Way back in May this year, the blossoming MQA format took a step closer to mainstream acceptance as Warner Music Group and MQA entered a long-term licensing agreement. As the ink on this deal was still drying, we spoke to Bob Stuart (developer of MQA and Meridian Audio co‑founder, pictured above left) and Morten Lindberg (producer and founder of 2L records, pictured above right) on the format, and its significance for music lovers, in addition to its effect on the audio and music industries.
AS: How well has MQA been received within the audio engineering community?
BS: We’ve had some detractors, but frankly where we sit, we’ve been actually rather pleased how few. We’ve come in with an inconvenient truth – digital audio hasn’t been done right – so we thought the community might attack us. And one person put up a long blog about MQA that was just inaccurate, but blocked all our replies. As we say in England, “That’s not cricket!”
On the hardware side though, we were astonished at how many people said, “Well, we knew there was a problem. It’s great that somebody has fixed it. Let’s get on with it!” Chip companies and hardware makers are really overwhelmingly interested in implementing MQA: more than we can cope with, in fact.
On the music side too, it’s been straightforward.
AS: Straightforward how?
BS: It’s been really exciting in the studios. 2L is a bit special in the recording world. Morten plans the project, funds the project, does the recording, mixing, and mastering, the issuing, and the marketing. That’s why he was so fast in deciding to adopt MQA; he only had to meet with himself!
ML: You make it sound like I’m a very lonely person (laughs)! We’re a small company – we’re only three people employed full time – but somehow I’m involved in all the stages. That makes us more mobile and agile, but also more fragile!
BS: Compare this with some of the bigger labels. The guy operating Pro Tools might not know the person who made the recording at all. It’s a much more fragmented process.
It doesn’t mean they don’t do a good job, but they have to mix music for MP3. They have to make a track less dynamic, make a recording that doesn’t stress out the whole CODEC. You have to think “oh dear… that’s dumbed down!” We hope to change this, because this isn’t a CODEC; it’s a movement, a philosophy.
AS: How does MQA relate to more traditional mastering?
ML: What MQA does is not like what you typically do in mastering, where you work with EQ and reverb and all that ‘big stuff’. Instead, you are dealing with the small stuff, but the emotional impact of those factors is huge, even though the differences are small. It’s the same thing that when we drill down to the microsecond level in terms of shifting things back and forth; it’s not a frontal-lobe analysis going on! You are on the instinctive level of perception.
I’ve had some difficult discussions about this with other engineers, who can only think in terms of EQ and frequency response. We only pick the one component – the frequency domain – as if music is like a camera flash. No one talks about music in terms of time, perhaps because it’s quite difficult to understand. So, rather than deal with time, we stay away from it and we talk about reproducing higher sampling frequencies.
AS: How did we get in this musical bad place?
BS: Nobody asked for worse sound! Think about vinyl records; they were probably one of the pinnacles of the music industry, but they only had to make one thing, and people could decide how to play it back at their leisure. Whereas now they are making these pre-dumbed down recordings of their own choosing, and it doesn’t make any sense. The executives understand all this, but it all ended up here by mistake because of piracy. Read How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt on this; it’s absolutely fascinating, because it’s the story of how MP3 powered piracy and dismantled the whole music business.
AS: That sounds as if there’s a lot of inertia in the recording industry
ML: We’ve been quite stubborn in the music business. Actually, the whole business reached a point where we started to produce for available quality of delivery. We have a long history of making the wrong choices (such as aesthetic decisions on loudness) and we actually started to reach a level where music was produced from the ground up for the MP3 level of distribution, rather than coming from above.
There are also regional differences, the US being most driven by its commercial mechanisms. The top producers will always keep their quality high, but in the mass-production market in the US there is such a short timespan between expenses and income, and with mechanisms that have been in place for at least the last five years, that is very directly affecting how much time and how many resources are spent on the average release.
We are at a very critical point in the music business and that’s why in my opinion the whole MQA cycle coming along now is so important. It’s an opportunity for engineers and producers to raise our bar again.