Thursday, August 09, 2007

You Can't Hear What You Can't Hear

A real post instead of apologies. I willingly identify myself as a young'un as far as musicology goes, so my kneejerk reaction to AC Douglas and the San Francisco Chronicle's curmudgeonry about iPods and the MP3 format is likely something less than unexpected. Hopefully here's a more polite version.

The concept of psychoacoustic models can be made to sound spooky: outright discarding of music! But the point of throwing away what you can't hear is that you can't hear it. You brain will fill in the gaps. Perhaps the audience replies "But I can hear it that." And that could be true, you may be one of those people, musician or audiophile, that has trained your ears to pick up on those subtleties. However therein you've accept the implicit burden of any connoiseur, other people en't going to even pick up on the details that you find pleasure in. It's sort of like standing at a liquor store deciding between Oban and Glenmorangie to look over and see three guys in visors holding a sleeve of red Solo cups and a case of Keystone Light. Maybe a better analogy is the difference between a scotch and water and a scotch and 7-Up. Whatever, I can't afford scotch.

Recall the size of the Interwub's pipes back in 1995 when the MP3 format went public, any other compression scheme that got a sound file to that realm was similar to listen to an AM radio over a telephone. It was the MP3 format that finally introduced real music (as opposed to instrument-based a la MIDI) to the Internet, which most people can agree has had positive consequences. Not just in terms of digital distribution but anywhere there was limited storage capacity.

Of course without reasonably sized digital music files there would not have been a market for digital music players. Now the iPod can plausably blamed for a number of things: the decline of the album, people not saying hello on the street, walking into traffic, etc. However discouraging people to attend live performance and the propagation of inferior sound files aren't two of them.

The first is old territory. A combination of the BSO and Skynyrd have taught me to treat all recordings as bootlegs. Very accurate bootlegs at times, but bootlegs none the less. The one overwhelming advantage of these bootlegs, especially in combination with my iPod, is the ability to put them into whatever context I choose. To refer to me as being part of the Great Unwashed Masses because I greatly relish listening to Michael Gordon's Trance during rush hour in Copley Square or Kenny Garrett by a river is bullshit. The loss in fidelity in MP3 compression is nothing compared to a shitty performance.

But yelling at the iPod for poorly compressed files is yelling at the wrong people. 90% of everyone is going to use the defaults, so the defaults will have to change for the better for the cloud of data to improve. And this happening. MP3, despite having survived for a decade of notoriety, is not a format for the ages. (For comparison, the ZIP format is 18 years old. GIFs are 22.) A growing number of files are using the AAC format due to its endorsement as the format for the iTunes music store. The touted DRM-free iTunes Plus files are also at a higher bitrate, and hence discard less material.

The audiophile's most likely savior, as it is mentioned in the Chronicle article, is the endless quest for more storage. The average MP3 for a 3 minute pop song, even when crushed to a paltry 64kbps, is still bigger than 1.44 MB and would have been considered immovable by floppy-era standards. Over the past five years iPods have leapt in capacity from 5GB to 80GB. Even an audio-completist such as myself hasn't been able to expand their library by a factor of 16 in that time. Even with videos, all this extra space will quietly lead to an improvement in lossy formats and maybe eventually a switch to lossless ones. (Although a biggening of the series of tubes may be more imperative as more and more people get their music that way.)

Alas, the standard of audiophilia goes up as well. 96 bit recording, 4 times that of the previous norm, is becoming the de facto standard, especially for 5.1 digital recording. Just as the old story goes that the length of a compact disc was dictated by Beethoven's Ninth, so could it be the yardstick again. Those of you that fear MP3s can finally join the digital music player cause, at 96 bits the Ninth perfectly fits an 80 gig iPod.

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