Tuesday, September 04, 2007

is it lies, or is it Memorex?

Remember when some teacher said you only use 10% of your brain? She was probably just trying to make you feel lazy. But it's hard not to feel a little cheated, reading this:
Whether you know it or not, that compact disc you just copied to your MP3 player is only partially there.

the music contained in these [MP3] computer files represents less than 10 percent of the original music on the CDs. In its journey from CD to MP3 player, the music has been compressed by eliminating data that computer analysis deems redundant, squeezed down until it fits through the Internet pipeline.

When even the full files on the CDs contain less than half the information stored to studio hard drives during recording, these compressed MP3s represent a minuscule fraction of the actual recording. For purists, it's the dark ages of recorded sound.

"You can get used to awful," says record producer Phil Ramone. "You can appreciate nothing. We've done it with fast food."

That's from a recent article at SFGate.com: "MP3 music - it's better than it sounds" by Joel Selvin. I found my way there this weekend via this other rather contentious blog.

I suppose I'm a member of "the iPod generation" that writer refers to - especially since I transferred my entire CD collection onto a hard drive, just before moving up to Calgary. I had been pretty reticent to do this - my CDs have always been a major decorating feature, strewn all around my apartment. And I really do like to look at something while I'm listening to a CD, even if it's just a note from the performer thanking his Mom.

It was liberating to leave all those boxes behind, though. And if my listening experiences have been lacking in cathartic magic lately, I figured it was mostly because I haven't hooked up any good speakers yet. Well, maybe I need to rethink this - either send for those CDs I left at my parents' house, or give up this wicked compromise we call recorded music altogether.
"[Digitally compressed music] turns you into an observer," [John] Meyer [of Berkeley Labs] says. "It forces the brain to work harder to solve it all the time. Any compression system is based on the idea you can throw data away, and that's proved tricky because we don't know how the brain works."
My impression is that record engineering is more of an art than a science - an art with many acknowledged masters, such as Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt whom the article quotes. In any art form, some of the hardest decisions are what gets minimized, compressed, or even left out. The performers struggle with those same decisions - we can't stretch out every chord or modulation we really love (especially if we're on a click track!). And the composer has already made many of those choices, giving us places where a note or phrase is just implied, and trusts the performer and audience to fill in the gaps.

Music is a bit of a shell game to begin with, I suppose. We love to guess what's coming, to make a deductive leap, and it's almost more thrilling to find we've been mistaken than to have our guess confirmed. There's an amazing deceptive cadence in the Bruckner 8 slow movement, and no matter how many times I hear it, it still gives me goosebumps. Though I haven't listened to it yet in MP3 - I wonder if they compressed out all the goosebumps?

Our imaginations can't do all the work - even the most dedicated audiophile is bound to discover something new by hearing it live. My question is, at what point is recorded sound not worth the microchips it's printed on? Are we consuming a bland, artificially flavored, frozen-food version of music? Al Schmitt describes what a listening experience should be:
"When you listen to a world-class symphony or a good jazz record," says Schmitt, "and you hear all the nuance in the voices, the fingers touching the string on the bass, the key striking the string on the piano, that's just a wonderful sensation."
I don't think I've heard all that stuff in a recording for a long time. I miss it - and I get to hear the real thing every day!


Joe Lewis said...

I submit that any recording is far less than the real thing - live music sounds infinitely more rich than anything you get from an MP3 or even a CD. We did some experiments at NEC and found that with a bit of practice, we could all unanimously tell the difference between an analog and a digital recording because the digital recordings can only pick up information on the digital points that it is able to store on the media, while the analog recordings record more of the pure waveform of the music. The result was that analog sounded richer and had more overtones, and this was how we could tell the difference. The guys from TDK hosting the study were surprised that we could do this, since their hope was to prove that we couldn't tell the difference - we proved them wrong.

Anyway, I like the convenience of my iPod and will listen to that over a good audiophile system 99.99% of the time. I love a good audiophile rig, but usually the music is coming from my iPod connected to headphones or the car.

Gabrielle said...

what about music purchased through iTunes? is it actually lower than CD quality?

Matt Heller said...

I'm not certain how iTunes formats its purchased downloads. I would imagine they are a higher quality than MP3s ripped from CDs, but lower than a commercially purchased CD.

But as Joe's story illustrates - there is a difference! If we really value the experience of listening to music, I think we need to recognize that any recording is a compromise. And listening on the best possible equipment - or ideally hearing it live! - is probably the best solution in this "digital dark age".

Joe Lewis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Lewis said...

I hear a difference. A good MP3 or AAC rip is noticeably less quality than a good CD recording (but can still be pretty good). A good CD recording is less quality than a good LP or analog reel, but now you have to start really listening carefully. All that can't compare to a live performance, which is no contest to me. All that said - the AACs from iTunes or that I rip for the most part sound good enough for daily listening.