Blinded by Science? A letter from someone who might be too hung up on the importance of the number

Robert Katz Leave a Comment

Hi!

You’re web site is a real gold mine of information. It can sound quite technical since I’m only starting out my little home DAW (on a powerful Pentium II). I see I have a lot to learn and everything about mixing and especially mastering is great to read. I was wondering what you thought about my plans (if you have the time to answer, even shortly). I see the new 24bits/96kHz revolution and want to wait to have everything on my PC, from A/D to sound card, to internal processing (sequencer software like Samplitude 2496 and also plugins) with this type of resolution. I have seen plugins from Waves that use 56 bits internally and dither down to 24 bits afterwards. I see that ADAT is creeping up slowly to 24bits, too. These are all the parts I want to have on my DAW. What do you think about the quality level could achieve on this setup? I know I’ll have to research a lot for each piece of equipment to be of very good quality but I have the time (about 2 or 3 years before final completion of what I want) although not that much money (in the thousands but not tens of thousands…). Any advicewould be appreciated. Thanks for your time and wonderful articles!

Hello. Thanks for your fine comments.

You know, it may seem funny coming from me, but my best advice here is don’t get too hung up on the numbers… The engineers who are most successful at using the toys you’re describing….have put in many years of dues recording and mixing music the old fashioned way. It’s up to your ears and talent; weighs as much as the technical knowledge around here.

Yes, by all means follow as much of my continuing technical advice as possible. That advice is designed to keep you out of trouble, but it’s not a magic road to great sounding music. All those soundcards, and all that resolution and all those tracks don’t amount to a hill of beans unless you know how to put the tracks together to make a whole piece of coherent, beautiful-sounding music.

In my opinion, the quality level someone can ultimately achieve by these numeric advancements will be more limited by talent and ears than by the equipment. “24” is not some magic number that makes everything automatically better.

Now for a few technical comments: on the question of “24” it’s also how the equipment works inside on its way to and from “24” that will determine the quality of the sound. High internal precision is important, much greater than 24.

But let me clue you into a little secret. On the conversion end (A/D and D/A side), most so-called 24-bit converters contain 4-6 bits or more of marketing hype. Mikes, preamps, converters, gain stages, and room noise contain enough energy to self-dither all but the most pristine sources to less than 20 bits! “20” bits done right on the input and output ends of the entire process is more than enough, as long as the processing in-between works with longer words.

24-bit signal to noise ratio on the input or output end, or just about anything greater than 19 bits, is equivalent to trying to detect a candle that’s a mile away, and in front of the sun, to people have no idea how small a magnitude the LSB of 20 thru 24 bits is.

So, watch out for the marketing hype, use your talent, and go by the numbers as we talk about it here at Digital Domain. Sort of a “More Bits Please” article with common sense attached!

Next point, the newer equipment you propose in your letter will actually present numerous challenges and problems, new ones that I have barely touched on, from software bugs to ergonomic nightmares. “It won’t be like this when we get the computer”–or will it?

After you find the computer-based studio equipment that you think meets your dreams, expect to spend two-three more years debugging it, and replacing half of it because the manufacturer didn’t anticipate some of your situation. Your talent may find work arounds for those problems, but can you wait that long? Consider working with the best you can now… make good music now using traditional-based high-resolution tools, some of them computer based, but long established. There are plenty of examples of “totally digitally mixed” albums currently released that sound absolutely horrid because someone “drove it all by the numbers”!

Best wishes,

Bob Katz

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