MP3s aren't ruining music

Can music still pack an emotional punch when it's been squeezed down into a compressed digital format? Matt Rosoff says the setting matters.

San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin mourns the loss of audio quality in our iPod-obsessed culture.

He's right: MP3 files and other forms of data-compressed audio, such as AAC (used by Apple's iTunes) and Windows Media Audio, don't contain as much audio data as an uncompressed song on a CD. For long-time music listeners such as Selvin, the difference is striking. (Note that he's talking about data compression, not the audio compression that's misused to "punch up" many modern recordings.)

The first time I heard a CD full of burned MP3 files back in 1999, I was struck at how flat and lifeless the music sounded. It was almost like listening to a Xerox copy of the music rather than the music itself.

If it's music you've recorded...you end up with a streaming MP3 that sounds like a radio broadcast from Mars played on a cheap transistor radio.

The feeling is even worse if it's music you've recorded. After spending weeks getting tones (which includes the painstakingly dull process of hearing the drummer hit the same drum over and over and over again for several hours), fine-tuning the sound of each part with the perfect combination of instruments and amplifiers and offboard effects, playing several times to get the perfect take, overdubbing extra parts and haggling over the perfect mix, you end up with a streaming MP3 that sounds like a radio broadcast from Mars played on a cheap transistor radio.

But I also recall the first time I heard a CD back in the early 1980s, and how sterile it sounded compared with the vinyl records I was accustomed to (and still prefer). And no recording will sound as vibrant as live music.

The point is, music can serve many purposes. When I listen to an MP3 file over my car stereo, it might not sound as good as a clean vinyl record on a high-end stereo system, but the setting's different: maybe it's a sunny day, and there's no traffic, and I haven't heard this particular song in so long that I almost forgot why I liked it in the first place. It's not exactly background music, but it's more of a soundtrack to my day than an activity in itself.

Or, when I hook my iPod up to my small Bose system for a dinner party, it's meant to be a backdrop for food and conversation, the real stars of the show. If it's the right crowd on the right night, we'll end up downstairs, listening to the real thing on vinyl.

I'd feel sorry if I imagined that there were kids who'd never heard anything but compressed music, but I'm not sure that these kids exist or will ever exist.

Like John Cage knew, music exists all around us every day. Natural-born audiophiles will seek out live music, buy CDs and maybe a turntable--and perhaps even learn to play an instrument.

For the rest of the world, music never would have been much more than background material anyway. With compressed audio files, they have access to more of it than ever before. Perhaps one of the countless tracks they've burned from their little-used CD collection will hit them just right one day and spark them to investigate further.

 

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