Saturday, December 29, 2007

Will music suck for the rest of our lives?

This Rolling Stone article about the changing standards for sound on music CDs is interesting to me -- it's not the first time I've seen a major publication decry the overuse of dynamic range compression. Where RS really loses the plot, I think, is when they blame the rise of MP3s for the trend. As the article itself notes, the overuse of DRC really began in the mid-90s, before MP3s had really begun to take off, and well before they'd set the new standard.

As for the present day, clearly there's no need for digital music to impede sound quality. Portable hard drives are big enough, and better free sound standards exist to store data at lossless rates (see FLAC.) The only real problems here are that a) the industry (primarily Apple) is moving away from cheaper, larger hard drives to smaller, more expensive flash drives (not without good reasons), and b) so far, there's been little move from the consumer end to shift to lossless formats.

The big question -- and this has a wider relevance, I think -- is whether we'll ever be able to get consumers to switch from MP3, which though flawed is basically good enough. The RS article mentions the failure of DVD Audio and SACD, two attempts to bring in higher-fidelity audio that resulted in embarassing losses. (SACD and DVD-A seem to have found a niche in classical music, though.) What it doesn't mention is that both formats adopted restrictive copy-protection measures that would have prevented people from using their music the way they clearly wanted to. But I think the biggest hurdle is simple complacency: people know MP3, it's good enough (and certainly good enough for listening in noisy environments like the ones we use iPods in) and most people don't have the kinds of sound systems they'd notice the difference in anyway.

This, to me, suggests that the transition to HD-DVD or Blu-ray is going to be a lot rockier than Hollywood is hoping.


Charles J said...

It's not about converting file formats to accommodate better sound quality. It's about the marketing engine behind commercial music determining what we listen to, and how we listen to it. Just look at the RIAA's crusade against college kids downloading pirated music. Those kids aren't downloading organic independant music. They're not stealing money from hardworking artists. They're downloading major label rock and urban artists who charge way too much for a substandard product. It should come as no surprise to these artists that their fans aren't willing to pay market value for their CD's.

The "loudness war" is a symptom of pop music as an artform losing it's authenticity in exchange for material success of a few very powerful record executives and artists who're greedier than they are talented.

More on the subject here.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Unless you are about 99 years old, you have no idea what anything will be like for the rest of your life.

Catelli said...

This is a theme I've been following as a subscriber to Sound & Vision magazine (and its predecessor Stereo Review).

They've long decried how consumers are more than willing to drop several grand on a high-resolution TV, but then only spend a few hundred on the sound system. Purchasing history bears out that consumers are more interested in good video, and are willing to accept adequate sound.

How many people use the built in speakers in their 40"+ screen? No one should in my opinion, but I care about sound quality. It seems I am a minority.

So HD formatted movies may have more traction, even though the watchers are experiencing crappy stereo sound through their televisions speakers.

Its a theory, and my experience with friends/colleagues etc. would bear that conclusion out.