Letters From Smart People

Once every couple months, we run some of our best reader mail in “Letters From Smart People.” It’s what we do instead of maintaining a comments section. To weigh in on the topics that motivate you most, shoot us an email anytime.

Unpaid Internships

One of our most popular topics last month was our lead story on the growth of illegal unpaid internships. When we published “Has The Internship Turned Evil?” I was concerned that we might alienate some of our readers. But to our pleasant surprise, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

I just wanted to thank you for the excellent article you wrote about unpaid internships. This is such an important issue for the music industry and recording studio business and it seems to be completely ignored for the most part.

I have worked in multiple studios here in New York, both as an intern and a general assistant, and almost all of the internships that I have seen are illegal. I agree that this is a corrosive practice for our industry and I’m glad that you drew the connection between the rise of home and semi-pro studios and the use of unpaid internships.

Another huge problem faced by the music industry is piracy, and I think that there is a parallel there as well. I notice that most people my age and younger – including those who want to have careers in music, journalism, or entertainment – seem to feel that pirating music is normal and OK.

They don’t seem to realize that illegal file sharing is exploitation of the hard work of musicians, engineers, A&R people and the like.

But how can music businesses teach young people that exploitation is wrong when the companies themselves are exploiting them for their labor?

Anyway, thanks again for the article and for bringing to light what I feel is a very important issue! I think your blog is great, and you cover a lot of important issues as well that often seem to get overlooked. Keep up the good work!

Josh Pendergrass

Thanks Josh. That’s exactly what we’re shooting for.

Wow, I just read your article about unpaid interns – that is so insightful, thank you. I want to run out and hire a recent college graduate!

I have been the chief tech at Manhattan Center Studios since 1999, and there have been several times when things have gotten busy and there has been a great temptation to take on unpaid interns to help get over the hump. Everyone seems to be doing it, and people will line up around the block for their chance to get their foot in the door, but I have always thought it’s wrong and have resisted it.

I have allowed interns in cases where it is with a student who is enrolled in an internship for credit, the time period is defined, and the school is involved. I have done this with NYU and also with City College Sonic Arts program. Several of my interns were subsequently hired and a few of them remain my friends to this day. So internship can be done right, and when it is, it can still earn loyalty.

Unfortunately, so much of corporate culture these days is not about doing the right thing, but about just doing the easy thing. I love your perspective that the right thing to do ethically is also the right thing to do for the economy.

Colletti  for president! We need more of this kind of conversation. Thanks.

Joel Scheuneman
Manhattan Center Studios
Also of Origin Point Audio and “The Senator” Compressor

Thanks Joel! I couldn’t ask for a better response than your first paragraph.

And I agree: If handled properly, internships can be a positive experience for everyone. The way you’ve decided to go about your program is clear proof of that.

But for other companies who want to see if their internship practices are in compliance with existing labor laws, I highly recommend checking out the Department of Labor’s guidelines here.

We’ve reached something of a breaking point on this issue. There are at least three high-profile class-action lawsuits in the works at the moment, and it wouldn’t be surprising if enforcement of these laws steps up in their wake.

It sounds like you’re pretty well set on your end! But it’s a good idea for any other concerned institutions to start investigating their own practices now – before someone else does.

It’s not just good for karma. It’s good for business, too.

High Resolution Audio Back In The News

Our high-resolution listening tests got some attention again recently, when Neil Young popped up on the David Letterman show and promoted the prototype of his new portable music player, Pono. Our story got passed around quite a bit, and we got heaps more mail from all sides of the debate.

I enjoyed your A/B test and reader’s poll. I’m also somewhat skeptical about hi-res audio. Well, I’m not really skeptical about it – I’m more skeptical of my own ears and brain.

But recently, that skepticism has been challenged.

I recommend comparing the first ten seconds of “In Bloom” from the 2011 remaster of Nevermind in two formats: A) downloaded from iTunes at 256 kbps and B) from the same 2011 remaster, but downloaded from HDTracks.com at 96kHz/24-bit (4608 kbps).

It sounds to me like the 256 kbps version can’t handle the detail in the two hard-panned guitars. It seems it can’t properly distinguish between the two at certain points, resulting in a strange shimmering sound and a collapse of the stereo field.

Low bit rates can have all kinds of negative effects. Usually, they’re much more subtle, but they’re still there. In this case, I guarantee you that 100 out of 100 people in comas buried under a mountain of socks will be able to correctly identify which is which within seconds.

I can also say that I’ve heard dramatic improvements in sound between SACD and regular CD versions of the same album. And I’m talking about non-subtle differences that have elicited reactions from astonishment to laughter when I’ve played them for others.

Some examples are classical recordings, [others are pop releases] like Beck’s Sea Change, Dark Side of the Moon, and Highway 61 Revisited. Interestingly, other SACDs reveal no audible differences to me. An example would be Oasis’ Morning Glory, for which I tried my damnedest to hear a difference.

What would be truly fascinating to me would be a blind comparison between formats of the same song, but with switching back and forth as the song is playing.

Tim Roth
Born Today

P.S. Neil Young can still hear???!!!

Hey Tim, thanks for writing in. I’d love to have a listen to those!

Hard-Panned stereo information was a real problem with older MP3 resolutions. In my experience, it’s rare that a 256 kbps AAC file today sounds significantly different than the source, but errors can and do happen. I’ve personally experienced glitches when converting to AAC which have demanded re-encoding as well.

Apple’s new “Mastered for iTunes” protocols are supposed to help prevent that from happening in the future. We’ll have to wait and see, but reports so far are that stability has improved substantially. I just wish that those QC protocols were in place when that remaster was done. But whatever failures may have occurred, I’d bet that in aggregate the 256 transfer offers greater transparency than the Nevermind cassette I had back in 1992.

Ultimately, I agree that 256 kbps isn’t perfect, even if countless blind tests of trained listeners show that the format is indistinguishable from the source an overwhelming majority of the time.

If it were up to me, I’d say we should all upgrade to 320 kbps resolutions or lossless formats like FLAC as soon as we’re able. From what I’ve read and heard, those seem to be 100% indistinguishable in blind tests of trained listeners. Show me a petition to get us onto those formats, and I’d sign it in heartbeat!

For me, it’s merely resolutions of 24bit/96khz and up that I’m not sold on as a consumer format quite yet.

The impact on national energy consumption from switching all music streaming and downloads to those rates would be simply enormous, while offering minimal-to-no real advantage to the end listener. At least that’s what all the published science seems to suggest.

The truth is, when it comes to dynamic range and frequency response, a high-quality FLAC or AAC file offers far higher audible fidelity than any historic analog recording formats. That’s true of dynamic range, audible frequency response, and signal-to-noise. Literally, anything we can measure for. What we’ve got today is pretty damn good.

I believe that today, it’s the job of the music industry to remind consumers that music is valuable. And I don’t think we can do that by casting false aspersions against one of the most cost-effective and audibly transparent music mediums ever invented.

True, there’s always room for improvement, and 256 kbps need not be the final stop. But with that said, I think it’s clear that Neil Young’s “5% of the sound quality” remarks remain misleading at best. If there’s anything holding us back from enjoying music deeply, it sure ain’t the file formats.

Thanks again,

Justin

And PS: “In Bloom”? Best. Fucking. Guitar Solo. Ever. (Even better than “Cinnamon Girl”…… Just barely.)

 

Hi Justin,

I’m a bit late to the party, but I enjoyed your article titled “Take Our Audio Poll: Do We Need High-Definition Sound?

I’d like to comment on a couple of points. I agree the sound difference between AAC and uncompressed 24-bit is fairly difficult to discern with much better than 50% guess accuracy, especially to most listeners and without a very high caliber playback system.

But when you subtract the files from each other, thereby removing the masking effect, there is clearly musical information in the difference.

The resulting file, has a mix of both the lost resolution of the orig. 24-bit recording (sparkle of cymbals, vocal sibilances) and the added artifacts of the AAC encode/decode.

This difference lends merit to listeners who want to get all of the quality that’s captured in the studios, and gives some validation to Neil’s cause. No sound should be left on the cutting floor for those willing to try to appreciate it.

And then there is the holy grail, which to me is the sound of an acoustic instrument with no electronic reproduction, such as a high quality live drum set in a nice sounding room. I don’t think I’ve, yet, heard any captured signal so closely sound like the true acoustic instrument source. I hope this ideal is the intent of influential people like Neil.

And thanks. Your writing gives me a very good impression that you’re a cool guy.

Joel Jones
Apps. Engr.
AKM Semiconductor

 

Hi Joel,

Thanks for your thoughtful and cogent reply. Those are some valid questions, for sure.

You’re correct to notice that lossy formats and lossless formats will never null completely. But it’s also important to remember that they are not designed to.

If you posed this question to an audio or perceptual scientist, they’d probably tell you that the audio contained in the two files is technically different. It’s just that the differences that do exist lie outside the limits of human perception. 

You’re also right to say that no recording ever made has ever sounded exactly like a true acoustic performance. But I don’t think the limiting factor there lies in file resolution.

To create a system that could record and playback music that sounds and feels exactly, unmistakably like musicians live in a room, we’d need incredible levels of innovation in microphone, and particularly, loudspeaker technology.

If that’s the goal, I doubt we’ll ever get there if we continue to quibble about the things that don’t matter all that much. That’s one of my main drives with Scientist: To help us discover what really makes a difference, right now, so we can focus our energies there.

In the meantime, I’m quite happy with recorded music. To be honest, I’m not remotely bummed out that recordings aren’t exactly like real life yet. Movies and books and radio programs aren’t exactly like real life either, and I love them because of that, not in spite of it.

In the end, isn’t that the purpose of recorded mediums, and of art in general? Shouldn’t they give us a break from everyday reality, so that we might come back to it fresher, more observant, more in awe of the possibilities? At the very least, failing to get the exact impact and energy of a live performance at home gives us a good reason to leave the house!

Thanks again for weighing in. Whatever our differences of opinion on the little issues may be, I’m sure we’re both after the same thing: To make — and to hear — great-sounding music.

Very best,

Justin Colletti

All letters are edited for clarity and brevity. To write in with your take, click here.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Industry Trends, November 2012, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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