Is neutral sound possible in a recording? A mastering engineer weighs in.December 5, 2018
“An introduction to our newest contributor here at InnerFidelity – Mr. Rob LoVerde.
For those unfamiliar with LoVerde and his exploits, he began his career in the music business in 1999 at The Hit Factory in New York City, where he worked as a mastering assistant on many chart-topping hits of the day.
In 2003, he started working in the mastering and production department at Sony Music Studios, also in New York City, cutting records for a number of reissue record labels.
He has been working as a mastering engineer at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, California since 2007. This is what LoVerde describes as “the dream job I always wanted.”
A small sampling of the titles he’s mastered are:
BECK Sea Change
THE CARS Shake It Up
YES The Yes Album
THE BEACH BOYS Pet Sounds
BILLY JOEL The Stranger
FRANK SINATRA A Swingin’ Affair!
GRATEFUL DEAD Workingman’s Dead
ARETHA FRANKLIN Aretha’s Gold
LOVE Forever Changes
SUPERTRAMP Breakfast In America
JAMES GANG Rides Again
DEREK AND THE DOMINOS Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs
ELVIS COSTELLO WITH BURT BACHARACH Painted From Memory
LoVerde and I had been discussing the idea of what neutral sound means in both recording and playback and how many audiophiles and music lovers seem to labour under existing concepts of 1), what they think it is, and 2), that it is something that actually exists.
So I asked him – a mastering engineer – for his take on the subject.
By Rob LoVerde
It’s touching to witness the quest of the music collecting audiophile. Their goal post often seems to be stuck in the ground right next to the ultimate version of their favourite album. The idea that one can obtain, possess, listen to and treasure musical software that most faithfully, precisely and accurately represents what the artist who recorded it intended you to hear is a most attractive one. It also seems to be borne of utmost respect for music itself.
But, is this actually possible? This is the question that keeps these same collectors from a good night’s sleep. Certainly, one can safely assume that any musical artist who recorded their work for public consumption wished for their listeners the experience of hearing exactly what they themselves heard, approved and released. It’s almost (but not quite) as safe to assume that the equipment used to record, mix, master and manufacture the software that aims to reproduce this listening experience was designed with a mind’s eye directed at providing a neutral conduit between artist and listener.
But, if this is true, then why does no consensus ever reveal itself regarding what something is supposed to sound like? Why are there countless versions of some of music’s most popular recordings and no universal agreement on which is the best?
As a mastering engineer at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, I can say that every single discussion and decision we have and make here revolves around the aforementioned quest of the music collecting audiophile. With each and every project, each and every day, we strive to bring to the public the ultimate version of the album we’re working on. To produce a product that truly represents, as closely as humanly possible, the artist’s original intent and vision. It’s a privileged position to be in. We get to create the version of the album we want in our collections.
Any advancement in technology that offers an opportunity to get closer to this vision, whether it be incremental or revolutionary, must be investigated, tested and if found to be a true upgrade, embraced and implemented into our mastering process.
In the digital domain, we’ve taken a major leap forward recently with what is called DSD256 (or 4X Direct Stream Digital).
Since the last couple of years of the 20th century, MFSL had been using DSD64 (or 1X DSD) technology to capture the analog signal of a given master tape for all of our Hybrid SACD releases (and some Gold CD releases, as well). It is called DSD64 because its sampling rate is 64 times that of standard CD technology. This was a real breakthrough in its day, impressing all MFSL staff at the time it took its place as an MFSL mainstay.
It was a free lunch, giving with both hands, improving our sonic results in every way. We even gave this new technology a name, as applied in our mastering chain: The GAIN 2 System.
In 2014, we discovered a furthering of DSD: DSD256.
DSD256 is (as you might surmise) 256 times the sampling rate of standard CD technology and four times the sampling rate of standard DSD. With an incredibly high sampling frequency of 11.2 MegaHertz, it probably matches, or even exceeds, the resolution of an analog master tape. But, of course, we can’t simply play by the numbers. Listening tests are king.
After countless hours, many early mornings and late nights and A/B trials galore, we determined that DSD256 technology needed to be utilized going forward. It is actually difficult to tell the original master tape and the DSD256 capture apart. The window through which the listener views the artist’s creation has been made more transparent than ever.
For all of these reasons, we now use DSD256 exclusively for all of our analog-to-digital transfers and The GAIN 2 System is now The GAIN HD System. For our Hybrid SACD consumers, I only wish that there was an optical-disc format that supported DSD256.
For now, we must downsample this ultra-high resolution capture to DSD64 for the SACD layer and 16-bit/44.1 kiloHertz for the CD layer of our digital disc products. The good news is that the resultant audio displays no sonic “toll” taken in the downsampling process thanks to a sampling-frequency converter made by some very intelligent designers. And the downsamples actually sound better, more faithful to the source, than a straight analog-to-DSD64 or 16-bit/44.1 kiloHertz capture as well. Once again, a free lunch gifted with both hands.
But still, what of this whole idea of witnessing, in a completely neutral fashion, the artist’s musical rendering? The reality is that this is a fantasy.
Compelling in theory, impossible in practice.
The truth is that everything in between you and the music serves to cast a shade on the proceedings.
The goal is to find that which produces the fewest obstructions and allows the greatest purity possible.
But, nothing is neutral.
You, the listener, are at the mercy of everything involved, from which source was used to master the music to the gear that was chosen to make the transfer.
For instance, which tape machine was utilized? Which reproducing amplifier is connected to that tape machine? Which interconnects tie these two things together? How are these machines calibrated? What did the mastering engineer do to the sound? Was equalization applied? How about compression?
What did he or she think the music should sound like?
And, I haven’t even mentioned your sound system, your room, your headphones, or your ears. How is all of that contouring the sound? With all of this considered, it’s fair to say that the closest you’ll get is a general approximation of the intended sonic picture.
In recent years among audiophiles, it seems that the search for “accuracy” has superseded the search for pleasure: The very thing that got us all into this in the first place.
I’d like to think that if your listening experiences make you want to have more of them, if the sound you are hearing on your system is making you love the music, you are probably at the destination the artist wanted you to arrive at after all.”