Beck's Morning Phase: Is the 24/96 Download Worth It?

Thanks to reader Juergen R. for alerting me to what appears to be the fact that two of the tracks from Beck's wonderful Morning Phase included in the 24/96 download from HDtracks are sourced from MP3. Juergen commented in the original DotW post:
"Besides the high compression for this kind of music, where the bass drum kicks extremely often into hard limiting and the bass notes most times also, I have recognized, that for example the Track 10 and also Track 11 of the 24 Bit 96 kHz HighRes versions are 100 % for sure from 44k1 MP3. They show all the typical 44k1 MP3 artifacts of modulating a 16 kHz low pass filter with level. So we have 2 MP3 tracks sold as 24/96 HighRes. This 2 MP3 tracks are also valid in the other releases, not just the HighRes release, All other HighRes Tracks are based on 44k1 sources with the same DR and Bandwidth, as with the CD release."
I've included spectrograms for all tracks below but lets pull out Track 11 and take a closer look.

As you can see, there are two brick wall filters; one at 16k and the other at 22k the apparent result of MP3 encoding. How does this track sound on the hi-fi? Airless is what I originally thought so I'll stick to that descriptor. Taken as a whole, this album sounds airless and flat as if it was intended for headphones all along. And not very good ones at that. The concept of in-room listening seemingly never really addressed during the mixing and mastering process which is a shame since this is such a lovely record.

Apparently, the tracks that make up Morning Phase were put together over a period of roughly eight years according Wikepedia.

In 2005, Beck began recording material in Nashville for a new album, but it remained incomplete for several years. It was not until 2012 that he returned to continue the project, this time recording at Third Man Records (which, incidentally had not existed at the time of his previous sessions). Two songs from these new sessions, "I Just Started Hating Some People Today" and "Blue Randy" were released that year as a non-album single on Third Man's Blue Series. Other songs, like "Blackbird Chain", "Country Down", and "Waking Light" were reserved for what would become Morning Phase. In the beginning of 2013, he recorded a great deal of the album in his hometown of Los Angeles in three days, with familiar studio and touring musicians Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Joey Waronker, Roger Joseph Manning Jr, and Smokey Hormel. The next six months, Beck worked with this material for an album release. His father David Campbell has been reported to have contributed orchestral arrangements for the album, as he had done previously for Sea Change, and several of Beck's other albums.
There's also this information from HDtracks:
Please note: Tracks 4, 5, 7, 10, 11 contain elements of 48k tracking, mastered in 96/24.
I include this information because it may help explain the diversity between the tracks in terms of sound quality/source. Two tracks appear to have been generated from MP3, Track 10 "Phase" and Track 11 "Turn Away", while others look to be sourced from 16/44.1.

What does all of this add up to? From a purely practical perspective, unless there was some mix-up and Capital Records sent along the wrong files to HDtracks, the 24/96 download doesn't make a helluva lotta sense seeing as there's very limited dynamic range (album is DR6) and the majority of tracks do not contain any musical information peaking over CDs brick wall. If you want just a digital version, buy the CD and rip it or pick up the 16/44.1 FLAC download which is available from Qobuz (geographical restrictions apply, not available in the US).

Beck's Morning Phase Spectrograms from Audacity.

mindnoise's picture

I just purchased this from HDtracks on the weekend after playing it for a week on NPR.  I didn't think it sounded that bad, except for the massive amount of clipping all over the place.  One time it was max'd out for over a minute towards the end of a song!

This is all very disappointing news especially since this is such a great collection of tunes  :-(

I want my money back.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But I can understand being disappointed with the sound quality especially when we're paying a premium for what should be a better quality version.

Steve Kerns's picture
I purchased the new Beck over the weekend along with the new St Vincent. I wasn't impressed with the sound quality of either release, but it's pretty sad that, in the Beck case at least, low-res is being sold as hi-res. I e-mailed HDTracks and they said that they just pass along whatever the record company gives them.
Michael Lavorgna's picture
If we can have an MP3 source delivered as a HD download, doesn't that make the definition of an HD download kinda....meaningless?

I was thinking of getting the St. Vincent as well. Would you say it sounds at least better than the Beck?

rtrt's picture
Michael, this is quite simply about credibility, setting aside legal aspects, then any seller/retailer who uses the excuse that they only sell us what they are provided, has zero credibility with me. When verification is technically straightforward and of course specifications can easiliy be written into the contract between hd tracks and the record company, then anything less than a guarantee is unacceptable. Legally In the uk if something is purchased, then the buyer has a contract with the seller. The seller is the one responsible if the goods are not as described. Any attempt at passing the buck to the manufacturer simply doesn't work here.
Steve Kerns's picture
While I have seen no evidence that the new St V 96/24 has any mp3 or 44.1 sources, it still sounds compressed, but so does all of her stuff. Great music, though (as is the new Beck). I'm starting to come to the conclusion that popular music is not worth it in 96/24. Maybe those Pat Benetar 96/24 downloads are worth it, though :-]
Michael Lavorgna's picture
I think I'll leave Pat Benetar in my low rez memories ;-)
junker's picture
I see their point, but this is a clear case of why there needs to be some level of fair disclosure. I've heard the argument that they are selling a final format regardless of intermediate formats, but this is different. There are lossy MP3 tracks on there. There are going to be forced into refunds whether they do it voluntarily of when consumers pursue this through their credit card companies. It's very unfortunate for HD Tracks being stuck in the middle. But money and the risk of class action litigation talks. I predict this is the watershed even that forces them to me more aggressive in requiring the studios answer some simple questions when the source files and in HD Tracks publishing this basic info. Selling MP3s as high-res for a premium is unfortunaltely not going to fly.
jwrouse's picture
I also purchased the new Beck recently from HDTracks. I downsampled "Morning" to 16/44.1 using SoX and hear a relative decrease in 'air' compared to the 24/96. Interesting. It suggests the HDTracks 24/96 versions might be better than CD quality. I need to compare "Phase" in the same manner. Certainly there is energy above 22.05 kHz in the above spectra.
deckeda's picture
So, regarding my doubt from the earlier post, in response to Juergen R. ... and then Michael your additional assertion: "As you can see, there are two brick wall filters; one at 16k and the other at 22k the apparent result of MP3 encoding." Are MP3s characteristically limited by frequency response (to 16k?). I think what you and Juergen R. are saying is that an MP3 will brick wall at 16k and that the secondary brick wall is the result of 44.1 sampling (Nyquist, 22k). Is that it?
Archimago's picture
Yes. MP3's are characteristically limited in frequency to save space. The psychoacoustic model used to determine what frequencies are audible and which are not or masked by surrounding signal will toss out the frequencies felt to be inaudible. Since most humans cannot hear much beyond 16kHz as adults, it often gets removed. Even at 320kbps, MP3 by default settings will low pass everything >20kHz. The fact that tracks 10 & 11 low-passes at ~16kHz indicates to me that it's at best a 192 - 256kbps bitrate encoding. That 22kHz brick-wall filtering through most of the other tracks I suspect is just the nature of the recording / synthesizers / DSP plug-ins used in the studio. This is very common with pop/rock/synth stuff. Most unfortunate.
Archimago's picture
(oops. meant low pass <20kHz for MP3 320kbps.)
Michael Lavorgna's picture
What Data Compression Does To Your Music

Here's one relevant quote, "128kbps, MP3s and AACs show the effects of a brickwall filter on the upper frequencies, removing high-frequency content above about 16kHz"

Regor Ladan's picture
This album is SO STUPIDLY mastered as to rendered utterly unenjoyable. It makes a farce of the who "HD Music" market. Thank you Mr. Beck for furthering to destroy the beauty. iPod slop for the masses of idiotic ear bud drones. I'm deleting the files from my computer..waste of my time.
bobflood's picture
Unless HD Tracks wants the first two letters of their name to stand for "How Depressing", they need to make sure that what they put up on their site is in fact HD especially considering the premium price being asked. The high resolution music market will never go mainstream without a high level of trust in the high res web sellers as they are the only ones with the tools to assure that the consumer is not being ripped off.
Steve Kerns's picture
I received an e-mail from HDTracks indicating that they would not issue a refund for the new Beck. "This is the way it was recorded. We would not be able to refund an album when there is nothing wrong with it." I replied that I felt like I ordered a steak, got a hamburger with the waiter saying "sorry, this is what the chef gave me". HDTracks used to be the only game in town for HD downloads. Now that there are a number of competetors in the market, who is going to step up and consistently offer quality HD music at a fair price?
jwrouse's picture
By HD don't we mean anything of greater quality than redbook CD (16/44.1)? Certainly a number of these tracks are sourced from material sampled at greater than 44.1 kHz. I believe HDTracks provided the necessary disclaimer concerning the quality of some tracks. Beck likely intended for tracks 10 and 11 to be as they are. According to Bob Ludwig mastered it; due to his track record I don't believe we can blindly point fingers at him. Certainly the album could have sounded better from an audiophile perspective, but musically it is a very good album.
EatingPie's picture
Agreed, as the article here points out, HDTRacks did disclose exactly which tracks they thought were 44.1. I personally believe that absolves them of the majority of our collective ire. The only thing I would like to see them do is actually put such information *on the main page*! Even knowing that they'd identified the sub-standard tracks, I had to look for them. I will make sure I do the same for every purchase from now on, but I do hope they will start putting such info on right there. Plus wouldn't be nice to know *up-front* if that stupidly expensive Van Halen 24/192 was actually sourced at 24/192?!?
Steve Kerns's picture
I purchased the new Beck last weekend, and, to be honest, I did not check the "Album Information". However, before I contacted HDTracks on Monday, I did check "Album Information" and I do not recall seeing the disclosure (and I was specifically looking for information on the source since it was after Michael posted the original story). If the disclosure was there the whole time, then I guess that technically lets them off the hook. However, it doesn't change the fact that passing low-rez music off as high-rez is a bit sketchy. I have purchased over 40 titles from HDTracks and have been generally pleased with the quality. However, this experience and the responses I have received from HDTracks makes me wonder if this is where I want to spend my money in the future.
mindnoise's picture
Hi Folks, Just found this on the interweb. Bob Ludwig "As the mastering engineer for Beck's "Morning Phase" album I can guarantee with 100% certainty that the album was mixed and mastered at 96kHz/24 bit. There were no Mp3 mixes, nor any mixes at any sampling rate other than 96kHz that were used.
firedog55's picture

In short, everything sounds as Beck intended it.