A friend of mine who is an excellent sound engineer sent me a link to a lecture by Rupert Neve the other day.  It dated back to 2001 and was quite illuminating.

For those of you who don’t know the name, Rupert Neve is possibly one of the most renowned designers of audio equipment to have ever walked the earth.  From mixing consoles to rack gear, Mr Neve has built some of the most coveted audio gear the world has seen and he is without doubt a highly intelligent man.  His two hour lecture to budding audio engineers covered many things including his life story and beginnings in audio.  All fascinating to the die-hard engineer or audio enthusiast if not the general public but the thing that got me riveted was his position on digital audio and the fear of what CD quality might be doing to our brains.

He was quoting some doctors and professors that he considered to be smarter men than him and he’s a far smarter man than me so perhaps my very simple brain might be misinterpreting what he said but from what I took away from it, we have reason to be scared.  Not just as engineers but as music listeners.

We’ve all argued the point of whether vinyl is better than CD. (at least I think anyone who was born prior to 1980 or there abouts.)   Until now, I’ve been divided myself on which is better.  For the most part I just had to agree to disagree with myself about which one would be the true victor in a gun fight and settle on the interpretation that neither is better than the other, they are just different.  They both have their good points and bad as far as the listener is concerned.  From an audio point of view, digital is very clean but vinyl always made people feel better when they listened to it.  I could never pin down exactly why.  For a while I just put it down to pulling a record out of a sleeve and popping it on a turntable having a sense of occasion that CD lacked.  It seemed a pretty lame argument.  That somehow the tactile interaction with a large plastic disk and gently placing a needle on a record was better than slipping a smaller plastic disk into a slot and pressing play.  It was as if it was the difference between going out to dinner in a suit rather than a pair of jeans made the food taste better.  An odd argument really but for some time it was the only convincing one.  After all, vinyl had plenty of issues, not the least of which was the scratchiness of it, the varying quality or wear and tear on your needle.  The jumps, the pops.  The first time you played it would be the best it ever sounded and it would deteriorate with each subsequent playing.  The quality of the stereo spectrum drops the closer you get to the centre of the record.  Then there was the fact that you couldn’t listen to the whole record through without having to turn it over, breaking your concentration or relaxation for that short period and interrupting the flow of your listening experience.  You certainly wouldn’t like to have to stop a movie in the middle to turn a DVD over.  Film makers would have hated that concept as it would take the audience right out of the story and they would have to regain the audience’s attention again for the second half.  A harder task than to keep them engaged for the whole duration.  I’m sure recording artists probably felt the same way about their albums which no doubt they would have preferred were listened to as a complete act rather than a two part one with an intermission.

So CD had no hiss, no crackle, no noise artefacts other than those that existed within the original recording.  Being digital meant that they were not subject to how worn out your needle was and, outside of amplifier and speaker quality difference and listening environment, would be exactly the same across the board for the listener. Time and time again.  No matter how many times you played them.  They (supposedly) lasted longer, had higher tolerance to heat (you could leave them in your car on a sunny day and they didn’t curl up and warp like records or tapes did) and they didn’t lose sound quality the more times you played them.  All very strong arguments for them to be a standard for consumers to adopt.

But we still couldn’t quite get past the “feeling” part.  Your average listener (including me) couldn’t quite put their finger on what was wrong but there was something.  Something about vinyl that just “felt better”.  Well, thanks to Mr Neve and his interpretation of some major scientific minds I’m just starting to get my head around what that actually might be.. and I’m a little scared by it.

I’m only paraphrasing and if you want to hear it from the man himself, I suggest you watch his lecture where he tries to make a layman’s version of what these scientists were saying.  Here’s the link:

For those who need it dumbed down even further, here’s my version.

“CD is bad for your brain”.

Okay?  Too dumbed?

Alright, I’ll elaborate a little further.

It seems there’s a part of the frequency spectrum that CD can reproduce and parts it can’t.  (You all know what frequencies are right?  Seriously, I can’t dumb it down too much.  This is an audio blog.  If you don’t know what they are, you should google it for an explanation.)  For years we’ve known that CDs could only produce so much of the spectrum and were lacking in frequencies beyond that.   As sound engineers we had to live with it because it was the consumer standard.  All the while, we usually record at higher resolutions than CD and then down-sample to CD quality.

The standard quality for CD is 16 bit, 44.1khz.  (those numbers aren’t important to this discussion though.  Well they are but I don’t think we need explain them and an explanation of them would be very long and better served in another blog.  What we are concerned with here is what part of the frequency spectrum fits within that standard.)  Essentially it covers up to about 20khz and then just cuts off.  Mostly that’s enough.  20khz is actually really high.  The human ear is supposedly capable of hearing about 20hz (low frequency) to 20khz (high frequency.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what these numbers mean either really.  Just so long as you get that “supposedly” we can only hear within that range).  This is actually just an average.  There are plenty of people who can hear outside those frequencies, often when you’re younger because as time goes by your hearing gets worse.   Your average person hears in a range of about 15hz through to about 18khz.  They might perceive up to 20khz but the tone is so high that they more or less can barely tell it’s there.  Even less likely if they’ve been going to rock concerts all their life or working with power tools/heavy machinery/etc.  Anyway, that would make you think that having a medium that you listen to that was missing anything recorded above that 20khz mark would be fine.  You can’t hear it so what does it matter?  For the most part, or so we thought, it didn’t.  Certainly the manufacturers of CD, Phillips and Sony, probably thought it was fine and, if you stuck it up against tape or record, it had so many other pluses that it was worth not worrying about that particular issue.

So what’s the problem you ask?  Well, the issue as Mr Neve pointed out is not that those frequencies are missing as such (though that wasn’t good) but more that they are replaced.  There is in fact still sound being produced in the frequencies above 20khz when you play a CD and they are not very musical.  There is digital information in the form of noise and switching that is being played up there in the high frequencies that you supposedly can’t hear.  Neve calls it “nastiness”.  In his words:  “Not only do you deprive people of those sweet, beautiful high frequencies beyond the spectrum of human hearing but you’re substituting them with junk.  Noise, switching, hiss, mess.”   The inventors, it would appear, knew that stuff would be there.  In fact they engineered it in such a way that it would be shifted into a section of the audio spectrum that was beyond our audio perception.  Seems a clever thing to do and it has produced a product that we’ve been able to adopt en masse as a relatively portable, convenient, inexpensive and hardy replacement for our record collection.

So what’s the big deal about a little noise in a frequency that we can’t hear anyway?

Well, the problem is that we can hear it or, at least, we can perceive it.  It has an effect that we don’t even realise is taking place.  Scientists have been able to measure it with brain scans.  It’s there.  It’s very real and, according to them, it’s dangerous.  (Though even Neve says that is rather “subjective territory”.)

It seems that these noises affect particular regions of the brain.  They cause radiation spikes which can, and have, been measured.  One test that Neve undertook himself played a bunch of sounds from different sources and measured his brain as he listened.  I won’t go into the details as they’re a bit over my head.  (I couldn’t even pronounce the scientist’s name let alone pretend to completely understand what he was talking about!)  Anyway, the bottom line was that when you deprive the brain of frequencies above the 20khz range, it affects the points of the brain associated with frustration, lack of understanding, anger and such.  These points were stimulated and this stimulation could be measured.  More so, when you fed this digital noise in that same spectrum, it further stimulated them.

I could be wrong but that sounds like a really bad idea.

And it seems it’s been happening to us since the first CD player got plugged into our stereo.

I’m just hypothesizing here, and forgive my conspiratorial nature, but what if we could draw the conclusion that CDs have been turning us more and more angry?   What if the rise in road rage, schoolyard shootings and other acts of violence weren’t brought about by the content that is constantly blamed such as heavy metal music or violent television and video games but instead by the delivery system that such content is actually carried in?

We’re very quick to blame the art.  Some crazy kid shoots a bunch of people and it must be the game he’s playing or the music he’s listening to that has warped his brain… what if it was these very frequencies that are turning susceptible people into violent time bombs instead?  What if, as Neve seems to suggest, that this “digital nastiness” is making us angry without us even realising it or knowing why we felt that way?

I’m no scientist nor am I a statistician.  I’m not sure if I’m even a clever enough sound engineer to put such a theory to test but it certainly sends a chill down my spine that, without even knowing it, I may well have been taking  someone’s art and adding a peppering of crazy to it every time I burn off a CD of their mix down.  That’s then gone off to the world to listen to and get some sort of strange, brain-altering message from.

That, friends, is a scary prospect.

Could this open the doors to a class action law suit against Sony or Phillips for mass murder?

Food for thought me thinks.

Scary food!

For the sake of science and civilization, I suggest you carefully pay attention to how you feel when you listen to your CD’s.  Are they causing feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration?  If they are it might be time to toss them out and go and buy yourself a record player again!

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