AS: Why is the Warner Music Group deal so important for MQA?
BS: The key to getting this right is the content, because once there’s a flow of content, it has its own momentum.
People have already put a lot of energy into this, especially in the music labels, and the recording engineers. And particularly in the Japanese market, which I think is very interesting, because it’s still 80% physical, and people still pay for their music. That’s quite unusual today. There’s a great interest in high resolution, too, so it has all the combinations that make it good for MQA.
ML: And there is a pretty high respect for copyright and intellectual property in Japan: more so than in quite a lot of other countries we work with.
AS: How do you try to protect that copyright?
BS: Clearly there will be people who say, “We’ll rip it off, we’ll steal it, and we’ll make our own MQA”. And at one point maybe someone will try, but if all the music is available in MQA then we’ve done our job: we’ve bought it out with integrity to the end user and we can stream it!
AS: Is MQA the solution to a problem that the end user doesn’t know exists?
BS: We’ve seen some data that shows people know they are listening to low quality and when they listen to higher quality sound, they definitely enjoy it! Data from streaming sites shows people will stay longer with a song if its higher quality. We’ve had two generations of people who don’t know sound can be any better. The biggest problem to resolve is people think recorded music and live music are completely different in this respect. And that’s the conundrum.
It doesn’t help the dissolution of the album, but if we can say this is how the artist intended that’s a start. We’ve noticed that when we play people MQA they smile and, on our road show, listening tests often devolve into people just listening and enjoying music.
AS: You rejected the idea of subjecting MQA to A-B testing. Why?
ML: There is one major flaw to A-B tests, and that is the whole setting (which is unavoidable). It makes it a ‘seek and ye shall find’ situation, and that means your listening mode is ‘pushed’ into trying to be analytical, but very few have the linguistic craftsmanship to define music analytically.
Bob and I started working together on this about 18 months ago. It was the ‘origami’ part of MQA that caught my attention, but there were no tools available as a commercial studio at that time – it was all in Bob’s laptop or Bob’s head. Bob provided me with a prototype MQA decoding DAC, I prepared my masters, and sent the files to Bob. He would return three or four different versions, which I would listen to.
I didn’t have a clue what Bob had done – so I tried to describe the sound with emotional words, not engineering words. We don’t have that vocabulary. That’s how I tried to listen to the final result; not with my analytical brain, but instead relying on how it makes me feel.
And that brings me back to the A-B test. That’s why I feel A-B tests don’t work properly, because they don’t allow you to lean back and actually experience what’s happening to you while you listen.
BS: We didn’t want to do public A-B tests, because they are completely uncontrolled. You know what it’s like – you put three audiophiles in a room and you get nine opinions. In fact, we do A-B tests all the time, with people who understand the context. So, for example, whenever we were with someone who had made the recording, we’d do the A-B test on the spot.
But ultimately, we didn’t want the discussion to devolve to A-B testing, when in fact it was about bringing the sound from the studio.
AS: MQA doesn’t call on a resolution ‘numbers game’. Why not?
BS: We went into this thinking, “Actually, those numbers don’t matter!” Fundamentally, high resolution is an analogue concept. Frequency and time are differently connected, and it’s been a problem because that’s where discussion stopped. Instead, the typical argument goes “it sounds better if it’s recorded at 192kHz, but music doesn’t have 96kHz in it” – it’s true, but not the point, because the numbers don’t matter at all.