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We’re way past the point where we’re all thrilled with digital recording because “hey, no more tape hiss!” and “perfect backups—cool!” In this early part of the 21st century, the days when 44.1kHz/16-bit CDs were marketed as “perfect sound forever” seem hopelessly quaint.
But in the process of evolving, a lot of people are listening to digital audio with a more critical ear. Are higher sample rates worth the extra effort, and if so, which sample rate is optimum? Can amp sims accurately emulate the sound of physical amps, or do we need to accept them on their own unique merits? Was it a mistake not to adopt SACD to replace the standard CD? Can a “virtual analog” synth make sounds that please us as much as the more expensive physical analog units on which they’re based? Does mixing “in the box” have an inherent limitation compared to mixing through an actual console—and if so, is it because the console is just a processor that people happen to find pleasing, or is it superior for some other reason?
This kind of examination is all well and good, but as you work to take your sound to the next level, beware the snake oil: There’s a major lack of scientific method in a lot of discussions. It’s not just about blind testing, but about whether the testing methods themselves are correct. To further complicate matters, there are likely aspects of digital audio that have not been adequately quantified, let alone measured. If a musician says something “doesn’t quite sound right,” that sentiment shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed just because it doesn’t have scientific backing.
One of my favorite examples was when Eric Johnson said in an interview that he could hear a sonic difference with different batteries. He was ridiculed in some quarters, but in reality, the older carbon-zinc batteries had a different internal impedance compared to newer alkaline batteries, and vintage stomp boxes sometimes had very poor power supply rejection—and that meant different battery technologies could indeed affect the sound. Those who thought Johnson was insane simply hadn’t put two and two together, but once they did, what he said made sense.
On the other hand, there’s the famous “running a green felt-tip pen around the outside of a CD will make it sound better” urban legend. This was actually believed by a lot of people, to the point where some true believers conducted tests to show that indeed, it made a difference. Only problem was, the tests showed that it didn’t make a difference. (Although for those who still believe, I have a humidor with some pre-CBS, 100% analog green felt-tip pens I’d be willing to sell for $3,750 each.) Then there were the “in the box” mixing vs. “out of the box” mixing tests that the late Roger Nichols conducted, where no one could tell the difference reliably.
Nonetheless, there may be aspects of digital audio where we haven’t put two and two together yet. It took a while before people discovered the phenomenon of “inter-sample distortion,” where clipping could occur even if meters indicated nothing going over 0dB. And sometimes, you can observe a phenomenon, but not know the reason for it. For example, suppose someone states that material recorded at an 88.2kHz sampling rate sounds better compared to the identical piece recorded at 44.1kHz. Is it because of the higher sample rate per se, or is there some other factor, like the output filters being different?
These are exciting times, but they’re also confusing. So how does one cope? Simple: Don’t believe everything you hear, but do keep an open mind. The next time someone tries to hype you on something, it may be another example of the “green felt-tip pen effect.” But it also might be Eric Johnson bringing up a point that apparently, no one had really considered before.
|This Week on HC|
Of course, you can always just search on “HC Confidential” (don’t forget the quote marks), but the results won’t be listed in order, and articles that reference “HC Confidential” will also surface. Fortunately, there’s an easier way.
Go to the nav bar on the main harmonycentral.com home page, mouse over the Misc. tab toward the right, and select The Music Business. Scroll down the page, and you’ll find all the recent HC Confidential newsletters; click on the More button, and you can drill all the way back to issue #117.
There’s a lot of useful material in past issues, and they’re only a few clicks away. Check ’em out!
By Phil O'Keefe
By Jon Chappell
A battery-powered portable modeling combo that shows some teeth
The audio file formats wma and mp3 are handy for Internet and mobile use because of their small file sizes, at least when compared to their full-resolution counterparts, wav and aiff. But converting your hard-won audio efforts into these “lossy” formats degrades the sound quality even if it does reduce transmission time and storage footprint. What you want is a “lossless” compression scheme, like zip or rar, where there’s zero loss of original data (hence quality) when sending and storing.
That’s what FLAC—which stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec—does. It’s like zip for audio. FLAC first encodes (that is, compresses for transport over the Internet) the file then decodes (uncompresses after retrieval) it with no loss of quality to the original once the code/decode (the combination of which forms "codec") cycle is completed.
FLAC is a great solution when it’s important to maintain the highest quality possible in your audio. This could happen if, for example, you’re recording a lovely exposed acoustic guitar, or trying to show off the tail of your convolution reverb. FLAC files are larger than mp3s, but not nearly as large as 16-bit/44.1 kHz waves (the CD standard). The only disadvantage is that iTunes and Windows Media Player require tweaks to play them. Download the free Fluke (Mac OS) or dBpoweramp (Windows) to configure iTunes and WMP to play FLAC files. It’s a one-time procedure, and if you’re dealing with critical audio issues—and you want to really know what the original track sounds like—trafficking in FLAC is a must.—Jon Chappell
|Featured Industry News|
This week's pick hits from our News section
A few of this week's top discussions from our Forums
Some players use a variety of different brands, while others tend to stick with guitars from one particular manufacturer or another. Do you have a brand preference? Vote in the poll and tell us about it!
Is it distortion? Is the transformer used in many circuits the “secret” of the tube sound? How does tube distortion relate to tape? This wide-ranging thread dissects the world of tubes, and how we react to them.
Opening with a poll that solicits your vote for the better of two sub-$1,000 double-neck guitars, this popular thread then moves on to explore all aspects of double-necks, double-neck playing, and famous double-neck players.
A discussion regarding the neck "feel" of Rickenbackers. While some models have slightly narrower fingerboard widths, not all RIcs are the same in that regard, as this thread points out.
If you’re a vocalist, odds are you’ve experienced this problem first hand. Ouch! Is there anything you can do about it? The Solo & Duo Acts forum has some tried and true options.
Whether you have a permanent disability or a temporary injury that prevents you from standing for any length of time, a guitar optimally designed to be played while sitting warrants serious attention. In this thread you discover how seated players deal with such issues as balance, lower-body shape, and neck angle when considering an instrument.
This is a pro review with a twist—yes, it covers the Rok Box, but it’s also a repository of Windows-for-music information from PC Audio Labs. So what’s the deal with USB 3.0? What’s the “sweet spot” for the amount of RAM? What’s the best way to back up? Find out here.
Expression pedals might not be the sexiest topic on the planet, but if you play keyboards, you pretty much need one. But which one? There are some definite favorites in this thread.
There’s more than one way to reverse phase, and more than one type of sound you can obtain from the process. Get the lowdown on pickup phase from the DIY forum.
But is a cool video enough—and what’s the purpose of it, anyway? The Music Biz forum asks the tough questions about what comes next after posting the cool video.
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Editorial Craig Anderton, Editor in Chief • Jon Chappell, Senior Editor • Phil O’Keefe, Associate Editor • Chris Loeffler, Reviews Editor
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