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No. 225 February 2023


images „High Fidelity”

No 225

February 1, 2023

Or a few thoughts regarding audio for 2023

HE LATEST COVER OF THE HIGH FIDELITY features the Bonn NX LAN switch by Silent Angel. It sets a pattern forthe design of our magazine’s covers for 2023. The three stripes indicate the month to which the graphic applies, which is repeated in a circle in the lower right corner. From month to month, the angle at which they are shown will change. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about, although it's an important change for us. I wanted to talk about the switch itself.

As we already mentioned before, the data for 2022 clearly indicate a trend that has been visible for several years. It's about the music sales trend. The data from the RIAA, an American organization that monitors sales, quoted by us in one of the articles, speak of 62.6% share in this pool of files in the form of streaming, 14% of CDs and 11.9% of LPs.

⸜ THOMAS KESSLER studio, using DAW systems, but it is still him, a man, who makes the final decisions; more → HERE (PL) • photo Thomas Kessler

Although the annual increase in the presence of files and LPs is something that everyone sees, it is important to notice the stop of the rapid decline in CD sales. Although the aforementioned report doesn't say anything about it, the stabilization of the digital audio discs market is noticeable, and at a good level. The Dwutygodnik, one of the most important cultural Polish magazines, in the summary of 2022 writes directly: "On the positive side: there are many indications that the most un-cool medium of all time, i.e. the CD, has returned to favor "; more → HERE (PL).

So we have a situation that no futurist would have imagined: in harmonious coexistence, side by side, there are three audio formats that have been crucial for the last eighty years: LPs, CDs, and audio files. Interestingly, even the SACD format, abandoned by its creators, saved for us by niche, audiophile and classical music releases, not only lasts but gains more and more new "followers". Suffice it to say that Michał Bryła, releasing his music with the Prelude Classic label, wants his latest disc with Mozart sonatas for pianoforte and violin to be released on SACD, and one of the largest Polish labels is preparing a surprise for us related to this format (we can’t talk about it for now).

It is inevitable that the growth curve of streaming revenues will begin to flatten out and LPs sales will continue to increase for some time. 62.6% of the market for files sold in the US may therefore increase to as much as 70%, after which it will start to decrease to in a few years settle at a level similar to today. That’s what the history of video services teaches us. So playing files will be the dominant way to get in touch with music. At least in the so-called "mainstream". In specialized niches, such as ours, physical media will remain a significant part of purchases for a long time, but the dominance of files will be undisputed in our case too. Which means trouble.

In an article Will automatic mastering systems deceive listeners in the December issue of Stereophile magazine, as Jim Austin writes, Apple Music recently boasted of surpassing 100 million tracks on its music platform. What's more, it grows every month by tens of thousands more. Such a huge amount of new tracks and albums is the result of a radical reduction in the cost of recording and an equally radical reduction of the "entry" threshold for the people recording and mixing it. The threshold in question refers not only to costs, but also to skills; more about DAW systems → HERE .

All this meant that the demand for mastering artists services suddenly increased. This is a specialized group of sound engineers, whose role is to prepare a ready, mixed signal for release. On the one hand, their actions are of technical nature - like adding appropriate codes to the signal, determining the start and end of each track, setting the breaks between them - but also artistic - they determine the final sonic shape of the releases. A special type of this activity is remastering, i.e. preparing old materials for a new release.

⸜ A print screen from masteringBOX software for automatic mastering •

And it seems that there are not enough of such mastering artists available. As Austin writes, with this volume of new tracks, mastering for so many different platforms is becoming increasingly difficult - each one has its own requirements. If we add to this that mastering looks even different in the case of CDs and LPs, it was only a matter of time until labels decided to automate this process.

Automation in the recording and mixing process has been known for a long time. Used in situations where sound quality is of secondary importance, it is experiencing its renaissance right now, thanks to podcasts. The preparation of this type of broadcast is usually the responsibility of the author, only in a few cases are they created in recording studios, usually radio ones. The vast majority of the people recording them have no experience in sound production, which is why the systems currently offered are largely automated. Also, most digital consoles I know have an "Auto Mix" option, which allows one person to handle a "live" event.

What Austin writes about, however, is related to something else, which - potentially - is the first stage of lowering standards, namely the widespread automation of the mastering process. This would be one of the final moves sacrificing "quality" in the name of "quantity", initiated by the introduction of computer DAW systems.

The issue is quite complex. Contrary to the solutions I wrote about, automatic mastering is to be based on artificial intelligence. The creators of these algorithms - several companies are trying to develop them - are convinced that the quality of such mastering will be comparable, and maybe even higher than that made by a human. As always, they rely on their belief in the power of technology. Elena Razlogova wrote more about this phenomenon in the article Machine Learning in Context, or Learning from LANDR: Artificial Intelligence and the Platformization of Music Mastering; download → HERE (accessed: 28/12/2022).

To test them in action, an experiment was conducted. Dr. Song Hui Chon, audio engineer and professor of Audio Engineering Technology at Belmont University, together with Mitchell Elliott, a recent graduate of the university, prepared a comparison involving graduates of the audio engineering department of Belmont. The assumption was: a human can distinguish between mastering made by a human and by AI.

Two tracks were selected for the test, which were mastered both in Abbey Road studios and by an algorithm. Listeners rated them in an A/B/X comparison, with short samples, over the internet, using headphones. The result surprised the organizers because - in short - the answers were so random that it was impossible to prove the thesis.

This attempt was widely commented on the Internet, both by supporters of automation and its opponents. It was pointed out that the sound was evaluated by educated sound engineers, but also that the signal was choppy and had a resolution of 16/48. It was said that since you can't see the difference in such conditions, the future of automatic mastering is open, but it was also mentioned that A/B/X comparisons with short musical fragments had been discredited a long time ago, because their results said more about the participants themselves than about the subject of the research.

However, in my opinion, the result of this experiment was as it should be. So it showed how defectively future sound engineers are taught about sound quality at universities and how little experience with high-class sound their graduates have. It simply confirmed what has long been known: audio, and especially high-end, is a field that cannot be learned through academic study. This is confirmed by the examples of designers, educated people who often had to change their thinking to get the effects they wanted. Those who literally apply what they have learned fail.

It might seem like an academic discussion. It is not. It affects all of us on many levels. It is so, that where creativity and art in general are concerned, the human factor is essential. It's not even about super-complex realizations of jazz or classical music. In the latest issue of Sound On Sound magazine, Leandro 'Dro' Hidalgo, producer behind British rapper Stormzy's hits, says:

My job as a mixer is to keep the magic alive. Again, this comes from me recording and producing. I have been in the room when this magic was created. There’s this energy bubble, which is like a force-field, and you record it into this little digital thing called a computer. It is alive. You can almost feel the energy that was in the room. And then you give it to a mixer, and sometimes it dies completely. The energy is done. You can kill that magic easily.

⸜ PAUL TINGEN, Inside Track: Stormzy 'Hide & Seek'. Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Leandro ‘Dro’ Hidalgo, „Sound On Sound”, January 2023; see → HERE.

The "magic" that Hidalgo talks about is something incalculable. Not some extrasensory "hocus pocus", but an instinctive, subconscious "knowledge" of what, how and when to do to convey the music from the recording studio to the audience. Believing that automation can do something like this is dangerous. We already know that technology has its goals and that it behaves like a living being that does not belong to man. In the study of it, algorithms are used that were designed to study viruses.

⸜ J. Sikora Initial Max Line turntable • photo press mat. J. Sikora

However, it seems that where quick profits are involved, there will be no room for such digressions. Sooner or later, music concerns will start using automatic mastering systems, and they will do it more and more boldly. It saves them time and money, and the erosion of sound quality is irrelevant to them. Over time, listeners will get used to this "new" sound standard and anything that differs from it will be considered inferior. This can already be seen in the "spatial" recordings offered by streaming services - most of them were created using algorithms and cannot be listened to, but they find audiences.

And this thing, i.e., gradual automation will be the leitmotiv of 2023. This is bad news. OK, and what is the good one? Good one is related to the fact that the human factor also counts more and more. As you can learn from the statements of engineers building contemporary concert halls, many of them have abandoned the purely technocratic approach and, in addition to calculations and measurements, they use listening sessions to build their solutions. Thanks to this, they design better interiors.

And for us, for Poland, it is a special time, because companies from our country have become known to music lovers and audiophiles all over the world. And immediately on a large scale. LampizatOra and Felix Audio, who have been there for years, were joined by J. Sikora, Audiomica, Fezz Audio and Pylon Audio - to mention only the most obvious examples. WK Audio platforms and cables are shipped to China in large quantities. Adam Czerwiński's AC Records albums sell in all developed markets. We are witnessing a kind of "wave" that will also affect other Polish brands and companies. This will also be "our" year.

For the time being, the prophecies regarding relocation of production to home countries, reported as fact during the pandemic, have not been fulfilled. Just like the permanent anchoring of remote work as the main type of employment in corporations. All indications are that this was a temporary experiment that touched too much on the very foundations of these organizations. Appreciation of local producers is still ahead of us, but it is - I think - necessary to regain at least partial control over what we listen to music on.

However manufacturers of tube devices face a huge challenge. They have to look for other sources of supply. The use of Russian tubes is immoral while the war in Ukraine continues. It's not their fault, we have to give them time to change, but they won't achieve anything if they don't expand and build new factories in countries with stable democracies. This problem also applies to semiconductors, especially chips. After all, it is not difficult to imagine a blockade of Taiwan, where a large share of the world's production of these components comes from. This is a huge cost and action that has to take time, but - let me repeat - unavoidable.

And all this will work out for good. What is local, what is what human, has the greatest value. That is why I wish you good relations and only good purchases in 2023. Although many of the things I wrote about above increase pessimism as to the direction in which the world is going, ultimately it is us who make the decisions what we want to listen to and what we want to use for this purpose. Let's be smart at it.

Chief editor

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Our reviewers regularly contribute to  “Enjoy the”, “”“”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

"High Fidelity" is an online magazine, i.e. it is only published on the web. For the last few years it has been published both in Polish and in English. Thanks to our English section, the magazine has now a worldwide reach - statistics show that we have readers from almost every country in the world.

Once a year, we prepare a printed edition of one of reviews published online. This unique, limited collector's edition is given to the visitors of the Audio Show in Warsaw, Poland, held in November of each year.

For years, "High Fidelity" has been cooperating with other audio magazines, including “Enjoy the” and “” in the U.S. and “”  in Germany. Our reviews have also been published by “”.

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