The job of birthing a new digital music file format is tricky business.
You'd think the hard part would be the whole "designing a better mousetrap" aspect. Most people are perfectly fine with the MP3 as the vehicle for their music.
As I mentioned last week, I watched the evolution of digital music happen as I grew up. I remember VQF, which tried early in the 90s to become the dominant music file type. It of course failed miserably, evidenced by the fact that no one I mention it to remembers a thing about it.
Which brings me back to MQA, the new file-compression method that gives you high-quality audio but takes little bandwidth to stream.
Like I said, the hard part astonishingly wasn't the groundbreaking new research and patents involved in its development.
The hard part is convincing music publishing houses that this is enough of an advancement to reissue massive libraries in the new format. The hard part is convincing listeners to pay a little more for the extra quality. The hard part is convincing equipment makers that the format will stick around long enough that it is worth the capital investment required to outfit their devices with its decoder.
Thankfully, the actual sound of the file format is enough to get reviewers gushing about it to their readers. It's picking up fans left and right who have witnessed demonstrations of the technology.
Like it or not, publishing houses and equipment makers are seeing the demand rise and feeling the need to take action.
Essentially, what MQA does is two things. First, it's a controlled system of recording and playback that attacks a kind of Achilles' heel of digital music. Toward the end of the process of converting digital music to analog (which an amplifier can then amplify) is a step that involves computer-based "filters." These filters remove a lot of noise and nonsense generated in the conversion process, but over time we've come to understand that each type of filter has a certain sound to it. Most introduce new noise. There's a wide range of quality filters out there, and many end up being quite detrimental to the eventual sound.
A filter like that is also applied when you're recording music, because you're turning an analog signal (from the microphone) into digital in a similar way.
So what MQA does is simply match the filters together. Doing this allows them to select the highest quality filters and guarantee against mismatch on the back end.
The second thing MQA does is quite novel and interesting. It takes the recorded information from a super high-resolution file (which includes sounds well beyond human hearing) and "folds" that information into a CD-quality-sized file, placing the data below the noise floor. This adds a little noise to the digital file, but it's kept in volumes that are way below what you can hear.
The end result is that if you've got an MQA-capable device, the file will "unfold," and the higher frequency information is presented like normal, but it's transmitted in a much, much smaller package.
And that's the feature that may push this sea change forward. Keep an eye out for MQA streaming on Tidal very soon.
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