Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Naxos 'dumbs-down production standards'

'To those who see nothing to worry about in the cheapness of recordings, I'd like to point out that without a sensible stream of revenue the whole process of making recordings will be compromised - if indeed it is not already.

Naxos, for one, pays very, very little to its freelance production staff. I can say from personal experience, that not only does the current economic climate make it almost impossible to earn a living wage as an independent classical music engineer or producer, it also has the inevitable knock-on effect of dumbing-down production standards: it's now almost impossible to invest in new equipment. Quite obviously this impedes qualitative improvements for which classical recording engineers are traditionally renowned.

But who cares about quality anymore? Naxos among others blithely and inaccurately claim that their audio streams offer 'Near CD quality', which at 128k/sec is little more than 10% of CDs 1141Kb/sec. Anyhow, you won't need those B&W 803's for much longer - a couple of Tandy ear buds will do just as well.'


This comment was added to my article Is classical music too cheap? but I thought it worth running as a new post. It was written by Guthry Trojan who is a freelance classical and jazz recording engineer based in Paris. (Check out his new blog The Crunch). These are Guthry's personal views, and he raises some interesting questions.


We have an awful lot to thank Naxos for and this blog regularly recommends their recordings, but will low budget recordings lead to a long term erosion of technical standards as Guthry suggests? Just one example from my CD collection is the intrusive mains hum during the first dance in Set 2 (Op 33) of the otherwise excellent Naxos recording of Malcolm Arnold's English Dances, (catalogue number 8553526, track 5). The audible hum which lasts for the duration of the 3 minute 14 second track must surely have been noticed when the disc was being edited. Would a fist full of split notes from the brass have been allowed onto the final release?

Are the bit rates in streamed audio really adequate for serious listening? If the soloist is playing a 1697 Stradivarius what is the point in listening at 'low-fi' quality? Why develop new hi-res formats like SACD (which Naxos are backing) when audio streams via the internet are low-res? And what about music over digital radio (DAB)? How many stations actually broadcast at the optimum 192kb/s, and how many users follow the BBC and reduce bit-rates as low as 80kb/s to compress more channels into the same bandwidth?

Isn't it rather short-sighted to agonise over subtle differences in performers' interpretations when, as the table below shows, there are orders of magnitude quality variations in the replay chain? If the CD is dead, as so many pundits are telling us, did high quality sound die with it? In the brave new world of the internet has quality been traded for accessibility?

More questions than answers I'm afraid - 'For the times they are a-changin'

Sample rates for the competing audio formats:
MP3 (x-High) = 192Kbps
MP3 (High) = 128Kbps
MP3 (Mid) = 64Kbps

DAB = 192Kbps
CD = 1413Kbps

SACD = 2.8 Mbps
DVD Audio, varies from 192 KHz for two channels to 96/48 KHz for five channel surround sound
I know that sample rate does not have a linear relationship to sound quality, but the relationship cannot be ignored. And interestingly by far the best performer using this measurement is a vinyl LP - as the signal remains in the analogue domain the effective sampling rate is infinite.

Comments welcome on this fascinating, and controversial, topic. But they must be attributed - no anonymous comments please, and no 'Jerry Springers' either thanks.
Image credit - Microphone from
Coutant.org, my trusty Thorens TD125 from Decibelhifi.com
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Music-like-water and Naxos blog and Paying the piper.

10 comments:

Pliable said...

News aggregator Topix.net is going to cause some confusion with this story.

They are running it on their MP3 and related news feeds with the photo of the Thorens TD125 record deck displayed against the headline. Check this link to see what it looks like.

Guthry Trojan said...

Thanks for your interest Pliable. Long may it continue. I'll be continuing to discuss my approach to the subjective subject of sound and quality, so do keep an eye on my blog. You might also be kind enough to your list of interesting links and blogs, if you've not already done so. And of course, I'll do likewise.
Just for interest, there really is a rather strong link between sample rate and sound quality, although of course, technical quality is no guarantee of audio quality!
DVDA quality, even at 44.1Khz 24bit gives a data stream of around 2116bits/sec - the comparison really does put MP3 in an realistic perspective.
If in doubt, multiply the sampling frequency by 2 [because it's stereo], and multiply the result by the bit rate ie, 16 or 24 etc. The result gives bits/second. 44.1Khz x 2= 8820
8820x 16 = 1411.20

Berend de Boer said...

128KB is acceptable quality for classical music? I suppose it is for the music where the beat drums out all the other noise, but even on my 5 EUR headphones I can hear that the BBC's 128KB Beethoven isn't really something that will replace the cd.

And I can't imaging people with high fidelity speakers listening to a 128KB quartet at all. Let alone organ music.

As we've now been warned for CD production problems, I think they should be spelled out loud and clear in the review. The market will do the rest, i.e. I certainly will never buy a CD with a production issue, how good it otherwise might be.

Will Benton said...

Hi Pliable et al.,

I posted some thoughts on this at my site. While the first-hand accounts of Naxos' engineering budgets are interesting, I don't know if there is a causal link between following the current state of the industry w.r.t. internet streaming and making poor recordings.

best,
wb

Catison said...

I'm a casual music listener. I have withstood the onslaught of media attention and peer pressure advising me to buy my music on the internet in a compressed version. I still buy all my music on CD and rip it myself to very acceptable ogg files with quality setting 5 (or halfway) and put on my music player. I don't listen to Internet radio or download free music to listen to on my own time.

With that qualification, I still understand the need and niche of streaming music and its downloadable counterpart. Internet music is not here to replace the CD or SACD or DVD-A. I like Naxos' website, because I can listen to any of their music before I buy it. I can see their streaming music as an easy way to get aquainted with music I otherwise might have passed over. In other words, it allows me to explore at a very affordable rate.

Exploring music is an activity which I am sure is valued by all classical music enthusiasts, yet traditionally, this has been constrained by our own wallet or by the selection of our best library. I don't think anyone who is serious about music expects the Naxos website to sound as good as a CD (thankfully, they publish the bitrates), but we accept it as a means to an end. When the time is right, we can then buy those Naxos recordings which interest us and use those B&W speakers.

Andy Varga said...

As a serious classical music listener - of both recorded music and live concerts I think it's time to ditch all recording formats in favour of 'non moving parts' technology - ie we should simply be able to download non compressed audio files of the original recording, ie at the original recorded sampling rate. The playback technology woulkd be completely solid state. This way the recording will be 'future proof', and can simply be saved on a hard drive or other storage system, and we won't have to worry about DVDA - DVDB, Blue Mouth Wash or any other ghastly subdivisions of competing and non compatible technological standards that currently clog up one's ability to go out and actually know what kind of recording to buy. Better still, I suggest you ditch recorded music altogether and go to actual concerts, which you can hear direct from the original instrument, and listen to with your own high quality equipment - your ears!

Berend de Boer said...

Anyone downloaded the Danish MP3's of Mozart's symphonies? The quality is horrible, it's almost all white noise, impossible to listen to it.

It's an insult to the downloaders.

Making white noise available for free downloads, what a coup.

Walt the Psalt said...

Andy Varga wants a solid-state recording and playback system, insulated from the format-du-jour and I'm using one. I have recorded rehearsals & concerts with perfectly acceptable results onto SD cards, 2 Gig and now 4 Gig, and after trimming and encoding, listen to the music in my car/mp3 player/computer on the same kind of cards. They do click sometimes which I think might be magnetic degradation, but all I have to do is re-format the card (FAT-32) and re-copy the files from the HD. BTW, 320kbs is the minimum bit-rate for mp3s on my orchestra's web site. WAV files are fine but it would be cool to have a portable OPPO player which could read 24bit/96kHz files and output 5.1 in the car. Cooler still would be a playback PC with no fan!

Tlogger said...

This comment's coming from a guy who loves vinyl. I have a big stack of it right next to me as I type this comment, waiting to be thrown onto a record player that I listen to with high quality headphones or monitor speakers, so please don't take this as a pro-digital comment. Analog forever!

That said, I have to point out an inaccuracy. You say, Pliable:
"... in the analogue domain the effective sampling rate is infinite."

That's not true. The closest analogy we can make to anything like a sampling rate in the analog domain would be the grain of the vinyl record. This varies widely from one release to another, with audiophile/virgin vinyl/180 gram LPs at the extreme quality end of the spectrum and recycled vinyl grot often heard on punk 7"s and flaky acetate on dub plates on the grimey end.

Vinyl's "sampling rate" is infinite because it exists in our world, not the computers, and there is no real sampling rate. But the quality of a vinyl recording is just as variable, if not moreso, than the quality of digital ones. It's just less quantifiable. Even with the highest quality vinyl releases, we can measure surface noise that is quantifiably more obtrusive than the -96 dB noise floor of a 44.1 compact disc. This surface noise comes from the molecular structure of the vinyl material -- microvibrations triggered by the grain within the groove. A similar thing happens with silver halide photographs. When you blow them up big enough, you can see little particles of toner that form the smallest constituents of the image. The primary difference is that in analog, real-world media the grain exists in a random pattern of randomly-sized quanta, whereas in digital media the quanta are regularly-sized and aligned in a grid. (This equally true for visual or aural media.)

I'm a fan of vinyl because I'm a fan of reified objects and the philosophical baggage they carry. I adore the way the sound coming off of the stylus in the turntable interacts with the electrical audio signal in the room, and how immediate and simple and elegant the process of listening is when compared to the ridiculous contorted FFTs we have to go through to hear music in the digital domain. I'm even a fan of the above-mentioned surface noise and the personality and patina it adds to a recording as a unique object deserving of its own special attention.

But I'm also a Naxos subscriber and an eMusic subscriber too, because I think they offer something that I can't have with my treasured vinyl -- wide, cheap, easy variety.

The world will always have a desire for analog media. As its civilizations grow increasingly infoheirarchical, though, the world will increasingly have a NEED for universally-available access to the artistic treasures of humanity.

So -- I'm with you in the spirit of your post, which I would summarize in two words: "Quality first!" But I would modify it like so: "Access for all, but never forget about the importance of quality!" Naxos and other labels do need to start paying more attention to sound quality on both ends of the process (recording and delivery) or the digital copies of performances we have/listen to won't be worth the hard drive space they take up or the fees we pay the distributors.

doomble said...

i think we can remember memory with this electronics music