Q&A With David Chesky of HDtracks
I'd imagine most of you already know about HDtracks. If not, I'll just say that HDtracks is a music download service, specializing in High Definition downloads and if you want to know more, follow that link or let Google show you the way. What you may not know is HDtracks was founded by David and Norman Chesky who also own and operate Chesky Records, the Grammy Award winning record label, and David Chesky also happens to be a musician, composer, record producer, and audiophile. At the risk of sounding not impartial, if we were to create a wish-list for one of the people at the helm of one of the largest HD music download sites, I can't really think of a better resume. But that's just me.
Over the years, there has been some controversy over some releases sold by HDtracks and there are some ongoing issues and concerns mainly related to the quality and provenance of HD remasters. I recently had an opportunity to speak to David Chesky by phone and talk about some of these issues and concerns.
Can you tell us how HDtracks got started? I don't necessarily mean history, I'm more interested in the reasons behind starting HDtracks.
Years ago, many years ago I had this idea but the web wasn't there yet. It wasn't fast enough, the bandwidth for HD downloads wasn't readily available. It took time. It took years to build.
I liked this idea for two main reasons:
A) Even if you're living in Idaho were there aren't any music stores you can listen to, preview, and buy all of this great music. If you're going to buy a new recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 you pretty much know something about what you're going to get even if you haven't heard it. But with contemporary music, you have no idea what the new Jane Doe record is, what it's going to sound like. Now we can preview all of this music before we buy it.
And B) Playback execution, mainly playing from memory, has allowed digital to sound great.
"We sell what artists want us to sell and in the end I have to respect their vision."
One of the main issues I've seen discussed on various audio-related forums is the sound quality of some HD downloads. Specifically, there have been some releases such as Nirvana's Nevermind where it appears as if additional dynamic compression was employed during the remastering process and other releases that appear to have been upsampled to create a higher resolution version from a CD-quality recording. Could you provide an overview of the process for a HD remaster, what HDtracks' involvement is this process, and what if anything HDtracks can do to ensure the quality of the HD remasters you sell.
HDtracks is a delivery system. We sell what artists want us to sell and in the end I have to respect their vision. This is an aesthetic choice and some musicians like the sound of analog and even digital compression. That's the way they want it. Look, if you buy a contemporary rock record chances are its going to be compressed. On the other hand, the entire Warner Brothers Jazz Series catalog is 192/24, uncompressed, unedited and straight from the masters. Check that stuff out, Ellington, Coltrane, The MJQ...It sounds amazing.
"Look, Reference Recordings gets it. Water Lilly gets it. But some people still don't get it."
About two years ago we were sent a few files from a label that were represented as being 24/96 and they were not. They didn't get it. Look, Reference Recordings gets it. Water Lilly gets it. But some people still don't get it. So now we have three outside sources testing everything before we release it on HDtracks to make sure it is what its claimed to be. These are mastering studios who are spending their time listening to and testing things for us using equipment that's much better than something like Audacity.
This is a learning process. It's going to take time for artists and producers to really understand what hi res audio is, but HDtracks is shifting the paradigm to quality.
On the subject of dynamic compression, consumers are starting to rely on sites like the "Unofficial" Dynamic Range Database as well as applications like Audacity to determine the sound quality of a given recording. Is there some rating system HDtracks can put into place to give customers an idea of the quality of a recording before they buy it?
No! Look, some artist is going to say 'Why did you rate my record as sounding bad. That's exactly what I wanted'. I've had people say to me that some of our recordings [on the Chesky Label] have too much natural reverb or not enough bass but I'm not going to change the way I do things based on someone else's opinion. That's the art form, part of the complete aesthetic. This is not a science its an art.
And people can preview music and listen for themselves, download a single track before buying the entire album.
"We can ask, we can suggest but in the end we cannot tell the labels what to do."
Another concern I've seen discussed boils down to provenance. People are interested in information regarding the origin of a remaster, as well as the specific steps taken during the remastering process. I've seen this information available for some HD releases and was wondering why its not available for all releases.
We rely on the labels for this information and while we always ask for it and try to explain why we feel its important, we cannot dictate this kind of thing to the labels. We can ask, we can suggest but in the end we cannot tell the labels what to do. As we grow we'll have more influence and people will learn why these things are important. But when this information is available to us, we make it available on HDtracks.
Some people feel that the prices for HD downloads are prohibitively high and some people feel HDtracks is responsible. Is this true?
HDtracks is a delivery system. The labels dictate the wholesale price and we add our markup just like Tower Records or any other retailer.
With the internet record companies are getting slammed and hanging there, I dont know another business where people just walk in and take things off the shelves like they do with illegal downloads. So the drop in volume will dictate prices as well.
"We want HDtracks to be like a club, a premium service, something special."
I've noticed a lot of "coming soon" labels listed on the HDtracks website including ESP Disk which I'm particularly excited about. How many HD albums are currently available from HD Tracks and can you give us a rough idea of where you think you'll be 12 and 24 months from now?
I have no idea. Look, we're not trying to be the biggest, we're trying to be the best of the best. We want HDtracks to be like a club, a premium service, something special.
See Part 2 of our Q&A with David Chesky of HDtracks here.