We’re way past the point where we’re all thrilled with digital recording because “hey, no more tape hiss!” and “perfect backups — cool!” In this early part of the 21st century, the days when 44.1kHz/16-bit CDs were marketed as “perfect sound forever” seem hopelessly quaint.
But in the process of evolving, a lot of people are listening to digital audio with a more critical ear. How seriously does jitter affect sound quality? Are higher sample rates worth the extra effort, and if so, which sample rate is optimum? Is Direct Stream Digital a better option than standard PCM? Are digital audio engines really not up to the task of handling complex summing operations? Does mixing “in the box” have an inherent limitation compared to mixing through a console — and if so, is it because the console is just a processor that people happen to find pleasing?
This kind of examination is all well and good, but as you work to take your audio to the next level, beware the snake oil: There’s a shocking lack of scientific method in a lot of discussions. It’s not just about blind testing, but about whether the testing methods themselves are correct. To further complicate matters, there are very likely aspects of digital audio that have not been adequately quantified, let alone measured. If a musician says something “doesn’t quite sound right,” that sentiment shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed just because it doesn’t have scientific backing.
What’s more, what we know about any given aspect of digital audio is evolving as well. For example, suppose someone states that material recorded at an 88.2kHz sampling rate sounds better compared to the identical piece recorded at 44.1kHz. Is it because of the higher sample rate per se, or is it because metering is more accurate at the higher sample rate, and distortion crept into the 44.1kHz recording that went undetected?
These are exciting times, but they’re also confusing. So how does one cope? Simple: Don’t believe everything you hear, and keep an open mind. But more importantly, never lose sight of the fact that the reason why we’re here is to make compelling music. Adopt new technology as appropriate, evaluate your system and improve it wherever possible, but remember that it’s only a means to a far more important end.