I’ve read more than a few articles recently about how our consumption of digital music (mostly in MP3 form) is causing a shift in how people experience recorded sound. This article in the Telegraph UK highlights the disconnect between the public’s lust for high-definition video and its tolerance of lossy, compressed audio.
If we buy a new high-definition television, we obsess over its picture
quality: is it 720p or 1080i? What’s the refresh rate? How good will it
look when I’m watching the football in high-definition, or playing a
game on my PlayStation?
Curiously, however, we don’t appear to have the same
concerns about our music. Most people, in fact, are probably unaware
that the music they download on to their MP3 player sounds different to
the CD version, and bears almost no relation to the original studio
These are good points. Most engineers (including myself) grumble that they put in all this time to make a song or album sound "perfect," only to have the quality dramatically reduced on the road to listeners’ earbuds. This isn’t a new phenomenon; producers have been complaining about consumer audio gear since Phil Spector and Brian Wilson waged their symphonic war on stereo. Unfortunately, if you wanna sell records (an increasingly difficult proposition as is), you gotta get with the technology of the times. If this means tinny-sounding MP3s, so be it.
There’s something in the argument about hi-fi audio that smacks of elitism. Most listeners care more about the song and whether it moves them than they do about its sonic quality. Is it fair to tell a kid listening on a Fisher Price "My First Boombox" that they’re not experiencing the full sonic brilliance of Raffi?
The Telegraph article asks if "the person who has only ever listened to a downloaded, digital
version of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon on their MP3 player have ‘heard’ the same album as the person who listens to it on CD, on their
high-end music system?" Probably not. But my vinyl-obsessed friends could make the same claim about the LP.
I love the convenience of digital music. And as someone who was once buried under stacks of promo CDs, I appreciate the lack of clutter. It’s my hope that, if Moore’s Law holds, we’ll get to a place where practicality can coexist with fidelity. Or maybe we can just go back to 8-track . . .