Paul Lehrman's April 2008 “Insider Audio” column, “The Emperor's New Sampling Rate,” addresses a study by David Moran and Brad Meyer that was published in the September 2007 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. The study concludes that recording professionals, recording students and audiophiles who participated in listening tests were unable to distinguish between high-resolution audio and 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality audio. A number of readers responded to Lehrman's column.
Kudos to Paul Lehrman for daring to report what I've suspected all along — that people who claim to hear big differences at high sample rates are kidding themselves.
Lehrman wrote, “Something is causing people to say they are hearing differences.” I recommend Deep Throat's dictum to “follow the money.” The people who advertise in Mix need to sell a constant stream of new stuff to meet their sales targets. And how are you going to make people dissatisfied with their old stuff unless you can convince them that the new stuff sounds better? It's a classic case of the marketing axiom that you have to sell the disease before you can sell the cure.
Engineers willingly (if perhaps subconsciously) play along with this gambit because of our evolved craving for status and one-upmanship. “I can hear a difference” is simply a modern version of “I can throw my spear farther.” Audio engineers who nod their heads about how one piece of gear sounds “dramatically” better than another one (on the basis of absurdly unscientific “listening tests”) remind me of art critics and religious cultists, both of whom try to create an environment in which only the superior anointed ones are allowed to possess the “truth.”
The problem is that the general public doesn't buy the mythology. Despite the best efforts of art critics to convince us that paint spilled on a canvas is great art (at least this week), most people stubbornly continue to buy traditional landscapes to hang on their walls. And despite the efforts of Golden Ears to convince us that their favored box will reveal vast new vistas of sound, most consumers continue to be quite content, thank you, with CDs or the even-worse MP3s.
If you absolutely must have a high sampling rate, pick 24-bit/88.2kHz and be done with it. You'll only triple your storage and bandwidth requirements, and the ease of downconverting to CD format will minimize the potential for other mischief.
You stated that the sound experiment [Meyer and Moran] performed is up for debate, and there's room to do different types of experiments. But the article came off a little bit negative to me. I believe high-fidelity recording is worth fighting for, and am a little disappointed about the effects the article might have on the next generation of engineers. I feel like Mix should aim to inspire and educate.
I'm working as a second engineer for Bill Schnee in North Hollywood. I'm 27 years old, and most engineers my age didn't have the opportunity to work in the analog days. Whether its analog or digital, engineers need to strive for better sound instead of settling for the regular lo-fi Pro Tools sound.
Only near the end of Paul Lehrman's April 2008 “proof” that CDs are, in fact, “perfect sound forever” does he finally fess up and admit that listeners still were able to conclude that “virtually all of the SACD and DVD-A recordings sounded better than most CDs — sometimes much better.” He sidesteps this inconvenient truth by hypothesizing that audiophile engineers must apply more “care and affection” to their work than do commercial producers (whose budgets, by the way, must be many, many multiples of the boutique labels).
By scornfully dismissing the opinions of people who actually care what recorded music sounds like (“tweakheads” in the author's parlance), Lehrman epitomizes the willful ignorance that is at least partially responsible for our current dreadful state of sonic affairs: live music amplified to levels that cannot be endured without earplugs (talk about unclear on the concept!), MP3s on ear buds as the new “industry standard” and popular music recorded with the compression meter pegged and motionless from intro to fade-out. It seems to me that to just abandon the idea that there can be appreciable (if not always immediately measurable) improvements in recorded sound does a great disservice to all of us who consider ourselves, first and foremost, music lovers.
Paul Lehrman replies: First of all, please understand that I personally did not perform this experiment — I am merely writing about the work of two scientists (whom I happen to know) as reported in a highly regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journal. So I have no stake in this, except that I do believe that Messrs. Moran and Meyer are onto something.
Mr. Nachtigall, I'm afraid, misses the point of the paper: The researchers conclude that the high-end discs sound better not because they use a better medium, but because they were made better by people who care a great deal about sound. What they are saying is that these recordings, whether they end up on SACDs or plain ol' CDs (assuming the CDs are mastered well), will sound equally good. One of the conclusions we should all draw from the paper is that just because a lot of CDs sound crummy doesn't mean that CDs have to sound crummy.
Meyer and Moran most definitely “care what recorded music sounds like” — they've both been in the field for more than 30 years — and that's why they did the study. No one disagrees that there will always be room for “improvements in recorded sound” — better microphones, preamps, speakers and room acoustics are worthy goals for any studio or any designer — but what the researchers found is that adding extra data to the delivery system beyond the capabilities of a CD doesn't improve anything.
I absolutely agree with Mr. Fong that “high-fidelity recording is worth fighting for,” but we need to recognize just how that fight should be waged. This paper tells us that we would do better to insist that our recordings are made with greater technical expertise and sensitivity to the music rather than demand more bits and bytes.
Hey, touring engineers! Next month, Mix focuses on live sound — just about the same time you're hitting the road. We want to know your fave plug-in for live sound. What do you use it on? How does it sit in your mix? E-mail us at email@example.com.