Q&A with Mark Waldrep of AIX Records and iTrax.com Part 1 of 3
I originally corresponded with Dr. Mark Waldrep, founder, president and CEO of AIX Records and iTrax.com, back in September of 2011 when he agreed to participate in our first Industry Voice article, "The Future of Computer Audio". We've been in touch a few times since mainly talking about the appropriate time for Mark to discuss his views on HD downloads in-depth. That time is now.
We've split this Q&A into three parts; Part 1 which you'll read all about in a second or two, Part 2 which dives into recommended provenance requirements for HD downloads, and Part 3 in which we'll talk more about the past, present and future of iTrax.com.
As you'll notice, Mark Waldrep has taken a more holistic approach to this Q&A and worked my Qs into his larger context. I'd like to thank Mark, as well as all of our other Q&A guests, for their time and generosity.
Understanding High Definition Audio: Facts and Fiction
"It's good to know there are still some labels (AIX Records) left dedicated to making high quality surround recordings. I applaud you for educating people about what is and isn't HD (analog tape/vinyl being an example that isn't HD).""As many of you might already know, I've been a strong advocate for high definition audio, surround mixes and identifying the 'provenance' of music recordings for a long time."
Dr. Sean E. Olive, Director of Acoustic Research/Corporate R&D, Harman International
I started the audiophile label AIX Records in 2000 and seven years later the HD-Audio download site iTrax.com but I've been an audio enthusiast and engineer for almost 40 years. I've been reading the articles and comments of Michael Lavorgna and others on the AudioStream web site for a while now. Following some of the recent interviews, Q&A sessions and articles, I thought it might be a good time to reach out to Michael and offer my two cents on a range of topics that may be interesting to the site's readers. As many of you might already know, I've been a strong advocate for high definition audio, surround mixes and identifying the "provenance" of music recordings for a long time.
In one of those cosmic coincidences, it seems Michael was thinking the same thing. We talked on the phone and agreed that I should author a piece about a range of topics including the recording process, high definition audio, recording provenance and the future of high definition downloads.
It's not a secret that audio professionals, music fans and audiophiles in particular are an impassioned group when talking about all things musical. And they're not shy about expressing their opinions on their own promotional brochures and commercial sites and forums like AudioStream. I include myself in that group. However, it's always interesting to me how a reasonable debate often breaks down into simplistic statements based on anecdotes, emotions and religious "blind faith" fervor rather than facts and substantiated observations. Don't get me wrong. You can believe whatever you want but understand that the act of believing doesn't make something true. It might just be a "fact" for you.
I should state right at the start that my goal in writing this piece is not to say that audio professionals and music fans do not have the right to record, listen and enjoy music played back in any format, through any number of speakers or even headphones/ear buds. However, what is often forgotten in this debate is that there are as many different goals for music producers and engineers as there are styles of music.
"Somebody once told me that the ultimate goal for an audio engineer is to recreate a musical event…a sort of sonic documentary. That's fiction."
Somebody once told me that the ultimate goal for an audio engineer is to recreate a musical event…a sort of sonic documentary. That's fiction. It might be true for some engineers and producers but it's not universally true. The Beatles or Peter Gabriel didn't issue recordings that sound like live performances. With the guidance of other creative individuals they produced musical works that are sonic masterpieces crafted from lots of individual "musical" components. Producing music is a very personal and individual activity requiring the collaboration of songwriters, musicians, engineers and producers. Some tailor their records to maximize sales and appeal to a particular market channel and others produce recordings with other goals in mind. We'll examine some of them later.
Formats are another aspect of recording that draws ardent supporters to various camps. Go ahead and like what you like. It's a matter of personal taste. I came back from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest a couple of years ago with a brochure exclaiming "Three Universal Truths" about analog tape and machines. They were neither true nor universal but just another example of marketing parading as facts. The author used of lots of large numbers in comparing the number of magnetic domains at a particular tape speed vs. the number of digital samples per second. The whole brochure was complete fiction.
"But please understand that saying 'intense musical space and realism' can ONLY be produced by analog tape is once again fiction."
Now, if you're a believer in analog tape and believe that "intense musical space and realism" can only be produced by analog tape, as one proponent expressed on their web site, then fine. You can believe that and purchase the equipment and tapes necessary to live in that world. I own a stereo NAGRA IV-S and an AMPEX 440C two-channel tape machine and I know exactly what they can and cannot do. In fact, AIX Records will probably make our HD-Audio stereo mixes available as straight copies to analog tape using my Nagra for anyone that wants that sound (stay tuned). But please understand that saying "intense musical space and realism" can ONLY be produced by analog tape is once again fiction.
I've stopped discussing things that are based on emotion and opinion in the world of audio recording and reproduction. I respect that others can and often do have different experiences than I do. But please keep an open mind (and ears). Just last March at the AXPONA show in Jacksonville, the guys in the ballroom room next to me were all about two-channels, turntables, vinyl, tubes and open back speakers. During the set up day, one of the guys in the room said to me, "digital sound is cold, unemotional, lifeless and sterile". I responded by asking him to spend a few moments in my high definition digital, 5.1 surround room listening to some of my surround recordings. I was pleased that he did come by (in fact multiple times) and liked what he heard.
"Asserting that PCM digital is 'sterile or lacks warmth' is also fiction."
When we parted company on the last day of the show he told me, "You won me over Mark. The experience in your room was fabulous! You've changed my mind." And I can tell you that I enjoyed his room as well. We both preferred our own systems, but he went away with a newfound respect for multichannel, PCM HD-Audio (with 3D video as well…but that's another article). Asserting that PCM digital is "sterile or lacks warmth" is also fiction.
Q&A with Mark Waldrep
Can you give the readers a brief overview of your background?
I've been passionate about music since my earliest memories. As a kindergarten student at Pembroke Elementary School in Birmingham, Michigan, I can remember refusing to go outside for recess because I was so enthralled at the sound of the classroom's industrial monaural record player reproducing Burl Ives' voice and guitar as he sang children's songs on a Decca LP (a record that I still have as I approach 60 years of life!). As a teenager, I learned to play the guitar and spent hours practicing and playing guitar with my musically inclined friends. In college, I abandoned architecture at the University of Michigan because my new Martin D-18 guitar became the focus of my life and occupied virtually every waking hour. I moved to California to be a rock star but realized after having lunch with Larry Carlton (a very famous guitar player that I just called on the phone) and sitting in on a session that my future was going to be on the other side of the glass.
"I was the first doctoral student at UCLA to receive a Ph.D. in electro-acoustic music."
My obsession with music continued through college with undergraduate and graduate degrees in music from Cal State Northridge, Cal Arts and UCLA. At a high school reunion a few years back, my classmates were very surprised to learn that I had received my Ph.D. in music composition. I was the first doctoral student at UCLA to receive a Ph.D. in electro-acoustic music. I was a science and math guy when they knew me back in high school. My interest in technology didn't completely disappear; I also received my MS in Computer Science a few years later.
Thanks to a father, who was a HAM radio operator, I learned electronics and later I actually made my living building and repairing audio equipment at the California State Univeristy at Northridge. I actually built my first electric guitar and amplifier as kits from HeathKit Electronics. If it is has a switch on it, I want to know what makes it tick. During my graduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts, my close friend and fellow computer music composer Peter Otto and I used to do all of the sound reinforcement for the annual Contemporary Music Festival. We worked with some of the most important composers from around the world including Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Iannis Xenakis, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman. We also did the sound for the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival.
After college, I went to work for Moma Jo's recording studio in North Hollywood, California thanks to a recommendation from one of my teachers Dale Manquen (the designer of the 3M 56 16-track 2" recorder…a machine that I ultimately owned in my first studio). I worked with lots of different artists including Ambrosia and Randy Crawford during my time at the studio. I used to stay there through the night setting up microphones and learning signal flow and honing my recording technique with some very patient musician friends. I spent a year doing production sound for film and television with the late Mike Denecke (aka "Father Time"), inventor of the ubiquitous timecode slate. Mike was an amazing mentor and taught me about radio mics, using a boom, Nagra machines and sync sound.
"The marriage of music, audio and technology, especially digital technology, has kept me intrigued, motivated and obsessed like nothing else."
I've traveled to Haiti to record Voodoo musicians, to Romania to capture the Georges Enescu Philharmonic playing Bach and Beethoven and to the rain forests of Costa Rica to record the sounds of howler monkeys and exotic birds for a relaxation CD. The marriage of music, audio and technology, especially digital technology, has kept me intrigued, motivated and obsessed like nothing else.
How did you get involved in High Definition Audio and AIX?
I've been recording and releasing high definition, surround music products since I started AIX Records in 2000. That was when Panasonic and a bunch of other consumer electronics manufacturers introduced the DVD-Audio format, which was supposed to be the replacement for the aging compact disc. As an audio engineer and the owner of a fledgling multimedia production, I was very interested in combining the best parts of the new DVD-Video format (widescreen video and surround sound) with the potential fidelity improvements that the new audio-focused DVD discs promised. The opportunity to elevate the quality of music reproduction through better fidelity and surround mixes was very attractive.
It seemed that the major labels weren't interested in recording and releasing new productions in the new DVD-Audio format. They were all about resurrecting the blockbuster albums from their archives and repurposing them for delivery in the "enhanced resolution" format of DVD-Audio and with 5.1 surround remixes. It was great to hear 5.1 DVD-Audio releases from Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, The Doors, Steely Dan and Neil Young but I was hungry for new high definition productions that would show off the increased dynamic range and frequency response of the format. They stuck to their archives in the search for the "killer album" in the new format.
"I refer to it as a 'Field of Dreams' approach because I wanted to do something without any compromises and see if music lovers could hear and appreciate the difference."
But I owned a state-of-the-art studio and had all of the equipment capable of recording and producing music in high definition. So I decided to start a record company that would produce NEW music projects with HD capable equipment. My DVD-Audio/Video products feature multiple mixes ("Stage" and "Audience" perspectives), lots of bonus videos and dramatically enhanced fidelity. They were conceived and produced as ultimate fidelity and surround music products. And many of them were recognized as exceptional audio products (we won multiple awards at the first Surround Music Awards including "Best of Show"). I refer to it as a "Field of Dreams" approach because I wanted to do something without any compromises and see if music lovers could hear and appreciate the difference. I built it and I wanted to see if they would come. Luckily, they did.
What are your recording methods and how do they differ from others?
Our methodology combines the Windham Hill sensibility of very close stereo miking (we place lots of stereo pairs of microphones just inches from the sound sources) with the purist approach often associated with classical or jazz recordings. In other words, AIX Records brings all of the musicians/singers into an acoustically rich chamber music auditorium and records the entire ensemble as if it was a live performance but without an audience. What you get at the end of a day of recording is an entire albums of tracks AND raw video of the musicians making music. And we do this using a state-of-the-art HD digital audio workstation (capable of 96 kHz/24-bit PCM…there is absolutely no benefit from moving to 192 kHz) AND high definition video equipment. During postproduction we don't process the timbre or dynamics or use artificial reverberation. And we completely avoid "mastering" our products. I spent 13 years as a mastering engineer and find the process unnecessary and actually detrimental to the natural sound that I'm after. The only reason for mastering a record is to make it fit into the standard radio promotion model.
"Paul [Rogers of Bad Company] wanted it to feel dynamic and real, but the label (the money in the picture) got their way. I gave up mastering not long after that."
I mastered Bad Company's "Merchants of Cool" with Paul Rogers back in the 1990s. Contrary to what others have stated, the artist doesn't usually get what they want (I don't think most musicians would be happy with the "mastered" version of their artistry). I was told by the label 5 times to suck out more of the dynamics of the tracks. Paul wanted it to feel dynamic and real, but the label (the money in the picture) got their way. I gave up mastering not long after that.
Other engineers and producers might say they can't imagine listening to a piano or guitar from mics located very close to the sound source. But I think they forget that the individual instrument or voice captured from that position is delivered via a loudspeaker in the consumer's living room. The reproduction of the sound for the listener is as if the playback speaker stands in place of the soundboard of the guitar or trumpet of the actual instrument. The result is the instrumentalist or singer is "sonically" placed 8-10 feet from the listener. The sound of a pair of microphones 15 feet from the performers coupled with another 8 feet in the listening environment produces a very unfocused and distant sound that I find impersonal and uninteresting. However, others like that more distant sound.
I know my friend Morten Lindberg of 2L, who has garnered a bunch of Grammy nominations, uses this method when he records jazz and classical ensembles in churches or other acoustically rich spaces in Norway. It seems to be working for 2L and Morten but the feedback I get from the artists on my label, reviewers and customers tells me that our methodology is producing compelling audio as well (and with individual mikes I get to mix in "audience" and "stage" perspectives).
"…the multichannel audio, emanating from five B&W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format. Mark Waldrep knows what he’s doing."The traditional method of making records involves many individual sessions in an acoustically "dead" room, months of overdubbing individual parts, sessions where the parts are moved into perfect time and vocals are "auto-tuned", weeks of mixing and finally mastering for a particular delivery format. This is the commercial model and it's what I teach at a university here in Southern California. There are lots of targets in the music industry and all of them serve a different market segment. This is not a one size fits all industry.
Andrew Quint, Senior Editor, The Absolute Sound Magazine
How do you define High Definition or High-Resolution Audio?
First off, I choose to call it HD-Audio to parallel the well-known HD-Video term. It seems like a simple question that most interested individuals would agree on but in reality there is wide disagreement among audiophiles, audio engineers, equipment manufacturers and marketing departments. Here's my definition.
"High Definition audio is sound recorded using equipment that matches or exceeds the capabilities of human hearing in terms of dynamic range, frequency response and spectral accuracy."At the core of this definition is the notion that recorded and reproduced sound must achieve the fidelity of real world or "live" music as perceived by human beings. Audiologists will tell you that you can hear frequencies between roughly 20 Hz and 20 kHz (depending on your age) and can handle sound pressure levels from the quietest environments (25 dB SPL) to something approaching 135 dB SPL (this is painfully loud and exposure for any length of time will do permanent damage to your ears!). But I think you can appreciate that our ears are extremely capable organs. Hearing is our most capable sense in terms of its range of input source.
"HD-Audio can capture everything that is produced during a music performance including the extended frequency response and dynamic range."
However, this doesn't mean that instruments can't and don't produce sounds that exceed these human limitations. If you measure the frequencies that emanate from a trumpet with a Harmon mute or a crash cymbal they routinely extend to 45 kHz and beyond. Loudness transients from a rim shot or the dynamic range of a timpani from pianissimo (pp) to a triple sforzando strike with a hard mallet can easily exceed 80-90 dB. HD-Audio can capture everything that is produced during a music performance including the extended frequency response and dynamic range.
This is where the disagreements start. I've read articles by prominent journalists that describe analog tape as the ultimate recording and reproduction system. I even brought my aging Ampex 440C down from the attic at the studio in the hopes of selling it to a fan of analog tape. Obviously, there's a resurgence of interest in analog tape as an audiophile format. The Tape Project is selling a single album for hundreds of dollars to a sizeable customer list. I don't argue or get upset with anyone when it comes to his or her personal preferences. If someone likes the tonal characteristics of analog tape or vinyl or an MP3 file, then so be it, to each his or her own. But don't try to tell me that 60 dB (which is the signal to noise ratio of a good analog tape deck and is the equivalent of 12 bits in a PCM digital system) of dynamic range captures and delivers the fidelity of a symphony orchestra, a singer/songwriter or an energetic jazz ensemble. It can't and it doesn't. Analog tape and the formats further down the line from an analog master (such as vinyl) are standard definition formats plain and simple. You and many others (including professional writers and audio engineers) may prefer the "sonics" of tape or vinyl but that doesn't elevate them to HD status.
When someone says a particular track is "master tape" quality, what do they mean?
They mean that the original master tape, whatever its original fidelity level, has been played back on a calibrated analog tape deck, captured as a digital file through a high quality A to D converter and made available in various digital formats through the internet or on data discs (most of the time compressed in a lossy format like MP3). The ability to get access to the fidelity of the original "studio master" for our music enjoyment at home is a tremendous advancement. But the fidelity of an original "master tape" is never going to be better than the technology that was used to produce it at the time of the original sessions. Putting a standard definition "master tape" in a high definition digital container (96/24) can guarantee that you won't lose anything during the conversion but it doesn't elevate the fidelity of the original to the dynamic and frequency ranges of a new high definition production. There is a huge difference!
"The simple truth is that not everything that lights up the 88.2/96 | 176.4/192 kHz sample rate and 24-bit word length indicators on your hardware possesses the right 'sonic' stuff to be called 'HD'."
In this age of portable digital music players, so-called "high definition" downloads and home music servers, the confusion about fidelity gets twisted by opportunists and marketing types looking to portray everything from the standard definition past as an "HD" track. The simple truth is that not everything that lights up the 88.2/96 | 176.4/192 kHz sample rate and 24-bit word length indicators on your hardware possesses the right "sonic" stuff to be called "HD". This is why it is critical to know the recording "provenance" of a particular download. Avid music fans can get everything a "master tape" has to offer in digital form but there's the original fidelity of the "master tape" and then there's the digital delivery container we can purchase.
What's missing in the discussion about this emerging market is some honesty and transparency with regards to the production chain that a particular track undergoes from the original production to the ultimate delivery format. What some purveyors of "HD" tracks would have you believe is that the specifications of the digital delivery bucket is the single most important factor in establishing the quality of your listening experience. It is not! What needs to be instituted in this move to music "files" is a corresponding description of the original production and the potential fidelity that could have been achieved at that time. That is what you are purchasing when you download a track from a digital music retailer. I have downloaded an ABKCO era Rolling Stones album at 88.2 kHz/24-bits and was able to determine that the fidelity of the file was indistinguishable from the compact disc version…and I spent 20 dollars thinking that I was getting an "HD" track (Actually, I knew better but most customers don't) and ended up with no greater fidelity than what was already available.
"If a website is charging a premium for high-resolution downloads, then those files need to contain information beyond that which can be offered on CD. If they do not, you should ask for your money back."As someone that produces only REAL HD-Audio tracks on my label AIX Records AND distributes REAL HD-Audio downloads at iTrax.com, I'm astonished at the lack of information by audio writers, technical professionals and average consumers when it comes to what is and what isn't a high definition audio recording. Even Neil Young, a staunch crusader for better quality music formats, has it wrong. He records on analog tape and then masters to digital for distribution. Sure, he should be able to give his fans the fidelity that he prefers but it's not high definition because the analog tape machine established the ultimate fidelity of his delivered tracks no matter what happens later in the production chain.
S. Andrea Sundaram, Soundstage
"What I am hoping for is that music lovers will add another way of experiencing music to their palette of playback options."
I'm not saying that everyone should give up his or her vinyl, tubes and embrace 5.1 surround delivery. What I am hoping for is that music lovers will add another way of experiencing music to their palette of playback options. One you've heard the increased dynamics and extended frequency response in a "stage" POV mix, I believe you'll be "blown away".
Wow! Words do not express adequately what I heard and experienced yesterday. What you shared with us has forever altered my perception of how music should sound and what defines a truly great recording. You have also inalterably shifted my expectation of how music should be recorded and played back. Thank you! And please don't ever stop doing what you do!"
James Collard, Customer