By Skwerl at 10:00 AM Monday, February 28th 2011
Here comes the longest interview intro ever, but this is a special one, addressing a very specific topic, and a bit of context is in order…
Last week, CNN reported that Interscope Records CEO Jimmy Iovine is pushing for the sale of 24-bit audio on iTunes and other online retailers. In a news conference for Hewlett-Packard, Iovine said: “We’ve gone back now at Universal, and we’re changing our pipes to 24-bit. And Apple has been great. We’re working with them and other digital [download] services to change to 24-bit. And some of their electronic devices are going to be changed as well. So we have a long road ahead of us.”
The term 24-bit refers to the “depth” of an audio recording. We can explain this technical dimension somewhat by comparing it to video; most of us have bought at least one HD television after reading a little bit on video resolution. Audio CDs are limited to 16-bit, which you might compare to a basic cable channel coming in at 480p. 24-bit is theoretically audio’s equivalent to the 720p or 1080p video coming from our Blu-Ray players or digital cable services.
However, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, and it might be a little more accurate to compare the depth of an audio signal to the number of different colors each single pixel on a television could be (rather than the total number of them). Audio sample rate (which we’ll get to later) is somewhat equivalent to video frame rate.
Yet for those of you not aware of the so-called “Loudness War” that has been raging since the late 1980s, the music most of us listen to is almost without exception “compressed” to be as loud as God allows, to compete for our attention next to whatever came before on the radio or in our playlist. And when everything- all of the colors so to speak- are so relentlessly saturated to be as bright and loud as possible, the question arises: Are we even using 16 bits’ worth? Why do we need 24?
Our own Tom Davenport, in a recent editorial for Gizmodo entitled “Why 24-bit Audio Will Be Bad For Users,” presented the theory that 24 bit audio is a consumer con, and a format that regular consumers will “never need.” This sparked a debate here at Antiquiet. There was the speculation that Iovine’s idea is simply savvy marketing designed to turn audiophiles into even bigger suckers to sell his possibly overhyped Beats Auio headphones. There was my confidence in my own precious hi-fi system and few 24-bit audio sources (I was ecstatic to read that 24-bit audio could be coming to iTunes). And of course, as always, there was the passion we all share for cutting through bullshit.
So we had a bit of a debate, and finally Saturday night we sat down with the most experienced professional we could blackmail, Sean Beavan of the band 8mm. Over the course of an extremely enviable engineering career spanning two decades, Sean has had a hand in the mix of several favorite albums of yours and ours, including Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, and Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals. Also possibly Chinese Democracy.
The bottom line is that while it may not be appropriate for every consumer, the 24-bit audio format has at least the potential, for those that care, to be the best thing to happen to the art form of recorded music since the CD. I choose these words carefully, because there’s as much subjectivity involved as science, as Sean explains in much depth.
It absolutely must be understood that 24-bit audio isn’t just about “ripping” the fully mastered recordings we’re all familiar with to a slightly different digital format. Just as the mastering process for vinyl is- and in fact must be- completely different than the mastering process for 16-bit CDs or radio; to bring 24-bit audio to market, it’s nearly guaranteed that the labels will locate the pre-mastered tapes (or Pro Tools sessions or what have you) and remaster them responsibly to take proper advantage of the benefits of the 24-bit format. And you may or may not be surprised to learn that these differences aren’t so subtle. Even a non-audiophile can hear them on a regular consumer stereo system. You may also be surprised to learn that the infrastructure to properly bring what is essentially an entirely new format to market is already in place (more or less) at the labels.
Through the course of our internal discussions, Tom Davenport clarified that his piece as it was originally submitted to Gizmodo was directed more towards Dr. Dre and his headphones rather than Jimmy Iovine and 24-bit audio. It was in fact originally titled “How Dr. Dre Engineered the 24-bit Con.” As Tom says, “it’s really an observation that the headphone manufacturer [is] pushing this, and that I predict the marketing around 24-bit stores will be conning people who really shouldn’t care.” Which is a very fair suspicion. “For some people and circumstances there’s no doubt 24-bit is appropriate. Of course, [Gizmodo's title change] changed the angle and my attitude somewhat.”
With that said, the more you examine the technical and subjective aspects of the format, the more you may come to see it as the opposite of devious marketing: Quite possibly a huge gamble on Iovine’s part, and actually a miraculous, radical idea to cater to a minority of consumers- specifically the hardcore fans- to give them something that most people are not willing to pay for, and in fact may not even be capable of appreciating the value of at all.
24-bit audio, as even Jimmy Iovine seems to see it, could represent a small revolt against the “Loudness War,” and a refocus on the art. Not a gimmick to wrench a few extra bucks out of our hands, but finally a genuine value-add, and an entirely new reason to pay for music… That is, if the labels don’t fuck it up. After all, while, as Beavan explains, Iovine himself is a qualifiable audiophile, there may very well be pressure from insensitive “bean counters” to cut corners on the 24-bit mastering processes, or even to make the 24-bit audio louder (at the cost of precious dynamics), just as we’ve seen them do with 16-bit CDs.
And on the other hand, as our writer Fernando Scoczynski speculates, it’s not necessarily purely about giving better sound to consumers; Aside from the obvious creation of a new revenue stream, there’s a very convenient cross-promotional opportunity presented by this initiative. Why (really) would Iovine go so far out of his way to cater to such a small minority of consumers? Fernando answers:
It just so happens that Mr. Iovine recently teamed up with Dr. Dre to release a line of high-end audio equipment called Beats Audio, promising greater fidelity than most devices out there today. At the Hewlett-Packard event where the promise of 24-bit was made, they also took the opportunity to announce their upcoming iPad-competitor, the TouchPad, which will feature audio technology provided by (you guessed it) Beats Audio. How convenient is it that both the device and the change to 24-bit were discussed on the same event?
Perhaps this 24-bit initiative only exists because it will help Iovine and Dre sell Beats Audio. Or maybe Beats Audio enables Iovine to bring a new format to market that has previously been unfeasible. Either way, it’s hardly a scam.
Now it wouldn’t hurt if record contracts paid a little more respect to the artists in recording contracts when it comes to new formats. In a revelation that could easily warrant its own headline here at Antiquiet, Beavan reveals that many major label recording contracts let the label hold back a significant portion of an artist’s dues from CDs (while they’re paid 100% of their earnings from vinyl) through an absurd and outdated clause held over from the mid-1980s that essentially defines CDs as an “unproven format,” that may or may not take hold among consumers. Fascinating, shocking even, but I digress.
These two clips just scratch the surface of the extremely in-depth discussion I had with Sean in his studio. Everything summarized above (and much much more) is explained in detail in the full lecture, which we present to responsibly educate the audiophiles, aspiring audiophiles, and those curious enough to spare 45 minutes. And in addition to cutting through the bullshit orbiting this 24-bit audio story, there are some interesting (albeit nerdy) little anecdotes from the early days of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson that will definitely be of interest to at least the more hardcore of fans out there. Either way, we hope you get as much out of it as we have. Enjoy, and sorry for ruining your lunchbreak if you’re heading down the rabbit hole.
Big thanks to Fernando for getting the ball rolling on this story, and for writing hundreds of words that wound up getting no further than my interview notes.
In addition to continuing to produce music for everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Envy On The Coast, Sean and his lovely wife Juliette are very active with their band 8mm. Feel free to browse our ongoing coverage of them, and keep up with them through their official site at 8mmLovesYou.com.
Keep up with Tom Davenport’s opinions on this story and other developments in his world and the audio world in general over at his personal site.
P.S. The debate has spilled onto Reddit, and somewhat responsibly at that.