in his digital audio workstation. He made the case that given the prevalence of such production environments, I wasn’t really telling the truth about high-resolution audio. From his position, high-resolution audio is audible, important and relevant – particularly in production work.

Well, as you can probably imagine, we got into it, with a long exchange of e-mails and a fair amount of argumentation, not to mention obstreperousness. I won’t bore you with the gory details right now. But where it got really interesting, and relevant to all of us, was late in the exchange, when Yeager (not his real name) challenged me in regard to standards, saying "Your article (unfortunately) gives the impression that there is NO need for us to have high standards. The real world is using DSP for multitrack mixdowns. If this is so, and the DSPs are not superpowered, the best possible source files MUST be used … .

"The standards you are using for your article don't take into account real-world conditions: 1) multitrack usage; 2) DSP; 3) poor tracking levels.

"I implore you to change your position. People are multitracking with Pro Tools all over the world. Your article ONLY applies to final mixes, not multitrack source files that are used in a DAW/DSP world."

TECHNICAL STANDARDS

Well, now! No standards? That hurt. I got huffy, and went into my standard "nobody ever bought a record for its signal-to-noise ratio" rant, and talked about my musical verities – intonation, performance intensity and ensemble playing. Yeager quite rightly pointed out in his next e-mail that I was obscuring things, that he was talking about "technical standards." He’s absolutely right, of course. My mistake.

Meanwhile, I heard from an old audio buddy, Bob Dixon, of NBC Sports. Bob was actually the guy who put me in touch with TV Technology for this audio columnist gig. We go back to the middle ’70s, and we’ve got a lot of mutual regard and respect.

What Bob said, edited for family reading, was: "What troubles me is your focus on what is ‘good enough.’ First, I believe the difference between 16 bits at 44.1 kHz and 20 bits at 48 kHz is important. Second, the focus of your articles might lead some to conclude that money and time spent in the pursuit of the highest possible quality would [be wasted] resources.

GOOD ENOUGH

"What is to be our goal? Meeting the standards we can ‘get away with’? Goals and standards are choices made by individuals. Michelangelo decided that the incredible detail in the veins on the hand, or the exquisite curls on the head of his David were essential. Painters, poets, musicians and recording engineers all have to decide what is ‘good enough.’ For some, ‘good enough’ is defined as ‘the best I can possibly do at this time.’ For others it is defined by the boundaries of what can be gotten away with.

"I don't think I have ever been really satisfied with any audio engineering job I have done. I marvel at the beauty and detail in some of the work I have been lucky enough to see and hear, [and] I realize that some levels of "perfection" are possible. It is only by following the desire inside the self, the drive to make something be as good as it can be, that allows a great work to ever happen. That drive needs to be nurtured and encouraged, or it will die.

"When a corporation decides what is ‘good enough,’ it is going to affect a lot of people and projects. The focus of your articles may help to set the bar lower than the test of time might demand, and change the direction of a lot of careers. Worse, if ‘good enough’ becomes the goal, when the goal is missed, well, you're out of headroom.

"I submit that when the drive for excellence is combined with common sense, it is the most practical action of all. The issue is focus. The mind attuned to quality will think about buying well-built microphones, or buying high-quality cables and connectors. A focus on excellence will ... chip away at [flaws in the] final product presented to the public. How good does it have to be? There is a certainty that we want our viewers to hear our program with clarity.

"[So,] it isn't just the question of 16 bits being ‘good enough.��� Our focus should be on how good we can make it. Let common sense choose the technology, but I'd rather have people choosing 16 bits while keeping in mind that it is a compromise, instead of fooling themselves into thinking that it is ‘perfectly fine.’"

GOOD THINKING

Whew! Gulp!! There’s some really good thinking here. It made me realize that in debunking the hype and mythology surrounding high-resolution audio (and there’s plenty to debunk!), I may have also given you readers the wrong idea. Please accept my apologies if that has been the case.

"Just good enough" isn’t the right idea. High standards are important. So, next month, I’ll hunker down and take a look at some technical standards that I think may suggest real excellence in audio.

Thanks for listening.

Dave Moulton will be happy to e-mail you a copy of the whole Yeager/Dixon correspondence, which is actually pretty good reading if you like shop talk. Just ask.