Lies, Damn Lies, and High Resolution Downloads

March 5, 2014

beck_morningphase

Stephen Meijas recently reviewed Beck’s Morning Phase on the Capitol label here. Here’s what John Atkinson had to say about the 96/24 download from HDTracks:

“I bought this album from HDTracks last night but haven’t listened to it yet. However, I looked at a spectrogram of one of these 24/96 tracks – see www.stereophile.com/content/beck-track-11 – and yes, it is brickwall-filtered at 16kHz, strongly suggesting that the master was originally MP3-encoded. A second brickwall at 22kHz suggests that the CD master, sampled at 44.1kHz, was used for the 24/96 master. :-(”

beck_spectagraph

HDTracks’ defense in similar situations has been that they just sell what the labels provide them – without any quality control. Not good enough in my book. In my experience, it is a common occurrence, and for that reason, I simply refuse to buy any downloads from HDTracks. You just do not know what you are getting for your money. And they don’t seem to care. If that is the business model they wish to follow, and apparently it is, in the interest of full disclosure, I suggest that HDTracks post a disclaimer in a conspicuous place on their website such as the following:

DISCLAIMER

Not all the tracks marketed and sold by HDTracks as high resolution are actually high resolution. Sometimes the record labels supply us with tracks which are just MP3s or CDs upsampled to 96/24 or 192/24 to make it look like they are high resolution. Even though we know the labels are doing this, we don’t check them; we just sell them. So if you pay us a premium for high resolution tracks, and it turns out they are not really high resolution, don’t blame us. We are just the distributor. You pay your money and you take your chances. And we don’t offer refunds. Good luck, and have a nice day.

______

Update

In a subsequent post, following a conversation with David Chesky, John Atkinson went on to say:

“Capitol did admit that some of the samples used by Beck in the multitrack mixes are lower resolution than 24/96 but is adamant that the provenance of the mixed files was genuine 24/96.”

Michael Fremer also weighed in on the issue on his AnalogPlanet blog writing that Bob Ludwig, who mastered the album, told him:

“As the mastering engineer for Beck’s “Morning Phase” album I can guarantee with 100% certainty that the album was mixed and mastered at 96kHz/24 bit. There were no Mp3 mixes, nor any mixes at any sampling rate other than 96kHz that were used.

When artists create an album, especially over a long period of time as this one was, the original multi-track sessions are often recorded at differing sampling rates, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 48kHz or 44.1kHz depending on the local studios standards, computer stability issues with high track counts etc. They may be put together as an album and mixed through an analog console at 96kHz to more accurately represent the sounds the artist and mix engineer are hearing from the mixing desk. If one looks at the resulting spectrum analysis of the master, naturally one can still see the brick-wall anti-alias filters from the original sessions, often with some low level spectrum that continues out to 48kHz (the Nyquist frequency of 96kHz) due to the harmonics generated by the analog desk, effects, filters, reverbs, noise etc. This is totally legitimate engineering.”

This is simply more double-speak. If the original tracks themselves were recorded as MP3 or CD quality, they had to be upsampled to 96/24 to be mixed and mastered at 96/24. So to say the album was “mixed and mastered at 96/24″ obfuscates the fact that the tracks – the music itself – were recorded at lower resolution. It may be “legitimate engineering” but it doesn’t change the fact that the music itself is not high-resolution. What is being sold at a premium as high resolution is not in fact high resolution, which is the crux of the matter. The brickwall filters at 16KHz and 22.05KHz don’t lie.

I am sure Michael Fremer would be less understanding if his prized vinyl pressings were sourced from lacquers cut from cassette tapes dubbed onto 1″ two-track reel-to-reel and advertised as being “Sourced from the Original 1″ Master Tapes.” Come to think of it, does anyone remember Michael’s indignation when he found out that the Beatles LP reissues were pressed from the same 44.1/24 digital files used for the CD box sets rather than from the 192/24 digital masters? He had a field day “outing” EMI; he certainly didn’t refer to such criticism as “nonsense” then.

Can you tell I am completely fed up with the whole so-called high-resolution game the industry is playing, and charging us a premium for? To paraphrase Mark Twain, apparently there are lies, damn lies, and “high resolution” downloads.

_____

Further Update

HDTracks has now added the following vague and cryptic note buried at the bottom of the separate album details page:

“Please note: Tracks 4, 5, 7, 10, 11 contain elements of 48k tracking, mastered in 96/24.”

John Atkinson’s spectrum analysis of track 11 shows no brickwall filter at 24KHz which would indicate that there were no “elements of 48k tracking” as HDTracks states. Instead, the brickwall filters appear at 16kHz and 22.05KHz indicating that the tracks were upsampled from MP3s and CD quality (44.1KHz) recordings, not 48KHz recordings.

More obfuscation?