Felix Salmon

The upside of lo-fi

By Felix Salmon
December 12, 2009

Tyler Cowen is weeping over the fact that younger listeners now prefer the sound of degraded-quality MP3s to that of CDs. Nick Spence has more, pointing out that this is just a 20-years-on reprise of the CD vs vinyl debate; his story ends with this quote.

“What you are hearing is that everything is being squared off and is losing that level of depth and clarity,” said producer Stephen Street, the man behind hits from The Smiths, Morrissey, Blur and Kaiser Chiefs. “I’d hate to think that anything I’d slaved over in the studio is only going to be listened to on a bloody iPod.”

The fact is, of course, that consumers never have listened to uncompressed digital music files played through high-end studio monitors, and they never will. Meanwhile, Lou Reed dreams of a world where people who try out an MP3 then go out and buy a version they “can actually listen to”.

In the real world, something similar but more exciting is happening: people try out an MP3 and then go out and listen to the artist in question live. We’ve left the world where recorded music tries to replicate the live experience with maximal fidelity; we’ve entered a world where recorded music is its own art form, as well as acting as an advertisement for a separate-but-related art form of live music. The bifurcation has created some interesting epiphenomena, such as the auto-tune craze; it has also helped to create what is arguably the largest and most vibrant live-music scene of all time.

The losers in this game might well be the likes of Stephen Street: there are fewer mega-artists willing and able to spend millions of dollars producing and polishing studio albums. Indeed, even the likes of Radiohead have decided that the whole concept of the studio album is outdated and have said that they will not record any more of them. But live shows will continue to improve, and music of both kinds will continue to be made and consumed by more people than ever before. So me, I’m smiling, not weeping.

Update: D^2 has some trenchant words for Mr Reed.

13 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

“younger listeners now prefer the sound of degraded-quality MP3s to that of CDs”.

I think it’s more that they can’t afford the cost of better quality music. This is one way how a lower standard of living manifests itself – lower quality products. And regardless of what all those people who say “slave-like labor in Asia has increased our standard of living” think, getting more stuff of lower quality is not always better.

Relative to how much money people make and how much everything costs, $12 or $15 or whatever it is a CD costs (I haven’t bought one in maybe 6 years, ever since I signed up for itunes and then started using Amazon’s MP3 service) is more than what a lot of people can afford. Also, it’s not as convenient. Why should people be forced to buy plastic disks to get music, instead of buying digital files? CDs are still digital versions of music, and the music industry could sell digital music of equivalent sound quality, and charge a slight premium, but they choose not to. That is their decision, not the consumers.

Offering high bit rate or lossless compressed music for a slight premium would generate additional revenue for the music industry at almost zero incremental cost, but instead of trying that or other marketing techniques (people pay a premium for vodka, jeans, and other stuff that have little differentiation but have upscale images), the industry would rather resort to lawsuits, lobbying, and lying. Their days are numbered, anyway, they’re just parasitic middlemen whose zero added value will eventually be discovered by the artists.


Posted by OnTheTimes | Report as abusive

With current bandwith and the memory capacity of digital players, I say the time for lossless music is now. I’m no expert, but I would guess that the amp in these minuscule devices is a big limitation to quality.

Posted by Learry | Report as abusive

once upon a time, record companies did add value: john hammond spends a couple of days in kansas city during august, 1936, and the next thing you know, count basie and pete johnson and joe turner and hot lips page are signing recording contracts, but the core competency of the record business today appears to be wishful thinking.

as for sound quality, long ago and far away i remember an interview with keith richards in which he said something about “those little 7-inch pieces of plastic out of memphis and chicago on those shitty little speakers and they just exploded.”

Posted by howard7 | Report as abusive

Younger listeners don’t necessarily prefer mp3s, they are choosing the price-quality ratio they prefer — 1411Kps (CD) for $18 vs. 128kps for $0. Not a hard choice, apparently.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Actually, the audio quality of the signal from an iPod is comparable to what you’d get from a good CD player– the losses in quality come from encoding and then pushing the result through earbuds.

Current popular digital audio formats generate files that are about a tenth the size of the unencoded, uncompressed files on an audio CD– lossless compression will decrease the CD file size by about half, so downloading lossless encoded albums multiplies your storage and bandwidth needs by about a factor of 5 to 10. Which is too much for most users. And when you send that signal through earbuds, you’ve lost the regained quality. I’d go for a small increase in encoding quality (maybe 384 instead of the current 256 from the iTunes store), but more than that would be a waste.

Posted by MattF | Report as abusive

I am a huge music fan. Fidelity has always been important to me. When I first got an mp3 player in the late 90′s I did not have the hard drive space to keep good quality mp3s. So I kept less of them.

I ripped 320mbps mp3s from my CDs for years and built up a decent collection. I generally have had to do it from physical CDs and over the years I can not tell you how much I have spent on CDs to use them once to rip them and put them away in a closet after. At the time you were lucky to get a 192mbps variable bit rate on a commercial site.

Over time the mp3s available have become better. Amazon.com has 256mbs mp3s as their standard (which are acceptable), and they have carried 320 constant bit rate mp3s for some albums (I believe Radiohead required it for sale of In Rainbows last year).

The iPod actually has great sound quality if you add a good pair of headphones. I use a pair of Etymotics and 320mbps mp3s. The sound is good. I am sure a purist could explain why it is still not like listening to studio monitors, but I will bet the reproduction I get is better than 99% of equipment used to listen during the best days of the CD player.

How many CD buyers were going home and listening on studio monitors? Or even a decent pair of speakers running off a decent amp? How many home CD stereos would have compared to the sound produced by an Apple iFi with an iPod playing a lossless compressed track? Probably not many bought outside of a specialty store.

The fidelity is out there for those who want it as has been the case. As the cost of storage and bandwidth continues to drop the availability should increase.

If record companies want people to fall in love with that depth of sound again they need to speed up the process. With the advances in production styles and techniques I do not understand how there is not a greater push in that direction yet from the artists if not the record companies… but it will come soon enough.

Posted by KidA | Report as abusive

All that an iPod needs to sound like music is a pair of Telefunken 12AX7s in the output stage.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

It’s depressing that people think a 128kpbs .mp3 file is adequate. And more so that the real state of the art in audio is much better than CD, or any PCM format, namely 1 bit, and it sounds stunning.

Of course it’s even more depressing that as a society we’ve decided it’s ok for music to be uncompensated.

Now there will never be another Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin again. No one would finance such an expensive recording with no prayer of return.

So we must listen to laptop-produced auto-tuned garbage till the end of time.

Just the latest in a string of depressing things going on these days.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

maynardGkeynes said:

“All that an iPod needs to sound like music is a pair of Telefunken 12AX7s in the output stage.”

As record producer with at least two dozen pieces of high-end tube (that’s what a 12AX7 is for the uninitiated) audio gear, I can’t begin to tell you what a stupid and unuseful statement that is.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

To: anonymous. It was meant as a silly joke (ie, a vacuum tube iPod), but not well stated. iPods sound horrible to me. We agree. Really.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

To: Anonymous @ 4:36: 128Kbps MP3 quality is more than adequate for many listening environments. Is it what I listen to at home, where I have a decent hi-fi setup? Of course not. But does the convenience of having my entire CD collection on my iPod outweigh the loss of quality when I just want to listen to some music on the bus on the way to work, or at work where I can’t play it loud enough for critical listening anyway? Absolutely.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Uh, Radiohead is not “done” with LPs – I’m afraid your info is a little out of date. See here:

http://onethirtybpm.com/2009/10/07/radio head-to-record-new-album-this-winter/

Posted by tepr | Report as abusive

“We’ve left the world where recorded music tries to replicate the live experience with maximal fidelity; we’ve entered a world where recorded music is its own art form, as well as acting as an advertisement for a separate-but-related art form of live music. ”

Ah, recorded music stopped trying to replicate the live experience decades ago, the whole studio as art canvas began with Sgt. Pepper and peaked in the 70s. Queen didn’t have 9 vocal tracks on stage to layer like Bohemian Rhapsody. Moving up from 8 to 24 tracks, increased separation and overdubbing capabilities, etc.

Music was always listened to in a compromised way. The whole of mono recording and mixing techniques from the 50s and 60s was geared towards a.m. radio, not exactly hi fi. CDs are compressed, and modern studio mixing is super compressed, low dynamic range (see multiple screeds from mastering engineers online).

I wouldn’t call the modern live music scene the most lively or interesting, its going the other way…. acts using Logic and pro tools to trigger lots of secret studio audio into the “live” act, making it more a reproduction of studio and less spontaneous and genuine. Studio isn’t an ad for live, live is a canned repro of studio. Including the use of auto-tune for its intended purpose, to fix up poor singing.

Auto-tune pumped up as in hip hop is the equivilent of the 80s gated drum, a technology turned into a gimmick.

Posted by CASLondon | Report as abusive

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