August 2013 Editor's Note: Quality--Music Meets Tech

Aug 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Tom Kenny


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Producer/engineer Andrew Scheps has been logging miles of late, flying around the country to local Recording Academy chapters to deliver a talk in association with the national Producers & Engineers Wing. The two-hour presentation, labeled “Lost in Translation,” is all about Quality, and fits in with the Academy’s nationwide drive Quality Sound Matters. Last week Scheps stopped in at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif., to address the Bay Area pro audio community.

Actually, he presented the talk, which is about half listening session, twice at Fantasy, first for the local tech community, then for producers and engineers. It’s an excellent presentation focusing on distribution formats—Quality on the consumer end. Basically, it’s a presentation on what happens to a track after it leaves the mastering house and is encoded for iTunes, YouTube, Rhapsody, MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody or any other delivery medium making use of lossless or lossy compression, whether AAC, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis. He begins with a brief history of music consumption, all of it live until Edison, the wax cylinder, the 78, the 45, cassette, 8-track, CD, etc., up until streaming and download. Then he puts up charts with 128 and 256 and 384 kbps, he walks the audience through truncation and bit depth, and then he plays back tracks that he pulled from the services as if he were a consumer.

The differences were striking. We heard “Strawberry Fields,” Mahler’s Ninth, “Roundabout,” a cut from George Benson…a wide variety. It wasn’t double-blind listening, there was no real guesswork. In that sense, the talk was anecdotal, designed to get audio engineers and producers to start thinking about what is going on with their music. Scheps peppers his presentation with humor, a few insider jokes, but his passion for quality is evident. He’s tailored his material for engineers, with the assumption that they don’t know math. The difference with the audience at Fantasy was that they do know math.

There were representatives from the Fraunhofer Institute, the developers of MP3, in the audience. And Apple, Rdio, Rhapsody and others. Tomlinson Holman, the man behind THX and a current researcher at USC, was in the house. Scheps opened his talk with a disclaimer, about how he’s usually talking to people for whom much of the material is new, and at times he appeared self-deprecating and deferred to the audience, claiming that he was “just a music guy.” But he more than held his own in a crowd filled with tech minds. He brought the subjective, and let’s face it: Music is subjective.

Yet, music delivery—Quality Music Delivery—is now dependent on highly objective criteria, like sample rates and bit depth and bandwidth. The appearance of the tech community at a listening session led by a top producer was indicative of where we stand in letting the world know that Quality Sound Matters. Any formula that brings Quality Sound to the consumer must involve both communities, along with mobile and search. I only wish YouTube, the number-one delivery mechanism but the worst for Quality, was in the studio that afternoon.

Kudos to the Recording Academy for recognizing that the recording community is dependent on the tech community, and vice versa. On one Saturday in the Bay Area, it was all so clear.

Tom Kenny


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