ANALYSIS: HI-RES AUDIO

The future sound of London


What’s the future of hi-res audio and do consumers care about the quality of the music they listen to? ERT editor Sean Hannam recently chaired an industry panel session at Metropolis Studios in London on how the latest technology trends are affecting how we listen to music and where audio is heading in the coming years. Here are the highlights…

 

 

The panel



Left to right:
Spencer Chrislu, director of content services, MQA; Keith Harris, chairman, European Music Managers Alliance (EMMA); Greg Stidsen, director of technology and product planning, Bluesound and Sean Hannam, editor, ERT and moderator

 

 

Metropolis Studios

Sean Hannam: In recent years, streaming has changed the way we listen to and access music. How has that impacted on the relationship between artists, tech brands and consumers?

Keith Harris: One of the big shifts in the way that music has been consumed is the move away from people buying individual pieces of vinyl to having music ‘delivered’ to them – either by radio, streaming or online. What that means is that artists being paid by the collective management side – being paid for what gets used – has become more important.

Last year, on average, PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) registered more than 31,000 new recordings every week – for new artists it gets increasingly difficult for them to get their music to stand out. That, coupled with the way in which streaming payments currently work, means that it’s very difficult for artists at the bottom of the scale to sustain themselves in a streaming environment unless something changes. The biggest artists get paid most of the money from streaming – if I pay a £10 a month subscription, but I don’t stream many songs, then what happens is that any money that is left over gets put back into a pot and given to the artists who’ve been streamed the most.

Deezer is starting trials of user-centric licensing in Europe, which means that artists will get paid for exactly what’s been streamed. So, if I streamed Seventies R&B, then all the money from my subscription would go to those artists, rather than to Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, which is currently what happens.

SH: Let’s talk about audio quality. Does the average consumer care about the quality of the music they’re listening to? Didn’t the arrival of the iPod and the explosion in downloading mean that people were more concerned about the amount of songs they could carry in their pocket, rather than the quality of what they were listening to? Has that changed?

Spencer Chrislu: The idea that we dumb down the music to fit the format is inherently backwards. We’ve raised an entire generation that’s never heard anything close to what happens in this studio [Metropolis] – MQA, Bluesound and the artists are trying to reverse that.

MP3 can throw away upwards of 90 per cent of musical information – all the subtlety and the work of the artists and the studios gets thrown out of the window.

With new technologies, we can bring people a better experience – the artists can convey what they want to emotionally, their fans can enjoy listening to what’s there and brands like Bluesound can produce gear that enhances that.

The reaction that we [MQA] get when we play young people music in MQA or high-resolution PCM [Pulse Code Modulation] – from a studio – is mind-blowing. They hear details, subtleties and nuances in the tracks that they’ve never heard before.

Do people care about quality? Actually, they do. When they hear things in the way the artist intended, it has a real emotional impact.

I’ve seen people break down in tears listening to a song that they know because, all of a sudden, it strikes them in a very different way. But it all comes down to ‘will they pay for quality?’ That’s a separate question.

Keith Harris

Music and the way in which it is delivered is probably the one thing that has gone backwards in technical quality over the past 30 years 
Keith Harris

Greg Stidsen: We’ve always tried to take the very high standard in the studio and put it in a format that will fit in a living room, a kitchen or a bedroom, yet still retain the characteristics of the original studio experience.

In the world of audiophiles, we offer ‘lean forward’ listening, where you sit down and really focus on the music and get transported. So much music nowadays is consumed as ‘wallpaper’ – it’s in the background…

At Bluesound, with our products we try to cover both of those scenarios – we’re multi-room, we’re wireless, we’re easy to use… We can create a beautiful ambient experience for a dinner party, but we can also offer a full emotional experience for when you want to sit down and listen to music and get an emotional experience of the artist in the studio. MQA has been a big piece in that puzzle.

KH: People say that sound quality isn’t important anymore – I would challenge that. Music, and the way in which it is delivered, is probably the one thing that has gone backwards in technical quality over the past 30 years.

If you take computer games from 10 or 15 years ago and now look at what’s technically possible, it’s light years ahead. Music has gone backwards. If you start delivering music in the same quality as video games or movies, perhaps it will regain that place that it once had.

I believe that if you allow people to hear the subtleties in a piece of music, they will engage with it more – that’s really important for artists. Music is their art form – why should they have it delivered in lower quality than it was 30 years ago? It doesn’t make sense.

SH: The audio market is very fragmented in terms of how people listen to music. Some young people use YouTube, there are consumers who stream and download, and some who buy CD and vinyl. How do you engage with all of those groups to get the quality message out there, or do you just target specific types of consumers?

SC: From my point of view, the goal is to create the best representation of what the artist created and hand it to everyone in the best possible way. MQA can work as a download or in a stream and it can fit on a CD. People have talked about using it as a source to cut vinyl from. I don’t think we should ever segment the way in which people want to enjoy music, or twist the music to fit the format. You should cram as much information as possible into every format, so that everyone can get the full experience.

GS: At Bluesound, we’re agnostic – wherever you get your music from, we want to be able to make it easy for you to access it and in the best possible quality.

SH: What role does hi-res play in the audio space? Keith – do artists say that they want their music available in ‘hi-res?’

KH: No, they don’t. I think that it’s only when the music gets delivered in a higher quality that people notice what they’ve been missing. If you went on a crusade to get people to listen to hi-res audio, they would tell you they don’t care. What will happen is that gradually, as people start to hear more music in better quality, they will start to wonder what was wrong with the stuff they heard before. I don’t think you can make people listen to stuff because it’s hi-res. As an industry, we’ve settled for delivering a lower-quality product and everyone’s got used to it. If we deliver a higher-quality product, we will make it more vital to people.

GS: At Bluesound, we’ve always made things hi-res – we want it to be as good as possible. What we’re looking forward to is when the tools become so widely available in the studio that musicians and producers will start to say ‘wow, we’ve really got all this space to play with and to go much further with dynamics and subtlety’, and that it will be captured and people can enjoy it. We’re seeing an improvement in the recording quality that’s coming from studios.

Keith Harris

Do people care about quality? Actually they do. When they hear things in the way the artist intended, it has a real emotional impact 
Spencer Chrislu

SH: Does there need to be stronger links in the audio supply chain, from the artists and the labels to product manufacturers and technology retailers, to get the high-quality message out there? What needs to change?

SC: My background is the digital supply chain. One of the things we thought about when we designed MQA was that we knew that all of those things don’t change rapidly. With MQA technology, we can take a very high-resolution file and fold up all the information so that’s it all still there, but in a file that’s small enough to stream on your hi-fi at home. We thought a lot about how the consumer can get a great quality experience without any added complexity – how we could integrate the technology and keep it simple.

GS: In the audio hardware business, we now make products that are defined by the software. All of our products are hi-res – for MQA, it was just a matter of us putting a piece of software in them. We’ve designed our products with the ability to add future technology in mind. MQA fitted like a hand in glove. We worked with MQA so that everybody who had already purchased a Bluesound device could get an MQA decoder free of charge. It was seamless for the user.

SH: How is the rise of new technology, such as voice control, and services allowing consumers to discover new music?

KH: Voice is an important development. Every consumer wants simplicity – it’s a key factor in any delivery mechanism. The trouble is that at the moment, the algorithms effectively just give people what they want – they don’t give people what they didn’t know they wanted. That’s a problem – the best, most creative artists are doing things that are brand new, but people don’t know that they want them. We have to develop more sophisticated ways of recommending music.

SH: What about record shops?

KH: We may end up back there. With the disintegration of the high street, people will be looking for new ways to attract consumers. One way to do that might be a record shop where people really know their music – they get to know you and they point you to music that you might like.

It would be good idea if someone started a chain of restaurants that had a playlist – when you went there for dinner, it’s playing stuff that it thinks you will like. Why isn’t it possible that when you hear something you like, you could log it without having to use Shazam on your phone – and without interrupting your dining experience – so it’s at home waiting for you? Restaurants already cater for people’s different demographic backgrounds. I think musical recommendations will come from the high street, but in a slightly different format.

GS: Voice control is important, but right now it’s a bit of a parlour trick – you can get it to do a few things if you learn how to talk to it. At the moment, we don’t see it as being a useful tool for exploring music, but what drives a lot of voice control is Artificial Intelligence. When you speak into your Amazon Echo and ask it for something, it goes to the cloud where it gets interpreted and, if you’ve asked nicely and in the right way, you might get it. There’s a long way to go before voice control becomes very natural, but it looks like it’s here to stay. It’s very important for accessibility. We see voice as becoming more important in the future.

All the streaming services have the same catalogue – the discovery aspect will be the one that will determine their success in the future.

Keith Harris

Voice control is important, but right now it’s a bit of a parlour trick. We don’t see it as being a useful tool for exploring music  
Greg Stidsen

SH: What does the future look like for hi-res? How long will it be before it becomes mainstream?

SC: I think it will happen through osmosis – you can’t just push everyone to go hi-res. It’s there now, but is it everywhere? No, not quite yet, but it’s in enough places to make an impression on people. They’re getting to understand what it’s like to hear a track in master quality for the first time. It will be there for everybody quite soon.

We’ve licensed our [MQA] technology to all three of the major labels – Warner, Universal and Sony – and the largest representative of the independent labels, Merlin. They’re all doing their back catalogues and new releases in MQA. The current outlet is mainly through Tidal, but Deezer has announced it’s supporting MQA.

What will really push it forward is when one of the big three or four [streaming services] decides that’s where it wants to go. We’re having conversations and it’s something that they’re definitely interested in.

SH: Finally, let’s look at the bigger picture. How will we be listening to and accessing music in five or 10 years’ time?

KH: Music has become so ubiquitous that people don’t even notice it anymore. My dream is that people will start to notice it again – there are going to be several drivers for that. One of them will be mobile streaming – when you can get absolutely anything anywhere. You won’t be restricted – you’ll be spoilt for choice.

People will start to make decisions about exactly what they want.

Too much choice will drive us to develop better ways of pointing people to stuff that is vital to them. Once we get to the point where people are only being directed to the highest-quality material, then music will move to the next level – right now, it’s all valued the same.