Is Your Album Transparent?

Your favorite music served up on various formats

Hi-resolution downloads have been on the audiophile scene for a while now with mixed user feedback. Companies like iTrax and HD Tracks have provided what they claim are high-resolution audio files for customers to purchase and download.  HD Tracks has been accused of selling upsampled digital audio masters instead of truly transferring the audio in real time from the master tapes. iTrax, on the other hand is adamant about their HD music downloads being authentic.  iTrax focuses on recent recordings made using new HD recording technology (i.e. 24 bit 96Khz Analog to digital converters used to convert the microphone preamp).

While HD Tracks has investigated the dubious upsampled audio, it is hard to keep track of how different mastering houses/record labels actually deal with the audio in their studios.  HD Tracks does not inform the customer about how or where the audio is from (save for one release so far). iTrax, for the moment, seems to be much more transparent about how their audio is dealt with. Older analog master tapes can be transferred to high-resolution digital audio files, it is up to us to demand that the process used is fully disclosed.

I notice a lot of discussion (web forums) about the HD Tracks releases and whether or not the files are real or merely upsampled. As an engineer, I can appreciate the scrutiny.  What I find curious is that these forum discussions seem to be concentrating on the science of the data. Sure, I care about that, but let’s actually use our ears and listen.  Did they do a good mastering job?  Was the music uncompressed but brittle?  Well, I personally am looking for a great rendering of a master recording.  Just because it is uncompressed does not mean it is better. While compression/EQ can be done too extremely (modern pop recordings), it can also be ignored to the point of being just as sonically tasteless.

Not only do we (the customer) not know who is engineering all these high definition reissues, we are also unaware if mastering took place or what exactly is going on. We the consumer must also realize that record label executives, distributors (like HD Tracks, Mobile Fidelity, Analogue Productions, iTrax), request different mastering techniques. Bottom line: different reissue labels will approach mastering differently. It is up to us to educate ourselves, and support those reissue labels who are sonically transparent about their mastering methods.

Audiophile Album Reissues

This brings me to another point about audiophile reissues. Often times I am disappointed to hear that audiophile labels don’t use EQ, compression, or anything.  Do they use a mastering engineer?  The only recordings I find that need little if no mastering are very well recorded orchestral music and small jazz ensembles.

It is unfortunate that the loudness wars of the 90’s have misinformed people about what mastering is all about. Through my investigation into audiophile music releases I came up with some thoughts:

  • The Vinyl record has certainly made a comeback – as it should.  Aside from having the ability to apply EQ for vinyl mastering, compression is dealt with quite differently. The physical limitations of the vinyl LP do not allow for too much compression, or the grooves will overlap when the cutting is taking place. Even more, vinyl demands care and attention when cutting is done.
  • This is not to say that vinyl records cannot be mastered poorly, those records certainly exist. It is just that in recent years, I have found a good number LP reissues that tastefully render the sonic qualities of a recording.

Know your record label

Great recordings in hi resolution exist, it is just important to request that these labels disclose the techniques and tools used.

Now go listen to an album! Repeat…

On the turntable:  Ella and Louis (mono45 RPM), Echospace Detroit

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2 thoughts on “Is Your Album Transparent?

  1. hi, nice article; Im new to the “audiophile scene”, just replacing my mp3 collection by its FLAC cd-ripped 44K-16b equivalents; but I have a very basic question regarding sound quality of mastering: isnt (in theory) best if the mastering is produced without any EQ, compression or otherwise alteration of the direct microphone-to-digital signal transformation? I mean, many people can have their personal tastes as to what they like a particular performance to sound like, but in therms of capturing the purest and real in-studio performance, wouldnt it be best if the recording process was limited only to encode de analog sound of the musicians transparently to digital format? Being it 16 or 24 bit, whatever makes the process of mixing and distribution more practical, as long as the original analog signals are kept with the best fidelity in their digital equivalent.
    Thus, when u have your copy of the FLAC final consumer version, u can make those adjustments to make it sound to your particular taste (EQ, reverb, tube-amplifier warm, etc).

    • The recording process is much more than merely capturing the recorded instruments and acoustic space. It is an artistic process with Engineers, musicians and producers. The way a recording sounds is the result of the artists, producers, and engineers collaboration. They indeed intended it to sound that way, even if you don’t like it. Your personal tastes are just that, Personal…i would recommend reading more about the creative recording process.

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