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issue: April 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

APPLIANCE Line
Lossless Art


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Tim Somheil, Editor

Is digital technology cheapening media, or providing unprecedented exposure to music as art?

Tim Somheil, Editor

Some in the music industry don’t think the iPod and the explosive growth of digital music is such a good thing.

These are music producers, not performers, and they came to the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show to demonstrate the problem to a roomful of journalists at a High Performance Audio and Home Theater press event. It was held 2 days prior to the official opening of CES, but the small room was filled to standing room only.

Most of the hour is spent playing music over an audiophile sound system, and it ends up feeling like a listening party in someone’s very crowded living room.

The attendees appreciate the music, and good–naturedly put up with an unstructured agenda from music producer Elliot Mazur, who’s legendary for his work with Janis Joplin, Neil Young and others. Mazur’s message is basic: the music files that are proliferating in the age of the digital audio player are pretty poor quality. His evidence is straightforward, playing two recordings of Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones. One is a compressed file downloaded from iTunes—there are untold billions of such files on iPods, other digital audio players and computers around the world.

It doesn’t sound wonderful. Indeed, the term lossy—used to describe digital media with some information compressed out to create a smaller file—is apt. Something has indeed been lost from the recording. The other version is a better-than-CD high-definition audio file. It is rich and full. Nothing has been lost.

It turns out that I am sitting near a woman from the music producers and engineers division of a well-known music industry Academy. The Academy stages an annual awards ceremony for popular music, but also awards advances in audio technology. She clearly dislikes the whole notion of compromising music by compressing it. To her, it is artistic blasphemy that most of the music now existing in the world has had some of the life squeezed out, degrading it below the standards of those who created it. The practice, she says, is bad for music overall.

Quantity Over Quality?

I wonder if she’s right. Have the devices degraded the content? Is Apple to blame for enabling the world to gorge on mediocre music recordings?

It’s true that iPod and iTunes make it virtually effortless for people to collect music, while the size limitations of digital storage and the speed of Internet delivery also made file compression necessary.

When you have every song you ever wanted on your PC or iPod and still have room for more, it’s easy to add more songs, based on recommendations or even whim. Discovering new music has never been easier. Just a few years ago the only new music most people heard was the latest track added to the play rotation on their radio station.

As I wrote this editorial I proved this to myself by Googling acoustic guitar music and finding free (legal) downloads at freesologuitar.com. In seconds I was enjoying the music of a guitarist I’ve never heard before, Todd Krider—a discovery enabled by the existence of accessible, highly compressed music files.

On the other hand, even my untrained ear can hear the lack of depth in these files. I’m wondering what Krider’s guitar sounds like uncompressed. The pros and cons are quite clear from the artists’ point of view—the artists being the performers as well as the music producers, who are undoubtedly vital to the creation of the final piece of music.

Uncompressed, CD-quality audio files are not as digitally unwieldy now as when iPod debuted in 2001. Storage capacities continue to mushroom, data pipes broaden and music sellers will inevitably market more uncompressed files, eventually making lossless, CD-quality downloads common.

But the digital world can already do even better that CD-quality. The purpose of the gathering at CES was, in part, to show off the latest stellar-quality audio recordings available for download from Music Giants. It’s an appropriate name, since the high-definition audio files are indeed huge compared to an MP3 or even a standard CD file. The music sounds bigger, as well.

In the crowded room at CES, record producer Mazur is playing a high-definition audio sound sample, rich and full. Everybody at the listening party enjoys it. Mazur stops the music sample and is about to point out more of the technology benefits, but someone in the audience shouts at him to turn the song back on. He does. Whatever he’s got to say, it can wait until we’re finished enjoying the music.

When the listening is over and the guests begin to collect their coats and leave, the lady from the recording arts academy wants to know what I think will “happen next.”

I suggest that, when everybody’s got every song they could possibly want and still has room for more, maybe they’ll start over. Everybody will get every song in a lossless format. At the pace the digital world moves, it would be easy to replace a few hundred billion compressed files with uncompressed files. In just a few short years, the world may be saturated with music that sounded just how the producers intended it to sound.

The lady from the academy ponders the notion, as if she’s never really considered that the same digital audio technology that sullied the world with lossy art would also be the tool for making it right again. “That,” she agrees, “would be good.”

 

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