Beck’s Morning Phase won the Grammy for ‘Best Album of The Year’, a result that didn’t go down too well with Kanye West, a rapper who’s no stranger to mouthing off about who should win what at award shows. We only have to look back to the 2009 VMA’s to recall how West stole Taylor Swift’s moment in the sun by snatching the mic and delivering his now infamous “I’ma let you finish but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” speech.
At this week’s Grammy award ceremony, West looked set reprise his role as serial interrupter before a last minute change of heart saw him stepping back from stealing Beck’s acceptance speech thunder. It was a case of almost-but-not-quite.
West’s shade throwing was implicitly vague until a post show mouthing-off brought clarification: “Beck needs to respect artistry and should’ve given his award to Beyoncé.” Yikes.
This caused Shirley Manson (ex-Garbage, ex-Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie) to pen an open letter to Mr. West via her Facebook page in which she says, “You make yourself looks small and petty and spoilt”. “You are making yourself look like a complete twat”, continued Manson.
However, had Kanye West known of Morning Phase’s inherent technical weaknesses he might have laid a more legitimate complaint at Beck’s door. I’m talking about what lies beneath the recording’s surface.
Using Xivero’s MusicScope software to perform a spectral analysis (as I did with Björk) on each of Morning Phase‘s tracks exposes a questionable digital audio lineage that highlights the pitfalls of recording an album over several years in various studios, each with their own digital audio encoding policy.
HDTracks isn’t one to normally comment on the provenance of its files and customer queries about quality usually solicit a boilerplate response: that the HDTracks hi-res download store is simply selling that which was provided to them by the record label. Yours is not to question why.
However, in appending the download page of Beck’s Morning Phase (24bit/96kHz, US$17.95) with a note that reads “Tracks 4, 5, 7, 10, 11 contain elements of 48k tracking, mastered in 96/24” you know there’s seriously something amiss.
Before I pull a Kanye myself, let’s remind ourselves of what we should see from the analysis of a half-decent 24bit/96khz file. Here’s Track 1 from the Pono Music store’s 24bit/96kHz edition of Beck’s Sea Change under the MusicScope:
Despite anomalies at 30kHz and 45kHz we see information extending up to within a whisker of 48kHz – that’s the Nyquist frequency for a file sample at 96kHz. With 1 bit of data depth equating to 6db of dynamic range, the 144db seen above reflects our file’s 24bit status.
Here’s Track 11 from HDTracks’ 24bit/96kHz version of Morning Phase given the same MusicScope treatment. Brace yourselves:
The party pretty much ends at 16kHz suggesting MP3 compression has been applied somewhere in the chain. The album’s mastering engineer Bob Ludwig exonerates himself via Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet here.
For comparison’s sake, here’s the MusicScope analysis of the same song as found on the CD version:
We see the same MP3 compression seen in the hi-res encode.What can we conclude here? No more musical information is contained within the hi-res version than the Redbook equivalent. The spectrals of the album’s remaining cuts can be found at the end of this article and you can draw your own conclusions.
With no physical product to consider, the hi-res version must be judged solely on its sonic merits. No that the album sounds bad per se, but I hear zero difference between the 24bit/96kHz HDTracks version of Morning Phase and the CD-ripped to FLAC in 16bit/44.1kHz; a conclusion explained by the MusicScope analysis.
Beck is a celebrity endorser of Pono. He can clearly be seen criticising the lifelessness of MP3 in this Pono promo video and yet MP3 compression has somehow made it into Morning Phase’s chain of creation . Who’s disrespecting artistry now?
Ponying up for the hi-res release of Morning Phase just isn’t worth the money. More troubling is we have to buy it to find out. The door slams after the horse has bolted. How do consumers know what they are buying before they buy it? How can they be confident that a hi-res download will sound better than the CD?
One could level similar criticism at vinyl: that there’s no way of knowing prior to purchase just how good the pressing or what source has been used: the master tapes themselves or a 24bit/96kHz reading thereof? But vinyl’s physicality, its sleeve art and collectability provide some compensation for noisy pressings or 24bit/44.1khz source files (as was the case with The Beatles’ Stereo box set).
Morning Phase might be as Beck intended – who am I to disagree? More worrying though is the growing number of hi-res industry players whose marketing departments have repurposed this phraseology as a gold stamp of quality. Beck’s Morning Phase exposes the emptiness of the phrase “as the artist intended”.
Without an agreed standard playing support to artist intention, it’s little more than a smokescreen behind which (a lack of) audio quality can remain hidden from review until the dollars go down and the files arrive.
Morning Phase is an extreme example but one that shows the importance of quality checking on the part of hi-res audio retailers. Why don’t HDTracks verify the quality of the product before placing it on sale? The additional notes found appended to the Beck release don’t go deep enough with detail. Why no mention of the 16kHz filters exacted by MP3 compression? That’s a rhetorical question.
It isn’t just Beck. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light was only corrected recently after complaints came from several quarters that the previous 24bit/96kHz download was a direct mix-down of the 5.1 version found on 2005’s DVD-A.
Throwing the record label under the bus after the fact is a questionable business practice. Imagine your local supermarket passing the buck to the farmer in the face of complaints about rotten fruit. It just wouldn’t fly.
I should also add that there are good number of excellent sounding releases to be found on HDTracks and, more lately, the Pono Music store.
The problem is one of quality control.
The message coming loud and clear from Pono – and to a lesser extend HDTracks – is that hi-res audio is the new frontier of audio and we’re all heartily encouraged to jump on board. However, if the audiophile community itself has trouble navigating the complexities of download provenance (and mastering!) within the hi-res audio space – and by association its audible benefits – what hope for the mainstream?
Tackling journalists who poo-poo Pono, and by implication hi-res audio, is to treat the symptom and not the cause. Asking people to jump from smartphone streaming to hi-res downloads that (mostly) only sound good on a second portable device is too much too soon.
In trying to convince the mainstream of the merits of better sound quality, why it matters and how to get there, why not hold the hi-res talk back for a follow-up conversation? Few go from couch potato to marathon run success overnight. Intermediary steps are required. Fitness is a journey and so is the path to better sound.
A common retort here is that if you don’t like it, don’t buy it – that’s not an option with hi-res downloads – but more concerning is the damage done to the audiophile world’s reputation in the eyes of those who don’t spend thousands of bucks on metal boxes and wires?
The ubiquity and forcefulness of the hi-res conversation, particularly from Team Pono, paints the audiophile world as a soft target in the click-hungry eyes of Gizmodo, Yahoo and other less audio-centric tech publications. However, to dismiss them out of hand as publishers of click-bait is to ignore their deep-seated, legitimate complaints: that hi-res releases are expensive in light of the relatively small sound quality lift over and above Redbook. In the case of Beck’s Morning Phase, even the latter falters leaving the hi-res release naked but for its Emperor-inspired clothing.
I don’t mind that Beck’s Morning Phase is all over the place source-wise; just don’t try to sell me the hi-res version when the Redbook version will easily suffice.
You know why Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine made garbage pails of cash selling Beats headphones? It has nothing to do with hi-res audio. Their message was simple: “Here are headphones that look great and will make your existing music collection (streamed and stored) sound waaaaay better”. In the context of the previously dominant little white earbuds, the Beats by Dre line delivered big time. Pivotal to its success was that prospective Beats owners weren’t asked to a) carry a second device or b) buy their music again. The conversation was about the importance of hardware (and not software).
If we want the mainstream to embrace the world of better sound the conversation needs to start with source material with which many are already familiar: 16bit/44.1kHz. We should be encouraging folk to rip the CDs that they already own. We should endorse the jump from lossy streaming to lossless, from Beats headphones to better headphones, from Bluetooth speakers to a proper two-channel rig. All of this must come before dropping hi-res releases into the mix. Not least because so few albums enjoy release in anything above 16bit/44.1kHz. Only Beyoncé’s fourth album 4 is available from HDTracks and even then it’s encoded at 24bit/44.1kHz. Are those additional 8 bits really worth the extra cash?
Whilst the hi-res file retailers (hopefully) resolve the issue of quality control and provenance reporting, let’s stop foisting talk of twenty-four-blah-one-ninety-bleurgh onto Joe Public and his mates because, as we’ve recently seen with all the Pono bashing emanating from the mainstream press (with its implicit non-audiophile perspective), it will do more harm than good.
Track-by-track analysis of HDTracks’ 24bit/96kHz download of Morning Phase: