44.1kHz vs 192kHz (David and Goliath)

44.1kHz vs 192kHz (David and Goliath)

Here is a link to some very compelling scientific data concerning audio sample and bit rates. The short news flash is that frequencies above 44.1Khz typically introduce distortion passed down to audible frequencies (intermodulation) from ultrasonic inaudible frequencies (the stuff beyond your hearing range) because audio equipment usually has no way of reproducing that content (and even if it did, you cannot under any circumstances hear it). “Ultrasonic content is never a benefit, and on plenty of systems it will audibly hurt fidelity.” I especially appreciate the distinction the article makes about why 24-bit audio is helpful during recording, mixing, and mastering but not so important in the final two-track master file. There are even some audio tests you can run to determine if intermodulation is coloring your subjective perspective.

I have elected to work at 44.1k because

  • It allows me to run much bigger mixing and mastering sessions in my DAW,
  • I’m convinced by scientific evidence that there is no benefit to working at higher rates,
  • I’m exceedingly happy with the sound already,

and most importantly

  • My final results don’t suffer from the artifacts that occur when down-converting from higher sample rates to reach the end target rate.

Know that I have run A/B tests of my own, and I promise you that a track fully produced at 44.1KHz sounds noticeably better than one produced at a higher sample rate and down-converted to 44.1KHz for CD or MP3 distribution even using the best possible conversion algorithm.

The exception, of course, is if the end product is not a CD or digital music file. DVDs, for example, use a native bit rate of 48KHz. If that is your primary product (as in a film score that will be more popular in the context of a movie rather than a CD), then it may be prudent to compose, produce, mix and master at 48K. But if you are going to be selling more CDs and MP3s than DVDs, it’s probably better to work at 44.1KHz then up-convert to 48KHz for use on the DVD. It’s a judgment call. I suggest to you that people do more critical listening to music when they hear an album than when they watch a movie. In summation, if your primary goal is CDs, MP3s and other digital music files, 44.1 is your bet bet to start with.

I think CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) digital has gotten a bad wrap because, up until recently, the audio plugins and processors in digital audio workstations (DAWs) haven’t been able to deliver the kind of tone and EQ curves reminiscent of the analog wonder years. That reality has changed dramatically in recent times, thanks in large part to plugins that faithfully emulate the most beloved hardware inventions of that era, and many legendary engineers are now admitting as much. That in turn trains us (engineers working in the digital domain) to be far more aware of what “sounds like analog”. Our mixes, consequently, are getting much better. Alright, I’m digressing, so here is the link:

http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

I know the jury is still out for a lot of people, and some of you may strongly disagree with the author’s convictions, but I find that mixing and mastering has far more to do with the skill and creativity of the engineer than with sample and bit rates, period. I’ve read many reports in Mix and other leading magazines over the last decade featuring blind listening tests from the industry’s top professionals who, time and time again, can’t tell the difference between anything above 44,100 hertz. Eventually, I stopped buying the articles, because the debate always ended the same way. Basically, it’s the same article every year. Statistics prove opinions are completely random and subjective while passionate feelings and doubts rage on. Ultimately, I committed to 24/44.1 when I went digital for all the reasons stated herein and decided not to join any of the higher-frequency audiophile religions. A couple years ago, I also became aware that the damage caused by converting from a higher sample rate to 44.1k is worse than any perceived benefit gained in the first place. If you’re getting fed up with all this sacrilegious testimony and would like some substance, read this too.

Ultimately, we are splitting hairs here. Like I said, microphone placement, input chains, recording, mixing and mastering all play a substantially more important role than sample rates at or above 44,100 hertz. If it’s working for you, more power to you. In the end, if people are impressed by the quality of what you deliver, that’s all that matters. Me? I’m just glad I can run twice to four times the number of plugins in my DAW and still sleep well at night.

UPDATE: Still don’t believe me? Here’s the proof you are looking for (video link).

Very Sincerely,
Jer Bear