Tag Archives: audio quality

Save Those Compact Discs!

-Add in the degraded audio quality of most streaming, MP3 compression, or home-based Bluetooth equipment, and you are suddenly in the cheap seats behind the restrooms–some distance away from what can be heard from a studio master released as a CD

A few years back I wrote a piece about whether we were done collecting books and music.  Many people are, but it can be a mistake to abandon those once-loved CDs. What is interesting now is how streaming has come to dominate the music industry. Streaming means you pay a fee to access a vast library service with the music you want to hear.  In most cases its incredibly small royalties are a thumb in the eye to musicians, but it is ever so convenient for people who want wall to wall music without having to lift a finger. No collecting required. In 2019 Spotify had become the dominant form of music delivery, with other services like Pandora, radio and YouTube not far behind.

What a different world the music industry was in 1999, when 900 million compact discs were sold.  But in the years that followed, the CD lost favor and went into a near total collapse of sales.  Suddenly perfect digital copies could be made without additional purchases. By 2007, most of the huge brick and mortar stores like Tower Records and HMV were shuttered, and favorite form of retail therapy died with them. CDs now sell at the modest rate of 31 million copies a year, with Japan the only remaining major consumer. In fact some who study music industry trends in the United States barely notice this superior older format.

As for streaming, what benefits consumers is often a nightmare for performers. Fee-based streaming services put performers at the end of a meager financial food chain that was mostly tapped-out before they were paid. In 2019 the Canadian cellist Zoe Keating reported that her royalty for each stream of her music played by Spotify was $0.0054.

This short essay came to mind after reading a recent article from the Guardian’s Matt Charlton, who wondered if there was any point in holding on to the silver discs that solved many of the problems inherent in vinyl records. Some audiophiles will disagree, but modern CDs can offer stunning sound.  They also eliminated the problems created by physically trying to race a stylus through a narrow trough of vinyl. Clicks, pops, inner groove distortion, warping, and washed-out sound from worn down grooves are problems listeners no longer have to contend with. But as Charlton still sees it, CDs “are inherently unlovable, with none of the richness or tactile nature of vinyl, or the kooky, Urban Outfitters irony of tapes.”

His reasons don’t add up to much of an argument. Is he serious about the sonically handicapped cassette tapes that were originally designed for dictation? And what about “tactile vinyl” with grooves everywhere that you are not supposed to touch?  I also must have missed the concerts at Urban Outfitters.  Overall, I’m not feeling the vibe.

 

A CD has the capacity for sound accuracy higher than what Apple, Amazon and other music services are routinely streaming.

In fact, CDs are amazing as carriers of music and its supporting images and texts. The standard sampling rate of 44,000 Hz a second is a phenomenal rate for accurately rendering what microphones have heard (assuming your playback device has a decent digital-to-analogue converter.)  This is the big remaining asset of the CD; it has emerged as an easy way to hold on to what avid music listeners call “lossless” sound. That is, a CD has the capacity for sound accuracy far above what Apple, Amazon and other music services are routinely streaming. Add in more degrading streamed audio files like MP3 compression or Bluetooth equipment, and you suddenly only qualify for the cheap seats near the restrooms.

Of course there are some caveats. Many listeners seem to have trained their ears to not care about less-than-optimal sound.  And even a well-made CD won’t help what started out as a bad recording. In addition, if smaller cards and memory chips can now hold the same accurate audio content, the CD remains the most accessible medium we have for holding the complete package of music, notes and images that a carefully thought-out album represents. For me, new music starts from a physical CD, a personal “master,” before it is stored somewhere else as a high-quality audio file. What’s not to love about these small silver marvels?

 

 

Keeping our Golden Ears

wave file wikipedia.orgSometimes the best that a concert-goer can hope for is a power failure that will require that we listen using only the sweet air between us and the performer.

It goes without saying that we’ve made great strides since the advent of electric recording in 1925.  Recordings, films, broadcasts and every other medium used to capture the nuances of voice and music have opened our ears to the world.  Even so, the rush into digital technologies for communicating at a distance have ironically taken us backward in the quest for lifelike sound.  In fact, in most cases the routine audio quality of cell-based communications, MP3 players, Bluetooth links, and streamed content from the web can’t match the better audio quality of analogue recordings made in the 1970s. The nadir was perhaps reached years ago when rockers deliberately added distortion as a “musical” component.

Try this simple test. Download an album from from an online music seller and compare it to its CD or vinyl counterpart.  You will find that you purchased something less than all the music. The technical reasons for the degradation of sound can be tricky to explain, but in general terms the villains usually include narrower bandwidths, lower sampling rates and higher levels of audio compression.  If you can’t immediately identify a caller on a mobile phone, the problem is primarily compression. The timbre of their voice has been stripted of its uniqueness. Most people with golden ears will also note that a compressed audio music file lacks a sense of “openness,” “detail,” and a kind of crystalline clarity that instruments like violins and cymbals require.  The MP3 format and its variants used on many phones and Ipods makes it possible to put a lot of music in compact digital files, but it performs this task by discarding musical overtones and other sonic information. The additional problem of a relatively low sampling rate is frequently what makes music sound “harsh” or “gritty” to golden ears: a common complaint about early CDs.

Add in what is now the standard setup for almost every kind of live music event—a heavily miked and amplified stage—and it becomes harder to remember the baseline of pure natural sound.  With the exception of classical music played indoors, few professional musicians in performance rely only on the natural acoustics of their instruments or voices. Everything is amplified, “augmented,” compressed and processed, most of it badly. Over my lifetime I’ve only attended one concert (jazz) where the musicians stopped and chewed out the sound engineer for the god-awful noise coming from over-driven, over-amplified stage speakers.  It should happen more often.

Even in intimate venues musicians and audiences seem to endure this tin ear treatment without protest. The best a listener with golden ears can hope for is that a power failure will intervene, requiring that we listen only via the sweet air between us and a performer.

In more specific terms, the problem is that a musician’s skill on a particular instrument is usually not matched by either the sound engineer’s, or their equipment.  The portable systems that are used are often riddled with deficiencies:  microphones and amplifiers that distort, cheap or damaged speakers that fail to keep things musical as the sound is projected from the stage, and high volume levels that overwhelm the delicate sensory cells of the inner ear that convert minute changes in air pressure into neural signals. It’s possible to experience more peace at the end of an airport runway than at some overamplified pop concerts.

ffss-time-09-15-1958-006-M3
An early ad for London Record’s “Full Frequency Sound,” 1958.

This ubiquitous degrading of pure sound is mostly a function of making money by burdening performances with overlarge spaces.  The resulting need for heavy amplification often drives the electronics chain into “clipping,” the audio engineer’s term for the mess of sound that results when the chain is driven to produce more volume than it can accurately deliver.

The money motive also affects the sound of even good recordings, if the available bandwidth of a medium is too narrow. For example, most forms of streaming, and even newer forms of broadcasting such as satellite radio, all sacrifice high audio precision in the upper frequencies because of costs associated with using a wider channel. “Lossless” streaming is possible, sometimes available, but still rare.

The overall effect is that we have generally trained ourselves to have tin ears, accepting highly processed music that we supposedly left behind when “high fidelity” arrived in the late 1950s.

Kids are born with golden ears.  A good antidote to prevent turning them into tin is to encourage listening to unamplified music.  Having young children around is a good reason to dust off the acoustic guitar or tune the piano in the living room.  I also like Paul McCartney’s solution:  Get out the ukulele and sing.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu