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An ear for music: Perfecting the audio of livestreams

As artists are denied the chance the play live, London-based record label Jazz re:freshed turned to other option to profile its acts, collaborating with enhanced audio streaming specialist MQA to create The British Music Embassy (BME) Sessions.

Beginning with electronic-soul quartet Noya Rao in early April, and most recently progressive jazz tuba player and composer Theon Cross, MQA has been releasing weekly sessions of acts who had been scheduled to take part in this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) showcase event, enhancing the performances with HD video and MQA’s state-of-the-art audio capabilities.

Here, MQA CEO Mike Jbara talks to IQ about fulfilling the BME brief, the technicalities of producing enhanced audio livestreams and why, after experiencing master quality audio, listeners will never look back…


IQ: Who came up with the idea of doing livestreams for artists affected by the SXSW cancellation?
MJ: We were invited by an existing partner, Jazz re:freshed, who represent several UK acts due to perform at SXSW, to be part of the British Music Embassy (BME) Sessions and support a global livestream.

How easy is it to record sound when a band is playing live, as opposed to when they are recording in a studio?
Fundamentally there is no technical difference between creating a broadcast in real time and making a studio recording – although of course it places different demands on artists, producers and sound engineers. MQA fits perfectly into live broadcast, live recording or post production scenarios.

Is it challenging to mix and process it in real time, and add it to a live stream? 
A live broadcast, especially for a multi-piece band, requires additional skill and experience in mixing, as well as confident artists. Obviously there isn’t a second chance, so a lot of effort goes into setting up the microphones and being able to make decisions on the fly. Aside from the pressure of mixing the audio in real time, the main technical challenge – which is no different to any live broadcast – is synchronising the audio and video elements.

“MQA makes video sound better on any playback device and no special tech is required to stream the BME Sessions videos”

Is this technology available to anyone – can an artist buy or rent the required tech and apply it to their own livestreams or performances?
Not yet, up to now most artists releasing content in MQA do so through their label, or an associated mastering house, or directly with MQA. Live is a new initiative for us that was launched at SXSW in 2018.

We partner most often with curators, such as Jazz re:freshed and BME, or our hardware partners who are creating unique events for their customers. Since an MQA livestream is extremely high quality, the workflow depends on how the performance will be distributed. For an artist looking to DIY live-stream, we encourage them to contact us.

More broadly, the MQA audio encode, for pre-recorded music, is in use by all of the major record labels and Merlin-member labels and distributors.

Do listeners need special equipment in order to hear the enhanced audio?
MQA makes video sound better on any playback device and no special tech is required to stream the BME Sessions videos. We refer to that baseline of audio, which is available to everyone, as MQA Legacy. When listening with MQA DACs, a listener can unlock the full experience and hear the original, even higher studio resolution.

And further to that, can an artist have both options, so normal audio for those watching on normal services, and MQA for those with the tech?
There is no need to have two versions. MQA’s technology is designed to be backward compatible, so MQA-encoded audio will play back on any device, up to the level of the device’s capability. Anywhere that audio exists, it can be improved by the MQA process to reveal a more natural sound. So, in reality, MQA can be used on all services, and those with MQA-capable products will be able to recreate the sound of the original performance.

“We believe that the better the sound quality, the more people enjoy and engage with music”

Is there an obvious way to monetise higher quality audio like this? Most people consume music now on their phone, laptop, crappy little headphones etc, are enough fans willing to pay to hear the difference? 
Based on extensive experience, we believe that the better the sound quality, the more people enjoy and engage with music – and when people have the opportunity to hear master quality audio, they don’t want to go back to inferior sound.

We are often asked this question about phones and earbuds, but the fact is that the de-blurring applied in the MQA encoder benefits all listeners. Of course, the better the playback set-up – and if they have an MQA decoder – the better the results. While the listening environment may differ, fans are still entitled to hear the best source – then it’s their choice how they listen to their music.

MQA is currently only available on some platforms and devices. Are you working to try and achieve implementation across the board? 
MQA’s technology is licensed non-exclusively and our aim is to work with as many partners as possible, to improve audio wherever and however people choose to listen. The catalogue of products supporting MQA is growing all the time.

What’s the future for this type of high-def audio? 
There are many possibilities and potential applications – we find the most impactful approach is to create partnerships and work with brands to raise awareness, create curiosity, and implement great user experiences with our partner network.


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Hackney curfew: ‘marginalised communities will suffer most’

Campaigners protesting the controversial new Hackney curfew legislation have spoken about how the policy will potentially affect marginalised communities the most. Speaking at Friday’s protest (27 July), a number of protesters spoke to local media, saying LGBTQ, BME and women-friendly music venues are at the biggest risk of disappearance because of the new nightlife legislation.

Speaking to the Hackney Citizenprotest co-organiser Jo Alloway said: “Hackney is renowned for its diversity and its nightlife – it’s something people specifically come to Hackney for.

“Each venue is a hub of community, whether that’s LGBTQ nightlife, Caribbean nightlife – it’s a safe space where people can enjoy their own culture.”

As Johnny Dillon, another co-organiser of the protest, explains, the fear is that as ‘minority-friendly’ clubs and venues close, new ones won’t be able to open and replace them. Instead, corporate brands and chains will take their place, without thought for the cultural spaces being lost. Talking to NME, Dillon warned against places like Shoreditch turning into Leicester Square.

“We’re seeing pubs and clubs – for the LGBTQ community, and the BME community, and spaces for women – close all the time,” he says. “I think that is really being put at risk by the proposal that Hackney Council have just passed.”

“It’s the council and the licensing committee that have pushed this through.”

“Hackney is one of the few places where those still exist in number. If those spaces are to start to close, new ones aren’t going to open.”

After the news of the Hackney curfew broke, London’s Night Czar Amy Lamé came under fire for appearing not to fight against the plans. Many questioned what the role of Night Czar was for, if not to protest against potentially damaging legislation such as this.

In a statement released shortly after the initial backlash, before the protests took place, she explained her intention to get all parties involved around a table to talk out the problems with the new policies; she has demanded an urgent meeting with the mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville. In the statement, she does not address how the policy may affect the lives of residents from minority backgrounds.

“I’m sure there is a positive way forward,” it reads. “My role is to help get everyone to sit around the table, talking together, to represent the needs of the night-time economy in those conversations, and ultimately to find a solution that works for everyone.

“I’ve used this convening power on a number of different issues…and it really can work.”

Whilst many protesters agree the Night Czar has dropped the ball somewhat in her response to the curfew legislation, Dillon maintains it isn’t solely her that should be held responsible for the decision.

“It’s the council and the licensing committee that have pushed this through.”


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