Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

An Audiophile's Nighmare

December 5th, 2006

Unfortunately, I am having some FTP problems which means that I cannot post this week’s show. I hope to get them cleared up soon so you can enjoy some Wilco recorded last month here in Madison.

I found an interesting article yesterday at the Christian Science Monitor called “Thousands of songs in your pocket: An audiophile’s nightmare?”.

New technology can deliver ever smaller, more storable music files – but the process carries a cost in terms of sound quality. Most of what all those earbuds-wearers are hearing, say experts, is bass-heavy noise.

“With the growth of portable audio, people have been rushing to build their libraries; it’s been more quantity over quality,” says Jennifer Boone, who tracks audio developments for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.

“You spend a long time training your ears and striving to perfect your craft and put out a better product,” says Jeff Willens, an audio-restoration specialist at Vidipax in Long Island City, N.Y. “When you finally discover that these things are being listened to on cellphones and through pea-size earphones, it’s kind of disheartening.”


In a certain sense, the die has been cast. Hell, it was cast back in 1979 when Sony introduced the Walkman. And it isn’t just earbuds, it’s also boom boxes, car stereos, radio, cheap stereo systems – they all conspire to diminsh the sonic fidelity that engineers craft into recordings. Besides, I think that the vast majority of the music-listening public doesn’t care about sound quality and never has. While the mp3 may be a step backwards sonically from the CD, most people didn’t notice and don’t care.

Perhaps the real change that PMPs and digital music more generally has brought about is how music is perceived and consumed. While the album is going to be around for some time yet, I do think that more & more people, especially younger folk, are beginning to consider albums as essentially aggregations of songs. While this attitude is nothing new, technology makes it exceptionally easy to pluck a song from album and ignore the rest. This is accomplished both in how we acquire music as well as how we listen to it. You can download individual songs without having to buy an entire album and, with playlists, shuffle modes, and the like, a song can be totally ripped out of context from an album. People have always fast forwarded/rewound tapes and repositioned a needle, but today’s technology makes the process of isolating songs incredibly easy.

One person not too keen on the iPod Porcupine Tree frontman Steve Wilson:

I’m not a fan of the iPod. I’m not a fan of reducing the history of rock music into a kind of digital jukebox. The whole thing about growing up and listening to music was discovering albums. And very often, it was the albums you didn’t get on first listen that you would grow to love. Not only that, but the tracks that weren’t among your favorites when you first heard the album grew to be the ones you liked later on. The iPod/download culture encourages a jukebox mentality: “Oh, I just like a couple of tracks off the album, so I’ll just slide those in.” The idea of sequencing an album in a continual flow as a musical journey goes out the window. The whole idea that tracks can grow on you gets lost.

Personally, I like many aspects of digital music technology. The portability aspect is great as is the ability to store massive amounts of stuff. The sonic fidelity is lost, to be sure, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude someone from using a good stereo system at home. And just because you are using your iPod while you’re going to work on the bus doesn’t mean that you’re listening to music. You can listen to audiobooks or radio dramas where fidelity is much less of an issue. But I have to agree with Wilson that the culture around it is one that’s not particularly conducive to the “album experience”.

If you queue up a greatest hits album, odds are that putting your player on shuffle is no big deal as the songs are already out of context. But there are albums that are especially vulnerable to having their musical flow disrupted. Take albums like Tommy by The Who or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis. The lyrics actually tell a story (however opaque) so hearing a song out of context, while satisfying, can also be very confusing. Tommy is confusing enough but “Pinball Wizard” on its own makes no sense whatsoever. There are other albums (and I think Porcupine Tree’s fall into this category) which do not have a strict narrative in the lyrics but have songs that are thematically linked. There are also albums where motifs are recapitulated. Genesis did this a lot from the mid-1970s until 1980. For example, “Los Endos” from 1976’s A Trick of the Tail reprises elements of 3 other songs on the album and 1 song left off of it. Some albums aren’t banded so you get a bit of the previous song laid over the beginning of another. I’m thinking of Misplaced Childhood by Marillion here.

Writing this, I realize that it has been ages since I’ve actually sat down and listened to an album. I’ve had albums on that played from start to finish uninterrupted but I’m always doing something else. I’ll put an album on when cooking, writing, while surfing the web, or driving in my car. But I can’t recall the last time I dedicated an hour to putting an album on and focusing on it. Just sitting down and listening instead of doing other things. I shall have to give that a shot soon.

I tend to agree with Wilson about the iPod culture. If the only way you listen to music is via a portable device that has a few thousand songs played in a random order with cheap headphones/earbuds, then I think that’s unfortunate. This is not going to bring down civilization and audiophiles shouldn’t be snubbing their noses at you. But I do feel that you’re missing something.

I’m a digital music fan. This podcast wouldn’t exist without it. And so I think it’s important to talk about ways to mediate some of the perceived problems and limitations listed above.

Regarding sonic fidelity, it’s important to note that going digital doesn’t equate to loss of quality. To understand why audiophiles shun the mp3, check out this article. In short, converting the raw audio data to an mp3 means that you lose some of that data; you lose part of frequency spectrum and thusly you lose some of the sound. That’s why the files are so small. What you can do is encode your music files in a lossless compression scheme. The result is that no quality is lost. However, the file sizes will be much bigger than an mp3, though much smaller than the raw audio data. (I’m not sure why the article lists the WAV format as being a compression scheme when it’s just the raw data.) If you’ve got a 50MB WAV file, you can squeeze that down to 25-30MB with a lossless compression format such as FLAC. (Speaking of FLAC, version 1.1.3 was just released last week.) FLAC is probably the most popular lossless compression scheme. More and more portable music devices and home stereo components are beginning to support the format. In addition, it seems to be the lossless format of choice for downloads as bands such as Primus, Metallica, and Phish are selling concert recordings in FLAC. Performances from the Bonnaroo Festival are available in FLAC and the Philadelphia Orchestra has also climbed on board. While FLAC files are much larger than mp3s, the capacity of hard drives keeps going up and the price down.

Another thing is to get a good set of earbuds or headphones. You’re not going to find a set that will match a good set of speakers but you can certainly do better than the cheapies that come with PMPs. Search the web for comparisons or just check out brands with a good reputation such as Sennheiser.

As far as getting peop
le to listen to an album in toto, I just don’t know. A national day where everyone turns off shuffle mode?

Related posts:

  1. Avant Garde Project
  2. A Little Live King Crimson For Your Asses
  3. Caveat Emptor
  4. Townshend Warns of Deafness By Ear Buds
  5. Did Sony Infect Your Computer?

4 Responses to “An Audiophile's Nighmare”

  1. Arch Stanton says:

    First off, I love my iPod! But the first thing I did was buy a decent set of noise canceling headphones. I actually find that I discover more songs when I press shuffle and walk to work.

    I think that most people rarely ever sat down and listened to an album all they way through. Nobody has the time to do it. People who argue that you must listen to an album/cd in it’s entirety to appreciate it are nostalgic for their teenage bong loading years when they could sit in their bedrooms with their black light posters expecting to get cosmic meaning from repeat listening of Dark Side of The Moon. They forget that the LP was originally just a collection of singles that was slapped together to cash in on the popularity of a particular artist.

    I do agree that these high capacity portable players do give a rise to quantity over quality.
    But in my case it’s more of a completist thing. Like trying to get ALL the albums of a particular artist.
    I think the greatest travesty created by the consumption of recorded music is the decline of people actually playing musical instruments.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_music#The_decline_of_folk_traditions_in_modern_societies

  2. Palmer says:

    Hi A.S.,
    Thanks for commenting. I certainly have nothing against iPods.
    I disagree with your assertion that people don’t have the time to sit down and listen to an album. People have the time to watch hours and hours of television a day. If they can do that, they can set aside 1 of them to listen to an album all the way through.
    Albums were originally a collection of singles, true enough. But so what? That changed to the point where some albums were most definitely not that. You gave a good example – DSotM. Just because the LP was originally one thing doesn’t mean that it’s evolution can just be cast off. Some albums beg for a listening session while others don’t.
    Folk music is a difficult topic. I would argue that one can play folk music and not use traditional musical instruments. The Wikipedia article you mentioned defines folk music as that which is “shared by the entire community (and its performance not strictly limited to a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth.” Basically it’s music not transmitted via mass communication. This definition says nothing about the methods used to make the music. As technology becomes cheaper, it becomes harder to say that folk music necessarily involves traditional musical instruments. The mass media is also changing. It’s no longer something that is strictly a product of a few mega-corporations in the largest urban centers.
    I think I see what you’re getting at but I don’t think people are going to ever stop playing traditional instruments. On the positive side, the rise of the mass media means that the variety and quantity of music available is greater than it has ever been.

  3. arch stanton says:

    The point I was trying to make was that it wasn’t so long ago when people made their own entertainment. (Playing piano in the parlor or sitting on the porch)
    With the advent of recorded music this phenomenon became less and less common.
    I agree with your argument that people should be able to give up an hour of tv to listen to music. However I think it takes a lot more brainpower to really listen to a cd than to lay on the couch in your underwear watching a King of Queens rerun.

  4. Jon Brink says:

    I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a blog. Kudos!

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