I’d like to make an analogy. Let’s say you went to a supermarket and bought two apples. Both apples picked at the same time, one from an organic farm and the other from a GMO-pesticide-laden-faceless-1%-corporation factory farm. If you ate both of those apples, I would think that they would probably taste more-or-less the same. You’d probably get the same short term enjoyment out of both of them.
If you didn’t know which one was which you’d probably not be able to guess. I’ve tried to tell the difference between organic and non-organic apples and really, I honestly don’t think they taste any different given age and other factors like ripeness being the same. But there is more to food than taste. Food is fuel. The better the fuel the better the body runs. I believe that if you eat more organic food, absent of pesticides and additives our bodies will know the difference. Over time it’s healthier for us and we’ll be happier for it. We’ll lead more joy filled lives. The more organic apples you eat, the more your body will crave them. Perhaps, and I’m just guessing here, the more non-organic-pesticide-laden apples you eat the more your body will crave a Twinkie.
Know where I’m going with this? Music that is poorly recorded, mixed and mastered, then jacked up to impossible levels adding a whack of audible and inaudible distortion and then further destroyed by lossy data compression such as MP3 encoding is the same as that non-organic-GMO-pesticide-laden-faceless-1%-corporation-factory-farmed apple. You might not notice the difference but I’m thinking your body will.
Sometime in the 80s, Rupert Neve, the famed audio console designer said, somewhat joking of PCM 16-bit 44.1khz CD quality audio, that it may be responsible for some of today’s delinquent youth problems. This was due to the way the CD Player handled frequencies above 20khz which is the upper limit of CD Audio. If that’s the case, could you imagine what prolonged listening to MP3 audio would do, which is far more frequency manipulated than any 80s CD player? MP3 might be responsible for creating a new breed of serial killers!
I’m not saying this is the case and I don’t actually have any proof that it is… for now it’s just a feeling. A hunch that MP3s might actually harm us if not make us hate music. Frankly, given the amount of time I spend listening critically to music, I’d like to think my hunches are as good as anyones educated guesses.
I have this thought about ‘active ears and passive mind’. It’s born from an experience in mastering. Up until I became a mastering engineer I was a vivacious listener of music. Music was my life. But something funny happened after a few years of mastering. I stopped casually listening to music. In the car I’d listen to talk radio or books on CD. At home I’d listen to nothing. Music became associated with work. I discovered after a period of time that I was going into work mastering albums but I never actually listened to them. When I’d hear them outside of the mastering studio, like on the radio, at a bar or store, I wasn’t familiar with the music. The mastering I did on them was good but I never took any time to enjoy the music. To listen to it without thinking about frequencies and what I was going to do with to it. Once I realized this, I tried something different. As soon as I started my session, I listened to the album from beginning to end. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t analyze it. I turned off my monitor and meters, sat back and just listened. I turned off the part of my mind that was working.
With this new found philosophy I went home and tried to do the same thing. I found it quite difficult. To just sit there and listen to an album with no purpose. For no reason other than to listen it was almost impossible. Why was I thinking this way?
I had to retrain myself to listen to music. At least a couple times a week I’d put on a record and do nothing but listen to it. After a short period of time I really enjoyed doing this. However, I could do this only with a vinyl record or a CD. If I listened to MP3s I found myself getting restless. It sounded the same but didn’t make me feel the same. I was curious about this.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the better the quality of the source of the music the more you’ll enjoy it. Both consciously and unconsciously. Access to inexpensive high-end equipment in the recording and home listening department is unprecedented. We’ve never had it better in that regard. Yet we allow our music to be delivered to us in a highly compressed format. Robbed of many of the frequencies that make for whole music. (think about the whole food thing here). This is not an audiophile argument I’m trying to make. It’s not so much about the ears as it is about the body.
Another issue is that we often listen to music at home from laptop speakers, TVs, small i-pod speakers and phones. I’m not saying you need a $100,000 system to listen to music but at least a proper set of speakers would up the enjoyment. We think nothing about dropping cash on the latest HDTV set yet we’re content with MP3 formats and terrible speakers. Add to that, sub-par mastering cheap mastering (had to get that shot in there), no wonder we’re all starting to care less about the quality of music.
I contend that if you give people music as low-quality audio they will then give it no value. Why not steal it if it’s worth nothing? Maybe, in some small way, higher quality audio can save the music industry?
Encoding, specifically lossy encoding , I believe is one of the most important issues contributing to the destruction of audio quality. Here is an explanation about the difference between lossy and lossless and PCM encoding.
PCM is audio encoded in a linear fashion with no loss of information. CD audio is an example of this. Engineers use DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) to record with audio in PCM. PCM can be either 16 or 24 (or 32b float) bit-rates and 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 (or sometimes 192) khz sample-rates. Generally, given decent engineering, the higher the bit and sample rate, the higher the fidelity. Does 24bit 96khz sound better than 16bit 44.1? An entire lecture can be dedicated to arguing this but I would say, to my ears, yes. Sometimes it’s not just an audible thing but also a whole body feel thing. I just know it’s better. I feel more relaxed, less-stressed and I get more enjoyment out of higher resolution audio.
Lossless encoded audio is encoded from the PCM and only the data removed is what can be replaced in full with no loss of signal quality. To me this sounds as good as PCM. Lossless file size is about half the size of PCM. Examples of PCM are FLAC and Apple Lossless Encoding.
Lossy encoded audio is also usually encoded from the PCM. MP3 and AAC (iTunes) are the two most popular formats. The basic principle behind lossless encoding is a process called perceptual encoding which relies on the auditory observation that the dominant frequencies mask sub-dominant frequencies so those quieter frequencies are removed from the data stream therefore making the file size smaller.
I think lossy encoded audio just doesn’t sound right. There is something wrong with it and I can’t empirically tell you why. I’ve done a number of experiments and I’d love to give you a scientific reason why it doesn’t sound right but I can’t. It’s just missing something. There is no way you can take a file from 40 megs, reduce it to 5 and still retain it’s presence, the soul of the recording. Lossy encoding audio is soul-less.
PCM Digital copies are all the same. No matter how many times you copy it, the same information will be there. This is the purity of digital. With lossy encoding there is probably more variation in digital then there is in analog. Of course, every hi-fi system has different playback frequency response and sound different. That’s been the same since the dawn of recorded time but you could be pretty sure that the source LP and CD that you were playing had virtually identical frequency output from the master and it’s copies. MP3s and lossy encoding changes that game. Every encoder sounds different. It represents the audio differently even before it’s output. The artist has no control over this. We’ve gone so far from quality that we’ve accepted in the past.
We can look at countless graphs and do blind listening tests but how do we qualify what the brain hears and how audio quality makes us feel?
There are steps, albeit small ones that the industry is taking to at least start to have better quality audio delivery. One of these is mastered for iTunes [read my blog post on MFiT here]. For the most part, mastered for iTunes is a set of guidelines. Some rules of mastering that will lead to less distorted recordings and encodings. They even include a tool that will tell you if your pre-encoded master is clipping at all. Apple also include a tool that will let you audition exactly what the audio will sound like after it’s available on iTunes. The same encoder as the iTunes encoding factory is available to the artist and engineer. They also allow the artist to submit a 96khz 24bit master and the encoding is done in a two step process. One for sample-rate conversion and another for lossy encoding. Of course this all depends on proper recording, mixing and mastering but that’s a whole other discussion.
In the mean-time, until high-res audio is readily available try this; Put on the high-res, vinyl record or CD version of an album and listen to it from beginning to end. Then, put on the same digital mp3 version. (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a great album for this). Forget how it sounds, how do you feel after each listen? How is your relaxed state, your mood and your stress. How much more or less do you like the album? Do you wan to listen to it again? Try it multiple times and in different states of mind. Please let me know if you can. Try to loose your preconceptions and bias’s. If the MP3 feels just as good as the CD version I’d love to hear about that.
In Part 3 (the final part) I’m going to discuss Analog vs. Digital and what it means to you. Did you know that most modern vinyl records are just copies of the CD?