Interview: Bob Stuart and the rise of MQA

posted on Monday, 27th June 2016 by Steve May

High-end  High Res Audio  MQA 

[#pageName]

Is MQA the music format of the future? Certainly it’s being wowing audiophiles at consumers shows, but in recent months it's been gaining commercial traction too.

Warner Music has become the first major music label to formerly embrace the technology. It joins a slew of small specialist labels specialist labels, such as 2L, Acoustic Music Records, Bauer Studios, Eudora, Jazz Arts, Personality Records, Mons Records, Ozella Music and Triplet Records.

And according to creator Bob Stuart there’s more to come. Inside CI talked exclusively to the pioneering music maker, about the future of MQA and next generation audio entertainment. In 1977 Bob co-founded Meridian Audio and served as CTO until early 2015. In 2014 he founded MQA Ltd where he is currently Chairman and CTO.

There have been a lot announcements from the MQA camp of late. But can the technology break out from the esoteric fringe into consumer mainstream?

Bob Stuart, MQA: “There's much more in the pipeline that we can't talk about yet, except to say there's probably 100 companies concerned! It takes larger companies longer to do things, but we're talking to some very big names. But you could look at Onkyo and Pioneer and think they're going to do the rest of the range? That might be a reasonable assumption. The DAP portable was the first product to come out - but it's very useful”

So you’re happy with the progress of your masterplan?

Stuart: “We're completely happy with it. There's a lot of companies and a lot of platforms. Some companies only release new products every two years, others do it every ten minutes. It also depends on what's inside there products – if it's based on Android or if it's based on linux… or Analogue Devices. But that's all going fine.”

Warner was (literally) a major coup…

Stuart: “Obviously getting Warner was very important. The first content available was earlier this year from the 2L label. And we've had maybe ten other little labels around the world launch their content in MQA form. That's helpful having music coming through from these small independents. There's actually more music available in Japan than there is in Europe. But we needed a major and Warner was the first. It's very exciting for us.”

Profile

The music market is now heavily fragmented. Establishing MQA must be far more of a challenge than launching CD ever was…

Stuart: “If you go back to when CD was at its height, there was a huge catalogue and everyone could access the market. Anyone could walk into a shop, buy a disc and slip it into a slot in their car. Even my mother knew how to buy a CD and play it! But now there is a generation who have no idea how to access music, unless it's in a low quality streaming format, like Apple Music or Spotify.

“The Hi-Fi industry only ever succeeded on the back of a healthy global market. At the height of CD a lot of people bought discs, but not a lot were audiophiles. And the audiophile problem was how to get a great sound out of a disc, it was the same problem they had with vinyl.

“At least in that era they had a very simple job: make a vinyl disc and sell it. With digital the whole thing has fragmented. A company like Warner has moved from having one deliverables, which was the record, to having literally 58 different deliverables.”

It’s become quite a complicated proposition…

Stuart: “Yes. If I want high quality music, I have to buy from HD tracks, and then I have a file I can't play in the car... Part of the thing we’re trying to do with MQA, was not a search for global domination. There was a technical problem and we solved the problem, by making it more efficient.”

File size is a big part of MQA’s appeal. It’s not just audio quality…

Stuart: “We talk about MQA files as being like a chameleon. Without a decoder an MQA file will still play anywhere. But if it finds a decoder it just opens up to give the finest quality your device can give you, whether it's an iPad or computer or Hi-Fi. It just opens up and takes you back to the studio. This is what the music industry really likes - it gives them a chance to reconnect the studio artist with the fan. There are studies that show the higher the sound quality, the more people will listen.”

But is MQA really for everyone? Demos tend to be classic library titles…

Stuart: “All music benefits from it. We tend to pick (for show demos) the music that suits the audience. At audiophile shows, we have taken the position of illustrating what can be done from the archive, maybe we've gone too far|? But we play Lady Gaga, Adele...we play modern stuff. And MQA benefits everything. Some moderns recordings are not done well, and that's a shame. It's part of our industry initiative to teach people. But when we play Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, it's so astonishing…”

Metroplolis

What tools does the music industry have at its disposal to remaster content into MQA?

Stuart: “We're in full beta with studio tools. There are several workflows. If it's a new recording or what we call a White Glove, which is recovering a recording, we have tools that allow you to preview right there at the desk. Our tools also allows us to hear what music is going to sound like in all the different contexts. ...here's the full thing, here's what it's going to sound like on an iPad...

"Because MQA cleans up the sound, removes pollution, mastering engineers say: Wow, that's much more like the original... or if I'd had this tool I would have made the mix better.”

What if there’s no original master tapes to work with?

Stuart: “Where studios no longer have the original material, studios simply put it through our encoder. We've been working very hard on the algorithmic methods to try and work out exactly what the A-to-D converter is doing. And it's quite successful!”

How long has MQA been in development?

Stuart: “Well, the project began three years ago, but the science goes way back. Peter Craven has been working on the underlying concepts since the Nineties. But it gained a lot of technical momentum four or five years ago. That's when we said we were going to do this, and went on a roadshow around all the studios.

“Peter and I looked at each and said we've found out something very important, so we have to either bury it or bite the bullet. It was an inconvenient truth, but it had to be told. Basically it took a lot of soul searching because it meant we were going out to a whole industry and saying 'Great guys, you've not been doing it right so far, but here's a solution.' We expected a lot of push back from the professional audio industry but what's been interesting is that the AES (Audio Engineering Society) has been quite pro.” 

Is MQA easier or harder to commercialise than compact disc?

Stuart: “This is harder. CD was Sony and Philips, but it was something the industry could coalesce around. From a music industry point of view it was disruptive. America fought hard against the CD; in the UK there was a vibrant market, but in the US it hadn't begun. The same thing with DVD, there was the forum.

“Our problem, was what do you do when there's no forum? How do you build consensus? We've been really busy talking the recording industry, the people who make DAC chips... the good news is that the overwhelming response was ‘We know there was a problem, thanks for solving it.' Our royalties are very low, and there's an opportunity to enrich and liven up the industry. The fundamental point is that the hardware companies do best when the music industry is doing well.”

This is a very personal mission for you, isn’t it?

Stuart: “I think it's absolutely the culmination of a life's work. I can say what I like. My opinion doesn't matter. But the opinion of the man in the studio, the artist, that matters...”

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology journalist, who also writes for T3, TechRadar, Home Cinema Choice and ERT (amongst others).

Share this!

Have your say...

Sorry guests can't post comments.

Please Login if your an existing member or Register a new account.