What the f*** are DFA faders?

I’ve been meaning to write this blog entry for a while, and I’ve finally gotten around to it. At the 142nd AES Convention, there were two papers that really stood out which weren’t discussed in our convention preview or convention wrap-up. One was about Acoustic Energy Harvesting, which we discussed a few weeks ago, and the other was titled ‘The DFA Fader: Exploring the Power of Suggestion in Loudness The DFA Fader: Exploring the Power of Suggestion in Loudness Judgments.’ When I mentioned this paper to others, their response was always the same, “What’s a DFA Fader?” . Well, the answer is hinted at in the title of this blog entry.

The basic idea is that musicians often give instructions to the sound engineer that he or she can’t or doesn’t want to follow. For instance, a vocalist might say “Turn me up” in a soundcheck, but the sound engineer knows that the vocals are at a nice level already and any more amplification might cause feedback. Sometimes, this sort of thing can be communicated back to the musician in a nice way. But there’s also the fallback option; a fader on the mixing console that “Does F*** All”, aka DFA. The engineer can slide the fader or twiddle an unconnected dial, smile back and say ‘Ok, does this sound a bit better?’.

A couple of companies have had fun with this idea. Funk Logic’s Palindrometer, shown below, is nothing more than a filler for empty rack space. Its an interface that looks like it might do something, but at best, it just flashes some LEDs when one toggles switches and turns the knobs.


RANE have the PI 14 Pseudoacoustic Infector . Its worth checking out the full description, complete with product review and data sheets. I especially like the schematic, copied below.


And in 2014, our own Brecht De Man  released The Wire, a freely available VST and AudioUnit plug-in that emulates a gold-plated, balanced, 100% lossless audio connector.


Anyway, the authors of this paper had the bright idea of doing legitimate subjective evaluation of DFA faders. They didn’t make jokes in the paper, not even to explain the DFA acronym. They took 22 participants and divided them into an 11 person control group and an 11 person test group. In the control group, each subject participated in twenty trials where two identical musical excerpts were presented and the subject had to rate the difference in loudness of vocals between the two excerpts. Only ten excerpts were used, so each pair was used in two trials. In the test group, a sound engineer was present and he made scripted suggestions that he was adjusting the levels in each trial. He could be seen, but participants couldn’t see his hands moving on the console.

Not surprisingly, most trials showed a statistically significant difference between test and control groups, confirming the effectiveness of verbal suggestions associated with the DFA fader. And the authors picked up on an interesting point; results were far more significant for stimuli where vocals were masked by other instruments. This links the work to psychoacoustic studies. Not only is our perception of loudness/timbre influenced by the presence of a masker, but we have a more difficult time judging loudness and hence are more likely to accept the suggestion from an expert.

The authors did an excellent job of critiquing their results. But unfortunately, the full data was not made available with the paper. So we are left with a lot of questions. What were these scripted suggestions? It could make a big difference if the engineer said “I’m going to turn the vocals way up” versus “Let me try something. Does it sound any different now?” And were some participants immune to the suggestions? And because participants couldn’t see a fader being adjusted (interviews with sound engineers had stressed the importance of verbal suggestions), we don’t know how that could influence results.

There is something else that’s very interesting about this. It’s a ‘false experiment’. The whole listening test is a trick since for all participants and in all trials, there was never any loudness differences between the two presented stimuli. So indirectly, it looks at an ‘auditory placebo effect’ that is more fundamental than DFA faders. What were the ratings for loudness differences that participants gave? For the control group especially, did they judge these differences to be small because they trusted their ears, or large because they knew that loudness judging is the nature of the test? Perhaps there is a natural uncertainty in loudness perception regardless of bias. How much weaker does a listener’s judgment become when repeatedly asked to make very subtle choices in a listening test? There’s been some prior work tackling some of these questions, but I think this DFA Faders paper opened up a lot of avenues of interesting research.

Female pioneers in audio engineering

The Heyser lecture is a distinguished talk given at each AES Convention by eminent individuals in audio engineering and related fields. At the 140th AES Convention, Rozenn Nicol was the Heyser lecturer. This was well-deserved, and she has made major contributions to the field of immersive audio. But what was shocking about this is that she is the first woman Heyser lecturer. Its an indicator that woman are under-represented and under-recognised in the field. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight some women who have made major contributions to the field, especially in research and innovation.

  • Birgitta Berglund led major research into the impact of noise on communities. Her influential research resulted in guidelines from the World Health Organisation, and greatly advanced our understanding of noise and its effects on society. She was the 2009 IOA Rayleigh medal recipient.
  • Marina Bosi is a past AES president of the AES. She has been instrumental in the development of standards for audio coding and digital content management standards and formats, including develop the AC-2, AC-3, and MPEG-2 Advanced Audio Coding technologies,
  • Anne-Marie Bruneau has been one of the most important researchers on electrodynamic loudspeaker design, exploring motion impedance and radiation patterns, as well as establishing some of the main analysis and measurement approaches used today. She co-founded the Laboratoire d’Acoustique de l’Université du Maine, now a leading acoustics research center.
  • Ilene J. Busch-Vishniac is responsible for major advances in the theory and understanding of electret microphones, as well as patenting several new designs. She received the ASA R. Bruce Lindsay Award in 1987, and the Silver Medal in Engineering Acoustics in 2001. President of the ASA 2003-4.
  • betzcohen-headshot_med_hrElizabeth (Betsy) Cohen was the first female president of the Audio Engineering Society. She was presented with the AES Fellowship Award in 1995 for contributions to understanding the acoustics and psychoacoustics of sound in rooms. In 2001, she was presented with the AES Citation Award for pioneering the technology enabling collaborative multichannel performance over the broadband internet.
  • crumPoppy Crum is head scientist at Dolby Laboratories whose research involves computer research in music and acoustics. At Dolby, she is responsible for integrating neuroscience and knowledge of sensory perception into algorithm design, technological development, and technology strategy.
  • Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) was an innovator in electronic music who pushed the boundaries of technology and composition. She is most well-known for her electronic arrangement of the theme for Doctor Who, an important example of Musique Concrète. Each note was individually crafted by cutting, splicing, and stretching or compressing segments of analogue tape which contained recordings of a plucked string, oscillators and white noise. Here’s a video detailing a lot of the effects she used, which have now become popular tools in digital music production.
  •  Ann Dowling is the first female president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Her research focuses on noise analysis and reduction, especially from engines, and she is a leading educator in acoustics. A quick glance at google scholar shows how influential her research has been.
  • Marion Downs was an audiometrist at Colorado Medical Center in Denver, who invented the tests used to measure hearing both In newly born babies and in fetuses.
  • Judy Dubno is Director of Hearing Research at the Medical University of South Carolina. Her research focuses on human auditory function, with emphasis on the processing of auditory information and the recognition of speech, and how these abilities change in adverse listening conditions, with age, and with hearing loss. Recipient of the James Jerger Career Award for Research in Audiology from the American Academy of Audiology and Carhart Memorial Lecturer for the American Auditory Society. President of the ASA in 2014-15.
  • thumb_FiebrinkPhoto3Rebecca Fiebrink researches Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and its application of machine learning to real-time, interactive, and creative domains. She is the creator of the popular Wekinator, which allows anyone to use machine learning to build new musical instruments, real-time music information retrieval and audio analysis systems, computer listening systems and more.
  • Katherine Safford Harris pioneered EMG studies of speech production and auditory perception. Her research was fundamental to speech recognition, speech synthesis, reading machines for the blind, and the motor theory of speech perception. She was elected Fellow of the ASA, the AAAS, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and the New York Academy of Sciences. She was President of the ASA (2000-2001), awarded the Silver Medal in 2005 and Gold Medal in 2007.
  • Rhona Hellman was a Fellow of the ASA. She was a distinguished hearing scientist and preeminent expert in auditory perceptual phenomena. Her research spanned almost 50 years, beginning in 1960. She tackled almost every aspect of loudness, and the work resulted in major advances and developments of loudness standards.
  • Mara Helmuth developed software for composition and improvisation involving granular synthesis. Throughout the 1990s, she paved the way forward by exploring and implementing systems for collaborative performance over the Internet. From 2008-10 she was President of the International Computer Music Association.
  • Carleen_HutchinsCarlene Hutchins (1911-2009) was a leading researcher in the study of violin acoustics, with over a hundred publications in the field. She was founder and president of the Catgut Society, an organization devoted to the study and appreciation of stringed instruments .
  • Sophie Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician, scientist and philosopher. She won a major prize from the French Academy of Sciences for developing a theory to explain the vibration of plates due to sound. The history behind her contribution, and the reactions of leading French mathematicians to having a female of similar calibre in their midst, is fascinating. Joseph Fourier, whose work underpins much of audio signal processing, was a champion of her work.
  • Bronwyn Jones was a psychoacoustician at the CBS Technology Center during the 70s and 80s. In seminal work with co-author Emil Torrick, she developed one of the first loudness meters, incorporating both psychoacoustic principles and detailed listening tests. It paved the way for what became major initiatives for loudness measurement, and in some ways outperforms the modern ITU 1770 standard
  • Bozena Kostek is editor of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society. Her most significant contributions include the applications of neural networks, fuzzy logic and rough sets to musical acoustics, and the application of data processing and information retrieval to the psychophysiology of hearing. Her research has garnered dozens of prizes and awards.
  • Daphne Oram (1925 –2003) was a pioneer of ‘musique concrete’ and a central figure in the evolution of electronic music. She devised the Oramics technique for creating electronic sounds, co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and was possibly the first woman to direct an electronic music studio, to set up a personal electronic music studio and to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.
  • scalettiCarla Scaletti is an innovator in computer generated music. She designed the Kyma sound generation computer language in 1986 and co-founded Symbolic Sound Corporation in 1989. Kyma is one of the first graphical programming languages for real time digital audio signal processing, a precursor to MaxMSP and PureData, and is still popular today.
  • Bridget Shield was professor of acoustics at London Southbank University. Her research is most significant in our understanding of the effects of noise on children, and has influenced many government initiatives. From 2012-14, she was the first female President of the Institute of Acoustics.
  • Laurie Spiegel created one of the first computer-based music composition programs, Music Mouse: an Intelligent Instrument, which also has some early examples of algorithmic composition and intelligent automation, both of which are hot research topics today.
  • maryMary Desiree Waller (1886-1959) wrote a definitive treatise on Chladni figures, which are the shapes and patterns made by surface vibrations due to sound, see Sophie Germain, above. It gave far deeper insight into the figures than any previous work.
  • Megan (or Margaret) Watts-Hughes is the inventor of the Eidophone, an early instrument for visualising the sounds made by your voice. She rediscovered this simple method of generating Chladni figures without knowledge of Sophie Germain or Ernst Chladni’s work. There is a great description of her experiments and analysis in her own words.

The Eidophone, demonstrated by Grace Digney.

Do you know some others who should be mentioned? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks to Theresa Leonard for information on past AES presidents. She was the third female president. Will there be a fourth one soon?

Acoustic Energy Harvesting

At the recent Audio Engineering Society Convention, one of the most interesting talks was in the E-Briefs sessions. These are usually short presentations, dealing with late-breaking research results, work in progress, or engineering reports. The work, by Charalampos Papadokos presented an e-brief titled ‘Power Out of Thin Air: Harvesting of Acoustic Energy’.

Ambient energy sources are those sources all around us, like solar and kinetic energy. Energy harvesting is the capture and storage of ambient energy. It’s not a new concept at all, and dates back to the windmill and the waterwheel. Ambient power has been collected from electromagnetic radiation since the invention of crystal radios by Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a true renaissance man who made important contributions to many fields. But nowadays, people are looking for energy harvesting from many more possible sources, often for powering small devices, like wearable electronics and wireless sensor networks. The big advantages, of course, is that energy harvesters do not consume resources like oil or coal, and energy harvesting might enable some devices to operate almost indefinitely.

But two of the main challenges is that many ambient energy sources are very low power, and the harvesting may be difficult.

Typical power densities from energy harvesting can vary over orders of magnitude. Here’s the energy densities for various ambient sources, taken from the Open Access book chapter ‘Electrostatic Conversion for Vibration Energy Harvesting‘ by S. Boisseau, G. Despesse and B. Ahmed Seddik ‘.


You can see that vibration, which includes acoustic vibrations, has about 1/100th the energy density of solar power, or even less. The numbers are arguable, but at first glance it looks like it will be exceedingly difficult to get any significant energy from acoustic sources unless one can harvest over a very large area.

That’s where this e-brief paper comes in. Papadokos and his co-author, John Mourjopoulos, have a patented approach to harvesting the acoustic energy inside a loudspeaker enclosure. Others had considered harvesting the sound energy from loudspeakers before (see the work of Matsuda, for instance), but mainly just as a way of testing their harvesting approach, and not really exploiting the properties of loudspeakers. Papadokos and Mourjopoulos had the insight to realise that many loudspeakers are enclosed and the enclosure has abundant acoustic energy that might be harvested without interfering with the external design and without interfering with the sound presented to the listener. In earlier work, Papadokos and Mourjopoulos found that sound pressure within the enclosure often exceeds 130 dBs within a loudspeaker enclosure. Here, they simulated the effect of a piezoelectric plate in the enclosure, to convert the acoustic energy to electrical energy. Results showed that it might be possible to generate 2.6 volts under regular operating conditions, thus proving the concept of harvesting acoustic energy from loudspeaker enclosures, at least in simulation.

AES Berlin 2017: Keynotes from the technical program


The 142nd AES Convention was held last month in the creative heart of Berlin. The four-day program and its more than 2000 attendees covered several workshops, tutorials, technical tours and special events, all related to the latest trends and developments in audio research. But as much as scale, it’s attention to detail that makes AES special. There’s an emphasis on the research side of audio topics as much as the side of panels of experts discussing a range of provocative and practical topics.

It can be said that 3D Audio: Recording and Reproduction, Binaural Listening and Audio for VR were the most popular topics among workshops, tutorial, papers and engineering briefs. However, a significant portion of the program was also devoted to common audio topics such as digital filter design, live audio, loudspeaker design, recording, audio encoding, microphones, and music production techniques just to name a few.

For this reason, here at the Audio Engineering research team within C4DM, we bring you what we believe were the highlights, the key talks or the most relevant topics that took place during the convention.

The future of mastering

What better way to start AES than with a mastering experts’ workshop discussing about the future of the field?  Jonathan Wyner (iZotope) introduced us to the current challenges that this discipline faces.  This related to the demographic, economic and target formatting issues that are constantly evolving and changing due to advances in the music technology industry and its consumers.

When discussing the future of mastering, the panel was reluctant to a fully automated future. But pointed out that the main challenge of assistive tools is to understand artistry intentions and genre-based decisions without the need of the expert knowledge of the mastering engineer. Concluding that research efforts should go towards the development of an intelligent assistant, able to function as an smart preset that provides master engineers a starting point.

Virtual analog modeling of dynamic range compression systems

This paper described a method to digitally model an analogue dynamic range compression. Based on the analysis of processed and unprocessed audio waveforms, a generic model of dynamic range compression is proposed and its parameters are derived from iterative optimization techniques.

Audio samples were reproduced and the quality of the audio produced by the digital model was demonstrated. However, it should be noted that the parameters of the digital compressor can not be changed, thus, this could be an interesting future work path, as well as the inclusion of other audio effects such as equalizers or delay lines.

Evaluation of alternative audio mixing interfaces

In the paperFormal Usability Evaluation of Audio Track Widget Graphical Representation for Two-Dimensional Stage Audio Mixing Interface‘  an evaluation of different graphical track visualization styles is proposed. Multitrack visualizations included text only, different colour conventions for circles containing text or icons related to the type of instruments, circles with opacity assigned to audio features and also a traditional channel strip mixing interface.

Efficiency was tested and it was concluded that subjects preferred instrument icons as well as the traditional mixing interface. In this way, taking into account several works and proposals on alternative mixing interfaces (2D and 3D), there is still a lot of scope to explore on how to build an intuitive, efficient and simple interface capable of replacing the good known channel strip.

Perceptually motivated filter design with application to loudspeaker-room equalization

This tutorial, was based on the engineering briefQuantization Noise of Warped and Parallel Filters Using Floating Point Arithmetic’  where warped parallel filters are proposed, which aim to have the frequency resolution of the human ear.

Thus, via Matlab, we explored various approaches for achieving this goal, including warped FIR and IIR, Kautz, and fixed-pole parallel filters. Providing in this way a very useful tool that can be used for various applications such as room EQ, physical modelling synthesis and perhaps to improve existing intelligent music production systems.

Source Separation in Action: Demixing the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl

Abbey Road’s James Clarke presented a great poster with the actual algorithm that was used for the remixed, remastered and expanded version of The Beatles’ album Live at the Hollywood Bowl. The method achieved to isolate the crowd noise, allowing to separate into clean tracks everything that Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison played live in 1964.

The results speak for themselves (audio comparison). Thus, based on a Non-negative Matrix Factorization (NMF) algorithm, this work provides a great research tool for source separation and reverse-engineer of mixes.

Other keynotes worth to mention:

Close Miking Empirical Practice Verification: A Source Separation Approach

Analysis of the Subgrouping Practices of Professional Mix Engineers

New Developments in Listening Test Design

Data-Driven Granular Synthesis

A Study on Audio Signal Processed by “Instant Mastering” Services

The rest of the paper proceedings are available in the AES E-library.

The AES Semantic Audio Conference

Last week saw the 2017 International Conference on Semantic Audio by the Audio Engineering Society. Held at Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen, Germany, delegates enjoyed a well-organised and high-quality programme, interleaved with social and networking events such as a jazz concert and a visit to Erlangen’s famous beer cellars. The conference was a combined effort of Fraunhofer IIS, Friedrich-Alexander Universität, and their joint venture Audio Labs.

As the topic is of great relevance to our team, Brecht De Man and Adán Benito attended and presented their work there. With 5 papers and a late-breaking demo, the Centre for Digital Music in general was the most strongly represented institution, surpassing even the hosting organisations.


Benito’s intelligent multitrack reverberation architecture

Adán Benito presented “Intelligent Multitrack Reverberation Based on Hinge-Loss Markov Random Fields“,  machine learning approach to automatic application of a reverb effect to musical audio.

Brecht De Man demoed the “Mix Evaluation Browser“, an online interface to access a dataset comprising several mixes of a number of songs, complete with corresponding DAW files, raw tracks, preference ratings, and annotated comments from subjective listening tests.


The Mix Evaluation Browser: an interface to visualise De Man’s dataset of raw tracks, mixes, and subjective evaluation results.

Still from the Centre for Digital Music, Delia Fano Yela delivered a beautifully hand-drawn and compelling presentation about source separation in general and how temporal context can be employed to considerably improve vocal extraction.

Rodrigo Schramm and Emmanouil Benetos won the Best Paper award for their paper “Automatic Transcription of a Cappella recordings from Multiple Singers”.

Emmanouil further presented another paper, “Polyphonic Note and Instrument Tracking Using Linear Dynamical Systems”, and coauthored “Assessing the Relevance of Onset Information for Note Tracking in Piano Music Transcription”.


Several other delegates were frequent collaborators or previously affiliated with Queen Mary. The opening keynote was delivered by Mark Plumbley, former director of the Centre for Digital Music, who gave an overview of the field of machine listening, specifically audio event detection and scene recognition. Nick Jillings, formerly research assistant and master project student at the Audio Engineering group, and currently a PhD student at Birmingham City University cosupervised by Josh Reiss, head of our Audio Engineering group, presented his paper “Investigating Music Production Using a Semantically Powered Digital Audio Workstation in the Browser” and demoed “Automatic channel routing using musical instrument linked data”.

Other keynotes were delivered by Udo Zölzer, best known from editing the collection “DAFX: Digital Audio Effects”, and Masataka Goto, a household name in the MIR community who discussed his own web-based implementations of music discovery and visualisation.

Paper proceedings are already available in the AES E-library, free for AES members.

Cool stuff at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in Berlin

aesberlin17_IDS_headerThe next Audio Engineering Society convention is just around the corner, May 20-23 in Berlin. This is an event where we always have a big presence. After all, this blog is brought to you by the Audio Engineering research team within the Centre for Digital Music, so its a natural fit for a lot of what we do.

These conventions are quite big, with thousands of attendees, but not so big that you get lost or overwhelmed. The attendees fit loosely into five categories: the companies, the professionals and practitioners, students, enthusiasts, and the researchers. That last category is where we fit.

I thought I’d give you an idea of some of the highlights of the Convention. These are some of the events that we will be involved in or just attending, but of course, there’s plenty else going on.

On Saturday May 20th, 9:30-12:30, Dave Ronan from the team here will be presenting a poster on ‘Analysis of the Subgrouping Practices of Professional Mix Engineers.’ Subgrouping is a greatly understudied, but important part of the mixing process. Dave surveyed 10 award winning mix engineers to find out how and why they do subgrouping. He then subjected the results to detailed thematic analysis to uncover best practices and insights into the topic.

2:45-4:15 pm there is a workshop on ‘Perception of Temporal Response and Resolution in Time Domain.’ Last year we published an article in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society  on ‘A meta-analysis of high resolution audio perceptual evaluation.’ There’s a blog entry about it too. The research showed very strong evidence that people can hear a difference between high resolution audio and standard, CD quality audio. But this brings up the question of why? Many people have suggested that the fine temporal resolution of oversampled audio might be perceived. I expect that this Workshop will shed some light on this as yet unresolved question.

Overlapping that workshop, there are some interesting posters from 3 to 6 pm. ‘Mathematical Model of the Acoustic Signal Generated by the Combustion Engine‘ is about synthesis of engine sounds, specifically for electric motorbikes. We are doing a lot of sound synthesis research here, and so are always on the lookout for new approaches and new models. ‘A Study on Audio Signal Processed by “Instant Mastering” Services‘ investigates the effects applied to ten songs by various online, automatic mastering platforms. One of those platforms, LandR, was a high tech spin-out from our research a few years ago, so we’ll be very interested in what they found.

For those willing to get up bright and early Sunday morning, there’s a 9 am panel on ‘Audio Education—What Does the Future Hold,’ where I will be one of the panellists. It should have some pretty lively discussion.

Then there’s some interesting posters from 9:30 to 12:30. We’ve done a lot of work on new interfaces for audio mixing, so will be quite interested in ‘The Mixing Glove and Leap Motion Controller: Exploratory Research and Development of Gesture Controllers for Audio Mixing.’ And returning to the subject of high resolution audio, there is ‘Discussion on Subjective Characteristics of High Resolution Audio,’ by Mitsunori Mizumachi. Mitsunori was kind enough to give me details about his data and experiments in hi-res audio, which I then used in the meta-analysis paper. He’ll also be looking at what factors affect high resolution audio perception.

From 10:45 to 12:15, our own Brecht De Man will be chairing and speaking in a Workshop on ‘New Developments in Listening Test Design.’ He’s quite a leader in this field, and has developed some great software that makes the set up, running and analysis of listening tests much simpler and still rigorous.

From 1 to 2 pm, there is the meeting of the Technical Committee on High Resolution Audio, of which I am co-chair along with Vicki Melchior. The Technical Committee aims for comprehensive understanding of high resolution audio technology in all its aspects. The meeting is open to all, so for those at the Convention, feel free to stop by.

Sunday evening at 6:30 is the Heyser lecture. This is quite prestigious, a big talk by one of the eminent people in the field. This one is given by Jorg Sennheiser of, well, Sennheiser Electronic.

Monday morning 10:45-12:15, there’s a tutorial on ‘Developing Novel Audio Algorithms and Plugins – Moving Quickly from Ideas to Real-time Prototypes,’ given by Mathworks, the company behind Matlab. They have a great new toolbox for audio plugin development, which should make life a bit simpler for all those students and researchers who know Matlab well and want to demo their work in an audio workstation.

Again in the mixing interface department, we look forward to hearing about ‘Formal Usability Evaluation of Audio Track Widget Graphical Representation for Two-Dimensional Stage Audio Mixing Interface‘ on Tuesday, 11-11:30. The authors gave us a taste of this work at the Workshop on Intelligent Music Production which our group hosted last September.

In the same session – which is all about ‘Recording and Live Sound‘ so very close to home – a new approach to acoustic feedback suppression is discussed in ‘Using a Speech Codec to Suppress Howling in Public Address Systems‘, 12-12:30. With several past projects on gain optimization for live sound, we are curious to hear (or not hear) the results!

The full program can be explored on the AES Convention planner or the Convention website. Come say hi to us if you’re there!



High resolution audio- finally, rigorously put to the test. And the verdict is…

Yes, you can hear a difference! (but it is really hard to measure)

See http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=18296 for the June 2016 Open Access article in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society  on “A meta-analysis of high resolution audio perceptual evaluation”

For years, I’ve been hearing people in the audio engineering community arguing over whether or not it makes any difference to record, mix and playback better than CD quality (44.1 kHz, 16 bit) or better than production quality (48 kHz, 16 bit) audio. Some people swear they can hear a difference, others have stories about someone they met who could always pick out the differences, others say they’re all just fooling themselves. A few people could mention a study or two that supported their side, but the arguments didn’t seem to ever get resolved.

Then, a bit more than a year ago I was at a dinner party where a guy sitting across from me was about to complete his PhD in meta-analysis. Meta-analysis? I’d never heard of it. But the concept, analysing and synthesising the results of many studies to get a more definitive answer and gain more insights and knowledge, really intrigued me. So it was about time that someone tried this on the question of perception of hi-res audio.

Unfortunately, no one I asked was willing to get involved. A couple of experts thought there couldn’t be enough data out there to do the meta-analysis. A couple more thought that the type of studies (not your typical clinical trial with experimental and control groups) couldn’t be analysed using the established statistical approaches in meta-analysis. So, I had to do it myself. This also meant I had to be extra careful, and seek out as much advice as possible, since no one was looking over my shoulder to tell me when I was wrong or stupid.

The process was fascinating. The more I looked, the more I uncovered studies of high resolution audio perception. And my main approach for finding them (start with a few main papers, then look at everyone they cited and everyone who cited them, and repeat with any further interesting papers found), was not mentioned in the guidance to meta-analysis that I read. Then getting the data was interesting. Some researchers had it all prepared in handy, well-labelled spreadsheets, one other found it in an old filing cabinet, one had never kept it at all! And for some data, I had to write little programs to reverse engineer the raw data from T values for trials with finite outcomes.

Formal meta-analysis techniques could be applied, and I gained a strong appreciation for both the maths behind them, and the general guidance that helps ensure rigour and helps avoid bias in the meta-study, But the results, in a few places, disagreed with what is typical. The potential biases in the studies seemed to occur more often with those that did not reject the null hypothesis, i.e., those that found no evidence for discriminating between high resolution and CD quality audio. Evidence of publication bias seemed to mostly go away if one put the studies into subgroups. And use of binomial probabilities allowed the statistical approaches in meta-analysis to be applied to studies where there was not a control group (‘no effect’ can be determined just from binomial probabilities).

The end result was that people could, sometimes, perceive the difference between hi-res and CD audio. But they needed to be trained and the test needed to be carefully designed. And it was nice to see that the experiments and analysis were generally a little better today than in the past, so research is advancing. Still, most tests had some biases towards false negatives. So perhaps, careful experiments, incorporating all the best approaches, may show this perception even more strongly.

Meta-analysis is truly fascinating, and audio engineering, psychoacoustics, music technology and related fields need more of it.