Bob Dylan is famous for his acts of protest. His anti-war songs of the 1960s redefined the way a musician can influence and reflect the opinions of a generation. But nearly four decades later, Dylan is not venting his fury at politicians or the capitalist empire, but instead at the seemingly innocuous ones and zeros that make up digital recordings.
Dylan recently told Rolling Stone magazine, "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like -- static... CDs are small. There's no stature to it."
Cynics might dismiss Dylan's claims as the ramblings of a luddite. At first glance, it looks like Dylan is making a comparison between digital mastering and the analogue mastering techniques used by vinyl engineers. However, some vinyl engineers work on CD mastering today, so Dylan could presumably use one of these technicians.
Since Dylan can use any engineer he likes, what he's really implying is that the CD format itself, and not merely the engineer, is at fault. While there's no accounting for taste, this is fairly widely disproved by comparative listening tests.
Vinyl came with its own inherent flaws, including noise and 'diameter loss' (a loss of high frequencies in later tracks caused by a slower stylus speed near the centre of the record than at the outer edge; CDs do not suffer from this problem).
Dylan is beating the wrong dog here. What he should have been complaining about is not CDs, but MP3s. With the massive growth in popularity of the iPod and music downloads, we have stepped back two decades in terms of audio fidelity. Degradation issues aside, in cursory listening tests many of the lower bit rate MP3s available on P2P networks are comparable to a decent cassette tape. In fact, some experts argue that even the iTunes store, which offers high-quality, legitimate MP3s, omits 10 to 25 per cent of the musical information in a CD.
Despite the fact that you're sacrificing audio fidelity (and that they're saving on production and distribution costs), the music industry charges roughly the same for MP3 and CD versions of an album.
It's easy to dismiss concerns of MP3 fidelity as elitist audiophile snobbery. But how willing would you be to dull another one of your sensory experiences purely to economise on bandwidth? How about seeing with 25 per cent less of your eyes, or losing the sensation of touch in both your arms?
If Dylan has a problem with CDs, then MP3s must be his worst nightmare. But no, oddly, Dylan endorses iTunes. Do the man's principles on audio fidelity change depending on his contractual obligations to Apple? Surely not.
Whether digital music will prove as powerful a source of lyrical inspiration for Dylan as the Vietnam war remains to be seen. This for starters: "How many kbps must a digital recording contain, before you can call him a man?" -Chris Stevens