Rupert Neve: Life Beyond Measurement

Rupert neve: Life Beyond Measurement

Part IV: Can You “Hear” This? High Resolution Audio in the 1990’s

During 1991-1992, as Rupert’s new designs for AMEK were achieving considerable success, he became increasingly aware of research around the world on the ways in which harmonics present outside the conventional audio bandwidth can affect what we hear. One paper by Robert Stuart suggested that when noise is pushed “out” of the conventional bandwidth by noise-shaping techniques, it is still perceived by human ears. Rupert told one interviewer:

“If there is musically useful information out of band, the human system makes positive use of it – on the other hand if it’s just dirt, it reflects somehow back into the wanted signal within the 20 kHz bandwidth and affects the way you hear the sound.”

As he developed the new 9098 console, he corresponded with these researchers discussing the positive aspects of out of bandwidth sound and what valuable nuanced sonic formation can be lost when bandwidth is cut at 26 kHz. All getting back to that question from the 1950s – why do amplifiers that measure identically minuscule harmonic distortion and flat response, in the frequency response 20-20 kHz bandwidth, sound so strikingly different? Rupert noted in a 1993 interview:

“It’s all very subjective. It would seem that the human system is able to take the most microscopic bits of information and build on them – not that you perceive them as sound but you can say “This makes it sound good” or “this doesn’t.”

This viewpoint resonates so strongly with Stewart Hegeman’s credo way back in 1959 that the characteristics of an amplifier in the non-audible range strongly influence the quality of sound in the audible frequency range.

The crowning achievement of Rupert’s work as a consultant to AMEK in the 1990s was the 9098 Super Analogue console. With a bandwidth that was flat from 10 to 200 kHz and a near total lack of crossover distortion, the console was a modern day “Montserrat“, again proving the real-world viability of the Rupert Neve design philosophy. AMEK’s 2001 publicity boasted:

“The 9098i’s technical specification is impressive to say the least… it attains a performance level, which pushes back the boundaries of known theoretical limits. Featuring an extended audio bandwidth of 200 kHz (-3dB), 9098i maintains a sense of transparency that is absent from inferior bandwidth-limited systems. An incredible dynamic range and remarkable phase linearity provide accurate imaging across the entire bandwidth… a sense of realism other consoles simply cannot produce… achieved by reducing distortion to a barely measurable level”.

Rupert and other leading designers were inspired by a slew of new academic research which informed their quest for higher resolution equipment that facilitated more realistic and lifelike sound reproduction. Rupert’s years as a consultant to AMEK were marked by a great deal of cross-communication between him and other leading designers and researchers in the US, Japan and the UK. Working closely on new console designs with AMEK’s own distinguished console designer, Graham Langley, Rupert began a lasting and fruitful relationship with George Massenburg, who had previously collaborated with Graham on AMEK’s flagship APC-1000 console.

In a 1993 interview Massenburg noted:

“I like the kind of tools that Rupert Neve builds, no matter who he’s working for. He is a man who truly understands audio. I’m always inspired and always learning something when I talk with him. He’s built a great equalizer every time he set out to do so. He’s working with a man at AMEK who has also built great equalizers for many years, Graham Langley.“

Massenburg’s life has been a relentless search for both technical and emotional perfection in his recording engineering and his technical designs. In the 1990s he knew we could do much better in all aspects of the recording arts. In an article written for Studio Sound in 1992 entitled “Analogue’s Future,” Massenburg proclaimed:

“If we have learned anything, it is that given enough money and resources there are improvements to be made almost everywhere. In the 1970s amplifiers improved with the knowledge about tertiary disturbances like transient intermodulation distortion… even the lunatic fringe in consumer audio occasionally comes up with breakthroughs that contribute to the body of knowledge regarding artifice. In the domain of extremely high resolution analogue audio there is a world of data, increasingly ambiguous data as one approaches, even moves below, the noise floor. And ambiguity notwithstanding, these signals are meaningful to the ear… hopefully there will still be those who will be willing to use their own ears in evaluating equipment, and more, have the courage to describe the rather subtle differences that are heard..”

A year later he told an English interviewer:

“The ability of recorded music to reach out and touch many hearts has not in and of itself improved. Some of the techniques have expanded greatly – the ability to synthesize – but the ability to make it touch people and make it viscerally effective – and to reflect some cultural references has not grown significantly.”

Like Rupert Neve, Massenburg’s lengthy career in professional audio would culminate in the 1990s with fast-growing influence as an educator and proponent of the need for high resolution audio, in addition to revitalized activity as an equipment designer. His impressive achievements were recognized with a TEC Award for Producer and Engineer in 1989, a TEC Hall of Fame Award in 1990, a TEC Award for Engineer of the Year in 1992 and Grammy awards in 1989 and 1996.

Massenburg, Neve and others who saw a great need for higher resolution audio technology were all greatly influenced by the aforementioned AES publication in 1991 of the research by Oohashi et al. from the Japanese Institute for Multimedia Education. Entitled “High-Frequency Sound Above the Audible Range Affects Brain Electric Activity and Sound Perception,” the paper reported on a novel technique to measure brain electric activity which allowed the researchers to determine if high frequency components above the audible range can influence sound perception in ways not discerned by the method of paired comparisons.

They concluded that high frequency sound induces activation of electroencephalogram rhythms that persist in the absence of high frequency stimulation, and can affect perception of sound quality. Subjects in these experiments were responding to ultrasonic frequencies as high as 60 kHz.

Rupert Neve visited Professor Oohashi in Tokyo and was treated to an impressive series of demonstrations comparing music recorded and reproduced with very wide bandwidth, bandwidth restricted to 20 kHz, standard Compact Disc and wide-band one bit JVC digital CD system. He concluded:

“There is no doubt that wide bandwidth is more enjoyable. Music actually sounds sweeter and warmer when high frequencies are extended (distortion and noise free) beyond audibility, No obvious sensation of a stronger or more aggressive high frequency response. I was able to relax and stop “listening” – just letting the magnificent sound flow over me. This accords with opinions from many well-known ‘golden‘ ears of the industry. For example, George Massenburg…”

In his 1999 column for AudioTechnology, Rupert expanded this a bit, highlighting the noise components whose elimination would become a cornerstone of his designs in the coming decade:

“But it seems to me that there is more than frequency response, as demonstrated by Professor Oohashi, which plagues the standard CD. The digital process is always badly flawed by non-harmonically-related switching transients which are dumped in the critical area above 20 kHz, resulting in a substantial increase in noise beyond audibility (where it has been thought, it does not matter).”

Another influential paper, “Ultrasonic Speech Perception” by Martin Lenhart was published in Science that same year and it concluded that “bone-conducted ultrasonic hearing has been found capable of supporting frequency discrimination and speech detection in normal, older hearing-impaired, and profoundly deaf human subjects.”

At Cal Tech’s Music Lab, James Boyk, a pianist, educator and sound recordist familiar with these papers, published his own research on ultrasonic sound. Using the latest HP FFT Analyzer and advanced measurement microphones, he analyzed the spectra of musical instruments. His 1992 paper, “There’s Life Above 20 Kilohertz! – A Survey of Musical Instrument Spectra to 102.4 kHz” confirmed his long-held ideas that the unique sound characteristics of musical instruments were influenced by harmonics or overtones found in frequencies far beyond the instrument’s perceived frequency range.

Each major musical instrument family had a least one member which produced energy to 40 kHz or above. Harmonics of the French horn could extend to above 90 kHz, trumpet to above 80 kHz, violin and oboe to above 40 kHz and a cymbal crash showed no signs of running out of energy at 100 kHz. Boyk called for further research to determine whether these ultrasonic sound components did indeed matter to human musical perception and pleasure. His work caught the attention of leading recording engineers such as Doug Sax and George Massenburg.

Massenburg wrote:

“I would like to point out that the future will undoubtedly bring a widened view of the “audible” band. More than ever before, 20 kHz has become a severe limitation. I was deeply impressed when Jim Boyk, from Cal Tech, showed me some spectral analyses made on a new HP analyzer of trumpet with a Harmon mute, and its harmonic at 50 kHz was at least as loud as its fundamental. Its harmonics went out to 100 kHz – you could count them! There is something to extended high-end response, and sooner or later, we’re going to have to take this seriously. Life doesn’t end at 20 kHz.”

When Massenburg presented his first paper on parametric EQ all the way back in 1971, he had the opportunity to meet David Blackmer, the developer of the DBX voltage controlled amplifier. They talked at length. Massenburg was greatly impressed by the genius and elegance of Blackmer’s designs. Years later he stated concerning Blackmer: “He knew how to make a VCA that no one had envisioned up to then. And of all the inventions in audio in the last 30 years, none is as elegant and simple as the David Blackmer VCA.”

It was not coincidental that Blackmer came to join that group of extraordinarily talented engineers calling for a reexamination of audio perception in the 1990s. After selling dbx, Inc. he began basic research in the 1980s, initially focusing on loudspeaker design and analyzing why different high frequency drivers had identical frequency response out to 20 kHz, yet sounded very different. He traced the only measurable differences to resonances in the 27-30 kHz range, a realm supposedly beyond the capability of human hearing.

To better understand why there was a night and day difference in the sound of the drivers, Blackmer began developing his own microphones to aid in testing his speaker designs, leading to his acclaimed line of Earthworks microphones in the early 1990s. In his research David Blackmer focused on the hair cells of the inner ear and the way their pulse vibrations seemed to help the auditory system to map impulse information embedded in tones. Blackmer believed that sound quality information delivered to the brain included waveform, embedded transient identification and high frequency component identification to at least 40 kHz, and perhaps 80 kHz. By the middle of the decade, he was granting interviews that contained statements like:

“We are looking at better ways to understand the sense of human perception and the full range of its incredible capacity – a respect for the subtleties of that and especially the subtleties that go beyond the models that are normally accepted. Apparently, there is very good evidence that there is information beyond the current model for human hearing that is necessary to make good recordings… human senses have a much greater range than the models we make of them have.”

Blackmer’s Earthworks microphones received across the board recognition and praise in late 1990s for their wide bandwidth and ultra-fast transient response. With Blackmer’s original research and design philosophy as its foundation, the brand has enjoyed durable success for over 25 years

Rupert Neve and many others made frequent reference to the papers published between 1991 and 2000 by Robert Stuart and his co-workers at Meridian Electronics. In 1996, Robert Stuart was made a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society for his important insights into the models of auditory perception and their applications to audio technology. Meridian’s development of Lossless Packing was a landmark in the development of high resolution digital audio as exemplified in such products as DVD Audio and Dolby TrueHD.

Combining 20+ years of experience in high-end product design with a formal education and academic work in psychoacoustics, Stuart’s work in the 1990s bridged the often separated worlds of the audiophile, academics and professional audio researchers and engineers. Stuart’s ideas as to how we go about perceiving the most subtle differences in systems and his insistence that the smallest details in both the signal and the context of the signal can make a step change in what we perceive, helped provide others with new levels of understanding about the importance of wide bandwidth, high resolution audio and the way humans perceive sound. In a 2005 interview he noted:

“What I think is outrageous is to say we understand everything about how the human hearing system works, because what we do know is that it’s incredibly sensitive to certain kinds of differences and very tolerant of others. So you can measure something objectively, but you know as well as I do that’s its possible to design a system that measures well but is not satisfactory. That’s why we inform everything we do not only with psychoacoustics, but with critical listening… Listening is multi-dimensional… You have to listen to everything.

It’s really important to understand how a human being responds to sounds. We don’t hear sine waves and noises and clicks and ticks, which are the vectors that electronics and acoustic engineers use to measure systems. When we hear a waveform there a very complex cognitive process that follows – we immediately externalize that sound as an object. If you design on an electrical engineering basis, you’d say that an amplifier only has to be flat from 20 Hz to 20 kHz and with distortion below “x.” You’re immediately starting out with a model that says I believe I understand completely how this all works, and I’m not giving any value to the subjective mapping or the interpretive mapping or the cognitive mapping of what’s going on.

It’s terribly important not only to know the value of each change you make but also how the way each component of the error the system makes is going to be interpreted. What we’re trying to do with any system is not just to minimize the errors it makes, but to understand how each error operates in the context of others… We’re working with all sorts of things ranging from thresholds, to loudness, to how one thing sounds in the presence of another. We work with timing, distortion and – how much you can get away with, how much you can’t get away with – and whether you’re creating an error that is spatially disconnected from the thing that caused it in the first place. All these are very important. So yes, I approach audio design fundamentally from the way we hear.”

Robert Stuart’s pioneering work as co-founder, chairman and technical director of the Meridian Group, included the launch of the first digital surround-sound processor – the Meridian Digital Theatre – in 1994 and continued through the 1990s, reaching a crescendo with the development in 1999-2000 of Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP). His papers were recognized with the AES Fellowship in 1996 and over the next 20 years Meridian consumer audio products received well over 300 awards culminating in a Lifetime Achievement Award from CEDIA in 2015 recognizing his “quest to capture the excitement and raw emotion of live music in digital recordings, bringing us ever closer to what we experience in a concert hall and what musicians hear in the recording studio.”

This growing chorus of voices in the 1990s calling for a new understanding of human auditory perception finally began to impact the mainstream audio press. Even publications that usually addressed nuts-and-bolts design and systems integration took notice and reported on ideas that had previously been dismissed as golden ears mythology. In 1998 “Sound and Video Contractor” printed David Blackmer’s extensive discussion “Life Beyond 20 kHz”. The same publication, edited by Nat Hecht, summed up a good bit of academic research in a 2001 editorial entitled “On the Threshold of Discovery” accompanied by with a boldly printed headline which read, “Humans can respond to ultrasonic frequencies up to 60 kHz!”

Hecht was citing the Oohashi et al. AES paper that had so influenced Rupert Neve some ten years earlier. He also cited the work being done at Cal Tech by James Boyk in the early and mid-1990s, the Lenhart paper on Ultrasonics and the Blackmer article. It was becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss the opinions of those seeking a new understanding of perception as their careers, and the products they developed, achieved such a high level of recognition and acclaim during the 1990s.

Neve and Massenburg, along with other designers were all corresponding with one another as “Life Beyond 20 kHz” became a rallying cry for both academics and some of the leading audio equipment designers of our era. Over the next five years the proponents of extended bandwidth finally received a real hearing and in-depth attention from the professional audio community.

Massenburg’s career as both an engineer and designer was reaching new heights between 1988-1992, the same years in which Rupert Neve began his remarkable work with AMEK. Massenburg received his Technical Grammy award in 1998, a year after Rupert received his Technical Grammy and the same year as Rupert was launching the 9098 designs.

Literally dozens of interviews with Neve, Massenburg, Stuart, and Blackmer populated all the major professional audio trade publications. This time around the advocates of extended bandwidth would find a much wider audience and their ideas would come to have real staying power. They would not have a twenty year wait for recognition, as Stewart Hegeman had experienced. The proponents were too deeply imbedded in the mainstream of professional audio and too widely respected to ignore or ridicule.

Even as the entire audio press flocked to interview them, there were still plenty of skeptics to be found. The theoretical background that many engineers inherited from their training strongly shaped the beliefs of many. So, until everything could be measured and explained in technical terms, they would continue to resist these ideas that seemed so “provocative” to use Rupert’s own words. Provocative they were – here is a typical slice of vintage Rupert Neve which appeared in a 1998 interview:

“The Japanese showed some time ago that the brain produces electric radiations in the presence of different emotions and emotional stimuli. If you listen to an analogue music signal that is good quality, with no crossover distortion and no digital sampling, it can be a very satisfying experience…but the Japanese have shown, and in fact a lot of us are accepting quite happily, that {referring to distortion present in CD’s and cheaply designed amplifier circuitry} that these distortions – first of all the lack of music-related frequencies above 20 kHz and secondly the presence of switching transient noises above 20 kHz – actually produce a different from of brain radiation. They produce the kind associated with discomfort, frustration, even anger.”

The interviewer undoubtedly seemed taken aback by this. So, Rupert added:

“You can talk to others. It’s not just me. Talk to George Massenburg for instance, and he will tell you exactly the same thing.”

Perhaps the most remarkable and widely read expression of Rupert Neve’s design philosophy in the 1990s appeared in a series of interviews conducted by the Australian publication AudioTechnology beginning in 1998.

AudioTechnology was a brand new publication in 1997 preparing to launch their first issue in 1998. AMEK’s Australian representative wanted them to include a piece on Rupert Neve’s PurePath series of outboard gear. The magazine was less than enthusiastic because they had planned to fill the first issue with really exciting previews of some digital audio workstations that had a real “buzz” going at the time. They didn’t think the Neve products were particularly newsworthy and as for Rupert he seemed to be old news, a “recurring echo from a warm and distant past.”

Nonetheless, he still was Rupert Neve, idolized by many old school guys, so the magazine’s founding editor, Greg Simmons, resolved to do the interview and squeeze in a review of the gear and maybe a half page of interview. Just six questions, all related to the PurePath product review. A “six question, twenty minute interview” went on for two hours, back in the day when international phone calls between Australia and Texas were still a considerable expense. Simmons transcribed some 12,000 words which he described as “priceless.” Rather than edit them down, he elected to run the interview across the first three issues of the magazine.

They were a resounding success. Simmons noted that he immediately gained a loyal audience with “cynical and hardened professional engineers who were expecting yet another ill-informed, over-hyped and ad-driven piece of garbage aimed squarely at the home studio market.” Instead of fluff, Rupert provided them with a new understanding of what humans could perceive and a persuasive argument for the necessity to critically re-examine their opinions and standards as regards high resolution audio reproduction.

The prestigious Audio Media magazine bought the interview, assuring wide distribution in US and UK and “rekindling worldwide interest in Rupert’s uncompromising philosophies and audio designs.” Demand for more was such that Rupert went on to write a regular column for the Australian magazine, providing in-depth discussions of noise, distortion, bandwidth and tonality in audio equipment along with a healthy dose of anecdotal wit and wisdom. Characteristically, he refused to accept any payment for the articles.

By the end of 1999, Rupert Neve was far too busy with the 9098 console, and new things to come, to allow for time to continue writing the column. Both Neve and Massenburg entered the new century as renowned for their recent efforts to expand the horizons of audio, as they were for their enormous successes in the 70s and 80s. Audio technology advanced at an extraordinary pace in the new millennium to meet the explosive demand for a mind-boggling array of media and content.

A new generation of educators, researchers and students broadened and deepened the study of the art and craft of audio engineering. Vinyl revived, tubes and transformers once again became worthy of study and application, every form of vintage gear was re-explored and re-created. All the while digital technology continued to progress and move ever closer to that goal of perfect utility and perfect sound.

Amidst all this backward and forward motion, Rupert Neve, through his final company, Rupert Neve Designs, continued to provide engineers and musicians with a steady stream of new designs and new products which became instant classics. They, more than anything written, were the proof of the pudding – the ultimate validation of the designer and his philosophy of human perception and audio design.

So much of the present state of the art in audio rests on the foundations that Rupert and others laid in the 1990s. The concepts of wideband audio, and associated concepts of noise and distortion struggled for recognition for decades. Progress came in fits and starts and skepticism about these concepts remained deeply entrenched right into the 21st century. But this time around they would not be sidelined, buried or dismissed as just one more manifestation of consumer audio’s “lunatic fringe.”

After 1995 many leading recording engineers and producers came to agree with Robert Stuart that “it’s incredibly important that you capture the content and archive at the highest possible resolution. Even if its going to be delivered on a storage channel like CD, you absolutely should capture it with all the information that we can hear.” Enthusiastic consumers joined with the content producers in demanding higher resolution delivery systems that could transparently deliver everything heard in the studio or concert hall to human listeners.

David Blackmer discussed his motivation at Earthworks noting:

“Many listeners hear a great difference when 20 kHz band limited audio signals are compared to wideband signals… what we’re trying to do is get that ‘golden halo” around each sound that you hear live – especially with the higher frequency instruments – which you never get on a recording. We’re trying to find a way to get that on a recording… The point of all this is that there seems to be a lot of room for improvement in audio and we’re determined to do our part in helping it happen.”

Pioneer introduced a 96 kHz High-Sampling Professional DAT Recorder in 1995, claiming that its expanded bandwidth delivered “a more natural sound, improved sound localization and clearer resolution of sounds with sharp attacks.” High Resolution formats began to appear in the consumer market in 1996 and by 2000 they had proliferated to such a degree that format wars greatly decreased their chances for widespread acceptance. The explosion of online music retailing and portable music players using highly compressed audio also blunted the acceptance of new formats.

Opposition to the basic premise that humans can respond to frequencies above 20 kHz and below the noise floor was deeply entrenched in the technical community with numerous highly respected authors such as Paul Lehrman and David Moulton writing persuasively in the early 2000s that the science to verify the claims of high resolution was flawed and lacking in substance. Many early papers using blind listening tests concluded that differences were not audible and that even musicians were unable to distinguish higher resolution formats from 16 bit audio at 48 kHz sampling rates. The reliance on the standard method of real-time A/B evaluation, despite psychoacoustic models that indicated we don’t actually perceive audio in this manner, did cause many to dismiss the idea that we were missing something with the standard sampling rates and bit depths.

Few had the courage to take on Rupert Neve directly as Paul Lehrman did in several 2002 articles where he both dismissed the 1991 Japanese paper and challenged the validity of Rupert Neve’s sine wave/square wave experiments.

His opposition was widely supported at the time by many academicians and scientist in the New England audio community. Lehrman concluded:

“Maybe I’m missing something but I think it’s a bit much for the entire audio industry to reinvent itself based on this one light-years -from-definitive study…There are less-formal experiments that purport to show that we can hear above 20 kHz, and perhaps the best known of these is the one that Rupert Neve – whom I have a tremendous amount of admiration for, although I think he’s completely wrong on this – does… So it seems like the audio world above 20 kHz… will probably not turn out to be very important. As I said, there may be other reasons why high sampling rates are helpful, and they are very much worth discussing, but not because your old technology and mine, is missing something.“

Yet despite this opposition, influential audio engineers continued to insist that the old technology was indeed missing a great deal and, in time, further A/B testing did begin to show that trained listeners could distinguish high resolution formats from CD under formal scientific test conditions. In the digital studio environment, acceptance of high resolution sampling and bit rates by content creators and their engineers was widespread.

As all of this intense discussion of technology played out in the audio industry’s press, the music content creators took notice and the integration of audio technology persons and issues into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science began to accelerate. In 1994 the Recording Academy’s National Trustees began to present Special Merit Awards individuals and/or companies who have made contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field. The first Technical GRAMMY awards went to Thomas Stockham (pioneering work in digital recordings) and Ray Dolby (various licensed DOLBY technologies). These were followed by awards to Rupert Neve in 1997 and George Massenburg in 1998.

In 2001, the Recording Academy initiated a technical division, The Producer & Engineers Wing, which currently boasts over 6000 members. Over the next 20 years the Wing became a major force in the movement to raise the quality of the audio product available to consumers and to promote the use and standardization of high-resolution audio in the creative audio process.

In 2005, George Massenburg and other preeminent recording engineers formed the Music Engineering and Technology Alliance (META) to promote the highest standards of sound quality in both recordings and playback. Co-founder Frank Fillipetti noted at their first press conference:

“The highest quality audio to have ever been produced for mass consumption s currently available to all music lovers, and yet most channels of current delivery fall well short of what‘s possible. We intend to change that. We are trying to bring back to listeners the unbridled passion that comes from listening to a beautifully recorded work played back on a high quality sound system.”

However, the future of high definition consumer audio remained in doubt despite the fact that so many leading producers and engineers were choosing to create studio master recordings using increasing sample rates and bit depths, insisting that these do make a difference.

High Resolution downloads became available between 2008 and 2012, along with new high-resolution optical disc formats such as Pure Audio Blu-ray and High Fidelity Pure Audio. Consumers clamored for portable high resolution delivery systems and in 2012 musician Neil Young proposed to rescue music from mediocre quality portable music players with his high resolution Pono player.

The Pono audio system would deliver music as it first sounded in the studio with 24 bit,192 kHz audio instead of compressed files. The success of Pono’s initial crowd-sourced fundraising and its claimed backing from major record labels, validated a powerful rising tide of consumer interest in high definition audio, even though Pono itself would quickly fail as a commercial venture.

Pono’s claim of superior reproduction was not enough to assure its success given a consumer climate that favored moving to smartphones and music streaming. There was also the usual chorus of critics. Some questioned whether the high-resolution files were really the key to improved audio quality and they proposed that other less radical methods could better contribute to the needed improvements. Others said that the most of the public clearly couldn’t hear the difference and that past experience showed that barely anyone would be willing to pay for high-quality digital audio. Many articles concluded with brutal put-downs such as “it’s highly unlikely you could hear the difference” and “Pono offers you a feature that you can’t actually perceive.”

Neve, Massenburg and others would cringe at this concept of audio that basically boiled down to “less than the best is certainly good enough.” Fortunately, the alliance of producers, engineers, major record labels and industry behemoths, such as Sony, would continue to demand delivery formats capable of bringing studio master quality to consumers. High Resolution Audio would live on to fight another day.

In 2014, the Digital Entertainment Group, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy came together, along with record labels to formulate a branding definition of high resolution audio as “lossless audio capable of reproducing the full spectrum of sound from recordings which have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources which represent what the artists, producers and engineers originally intended.” This branding made it clear that the producers and suppliers of musical content had cast their votes and accepted the groundwork laid in the 1990s. That same year the influential Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) announced a specification and “Hi-Res Audio” logo for consumer audio products.

Music professionals with access to high resolution, first generation material reported clearly audible differences and subjectively better sound compared to CD quality audio, critical skepticism notwithstanding. In 2017-2018 the Producers & Engineers Wing issued its landmark “Recommendations for Hi-Resolution Music Production,” a 41-page set of basic technical guidelines and best practices for producers and engineers.

This happened at a time when the technology to handle large files was developing to the point where the vision of those pioneers from the 1990s was becoming feasible at the mass market level. The Recording Academy could report that:

“Sales of H-Resolution Audio downloads from companies such as HD Tracks and Pro Studio Masters have become a healthy business with many subscription services focusing on the delivery of higher quality audio, whether CD-quality or true Hi-resolution using MQA. And now, most major record companies require the delivery of hi-res masters because they recognize new opportunities to monetize better sounding music.”

The consumer demand for High Resolution Audio continued to grow but a good number of critics in the technical and scientific community continued to challenge the many music technology professionals who had adopted the ideas that flourished in the 1990s. Many of these critics were now willing to admit that there is a clear, though small, audible difference, especially if the listeners have had some background in critical listening. But even as recently as 2020, a Japanese technical paper re-examined earlier tests and concluded that the ability to distinguish high resolution audio from CD audio was “only slightly better than chance.”

A widely quoted AES Paper in 2019, “High Resolution Audio: A History and Perspective” by Vicki Melchior examined the continuing debate about whether high resolution audio was audibly superior and what might explain the differences. She adopts a popular view in the scientific community that filtering chains are the most likely contributors to the distinctive sound of digital formats. She reported little scientific evidence to confirm the audibility of ultrasonic frequencies asserting that their role in normal audio listening has been rejected since the late 1990s due to this lack of evidence. Melchior concluded that “The reasons for greater transparency ascribed to higher sample rates have been debated without consistent evidence.” This seems to be a viewpoint repeatedly expressed by respected professionals in the technically rich Boston audio community for over 20 years.

The high frequency sound components of high resolution audio have been studied extensively in Japan by Oohashi and others for close to 30 years. The so-called “hypersonic effects” on brain activity have been observed and documented. A 2020 paper by Hiroshi Nittono, a professor of experimental psychology at Osaka University, has been taken by some as further proof that adding frequencies above the human audible range does not produce a better listening experience than standard quality CD audio.

The paper’s title “High-frequency Sound Components of High-resolution Audio Are Not Detected in Auditory Sensory Memory” sums up his experiments as to whether sounds with high frequency components are processed differently in the auditory cortex than sounds without those components. His conclusion was that “even if high-resolution audio is superior to the standard format, the difference is apparently not detectable at the cortical level.” Indeed, Nittono comments in his discussion of the results that “at least for people with regular hearing ability, the broad playback bandwidth of high resolution audio does not seem to have an advantage over the traditional standard audio’s bandwidth at a conscious level.”

Has this question of whether the extended bandwidth of High Resolution Audio results in audibly superior recording and reproduction finally been settled in favor of the naysayers? Nittono himself admits that “the mechanism of how the brain detects sound differences remains unknown.”

Certainly, audio professionals who share a deep desire to do the best work possible are not willing to write off extended bandwidth and the still to be explained “hypersonic effect.” The 2018 Recording Academy Recommendations for Hi-Resolution Music Production Summary stated:

“Virtually every person who contributed to the creation of these recommendations has performed detailed listening tests, comparing different equipment, file types, and audio resolutions. Some of our interviewees recorded complete sessions at different resolutions and then compared the sounds between those sessions. Many also upsampled and downsampled sessions to hear how each conversion effected the resulting sound quality. In the end, everyone felt that hi- resolution audio most accurately reflected what they heard in the studio, whether recording, mixing or mastering… Recording hi-resolution audio makes a difference for anyone recording, producing or listening to music. It raises the bar. We’re on the verge of advancement – a new era of excitement about music and the way it sounds.“

The history of audio technology in the 20th Century teaches us to accept the pronouncements of the academic and scientific establishment, and even the accepted wisdom of of the manufacturers they design for, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Time and time again the engine of technological change has been driven by the content creators – the musicians and their producers and engineers who heard what others could not hear, who experienced what others overlooked or dismissed, who sought an emotional connection and level of perfection in their art that those with more conventional vision could not fully understand. In this they have reflected the extraordinary role of music in our lives and its unique place in the design of things which drove them to seek new means of expression that challenged conventional boundaries, technologies, and established ideas about how we perceive, compose and create.

These individuals have always found an audience who responded to their vision and that has led to new musical forms, new technologies and ever higher levels of fidelity. It goes without saying that in many cases, this audience became obsessively devoted to spending vast sums of money in a never-ending quest for the status and rewards of sound systems that bequeathed to their owners the dubious satisfaction of outdoing their peers. But even amidst the worst excesses of competitive golden-ear audio, sincere lovers of the art unearthed new and very real performance parameters which eventually could be understood, measured and incorporated into designs that brought us ever closer to the complex beauty of the live musical experience.

And so, from Stuart Hegeman to Neve, Massenburg and the other visionaries of the 1990s, the sixty-year quest to give musicians and engineers the best tools to bring forth their art in the fullest beauty and power continues. Ignoring the skeptics who have dismissed their ideas of an expanded concept of human auditory perception, these pioneers continue to delight both creators and consumers with equipment that brings us ever closer to that most elevated and meaningful form of communication. Just as it was sixty years ago, the proof is in the pudding. The equipment they design is, in a word, incomparable, and the reception these designs receive validates the thoughts, intentions and design philosophies that underlie the remarkable performance of the final products.

George Massenburg wrote in 1992, “The physical universe is exceedingly detailed. Ornate beyond comprehension – infinite – and almost never thought to be bounded at larger than molecular proportions… sound in nature is both subtle and eloquent.” He looked forward to audio systems that “exemplify the purest form of high resolution technology, systems whose performance will serve to benchmark and calibrate our hearing and thinking for generations to come.”

Sadly, in our time, too many ears have been calibrated to sound that is very far from the eloquence of nature. One could use dozens of adjectives to describe what so many have become accustomed to. All too often that list does not include “lifelike,” “natural,” or “musical.” In a 1993 NY Times article “Music Takes A Back Seat,” music writer Edward Rothstein described the sound as “embalmed.” He feared that digital formats would “codify an artificial and astringent sonic style” and he worried that “if listeners became too used to the embalmed quality of these innovations, eventually even concert halls and instruments will suffer.” To some degree we see this prophecy fulfilled in what one producer described as “the Bad Sound we usually get now: it’s loud, it’s sort of crunchy and it’s sort of dirty. Initially it’s sort of exciting but you just know it’s a sound that will wear thin very quickly.” Flat, two-dimensional, lifeless, and unsettling are a few other adjectives frequently used to describe that sound.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Rupert Neve understood so well that whereas “to measure is to know,” there is indeed life beyond measurement. He understood that in our world of technology, artists, especially musicians, are purveyors of the things unseen. His technology was a means to bring the fullness of those realities – the subtle eloquence of sound – to listeners. Many an engineer, recording and mixing on a Rupert Neve designed console, has sensed the “magic” in his designs.

Rupert Neve and the others mentioned did not just seek to design products that were commercially successful. Rather they hoped to elevate our respect for the extraordinary gift of perception that allows us to fully experience the beauty and power of music. To understand how our perceptual systems can take the most microscopic bits of auditory information and build on them to create an experience that at best is transcendent, moving our minds and bodies in ways that surpass data, logic and reason. When fully realized, this experience brings us into harmony with each other, our environment and for those who choose to believe, our Creator, the author of beauty.

That extraordinary listening experience is something that most of us who share the sheer love of sound and music are familiar with. It informs us that in all the chaos of unwanted noise and distortion, deep inside there is the stuff we want – the stuff that isn’t dryly and clinically perfect – the stuff that is living and full which makes the experience organically realistic and emotionally satisfying. It is the stuff that creates context, harmony and pure pleasure even though at first it may be recognized only subliminally. And yes, some of it lives beyond 20-20 kHz and under the so-called “noise floor.”

An expanded concept of human auditory perception will eventually be sorted out and fully validated. Rupert Neve spent a lifetime doing the hard work of understanding these experiences. He knew that we have not yet perfected the means of measuring every parameter that contributes to sound quality. He realized “there is abundant evidence which suggests there is a great deal we don’t yet understand.” Nonetheless, he was determined to be fulfill his creative mission:

“Capturing recording and reproducing sound is not merely a matter of devouring equipment specifications. We have to know and understand the technology we are harnessing and be skillful in its use. But far more important is the vision for what we want to do and the perspective we bring to the feast, which frees the creator in us to produce a sound of beauty which is a joy forever.”

He never stopped listening. He never stopped learning. He never rested on past laurels. He never failed to listen to and respect the opinions of the musicians, producers and engineers that he served. Countless creators, engineers and consumers have reaped the benefits of his lifelong quest. Rupert Neve’s 1998 philosophical comment about equipment design bears repeating:

“One must do the best one can. Philosophically, people need to keep in mind why they do what they do. We are all creative people… As a designer I simply do the best that I can, the best my Creator enabled me to do, and then hand it on to you guys and say ‘now it is up to you to do something really positive with this beautiful piece of equipment.’”

Quotations from Rupert Neve and other leading equipment designers which illuminate their design philosophies and the expanded concepts of human auditory perception.

Part V
In Their Own Words
Quotations from Rupert Neve and other leading equipment designers which illuminate their design philosophies and the expanded concepts of human auditory perception.

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