decades of fun

Preserving Our Art

The master copy. In production it’s paramount.

The Masters reviewing their Masters.

Who owns it? Who is securing it? Can it be lost or ruined? Can I purchase it?

Digital allows us to make infinite copies of a file without loss of quality. The master’s initial quality is preserved, therefore making the initial quality even more important.

Music performances, unlike text or computer code, can’t be re-keyed (typed again). It’s similar to fine art in that the original, or best, form of the work holds the true value. But it’s only kin is film making.

Movies and music are the only two types of art I can think of that can be copied en masse and sold or rented across the world perpetually without the viewer believing they are only seeing a copy.

Music has been recorded commercially for over 100 years.  For the first 80+ it was recorded in analog form, usually to tape. In the last 15 years it’s being converted to digital during production, and in the last 30 years it’s been distributed digitally, leaving your player to convert it back to analog sound waves.

Masters have become no-less valuable in the digital age. They are still the only source for making high-quality copies, and with that content generating millions of dollars in repeat commerce, owners of masters spend money caring for and protecting their stock.

This overlooked part of the industry can tell us much about analog/digital realities: In Hollywood, films costing 100’s of millions of dollars made using the latest in digital technology are ultimately printed to celluloid film stock, spooled onto reels, and stored in a locked box down in a professional climate-controlled vault.

In the music industry, millions of tapes are stored in professional vaults around the world that labels spend millions maintaining. A small subset of artists even record to tape, and vinyl sales have gone up for the first time in decades. Digital has been through almost as many formats as analog in only 20 years.

Monk in the studio

In both industries, digital has become the dominant working format. Most internal transfers and external distribution happens in the digital realm.

It is critical to preserve analog masters as long as possible and to transfer them to a digital format at the highest possible quality.

This is why I support things like PonoMusic and HiRes Audio whether you think anyone can hear it (or cares). It’s critical to treat and preserve the art of recorded music. It’s tells us more about our society than most other data we bother saving.

A digital degradation stage (or two, three) is no longer needed in music. But it has remained for convenience and a list of marketing and business reasons.

  • Everyone making music in 2015-on should be working at 24bit or in analog. You can’t raise the standard if artists themselves don’t bother.
  • Everyone distributing music should move away from selling or renting “lossy” as soon as possible. It is damaging us.
  • Everyone listening to music should make plans to get away from listening to lossy sources, at least as their prime listening rig. We can’t easily escape what TV/YouTube/providers does to the music, but we can choose as consumers to demand better audio from our gadgets. Rip CD’s to lossless and buy new music from HiRes sources.
  • The loudness problem really is a problem with no easy solutions. But we can’t address the loudness problem when operating in a limited bandwidth environment – the current distro format matches their disregard for traditional bandwidth and forces their hand.

Dylan tracking

The loudness problem has 5 stages as I see it:

  1. Radio multiband compression – a radio station pays a lot for the license, and a lot in electricity to power that transmitter. They have to keep the signal clean, loud, and not over modulating. They have the original loudness compressors, from the beginning, 1940’s?
  2. CD replacing vinyl – dropped noise floor, removed rumble, removed channel crosstalk, doubled runtime of disc. The 1980’s.
  3. Minidisc and then MP3 making perceptual digital loss acceptable as the mainstream format. Less bandwidth than CD and new artifacts meant more production tricks meant to distract and jump, pump and dump. Listening fatigue is constant and unlimited choice makes listeners very twitchy. The 2000’s.
  4. The smartphone and other mobile devices becoming the dominant playback device. Low-quality playback devices multi-tasking with all sorts of overlayed EQ and boost, used primarily with cheap earbuds or over-boosted headphones. The 2000’s.
  5. Production moving exclusively to DAW’s and DJ-style music creation software holding thousands of virtual instruments and samples. Often times the tracks arm in a boosted state, the limitless plug-ins contain hundreds of boosted presets, and there are no rules or limits as to how much boost and compression you can achieve in the digital realm. Most output severely boosted sound by default. The 2010’s.

That’s 5 clear opportunities to raise volume, and “they” did it each time. #1 is necessary, and #2 and #5  were inevitable, but 3-4 can be reversed by moving to hi-res digital.

It won’t win the war, but it will be a strong victory in the battle for bandwidth.