Q&A With Bruce Brown of Puget Sound Studios

Bruce Brown at Puget Sound Studios

In our continuing look at the world of HD downloads that began with my Q&A with David Chesky of HDtracks, one of AudioStream's readers and frequent commentors, kavon yarrum, mentioned Bruce Brown and his "Pro-Audiophile Forum" on the What's Best Forum website as a valuable resource. Indeed this is the case and I recommend anyone interested in exploring and discussing these issues to have a look. I also thought I'd reach out to Mr. Brown to see if he'd be interested in this Q&A and his answer is...obvious. While Bruce gives us a nice concise overview of what goes on in Puget Sound Studios, it's also worth noting that they have done work for HDtracks among many others.

Can you tell us about what you do at Puget Sound Studios?

I am Owner and Engineer at Puget Sound Studios. The Mastering and Post Production rooms were built as a cost no object studio located near Seattle. We specialize in audiophile mastering, archival and restoration in tape and high-rez DSD and PCM formats.

"Hi-rez recordings can originate from either analog or digital."

There seems to be differing points of view as to what represents a true High Definition recording. On one side there are people who feel that only those recordings that originate in a high definition digital format qualify as HD, while others feel that a recording sourced from an original analog master tape can also qualify as HD. Can you talk about your position on this issue?

Hi-rez recordings can originate from either analog or digital. For digital, I have to say anything over 24/88.2 is considered “hi-rez”. For analog master tapes, we have captured bias frequencies on tape as high as 150kHz. If a tape can contain frequencies that high, that’s “hi-rez” in my book.

We master from tape and also archive to the digital domain. To fully capture the nuances of tape, I feel the only way to do that is into either DSD64fs via a Grimm AD1 or to DSD128fs. That is the closest I’ve heard digital to master tape. That is how good tape can be. It trumps everything else.

I will have to include the caveat that just because it’s “hi-rez”, doesn’t mean it sounds good!

Puget Sound Studios

Another question that often arises with HD downloads relates to 'provenance'. In other words, people want to know the source used for a given HD download. Can you talk about why having this information is important? And can you recommend a list of provenance information that people should look for when buying a HD download?

I will have to say that it is really not important. Of course, people need to be guaranteed that what they are buying is truly what is advertised. But knowing if a download came from tape, digital, or done with an EMM Labs converter, doesn’t guarantee that it will sound good. We’ve gotten in tape for mastering/archival that didn’t even include test tones, much less speed, tracks or engineer credits.

"The labels are run by suits, not the engineers."

A lot of what is out there doesn’t have much provenance information associated with it. The labels are run by suits, not the engineers. They are more interested in money than what generation the tape copy is. If a distributor licenses 10k downloads, they are handcuffed by what the label can give them. Some labels have immaculate record keeping, but the larger labels really don’t know what they have. Unfortunately, it is up to the consumer to police the industry. The distributor, stuck in the middle, has to appease the customer if they want to make money and has to appease the label if they want to get more material. There is just too much politics and red tape in the industry. Unfortunately the artist is the only one not making money!

Some audiophiles/music consumers are using graphic representations, Waveforms and Spectrum plots, of music files generated by software tools like Audacity as well as sites like the "Unofficial" Dynamic Range Database to help answer questions about a given recording's sound quality. Can you offer some thoughts on the pros and cons of relying on these kinds of tools?

The only “Pro” I see to this is peace of mind that you got what you paid for. As far as determining sound quality, you can’t! People need to start listening with their ears and not their eyes. These are very sophisticated pieces of software and a little bit of knowledge can ruin it for all of us. Education is the best answer. I’ve been trying to educate people in the use of these tools. I have no music or downloads to sell so I don’t have an agenda. An informed customer will spend money. If you keep them in the dark and try to deceive them, it will come back to bite you.

"People need to start listening with their ears and not their eyes."

As far as Dynamic Range, I know some of the old CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival] material has lots of dynamic range but it doesn’t sound very good to me. On the other hand, Luther Vandross "Dance With My Father", Norman Brown "You Can Close Your Eyes", Metallica "Enter Sandman", and Nirvanna "Come As You Are" sound good to me, but the dynamic range is nil.

Puget Sound Studios

Ultimately who decides what a record sounds like? Is it the musician, the producer, the recording engineer, the mastering engineer, or the record label?

It’s certainly not the mastering engineer! LOL

Most of the time it’s the label or A&R. There have been plenty of masterings I’m not proud of and have asked not to be credited. As mastering engineers, we can only give guidance to the artist or label. Unfortunately they are the deciding factor.

"The biggest factor in sound quality is the artist."

Do you see a move toward or away from a focus on sound quality in new recordings?

The main obstacle with the newer recordings is budget. Most of the time, they are recorded in basements and garages. You can get a good recording in a less than optimal space, but it takes great care in mic placement, isolation, gain staging and attention to detail. It takes a lot of time, which in this society of wanting everything yesterday, is compromised from the start. With free software like Audacity and Garage Band, anyone can make a recording. Again, education and patience is key to make a good recording, great.

Now as you can see, I have not mentioned sampling rates or equipment. The biggest factor in sound quality is the artist. I’d much rather have a great artist record at 24/44.1 than a mediocre artist at 32/352.8kHz!

COMMENTS
Jitterjabber's picture

Thank you,

This seems to be an accurate account from an industry insider.

Discussions like these will help educate, I hope.

The second picture shows the remote controller for his Crane Song Avocet - class A monitor controller-If you don't know it....a bargain for the audiophile community! really

www.hifiqc.com

kavon yarrum's picture

Great score Michael:

I always believe in going to the sources..and you have...David Chesky, etc...

Bruce is a fountain of information on a variety of different forums. 

I would like to make some points, if you will so grant me.

First, I generally agre that a digital "Hi Rez" recording would be starting at 24/88.2. However, you will see 24/44.1 on HDTracks clearly being labeled HD.

On the convaluted question of "provenance", I don't agree with Bruce's blanket statement. Let me spell out MY desire for "provenance",  as clearly and precisely as possible. I want to know how the recording went from a commerically released entitiy to being available as a FLAC donwload. I don't care what microphones, convertors, tape, pro tools version, plug ins, or cables were used.

I want to know if this is an SACD rip, a DVD-A rip, a file supplied by the record compay, etc.

Let me give you an example Micheal:

Look at the 192 Khz download of Traffic's John Barleycorn. I ask you based on the information there, how can you make a decision, at least in my case, to purchase this music for the 4th time? I had the LP, the CD, and the remastered CD. Is there any information there that would make you take out your credit card and plunk down $25? Bruce posted that the Rod Stewart 192 Khz downloads are 2nd generation tape archives. Don't you think it would be nice to know this as a potential buyer?

Secondly, he says to "use your ears". Exactly how can you do that streaming 30 second samples over your computer speakers?

I also don'.t buy his statement that it is up to consumers to "police the industry". Just plain wrong in my book.

 Bruce says, "an informed customer will spend money." Amen. I believe you are my witness and I have said that multiple times on this forum. So how are we supposed to be informed other than lurking in internet forums and deciding what is good information and what is innuendo?

 I agree with him that a the sample rate is not the indicator of how good an artists recording will be. Norah Jone's Little Broken Hearts at 24/44/1 sounds better to me than a bunch of 24/96 recordings I have heard. Audiophiles are completely in the dark about how many big projects are recorded at 44.1 and 48 Khz. 

Lastly, many thanks to Bruce Brown for his informative and candid answers.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

That the market for HD downloads is a small subset of the music buying public and the people interested in detailed provenance information, dynamic range and spectrum plots of music they're considering buying are a subset of that subset.

Yet, we’re expecting music distributors to provide DR-Value type data for each release, demand provenance data from the record labels, or refuse to sell a given release because a subset of a subset of a subset of the music buying public wants this information and doesn’t want to pay to play, so to speak. I'm not so sure I see a compelling argument....

Look at the 192 Khz download of Traffic's John Barleycorn. I ask you based on the information there, how can you make a decision, at least in my case, to purchase this music for the 4th time? I had the LP, the CD, and the remastered CD.

What I’d suggest is organizing or formalizing what happens already – start a HD Download Quality Club with membership fees. Each Club Member gets a turn at receiving a download, which is paid for by the Club’s membership fees with the agreement that they will provide a detailed analysis of the sound quality (to some agreed upon standards) as well as provenance information to other Club Members. If this data was stored in a database, over time it could even accrue some real value.

But back to reality, in the specific case of the John Barleycorn Must Die download, if I was interested in buying it for the 4th time, a highly unlikely proposition, I would buy the single track at $2.98 and see if its worth it to me. You could also just go to the usual forums, I have, and see spectrum plots and opinions on this release as well as guesses as to its provenance.

Bruce posted that the Rod Stewart 192 Khz downloads are 2nd generation tape archives. Don't you think it would be nice to know this as a potential buyer?

Let's assume you already own this CD. Does knowing that the HD download was mastered from a 2nd generation tape mean that it will not sound better than the CD? Answer = No.

 I agree with him that a the sample rate is not the indicator of how good an artists recording will be. Norah Jone's Little Broken Hearts at 24/44/1 sounds better to me than a bunch of 24/96 recordings I have heard.

Exactly.

kavon yarrum's picture

So essentially, by your response, I gather you generally agree with BB that "Let the buyer beware", and that the onus is on us, music lovers, not to get taken advantage of.

Let's repeat what BB said..."an informed customer" buys more stuff. Your points counter that idea.

Also, I really, really tried to make it clear aboout what I expect and hope for in regards to information that I would like to see about a download. Micheal, I said NOTHING about DR value, I said NOTHING about spectrum plots. I will repeat it it again..I want to know the SOURCE of the files for sale.

These are the possibilities:

DVD-R rip, SACD rip, Studio Master file supplied by label, New Tape Archive done in conjunction with HDTracks.

It is NOT that complicated, and it is NOT too much to ask.

Lastly, relying on internet forums for subjective sound quality information is an excercise if futility on some occassions. Case in point. I researched the Cat Stevens Teat For The TIllerman online and I found one camp who said they liked it and described it as "analog  like", and another camp who called it dull, flat, and lifeless.

Lastly, spending 3 bucks a pop to sample an album just ain't gonna work for me and most others.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

You are not the only person involved in this discussion and others have expressed their desire to have DR data made available by the distributor. So I was attempting to present a total picture not kavon yarrum's particular piece.

So essentially, by your response, I gather you generally agree with BB that "Let the buyer beware", and that the onus is on us, music lovers, not to get taken advantage of.

Nope. Do you know the artist Jenny Holzer's work? One of my favorite of her Truisms was:

"Protect me from what I want"

kavon yarrum's picture

"Protect me from what I want" ML, thanks for that, I hear ya on this one! You made my day. Ok, well, since you were addressing me, I thought you were intimating that I asked for DR values etc. I am not one of the Audacity Cowboys. Little secret for ya..I have NEVER imported an HDTracks file into any program. There is a sea of HD download vigalantes out there, and I have seen BB really take issues with them

Do a google search and see how many Audacity spectrum plots are available. I ain't one of the ones putting those up. I won't beat the dead horse, I have already noted the minimum I would expect to make a purchasing decision. BTW, I can enthusiastically recommend Melody Gardot's The Absence as a musically sonically rewarding HDTracks purchase.

Martin Osborne's picture

What would a Michael Lavorgna story be without comments from Kavon Yarrom?

Maybe people need to realise that high rez and high definition in the context of downloads are terms used to critique the MP3 format. For those who can be bothered to read, check out this quote from HD Tracks and their 100 classic albums page:

"HDTracks delivers the highest-caliber listening experience for music lovers who care about sound and want to hear what they've been missing from other download stores (my emphasis added).

Based on this we can assume that someone who would buy a version of an album for the fourth time from HD Tracks would do so becuse they want something better than shitty MP3 versions of it.

As for the argument that previews are a con becuase people listen through poor desktop speakers, I'd just like to point out that I anyone previewing and buying HD downloads is almost guranteed to be using a computer based music system with the associated speciailst software and hardware, so casting them as helpless lambs at the mercy of a greedy music labels is a weak argument.

 

 

 

kavon yarrum's picture

 

Martin:

I really don't understand what you said below..can you clarify?

Also, how does quoting from HDTracks marketing tag line inform us in any way???

"Maybe people need to realise that high rez and high definition in the context of downloads are terms used to critique the MP3 format."

What you say below is absurd. There aleady ARE better versions than MP3 for this album and that includes a recently remastered two disc Deluxe Edition, an SACD, and even the original CD. I fail to see your point.

"Based on this we can assume that someone who would buy a version of an album for the fourth time from HD Tracks would do so becuse they want something better than shitty MP3 versions of it."

Lastly, your statement about is total and utter nonsense. I am one among a good number who DO NOT HAVE A COMPUTER in their listening room. I stream my files via a gigabit network from hardrives connected to a Mac Mini using a Squeezebox Touch decoded by a Bryston BDA-1. Sorry but your "high end computer" set up with a USB DAC  and "sepcialist" software excludes a lot of people.

Have you seen how many streaming devices ML has reviewed just this year? Let's see, models from Logitech, Denon, Musical Fidelity, T&A, and the list is growing.

"I'd just like to point out that I anyone previewing and buying HD downloads is almost guranteed to be using a computer based music system with the associated speciailst software and hardware.."

Martin Osborne's picture

Your constant stream of innuendo about HD Tracks, abuse and monomanical repition of the words "I" and "Want" is wearying.

Quoting HD tracks is a reminder to you that it is a download service for computer audio - nothing more, nothing less - not some sort ot rort to suck you into paying for yet another version of a music title you own.

I'll say it very slowly, but anyone purchasing HD downloads is likely to own specialist software and hardware so they can take advantage of the HD format. God forbid you actually engage with what is written rather than what think is written (please highlight where I said "high end computer") but as you surely know, specialist hardware and software is anything other that the standard media player software and soundcard bundled with a computer and could range from a free media player other than the big two and a 'payday' usb dac up to a 5 figure set up.

kavon yarrum's picture

You smugly assume that everyone who wishes to purchase music from HDTracks has a computer directly connected to their audio systems. WRONG.  Not everyone drinks the Mac/USB DAC/Pure Music Kook Aid dear sir.

Secondly, continue to blindly purchase from HDTracks, or from ANY HD download service. Hey its your money, have fun!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Not everyone drinks the Mac/USB DAC/Pure Music Kook Aid dear sir.

I'm going to jump in here and suggest, as kindly as I can muster, that you knock this kind of silly nonsense off. Otherwise your participation here, kavon yarrum, will no longer be welcome. And if you feel the urge to respond and somehow justify airing another of your bizarre personal vendettas against impersonal things, I'd recommend that you swallow that urge.

kavon yarrum's picture

Michael, I suggest that your exapasperation and annoyance are unwarrented. Really.

I was addressing a SPECIFIC point in Martin's post, which by the way had quite a smarmy character to it.  You know what point I was addressing, so I don't see an issue.

Dat's it.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Michael, I suggest that your exapasperation and annoyance are unwarrented. Really.

I disagree. Really.

I was addressing a SPECIFIC point in Martin's post, which by the way had quite a smarmy character to it.  You know what point I was addressing, so I don't see an issue.

I do.

Dat's it.

In a manner of speaking.

Pablo's picture

I'm on this one with kavon, telling the source of the files for a service like HDtracks should be mandatory for the obvious reasons. It's not something that takes time or money to do which makes this even more absourd. 

Also, every one chill.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And I am also not talking about kavon's comments re: HDtracks which is why I quoted the exact sentence from his comment that I was objecting to.

AudioStream is not going to become another dumping ground for people's nonsense.

Pablo's picture

On other note this should be interesting to you Michael: http://torrentfreak.com/kim-dotcom-artists-rejoice-megabox-is-not-dead-120621/

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But the idea that musicians should put their fate and files into a venture connected to Mr. Dotcom doesn't strike me as a prudent move at the moment.

dalethorn's picture

I'm almost always wanting more info with my downloads from places like HDTracks, but when that info opens up a can of worms in the sense of raising a thousand questions that nobody has the time to answer, I get along OK with what I can get. So these Q&A's are great for filling in some blanks.

firedog55's picture

Michael-

I want to thank you for doing this series of interviews. You are the first person in the audio media that has listened to concerns of audiophiles and is going to significant industry players and asking the questions we'd like answered. I'm definitely learning something from the interviews and my perspective has changed a bit.

As far as the specific interview and comments:

Bruce posted that the Rod Stewart 192 Khz downloads are 2nd generation tape archives. Don't you think it would be nice to know this as a potential buyer?

Let's assume you already own this CD. Does knowing that the HD download was mastered from a 2nd generation tape mean that it will not sound better than the CD? Answer = No.

 I agree with him that a the sample rate is not the indicator of how good an artists recording will be. Norah Jone's Little Broken Hearts at 24/44/1 sounds better to me than a bunch of 24/96 recordings I have heard.

 

The Rod Stewart release from the second generation (safety copy) master tape sounds better than the good sounding Mercury CD I have from the 1990's. It successfully transfers that feel of "live" rock being played on acoustic instruments that was on the original LP, which I also have. I can hear a little more detail on the download, and the background is quieter. So would I prefer to have a download made from the original master? Sure. But this sounds good, and better than what I have, so I'm perfectly happy with it.

I think it is a good thing audiophiles use tools like Audacity to keep labels honest. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Running a simple frequency spectrum on a cut doesn't prove anything about the source. Judging whether something came from hi res or low res or was filtered a certain way takes a bit more knowledge and use of tools. Even Bruce says on his own forum that he often has to do a few "tricks" with his sophisticated equipment to tell if a source is actually hi-res or some sort of standard res that has been upsampled (and possibly disguised). So if it takes Bruce some effort we aren't going to be able to prove anything conclusively by taking 2 minutes to run a cut through Audacity. (And by the way, if you are running Audacity 1.2, it has a bug that can give false results when plotting spectrum on hi-res. Upgrade to 1.3, where the bug is fixed.)

I personally consider 24/44.1 to also be hi-res. I think the 24 bit factor is more important than the frequency factor in a lot of what we like about hi-res.  I have both the Redbook and 24/44.1 Beatles remasters ripped to my server. I can tell them apart in blind testing. And the 24 bit sounds slightly better. 

Anyway, Michael, thanks again. Now to go buy something from HDT - there's a 10% off sale this weekend.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I'm enjoying these Q&As myself and learning as I go. There are a few more already in the works which will add more points of view, always a good thing in my experience.

The Rod Stewart release from the second generation (safety copy) master tape sounds better than the good sounding Mercury CD I have from the 1990's.

Exactly. This issue may get fleshed out a bit more in one of the upcoming Q&As with someone who was one of the first 'CD Mastering Engineers' in the country. I was surprised to learn that he rarely received 'original masters' to work from so many of the CDs he worked on, and we own, were not created from 'first gen masters'.

Besides, we need to understand the real impact of generational loss from a tape master to a 'security copy'...I've heard a first generation copy from the master of Kind of Blue played back on a Stellavox SP-7 and to say it was stunning is a gross understatement.

So if it takes Bruce some effort we aren't going to be able to prove anything conclusively by taking 2 minutes to run a cut through Audacity.

Yup. Its easy to misinterpret Audacity results and Bruce has addressed this on his forum in detail. Highly recommended reading.

I personally consider 24/44.1 to also be hi-res.

I agree and this was our original thinking when we created the HD Download category.

Anyway, Michael, thanks again. Now to go buy something from HDT - there's a 10% off sale this weekend.

I really should thank David Chesky and Bruce Brown and restate how much I appreciate their participation. My hope is by better understanding an issue, we may be able to actually help effect positive change.

realhifi123's picture

"Besides, we need to understand the real impact of generational loss from a tape master to a 'security copy'...I've heard a first generation copy from the master of Kind of Blue played back on a Stellavox SP-7 and to say it was stunning is a gross understatement."

 

I want that!  I'd love to see something like that brought to hi resolution digital and see how it stacks up.  I belive this is as important or MORE important to the future of high end audio than comparing one sample rate with another.  How does the digital copy compare with the tape?  THAT is the main question.

Bruce B's picture

Thank-you Michael for the opportunity to reach out and hopefully shed some light on this. To add confusion to the provenence issue, yes, LP's are mastered differently than CD's. First, you need to put the bass in mono. Then if you tried to create an LP as loud and crushed as a CD, you'd burn up the cutter head on the lathe. That's why you will see more dynamics, even on the same album, on the LP version.

Education is the best resolve for bringing clarity to the industry. When I said "unfortunately it's up to the consumer to police the industry", by no means did I intend to imply that it's up to the consumer to check each and every download. What I meant by saying that is the consumer drives the industry with dollars. If you don't spend the money on the downloads, then the industry will take note and see what is wrong or if they can do better. When HDTracks started offering downloads, we ripped thousands without even checking to see if they are "good". When this came to light, we had to start checking everything we had already done, plus the hundreds we were getting in every week. Unfortunately some slipped by us. HDtracks was also very busy with customer support trying to help folks even be able to listen to the files. Hopefully now we have caught up and we scrutinize every single track. We have found albums that had 1-2 tracks that were not hi-rez thrown into the mix. We have also found you can mask and upsampled file by remastering in a higher format and applying different EQ and effects settings.

This side of the industry has come a long way in the past couple of years. There certainly have been some growing pains. On my forum, I try to educate folks and am free to answer any questions I can. Some of these labels have put me under a NDA, so I too have to tread lightly sometimes and bite my lip!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thank you Bruce for this additional information as well as the clarifications. I know I've learned from this exchange and I very much appreciate you taking the time to follow up.

I encourage anyone interested in this subject to check out Bruce's forum.

deckeda's picture

Very enlightening.

if you tried to create an LP as loud and crushed

It seems the operative conditions there are both loud and crushed --- I've heard some new LPs also without any dynamics, but cut at quite a low volume.

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