The official Kate Bush website is selling high-resolution 24-bit downloads of her new album 50 Words For Snow. There is even a detailed explanation of why the downloads are on offer and how they are created, credited to Bush’s organisation “The Fish People.”
The Fish People state that CD technology is old (true) and inadequate (controversial):
…despite the huge improvements the CD brought with it, the state of technology at the time introduced some limitations in the quality of audio that could be recorded and stored on the CD. The many advantages of the CD mean that it has continued to be the default consumer format for many years. However digital studio technology has moved on immensely.
According to this account, Kate Bush mixes her recordings to an analogue 1/2 inch 30ips tape. Then she masters this to 24/96 digital, which as she states:
increases the dynamic range and frequency response of the digital process well beyond the levels perceivable by the human ear.
The master is normalised for CD’s 16/44 format, which means the volume is adjusted to use all the available headroom. However for the downloads there is no normalisation, and if the description is to be believed, the files are the same as those used for the studio mastering.
Curiously the files are offered in uncompressed .wav, which makes for a bulky download:
With these files we also wanted you to be able to hear the recordings as close as possible to the way it sounded on the analogue master. For this reason we have chosen only to make available 24/96 .wav files in an uncompressed format. By not using compression we avoid any further possibility of introducing errors or noise into the files. The downside of using uncompressed files is that the files are large and will take a long time to download.
This is unnecessary since formats like FLAC and ALAC compress the size of the files but do not lose any musical information; you can expand them back into WAV without any loss.
The files sound excellent as you would expect. It is worth noting though that efforts to identify audible difference between 16/44 and 24/96 in blind listening tests have been mostly unsuccessful, suggesting that they sound either the same or very very close to the human ear, when careful level-matched comparisons of the same master are made. If the high-res files sound different from the CD, it is more likely because of other factors, such as additional audio compression (as opposed to lossless file compression) which does change the sound, or additional equalisation applied when mastering the CD.
Another quibble I have with this offer is that it gives the keen purchaser a difficult choice. Do you want the CD with its attractive hardbound mini-book and artwork, or download which costs more and comes with no artwork but may sound better? The keen fan has to buy both. By contrast, recent Peter Gabriel CDs have a code that lets you download the high-res files as well for no additional cost.
That said, kudos to Kate Bush for making available such high-quality downloads.