At a panel presented with Billboard after the first day of the IFA consumer electronics trade show, Qualcomm general manager James Chapman and musicians Ryan Marrone and Adam Hanson spoke with Billboard deputy editorial director Robert Levine about what the company’s Snapdragon Music technology means for the future of digital sound.
For years, Chapman said to an audience of about 60 Qualcomm partners and technology journalists, the goal was getting as much music as possible available at the click of a button – and, more recently, on wireless headphones. Sound was secondary. Now, though, advances in bandwidth and other technologies have made it possible to deliver this music with the kind of sound quality consumers enjoy at home.
Snapdragon Sound isn’t a product, Chapman explained, but a technology, or a technology ecosystem, to deliver lossless sound – especially over wireless Bluetooth connections that weren’t designed for high-fidelity audio. That technology is used in a series of devices that, together, allow listeners to hear music closer to the way it was recorded in the studio. The technology is complicated but also invisible to users. “It takes a lot of technology to get out of the way of the music,” Chapman said.
The results can be magical, though. Marrone, a Los Angeles-based musician, producer and engineer who has written with Nicki Minaj and worked with Sam Fischer and JP Saxe, among others, said that Snapdragon Sound let him hear details in the Radiohead album In Rainbows that he hadn’t noticed before. Hanson, a musician, songwriter and producer who tours with Saxe and makes his own music under the name Northwoods, said he noticed more nuance in Peter Gabriel’s So and other recordings that aren’t always evident on streaming audio.
“It’s very satisfying to hear the detail you spend so much time working on,” said Marrone. “As a producer, you spend hours getting a sound right, and you want listeners to notice.”
The science of sound delivery has never stood still, Chapman pointed out. Early on, the idea was to deliver an accurate representation of a musical performance. But Marrone pointed out that the art of recording soon moved beyond that, to the point that songs and albums often feature sounds that listeners know musicians can’t reproduce live.
For all the immediate appeal of pop music in the streaming age, many hit recordings are more sonically complicated than they used to be, even if they don’t immediately seem it. So high-fidelity audio helps.
That’s not always easy, though. In an earlier time, there were only so many variables: Record player, stereo, speakers, for example. These days, music has to travel from a server farm, through the Internet, then over Wifi or a cellular connection, then to a phone. And it sounds best when all of those elements work together, as Snapdragon Sound does. Even once music streams to a phone, though, Chapman points out, there are more variables: Processing chip, software, these days often a Bluetooth connection to wireless earbuds. “It’s incredibly complicated,” Chapman says, “so we try to get all of this to work together.”
It will do so even better as manufacturers introduce more products that use it. Asked which ones he was most looking forward to, Chapman demurred, but said he was looking forward to some car-oriented products, as well as a wider variety of more advanced headphones and earbuds.
After Levine took a few questions from the audience, Hanson played three songs from his new album, performed with the kind of impact music ought to have.