The recording industry, manufacturers and music services are working together to bring the sound the artists hear in the recording studio to your everyday listening. This informative panel presentation at Music Matters 2017 looked at the revolution in the development of a new tier of studio-quality music services that support hi-res audio with Master Quality Authentication and advanced user features.
Our accomplished panel included:
Marc Finer, Senior Director, Digital Entertainment Group (DEG)
DEG advocates and promotes entertainment platforms, products and distribution channels which support the movie, television, music, consumer electronics and IT industries.
Jim Belcher, VP Technology and Production, Universal Music Group (UMG)
UMG is home to some of the most iconic and influential labels and brands in music, including Abbey Road Studios, Capitol, Decca, EMI, Def Jam, Geffen, Island, Polydor and more.
David Glasser, Chief Engineer, Airshow
Airshow has grown over three decades into a well-rounded audio service provider, offering professional mastering, mixing, tracking, and restoration to take music to a higher level.
Your music can now sound better than ever!
Because of advances in technology, today’s streaming music services can offer not only incredible convenience, but also unprecedented audio quality, as well. This discussion took a look at where we are and where we’re going from the perspective of an industry advocacy group, a large music company, and a studio mastering engineer…
Marc Finer from DEG served as the organizer and moderator of the panel. He opened things up by giving a brief overview: “It’s hard to believe that’s been over 15 years since the first MP3 file was digitally downloaded. Most recently, the evolution which led to digital delivery has been undergoing a dramatic change. Because, thanks to hi-res audio, we can now have it all. We can enjoy studio-quality sound whether through physical media, download services, or a whole new wave of subscription based streaming services. And all of this is being driven by people like Dave Glasser [of Airshow Mastering] coming at this from the studio experience. So what we’re talking about here is a true change in the marketplace.”
Marc then asked Jim Belcher from UMG about the company’s plans for hi-res audio. “Universal has actually supported hi-res audio going all the way back to SACD and DVD-A.” said Jim. “We’ve been working for the last three years on getting digital files for hi-res audio out to the marketplace. Currently we have partners such as HDtracks, Acoustic Sounds and others. And we have streaming partners who are talking with us. Though we can’t announce anything yet, we anticipate distribution through a streaming music service or two or three in the near future. As far as the number of titles, we have somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 albums that are currently at hi-res quality.”
Marc: “In the context of what’s going on in the music industry between the download market, physical media and streaming, how does this fit in the business model for Universal and other music companies?”
Jim: “Right now in the U.S. music market, streaming has taken over. Digital downloads have really declined over the past couple of years… It’s different in other countries, though. In Germany and Japan, for instance, they still buy a lot of physical media, but in the U.S., streaming is dominant.”
Marc: “Dave, what formats are you mostly working with at the mastering stage?”
Dave: “The format is largely determined by the client and what they bring to us. Right now, 95% of the stuff we master comes in digital files, and about half of that is 88.2K/24-bit files or greater. So that means we’re still getting a little under half at 44 or 48K. And there’s always a discussion that, yes, those sound good, but for your next project, why not kick it up a notch to hi-res…”
Marc and Dave noted that the Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Wing has recently introduced a set of hi-res production guidelines. These new guidelines define hi-res as 48K/24-bit or higher, so the standard is moving in the direction of hi-res.
MQA is a game changer
Hi-res audio has been around for physical media and download services for some years now, but Jim pointed out that, “Until MQA [see section below] came out, there was not a real viable solution for streaming hi-res at lower bandwidths. So with cell phones, for instance, it’s really important to have the ability to stream hi-res at these lower bandwidths. We at Universal are very technology agnostic — we look at MQA and technologies like it, and we’ll support anything that helps us. We think MQA is an enabling technology for the next step in the business, which is to deliver these high-quality files to consumers wherever they are on the device they have.”
Millennials (and older folks!) are interested in sound quality and more info about the artists
“There are a lot of naysayers who don’t think that millennials care about this stuff,” said Jim, “so we went out and did some interviews with some college-age students.” He showed a short video of this, and the young men and women were very excited about the higher audio quality of hi-res audio and the whole “Stream the Studio” concept. They were also very interested in the possibility of more supplementary content being made available.
Dave chimed in on this point: “For me, and I’m guessing for a lot of people here, one of the things that got me more into music was reading liner notes. Saying stuff to myself like, ‘Oh, I recognize that bass player, he played on the record I listened to yesterday.’ You could get a much bigger picture than just the music on the album.”
Jim replied: “We actually have an initiative to create a richer experience with the music. Right now there’s very little information — if you’re lucky, you get the artist, the track and a picture. We want to make sure that consumers in the future have a digital booklet and other materials that will enhance and enrich that experience… Our research shows that there’s a segment of the audience that wants better quality audio, better quality metadata, better quality photos, video, behind the scenes info — all sorts of stuff that is not currently available from subscription services, etc.”
When people hear it, they want it
As we noted in the beginning of this post, the whole idea of this “Stream the Studio” initiative is to to bring the sound the artists hear in the recording studio to your everyday listening. Dave really brought this point home when he said, “I wish I had a dollar for every time one of my clients was sitting in a chair next to me in the studio and said, ‘Man, I wish I could hear it this good at home.’”
Fortunately for us music lovers, Marc noted that organizations like Music Watch and the Consumer Technology Association have identified a market of 15-20 million music fans who are streaming music customers and would like to have the hi-res audio experience on a daily basis. And as Jim pointed out, “The more people who buy hi-res, the faster it will facilitate the transformation.”
Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is a revolutionary technology that delivers master quality audio in a file that’s small enough to stream or download. Conventional audio formats discard parts of the sound to keep file size down, but part of this lost detail is the subtle timing information that allows us to build a realistic 3D soundscape in our minds. With MQA, they go all the way back to the original master recording and capture the missing timing detail, and then use advanced digital processing to deliver it in a form that’s small enough to download or stream.
MQA can be played on any audio device, whether in your home, your car, from your phone or anywhere else you might be – perfectly fitting into the way you listen to your music today. Without an MQA-enabled product, the sound will be better than CD quality. To truly unlock the richness of MQA you’ll need a device or software with an MQA decoder. On playback of MQA content, the player indicates you are hearing exactly what the artist recorded and approved in the studio.