Audiophiles Become Ipodiophiles: “The quality of the components used in the iPod are on the same level as low- to medium-priced audiophile gear. From the audio standpoint, iPod makes a very good source.” The iMod hack seems a little bulky for the commute though…
What Happened To Dynamic Range? “Our music today doesn’t have any life. It’s been squashed to death. There’s no excitement, no texture, and certainly no reason to buy it.” Louder does not equal better.
15 remastered Dylan SACD hybrids coming in September.
Updated link in 2015. -ed.
How to Create High-Quality MP3s.
In Daniel Pinkwater’s The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death (Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1982)* there is a character who’s something of a p-rock chick, named Rat. Rat is a music freak; she has a kick ass hi-fi setup in a soundproofed room with one big mono speaker. When she listens to music, it’s played loud and it’s played monophonically.
I first read this book sometime about a year or two after its release. I was already a music geek, thanks to my dad and his booming component home stereo system. At the time, Dad was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the CD player and all of its technological wizardry (lasers!). So of course, I dismissed mono outright. Stereo had to better than old low-tech mono.
Nearly twenty years later, I question that notion. I have been listening to a blues show on the radio most Sunday nights for some time now, usually in the car on a very good multi-speaker stereo system. Last night I listened to the same show through the single speaker of my grandparent’s home intercom (remember this relic from the ’80s?). The difference in quality between the two audio systems could not have been greater, nor could the sound of the broadcast: It was better on that crappy little mono speaker. (In the same vein, I have a friend who has a stack of CDs next to his computer at work, a diverse collection of music selected because it sounds good coming out of the tiny computer speaker built into his workstation. He describes it as a “compressed” sound, with such a limited frequency response that the music shrinks in complexity while growing in sonic force.)
Yes, I’ll admit that blues is inherently more susceptible to sounding good in mono than, say, electronic music, but the question remains: Why has mono been all but replaced by stereo? I’m not sure stereo is really better; mono is certainly not inferior, just different. Thinking some more about the Sunday night blues show, a lot of the music played on the show is newer blues, multi-track recordings of electric instruments. It’s polished stuff, the sort of “blues” that leaves purists decrying it as nothing more than a sub-genre of rock. But on that small, mono speaker, some of those tacky tracks took on new life; much of the studio sheen was stripped away by the sonic limitations of bad equipment.
Not to advocate a sort of minimalist dogma here, but as we have seen the quality of sound reproduction increase to such incredible levels throughout our world (need I mention Dolby Surround or the Bose Wave radio?), the freshness of a mono recording played over a single speaker should have a rightful and useful place. There is beauty inherent in limitations.
*This seminal piece of counter-cultural literature can be found on at least two GloNo Team Members’ “50 Greatest Books of All-Time” lists. It’s a young adult novel—not to be confused with Young Adult Novel, another Pinkwater title—that takes its title from its high-school age protagonists’ practice of sneaking out to catch double features at an all-night theater. From Pinkwater’s Web site (www.pinkwater.com): “Walter and Winston set out to rescue the inventor of the Alligatron, a computer developed from an avocado which is the world’s last defense against the space-realtors.”
Why the RIAA should love us
As the digital music conflict (read: the RIAA v. post-Napster file sharing) continues to pick up steam in the mainstream press, one key issue seems to be frequently omitted or forgotten: Quality. We all remember Neil Young’s attack on the compact disc format in the early ’90s. Let’s not revisit that argument—that CDs have inferior fidelity than good old fashioned records—as it’s now a moot point; CDs have triumphed and even record snobs have succumbed to the format’s convenience. (My record collection went into storage in a friend’s basement this year.) But what of mp3s?
It’s a fact: At common encoding rates, mp3 files have inferior sound reproduction than do CDs. Don’t believe it? Rip an mp3 of your favorite CD and play it next to the original on a decent stereo—you’ll hear the difference. For me, this came clearly into focus when I bought Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after having lived with a copy burned from mp3s for eight months before the album was officially released. Yet it is this inferior format the RIAA claims is hurting CD sales, threatening the very viability of the record industry. At first glance its logic seems sound—why would someone pay for that Wilco CD when they already own a copy of it?
Yet I (and a hell of a lot of other people) did buy it, just as we bought records of music taped off the radio in our childhood, just as we bought CDs after friends had taped us fuzzy copies on boom-boxes. Do we always buy something we pirate? Of course not—some, perhaps even the majority, of this “stolen” music is garbage, destined to be taped over, forgotten, deleted, never to be listened to again. But the good music, the stuff that we want to listen to again and again—it is crucial to get the real thing, to own an original. Of course, we’re probably not the average music buyer. We’re music geeks; the RIAA would probably maintain that we don’t count. After all, we’re listening to Wilco, not Nickelback, and music conglomerates are usually disinterested in artists of the non-multi-platinum variety.
So does the typical music consumer care that mp3s are inferior to commercially distributed CDs? I’ll agree with the RIAA here: No, I’m sure most people are perfectly satisfied with their lo-fi digital copies. But why? Is it because the music industry has trained consumers to treat music as a commodity to be used and thrown away? After all, there will be another Britney, Celine Dion, or Linkin Park sitting in the endcap at Wal-Mart next month. The real threat to the music industry isn’t coming from the serious music fans—it comes from the casual radio listener who buys an album to listen to that one heavily-rotated song a few dozen times before losing interest and moving on to the next Top 40 hit.
Of course the problem with this is that all that junk, those cotton candy mega-hits, the songs most likely to be ripped and traded and then not purchased, they are what pay the bills for the rest of the music biz. Digital music is going to force the recording industry to rethink their business model and that’s what scares the fat cats of L.A.: Change. If the typical music consumer can freely obtain the disposable music that forms the foundation of the recording industry, the RIAA isn’t going to have anyone left to sell CDs to. Except us.
According to an article on ZD Net News, some major labels have begun to add “digital distortion” onto newly released CDs in order to prevent piracy. They claim that it’s “all but inaudible when a CD is played through an ordinary CD player, but when a song is copied into digital format on a PC’s hard drive, the distortion shows up as annoying ‘clicks and pops’ in the music.”
ALL BUT inaudible? That means it’s somewhat audible, right? Well, fuck that. That just won’t do. I’m not that much of an audiophile — I found my receiver in someone’s trash — but you can’t just go making CDs sound worse. I don’t want to get started on the old digital vs. analog debate in which analog ALWAYS wins in the category of sound quality (digital usually wins the convenience category), but CDs are already a “lossy” medium. They do not reproduce a true, full sound wave. Maybe the record companies think that the majority of consumers who are satisfied with the sub-par fidelity of 128kbs MP3 files just won’t notice and won’t care.
They’re probably right.
But I wonder if the artists know that their work is being distorted for the sake of piracy protection. It sounds like the labels are being pretty secretive about this whole thing. Are they required by law to inform the artists that they’re messing with the sound of their music? Have any of you had any trouble with “pops and clicks” when you’re ripping your CDs? Let us know.