Monday, January 4, 2010

I'm Going Where There's no Compression; To a Better Land That's Free from Care (or, Reason #1 Why Today's Recorded Music Sucks)

In the weeks and months ahead, I'll post with my 7 or so reasons why I think that now is a very bad time to be a fan of recorded music. I think that there are also several clear reasons why the present is a very good time for music and I will get to these later on down the road. Nevertheless, as we begin the second decade of the 21st century, there are some crucial ways in which it is a terrible time to listen to recorded albums and songs of music in general. The first of these reasons is low-hanging fruit and many other people have made reference to this one in recent years.

Reason #1 Why Today's Recorded Music Sucks: Lossy Audio Data Compression

We begin with a reason that is a clear example of how "advancement" in music-related technology has actually led to "decline" in music quality (fidelity). This one is fairly obvious, yet I suspect there are a fair number of people out there who listen to music that is far inferior to what people listened to a generation ago--not in terms of style, genre, or quality of musicianship, but in terms of the sonic richness of the recordings to which they listen.

In the last dozen or so years of the MP3 revolution, many music fans have willingly (even if unwittingly at some level) lent an ear to recorded music that is compressed and missing large amounts of data. On this point, Neil Young and I agree. But then again, maybe it is just that Neil and I are getting out of touch with the preferences of the Ipod generation as this news story on a recent academic study suggests. Though, I must say, the professor's study... sounds... unsound [sorry!], and his reasoning quite faulty, if the news story is accurate.

To wit, as this report makes clear, people can tell the difference between different degrees of music compression when given the opportunity to sample the audio quality differential for themselves. Many people, however, have no idea that their lossy 128 KB/s, 192 KB/s, and 256 KB/s MP3s sound like crap and don't have the opportunity to hear fuller dyanamic range 320 KB/s VBR MP3s (due to inattention or it-was-the-only-rip-available-to-thieve or whatever), let alone CD quality recordings (or lossless compressed music like .shn and .flac). We won't get caught up in the VBR versus CBR debate right now. Likewise, don't worry, this post won't be extolling the virtue of vinyl. I'll save that for another day...

I argue that we just happen to live in a blip of time where current bandwidth availability (and bandwidth cost) isn't well suited for high quality music distribution through the internet.  Likewise, there is not sufficient storage capacity on mobile devices (smart phones, Ipods, etc.) to facilitate circulation of lossless audio. As data transfer and portable storage memory costs go down, there will be a return to non-compressed music consumption (and maybe even richer sound?). I don't know if this is 3 or 5 or 10 years away, but we will look back on the 1998 to 2015 (or whatever critical mass end-year) period with some embarrassment--it is the generation where folks bought and listened to music that sounded like crap because of missing depth of sound due to lossy audio compression. [We'll get to the recording, engineering, producing, and mastering end (beginning) of things in post #2 on this subject.]

You know that aunt (or uncle) of yours that you saw briefly over the holidays? She (or he) was listening to better sounding recordings on her (his) Sears hi-fi and tapedeck when she (or he) was your age as compared to music on an Ipod with docking station. It is hard to believe, but there are hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of people (young and old) out there (yesterday, today, and tomorrow) listening to 128KB/s-encoded MP3 copies of Ziggy Stardust, After the Gold Rush, Innervisions, The Soft Bulletin, Kid A, Return to Cookie Mountain, etc. It really is quite sad...

In future weeks and months I'll get around to posting about the other 6 reasons why today's recorded music sucks.


  1. This post made me think about the "loudness war" I read about in regards to the latest Metallica album. Ironically, the album they worked so hard that Lars wanted everybody to buy was compressed like a shitty mp3 already.

  2. The Loudness War is going to be post #2 in the series! I wrote most of it in late December but haven't had a chance to finish it.