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Quality of Life

As the world and his wife gets hot under the collar about affordable 16-bit sampling, we wonder if the increase in sound quality is necessary at all.

I KNOW THIS is a bit early on in the magazine to start getting technical, but let me ask you this question. What do you understand by the term "16-bit sampling"?

Chances are, you see it as the "sampling nirvana" it's been described as in these pages in the past. A system of digital sound-sampling with specs that are so inherently superior to those of eight-bit or 12-bit systems, it is considered almost perfect.

And in some respects, you'd be right. Sixteen-bit sampling is intrinsically superior to the systems most commonly used in hi-tech music-making machinery. Quite simply, the digital "words" that represent analogue sound signals have 25% better resolution than their 12-bit counterparts, and must, therefore, be capable of reproducing a more accurate signal.

But is 16-bit resolution perfect? Of course it isn't. Nothing ever is. Especially if, in the case of sampling, you put the sort of demands on it that musicians have an irrepressible habit of doing. As an example of this, you had only to listen to the vaguely damning comments being made by musicians listening to the new Casio FZ1 16-bit sampling keyboard at the recent Frankfurt Musikmesse.

Doubtless, the piano sample demonstrated had a frequency response superior to that of any sample replayed on any competing 12-bit machine, and a better dynamic range, and better noise figures, and so on.

But the timbre of the sample still didn't alter as you hit the keys with greater force, there was no sympathetic vibration from neighbouring notes as you hit each key, and there was little or no resonance from inside the instrument's case. In short, it still didn't sound anything like a piano, and the pianists weren't fooled for a minute. Cue the vaguely damning comments.

At the other end of the scale, the general public is already easily fooled by 12-bit samples of most musical instruments (or eight-bit samples of drum sounds), even when they're being replayed on a good hi-fi system. Subject them to the torture of the average TV loudspeaker, a medium-wave radio, or the nation's telephone system, and the deception becomes easier still.

So in commercial terms, the music business probably doesn't need 16-bit sampling at all. If the programmers, the engineers and the technicians want it, then the technology is there, and getting cheaper all the time.

The final question must be: do artists need 16-bit sampling? Holger Czukay, one of this issue's interviewees, would insist they do not. For Czukay is the kind of composer who believes that if you're talented enough, you can make good music "with a stone".

He's right, too. Some of contemporary music's most inspiring material has been made with limited resources. The first wave of British synthesiser acts (Human League, Depeche and so on) is a prime example. Hip hop is another, more current one.

Both genres adhered firmly to the belief that if you have a fault, you might as well make a feature of it. Thus the relentlessly metronomic rhythms of beat-boxes that were not sophisticated enough to create anything more "human" became inexplicably popular once record-buyers and nightclub-goers had got used to them. And the characteristic side-effects of early eight-bit sampling systems became precisely the qualities that made them indispensable industry tools.

We have all moved on from then, of course, but Henry Ford was wrong. History is not bunk; it is something we can all learn lessons from, if we know where to look.

And knowing where to look seems to be the clue to getting the best from sampling technology — 16-bit or otherwise. Specifications can be very misleading things, not because manufacturers print false ones (this is still a surprisingly honest industry, in spite of everything), but because many musicians simply don't know which specifications they ought to be looking at.

So next time somebody tries to thrust a technological buzzword or an impressive-looking spec-sheet down your throat, tell them you want the chance to weigh up the facts for yourself.

Because these days, as ever, higher quality of signal isn't an instant key to higher quality of music. Ask Holger Czukay.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Apr 1987

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Editorial by Dan Goldstein

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