- February 3rd, 2008
In the verge of the L Grammy Awards, I am thinking of music. Music as in playing music, recording music, the quality of music...
Not in the terms of the quality on new music, but rather in the way the record companies present it to us.
Yes, I am a terrible person and I don't think that the MP3 format has a good sound quality. I agree that it has its uses, but IMHO MP3 is the tape of the digital era.
I don't know why I should care either. MP3 was created and backed by the Sound Recording Engineers (or most of them, anyway) because the record companies, the recording studios, etc etc pressed hard. I don't think I have ever remember the music industry admitting they have had a good year. In this industry, if you read the specialized media, every year is a battle.
I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was a subscriber of Mix magazine by the mid nineties. Everybody welcomed ISDN lines because it allowed studio-to-studio connection with CD quality in real time (for you tech nerds, it supported real time 16-bit, 44.1Khz between two separated locations. And by separated I mean, the artist could be in a studio in Berlin, Germany, and recording in a studio in NYC, US).
The record companies loved that; they thought it would cut the studio time cost, and the cost of bringing the artist to NYC from Berlin.
Then, when the internet started exploding, they thought that audio compression could lessen costs some more. Now, as far as I remember, there has always been two schools of thought regarding audio compression, the "ok-let's-do-it-because-normal-John-Doe-will-not-ever-notice-and-or-care" school (thus motivating the release of the MiniDisc and DDC audio formats) and the "audio-on-a-CD-is-already-compressed-and-music-doesn't-sound-as-warm-as-on-a-vinyl-so-why-screw-it-up-any-further" school.
The first school, thanks to the support of the record companies, unveiled the MP3 format, and embraced it. You are wondering if I am nuts, record companies embracing and supporting the MP3 format? What kind of drug am I in? Well, the truth is that they did it because greedy as they are they thought it could help cut costs in recording time: you record your stuff, compress it and send it via the internet to the studio where the producer will be. "Normal-John-Doe-will-not-ever-notice-the-difference", especially in those grunge projects. And, they thought further, if we support it, people will think that the sound quality is acceptable.
Well, guess what? You succeeded so much in your publicity that normal John Doe started ripping albums. And, you were right, it was/is a great format to send the music via the internet.
And, they were so succesful in doing so that all of them got audio compression on Video DVD's to be a standard: most people doesn't know that sound on a DVD is compressed into a format that is MP3's cousin... That's how you can get 5 sudio channels in different languages out of a DVD.
As for the second school, they couldn't wait to the release of a format that would surpass the CD quality. At the time, it could be either DVD Audio or Super CD. They (we) thought that sound quality would sell any of the two formats away... But here are two problems: format wars (seriously guys, why couldn't you just have supported one of the formats?) and... "normal-John-Doe-doesn't-ever-notice-the-difference". It's hard to sell something to somebody if that somebody is more than happy with what there is. And we are talking about people who really think MP3s sound like CDs.
Again, the industry is to blame: this is the same people, the same engineers, producers, record companies who demanded CDs to sound louder (have you played a CD from the early 90s and then try to play a brand new CD? The difference in volume level is... disgusting!) because the louder on the radio, the more noticed a song is. The irony is, one of the advantages that CD's used to have was an ample headroom so listeners could notice differences between loud and soft passages in music without any hissing or background noise.
Sound engineers back then should have said no. No to compressing CD's so there is no headroom, because 1) we are going to kill the sound quality of the medium (CDs sound distorted, believe it or not) 2) we will deafen our public, and that is serious stuff... Did they? No. Why? Mastering engineers who made CD's sound louder got mo' money.
So when the time comes, how are you going to persuade a deafened listener who listens to music on an MP3 player or (worse yet) a boom box, and she likes it like that, that DVD-Audio has a greater resolution, a bigger Signal-to-noise ratio and that well, it is not sounding as warm as a vinyl yet, but it is pretty damn close and the next step to getting that in digital?
Chances are, she will first ask you, what's a vinyl?
And then, how many hours of music can it carry?
Can I rip it to MP3? -- and here I must stop and puke. Yes, somebody will make a ripper for you, but (I rebel and yell), why would you want to rip the freaking thing, when it sounds so good that you can actually hear the difference in microphone sound coloring?
98% of the music today is recorded via Pro-Tools. Usual setup right now is 96Khz at 24 bits. This may have changed because I am hardly in touch with music production anymore (shame on me). It hurts me that all that sound quality is 1) compressed so it sounds LOUD, then 2) compressed even further to MP3.
I am still waiting for somebody to say, enough. We used to embrace the term "high fidelity" and now we are making "low fidelity" albums. We are trying to sell $80-gold-connection wires and our final product sounds distorted. We are trying to have more headroom but you cannot play a normal CD louder than at volume of 10, when the maximum volume in your car player is 35, and already at 9 the bass frequencies are moving the vital organs inside of you and it feels like they are dancing.
I propose a new strategy; instead of criminalizing people for downloading music in a format you loved so tenderly at first, make them aware of the subtle differences. Let them learn that an MP3 player is great, and that it is irreplaceable when they are going to that 2-hour jog, or whatever. But then teach them. Teach the people that there's more to music than MP3s. Show the people how to listen to an album, what they are missing. It will be a slow process, but I have no doubts that music lovers will embrace the difference and support it. From there, word of mouth and patience will bring people back to quality listening.
But this is not on them, people. This is in your industry. The first who have to step forward and be responsible are you, producers, engineers, artists...