Friday, 27 March 2009

What "Death Magnetic" SHOULD Have Sounded Like

Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case. Not distorted, not clipped - sounds great. Make sure you click the HQ button...

(If you're not sure what I'm talking about, please listen to this:

- or click here.)

Actually even this version would benefit from some more dynamics, but at least it isn't distorted to hell and back !

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Rise and Shine recording and writing a new song for Earth Hour - TODAY

Good news interactive music lovers - Rise and Shine is on-air today, composing a new song to support Earth Hour - with your help, if you'd like. The essence of the show is feedback from the viewers - suggest ideas, help write the lyrics, or just keep an eye on the fun.

I'll edit this post when the show is over - it will be running on and off throughout the day, so if you're reading this - click on the link below to join in via the live video stream and chat ! If there's nothing happening, Dean & Dan are probably having a cup of tea, so pop back later :-)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

10 Rules For Achieving Outstanding Music Mixes

Some of you may be interested in my latest post over at the new Production Advice site:

Please head on over and take a look !


Thursday, 12 March 2009

Do the kids prefer "mp3 sizzle" ? Bullshizzle !

In the last week there has been a lot of attention paid to an informal study made by Jonathan Berger of Stanford University, which he claims shows that some young people (a) prefer the sound of mp3s and (b) that this is becoming more true as time passes.

To be quite frank, Professor Berger should know better.

He says that he:

tests his incoming students each year in a similar way. He has them listen to a variety of recordings which use different formats from MP3 to ones of much higher quality. He described the results with some disappointment and frustration, as a music lover might, that each year the preference for music in MP3 format rises. In other words, students prefer the quality of that kind of sound over the sound of music of much higher quality. He said that they seemed to prefer "sizzle sounds" that MP3s bring to music. It is a sound they are familiar with.

Leaving aside all the reasons there are to doubt the testing methods and results of an "informal study" like this, even if it's true that more and more students are choosing the mp3s, that doesn't necessarily mean they prefer the sound overall, especially for longer-term listening.

Why not ? First, the short version:

MP3 encoders typically don't have enough headroom to handle the very high peak level of modern CDs, and so introduce extra clipping distortion as well as all the encoding artefacts - this is the so-called "sizzle".

In a short-term A/B test, I can believe people would respond positively to the extra high-frequency distortion, just as they do to small level increases and quantisation distortion.

But I want to hear long-term testing.

Play those same students the same music for 2 or 3 hours straight - in CD and in mp3. Then, don't ask them if they can hear a difference or which they prefer - ask them how they FEEL.

My prediction is that there will be more irritable, edgy people with headaches in the mp3 pool.

Just like over-compressed high-level music, typical mp3 encodes are fatiguing to listen too, less involving and sound less "real". 

So, even though Professor Berger has observed a short-term preference for mp3-encoded audio, I don't believe it's possible to conclude from this that they would genuinely choose to listen to mp3s rather than CDs - or lossless audio formats like FLAC, for example.

Now, a little more detail:

It's been known for many years that in short-term A/B comparisons of otherwise nearly identical audio, people will prefer the version which is a little louder and as a result seems to have a fraction more bass and treble. This is because of a psycho-acoustic effect known as the Fletcher–Munson or "Smile" Curve, and may be an evolutionary process to make us prioritise sounds which louder and therefore nearer - and might be a predator.

What does this have to do with mp3s ? In a nutshell - encoding an mp3 from a modern CD release which constantly "maxes out" the level results in an mp3 which is more distorted than the original.

This is a result of "intersample peaks" in the decoded digital signal adding extra clipping distortion in the mp3 encoder - and possibly even more being added by the player itself. Couple this with the swirling, squelchy high-frequency artefacts caused by the data-reduction process of mp3 encoding, and you have the "mp3 sizzle" Professor Berger is talking about.

So the students may well choose this slightly toppier, fizzier-sounding encoded version in a short-term A/B test, especially since modern mp3 encodes have fewer obvious artefacts than a few years ago.

But we shouldn't underestimate the acuity of the human ear and brain. A typical mp3 encode discards 90% of the original signal - and it's harder to listen to as a result. Even without intersample encoding distortion and obvious artefacts, mp3s don't sound as good as the originals in other, more subtle ways. There is a loss of "3D" stereo imaging, a blurring and flattening of the audio. Often mp3s sound as if they have less reverb than the original. Complex sounds lose their interest, the audio overall is less rich and involving - the result is harsher and more crude.

Especially with today's over-compressed, heavily processed music.

As a result, the brain has to work harder to "decode" the music. Listening to music in "real life" is an almost effortless process - listening to a CD requires a little more concentration. Right at the other end of the scale, listening to music squawking from the tiny speaker of a mobile phone, it's often a struggle to even pick out the tune. mp3s lie somewhere in the middle of this - thankfully, closer to CD than mobile !

Here's an experiment you can try yourself, though. Spend a day listening to your favourite radio station. Next day listen to the same station, but streamed on the internet. (The data-compression here will typically sound like an extreme version of mp3.)

How do you feel ?

Personally, listening to heavily data-compressed internet streams makes me feel nauseous. Literally - I don't mean that in some namby-pamby audiophile sense - an hour or two of internet radio and I start to feel slightly car-sick.

The same applies to mp3s, to a lesser extent. 

Now obviously not all mp3s are that bad. And some data-compressed audio sounds pretty good - the Ogg Vorbis streams from Spotify, for example, or Apple's AAC codec . (Ironic that everyone blames the iPod for mp3's ills, even though the iPod's own compression codec sounds substantially better than straight mp3)

But just as mp3 lies somewhere between CD hi-fi and a mobile phone, it also lies somewhere between 24/96 PCM and 64 kbps internet radio - however in this case, closer to the bad end of the scale.

To summarise:

In a short-term test, the distortion/artefact "sizzle" may be appealing to some people, but give them the chance to use a lossless codec like FLAC for long-term listening, and I'm confident they will settle for the better quality.

The great news is that even of I'm wrong, mp3 is already on the way out - it won't be long now before player drive space and internet bandwidth make the requirement for data-compression a thing of the past, and we can all get back to appreciating good audio again.

I mean - does anyone remember how "great" AM radio sounded ?!?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Production Advice Launched

OK ! As promised, I'm posting this here first - I'm delighted to announce the launch of my new website - Production Advice. It's live now, please head over and take a look.

The idea is to offer anyone access to the opinions of professional producers - to give expert, impartial advice on recording, mixing and production issues to anyone who needs it, via a brand new blog, carefully selected resources and a unique package of affordable services.

I think many Mastering Media readers will find it interesting - I'm going to relish the opportunity to talk about a much wider range of subjects than I do here, and I'd love to hear from you, too - please give me your feedback in the blog comments, or come and say Hello on Twitter.

This doesn't mean the end of the Mastering Media blog though - I'll still be posting regularly here on mastering-focused subjects. I see the two sites as complementing each other, and I hope you agree.

So, please take a look and let me know what you think - sign up to the RSS feed and if you're recording or mixing yourself, maybe even give the free trial a shot. And please pass the word to other people who you think might be interested.

See you at Production Advice !


Sunday, 1 March 2009

Video interview for The Manchester College

Today I was interviewed by Pete Whitfield from The Manchester College, via iChat. We talked mainly about mastering - what it is, how I got started and what gear I use, and what skills are necessary, but also a little about music and social media - blogging, Twitter etc. 

I will also be answering questions (if there are any!) from students at the college all this week on their forum. Thanks to Pete for inviting me.