As the noise around higher spec audio grows we wanted to touch base with industry experts from the AWAL team and the mastering studio to get advice on using high-res formats for upcoming releases.
We’re starting to see more platforms offering Hi-Res formats to their users. Before now this has been a niche thing with fans but that’s starting to change. Amazon & Apple now are starting to push improved quality audio and this can mean opportunities for engaging a new audience and promotional opportunities.
We’ve interviewed the VP of the AWAL Digital Operations team, Caroline Hansen, and Dean Honer (Mastering engineer at Bowling Green Studios in Sheffield, UK) to get some advice on how and why we should be investing energy on high-res formats for upcoming releases. This Pro-Tips article takes us through the important bits to know and consider ahead of your next studio session and release planning meeting.
Speaking to Caroline who runs the show as the VP of the Digital Operations Team at AWAL globally we asked...
Why should we worry about delivering hi-res audio?
We’ve come a long way since the days of downloading mp3s over dial-up Internet connections… And large global streaming services are evolving their offerings to make hi-res 24-bit audio the norm, not the exception. If you’re not releasing your music in 24-bit audio, you’re missing out on an opportunity to give your fans a richer listening experience.
Which stores support hi-res audio?
AWAL currently partners with Apple, Amazon, Qobuz, HD Tracks, and 7digital to offer hi-res audio in 24-bit. You might recognise these as the Apple ‘Lossless’, Apple ‘Digital Master’, or Amazon ‘Ultra HD’ listening options in these services and see artist releases badged with these labels. Music platforms also often include hi-res audio in featured playlists and placements, giving it extra prominence in their service.
Do the stores care if we deliver hi-res audio?
It’s clear from the huge announcements this year from Spotify, Apple, and Amazon that they are committed to expanding their listening quality options and see this as an important part of their strategy for providing their users with higher quality and more compelling listening experiences. Music streaming has moved into our lives across all types of devices and listening hardware, from earbuds to voice-controlled smart speakers. We now have the technology available so that we don’t need to compromise on what our music sounds like in order to enjoy the brilliant experience of streaming music on demand.
What is the future of hi-res audio?
Big streaming platforms like Apple and Amazon are now bundling 24-bit hi-res audio into their standard streaming subscription prices, so it’s no longer necessary to pay a higher, ‘premium’ price for hi-res audio. This gives users the option to match their audio quality preferences to their individual technology and bandwidth speeds, and even do this flexibility depending whether they’re on-the-go listening over 4G or at home with a high-speed Internet connection. We expect this trend to continue, with streaming services adding hi-res options, including Spotify, which announced earlier this year that they plan to launch a ‘HiFi’ listening quality later this year (although we’re waiting for details of exactly what this offering means).
We also wanted to speak to Dean Honer (Mastering Engineer at the Bowling Green Studios) to get his take on this and, in particular, a little guidance on when we should be worrying about what in the studio...
When should people worry about hi-res audio in the process of recording a record?
If you have the facility and equipment to record at higher sample rates then there is no reason not to try it. If you are recording at home, and using higher sample rates affects the speed and smoothness of your DAW, then maybe it's not worth the extra headache.
Can people go back to a studio they worked at to ask for higher res audio?
There's not really any point in sample rate converting upwards files that have already been recorded at a lower sample rate. But if the final stereo mix of the “song” can be re-rendered and captured at a higher sample rate when bouncing down, (especially if going through an analogue hardware chain rather than in the box) then this may be worth trying. Higher sample rates capture more information. Hence more details are captured.
Do you record at higher-res and if so what does that mean specs wise?
When mastering I receive all kinds of files and sample rates. The vast majority of clients, maybe 99%, want their files returned as 24 Bit 44.1k masters and 16 Bit 44.1k masters. A few years ago some clients were asking for Apple Mfit hi res masters, but this is now extremely rare.
I tend to work on the tracks at the original sample rate and then dither down and sample rate convert when rendering the files. It has been suggested that certain plug-ins can sound better at higher sample rates. But most of my mastering process is using analogue hardware rather than plug-ins.
As an artist I tend to record mainly at 44.1k 24 bit, this is mainly down to the power of my computer! If I run the computer at a hi-res sample rate such as 96k my computer starts to choke or stutter if I am using a lot of tracks. I have very high quality analogue to digital converters (Prism) so to my ear the results are still excellent. This also means that I don't have to do any sample rate conversion when uploading to streaming platforms or for CD manufacturers. One less stage of processing.
What trends are you seeing in hi-res audio?
As processing power increases then I think the use of higher sample rates will become more common for recording and tracking. As a mastering engineer I accept any kind of sample rate file, but its always preferable to present the highest quality possible. There is no point in tracking your music at 96k and then presenting me with a 44.1k or MP3 of a mix.
As well as sample rates it's also preferable for me to receive mixes that havent been limited and crushed to death for the sake of loudness (unless this an effect you are trying to attain!). I have very high quality tools that can add loudness without degrading the audio.
Editor: Phil Loutsis
Experts: Caroline Hansen (VP of Digital Operations at AWAL)
Dean Honer (Mastering Engineer, Bowling Green Studios)