Ableton co-founder and general visionary Robert Henke (also known as Monolake) gave a full-length workshop in New Zealand recently. If you’re up for 90 minutes of discussion of musical and sonic techniques in Live, plus a look at his unique Monodeck controller, the whole video is there. But that’s not the main reason the video is making its way around the Interwebs. It’s because there’s a bit of a bombshell right at the beginning of the footage:

He says, outright, you don’t need 64-bit sound to get “audio quality.” You don’t even need 16-bit all the time.

Okay, maybe that’s not such a radical thought in and of itself. Oh, yeah, except for one thing — the 64-bit summing engine he’s talking about happens to be the one in Ableton Live 7.

Video by Tom Cosm, via AudioLemon

Some people are already assuming this means Ableton has somehow betrayed them (well, in fairness, Robert does say the summing engine is just a marketing gimmick). And what about Cakewalk? Robert doesn’t mention them by name, but the only DAW that’s been trumpeting 64-bit mixing and signal processing is SONAR.

In fact, far from conflicting with Robert’s vision of sound, Ableton Live 7 really embodies it. And as for the Cakewalk thing — well, that’s complicated, because the term “64-bit” applies to a number of basically unrelated topics dealing with sound and computing. But none of that matters as much as one thing: if it sounds good, it is good.

Ableton’s Lo-Fi Voodoo — And Choice

Live 7 really does reflect Robert’s approach to sound and sound design. I say that not to try to make you go out and buy Live, but because I’ve been using Live nearly since it was released, and really enjoy the opportunity to get to use a tool that does have a point of view about sound.

Look at the other features in the program, like re-worked effects plug-ins. From the beginning, I think a lot of Live’s effects plug-ins have been badly misunderstood — a topic that came up recently on the CDM forums. The original reverb, the compressor, and some of the more recent additions are fantastic tools for coloring the sound of your work. Judge them as a conventional reverb or compressor, and frankly, they may turn you off. But forget your expectations there and look at them as timbral tools, and they’re great. (They also really do have a range — so once you know how to use them, you can make music that doesn’t necessarily sound like Monolake’s.)

Part of what Live 7 seems to be about is giving you a choice — if you need a great-sounding conventional compressor, for instance, and don’t want the pain of having to bring in a third-party plug-in, the new Live compressor is a valuable addition. But the old, odd compressor modes are there, too.

If you keep watching the video, Robert talks more about what he means — and it goes well beyond the issue of 64-bit summing. In synthesis, for instance, Robert demonstrates that using lower bit depth — bit depth below even 16-bit — can add harmonic content. A common, oft-repeated misunderstanding — one that’s been in the press a lot lately — is that lower bit depth contain “less” sound content. It’s just not true, ironically because distortion will add additional content to the sound. It’s a technique Robert uses regularly in Ableton’s Operator synth, and Ableton’s software does an excellent job of making these parts of the sonic palette available. But it goes well beyond Ableton; it’s part of why some musicians are embracing low-quality digital synths, chiptune music, and other technologies.

If you don’t feel like watching the whole video, by the way, one of Robert’s big tips is just to use this:

It’s the Spectrum tool in Live. (Naturally, there are equivalents in other programs and plug-ins.) What it gives you is a view of what’s happening in the sound itself, and couples something you can see with what you can already hear. That’s more valuable than anyone’s marketing.

What 64-bit Means

As for the 64-bit argument, we have to take at least a moment to examine what it is we’re talking about.

I’m equally dubious about just how essential having 64-bit dynamic headroom is. I’m not sure how valuable that particular feature is in Live 7; I’ll leave that to an engineer to decide. When SONAR came out with 64-bit processing, I talked to DSP engineers at AES at companies like Apogee. None could say they were really sure how useful that extra headroom is. There are a number of other sonic changes that do make the program sound “better,” so I don’t think the version 7 upgrade is snake oil, and I at least have the perspective of watching each upgrade since 1.0. And likewise, there are plenty of features in SONAR other than 64-bit mixing, so there’s no reason to get too hung up on this issue — for most people, I think it’s not even a relevant question.

But don’t write off “64-bit” yet, either. Cakewalk pushes 64-bit a lot; it’s true. But they’re actually talking about a number of different things:

  • Other processing/synthesis: Cakewalk’s products now support a fully 64-bit signal chain. (Digidesign I’ve seen pitching its bit depth and rate, too, but while they’ve broken the 16-bit barrier they’re not at 64-bit, so hence the focus on Cakewalk.) Now, maybe 64-bit isn’t useful in a summing engine — that’s debatable. But there’s also the question of what it does for certain digital processes, like signal processing and synthesis, and in that case additional headroom could have potential. Live 7 only deals with the summing engine. Just as certain image processing techniques use higher-resolution colorspaces, even if you can’t see what’s going on, it’s possible some techniques will make use of this additional information digitally to produce things you can hear. That’s a discussion for another day, though.
  • 64-bit memory addressing: More importantly, Cakewalk is also support 64-bit computing — something Ableton doesn’t do yet. On Windows, that means the ability to access larger amounts of RAM under Windows “x64” or “64-bit” Vista. Totally unrelated to sound, but very, very useful for people using larger sample libraries. (It’s a non-issue on Mac OS X, because the Mac already addresses memory beyond 3-4GB without any extra effort.) I wouldn’t ding Cakewalk’s competitors for not supporting this, because the migration has been very slow for the whole Windows platform. But it is there — and it is a completely different subject.
  • 64-bit processing: Running under 64-bit Windows also squeezes a little more performance out of a CPU. The gain isn’t huge, but it’s real. This isn’t yet available on Mac OS (that is, only parts of the OS currently support 64-bit processing), though it is available on Linux. (Even on Linux, though, people often choose to run 32-bit versions of the OS for compatibility.)

That’s a gross oversimplification of some of those issues, so feel free to discuss the finer points in comments, but you get the idea. There’s 64-bit in a summing engine, 64-bit in the rest of your signal chain, 64-bit as a way of getting access to more RAM, and 64-bit as a way of making use of 64-bit CPUs.

And then there’s 4-bit as a way of making blippy bleepy sounds.

Low Fidelity: Not Just For IDM

That said, the original point really isn’t marketing, new features in Live or any other program, computation, or audio theory.

It’s about a simple point: what sounds good, is good. And if you want to sound good, you need to listen. If you keep watching the video, that underlies everything Robert is saying, and I have to agree.

It’s easy to watch someone using downsampling or lower-bitrate / lower-bit depth / lower-fidelity sound sources and think, oh, sure, if you’re from Berlin and want to do IDM all the time, that’s great. But as Robert points out, some of the music we love best wasn’t even recorded and processed using 16-bit, let alone 192kHz, 64-bit digital audio.

This very issue came up as we were talking to Hank Shocklee. Part of the early hip-hop sound, the Public Enemy sound, was a function of the lower-fidelity sampling mechanisms on early digital samplers. And these sound nothing like Berlin IDM. (In fact, a lot of the electronica sound and its approach to the technology is deeply indebted to American hip-hop and African-American artists.)

That doesn’t mean less is more, either, necessarily — just that it can be part of your sonic palette, of the choices you make when making your music.

Digital technology is now old enough to have a history; it’s old enough to have classics. I’m all for exploring ways of pushing the envelope. Want to really test whether higher bit depth, higher sampling frequencies, and new technologies can make new sounds? Go for it. There’s no reason you can’t do that, and still remember the possibilities and history at the other end of the spectrum (pardon the pun).

If it sounds good, it is good. And that’s the problem with talking about “audio fidelity.” More is not always more. One thing is not always better than another. It really is about finding the sound you want to get. Engineers can build the expertise to help you realize that — but no amount of science can say one sound is superior to another, any more than it can say that G Dorian scale is “way more awesome” than C# Mixolydian.

Once you realize that, too, engineers don’t become any less useful. On the contrary, making something sound good really is an art, meaning you really do need that mixing engineer, that mastering engineer, that live sound engineer. (I sure as heck do.) And you need to spend some of your energy trying to learn more about sound, because it’s something that’s worth devoting a lifetime to understanding.

Software companies still need bullet points on marketing sheets; that’s fine. But as for the fact that sound doesn’t easily fit into bullet points? I think that’s a good thing.