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Thursday, October 28, 2010

How Does the CD Sound?

I'm almost 60 years-old. My interest in music began very early in life with 45 records from the Hit Parade, progressed through classic albums of the British Invasion and American rockers, and continues through today with Cd's and MP3's of many styles. Music, to me, meant studying the advance release list, picking up the best recordings on their first day of release, and running to my stereo to discover new worlds. And, of course, sharing the information and the recording with my other music-minded friends.

Collecting music and listening to it could be called a hobby or an interest. Yet, to me, it was much more: music was my passion. I read about it, pursued it, and considered additions as "sound treasures." The better the sound of the recording in a listening environment, the more I was satisfied. With good high fidelity equipment, I became an addict of quality sound reproduction. That was the heyday of the stereophonic recording boom, during the 1960s and later. I had become an audiophile.

Not too many years ago, I noticed an absence of such quality in many of the CD's I had bought. I had read about studios using compression and high volume due to the overwhelming use of portable listening devices. Still, I thought audiophiles would always have a chance to grab a well-done recording or two at a local store. Boy, was I wrong.

Change accompanies time, and change in the record business results from general consumer demand. As consumer electronics companies began to offer endless devices for music on the go, recording studios retooled their productions to accommodate the new electronics. Now, music had wheels: it could be taken anywhere with minimum effort. Now, the recording game has become dominated by music that requires utility instead of high fidelity.

Jacob Ganz of NPR Music sums up the changes in music during the 1990's:

"So, here goes. In the middle of the 1990s, programmers came up with a method of shrinking the size of digital audio files without losing too much of their audio quality. They called it MPEG-1 audio layer 3. At the very end of that decade, a college student named Shawn Fanning started a Web-based program called Napster that enabled users to share MP3 files. Feverish bootlegging followed. The recording industry battled back with lawsuits. Apple dominated the market for MP3 players with its iPod, released in late 2001. Online retailers began offering legal downloading alternatives. Apple dominated this market with iTunes. MP3 blogs, aggregators and BitTorrent programs offered new ways to "own" music without actually paying for it. Record sales collapsed. (Deep breath.) But here's the thing: It's possible that music lovers today have more access, and listen to more music, than ever before."  ("The Decade In Music: The Way We Listen Now," NPR Music, December 2, 2009)

Reasons For the Change

When digital technology and compact disc recordings came along in the mid-1980s (and innovations in the industry were historically driven by classical music audiophiles), they were touted as space-saving conveniences, much as MP3s are touted today. And, the selling point was the sound quality: free of surface noise and crackle, crystal clear, not subject to deterioration. "But as CD's gained popularity, a backlash came from traditional audiophiles, who castigated the sampling of sound involved in the new technology," said Mark Katz, assistant professor of music at the University of North Carolina. (Anthony Tommasini, "Hard to Be an Audiophile in an iPod World," The New York Times, November 25 2007)

“But recorded sound as a re-creation of reality has almost been dropped,” Katz added, pointing out that ads today for MP3s and iPods seldom make claims for the beauty of the sound. Ads depict stylish people with iPods as clipped-on, portable accessories to clothing. The reproduced sound, if not rich and deep, is clear and lively.

Many defenders of the old analog technology used in stereo recordings said that the missing slices of music on CD's (Sampling bits are used for CD's production.) undermined the sound quality. They said it was clear and flawless sound that lacked warmth and richness.

In addition to the convenience and portability of music now, other factors have contributed to the shift that alienates the audiophile.

1. There is a staggering amount of diverse music to listen to.

Music journalist Maura Johnston says, "When I was commuting, I used to bring this huge wallet of CDs with me, so I had 24 CDs, which was a big deal. But, I mean, now you can just bring thousands of songs with you on the train. You don't have to make those choices where you're thinking about, 'OK, well, I don't have the space to bring this, so what should I bring instead?' I think that, now, it's shifted from a question of space to a question of time." ("The Decade In Music: The Way We Listen Now," NPR Music, December 2, 2009)

2. Although people may know more about music and listen to more music, they don't want to own it.

Music now is often put into files which are easy to manipulate (add to or delete). Of course, files can even get lost but are relatively easy to replace. Some people who like music just stream it. "Maybe they just listen to it on the bands' MySpace pages — you know, whatever it is, hear it in passing," says Josh Madell, who, owns a record store in Manhattan called Other Music. For Madell that's a flaw of new listening.  "I think that people's connection to artists are maybe not as deep," Madell says, ("The Decade In Music: The Way We Listen Now," NPR Music, December 2, 2009)

3. The use of  computers has allowing online sharing to be very prevalent.

We used to hear wonderful sound coming out of large speakers. Our friends would come over to listen to a brand-new album we just purchased. Now, we download songs from MP3 blogs, post a link on Sendspace and send a note to friends, or stream the song from our Tumb.

4. Most people are satisfied with the sound quality of MP3's or similar formats.

Most music lovers don't care to listen critically to music in high fidelity. The 256Kbps and 320Kbps MP3's are pretty indistinguishable from CD quality anyway, and most folks listen to MP3's that are recorded at lower standards such as 192Kbps or even 128 Kbps. The lower bitrates require less room and allow people to put more music on their listening devices. 

“An important shift in the rhetoric of recordings has occurred,” said Mark Katz, an assistant professor of music at the University of North Carolina. Historically “the stock rhetoric concerned fidelity.” Looking back through his research files, Mr. Katz found fascinating advertisements from as early as the 1890s touting the Berlin Grammophon. “It does not imitate,” a typical ad states. “It reproduces sound with lifelike purity and tone.” That mystique lasted a good hundred years, Mr. Katz said. (Anthony Tommasini, "Hard to Be an Audiophile in an iPod World," The New York Times, November 25 2007)

What kid today would want to buy a turntable, an amplifier, two speakers, and go to the record store? "And the times, they are a'changing."

"Maybe I wanted to hear it so badly that my ears betrayed my mind in order to secure my heart."  --Margaret Cho

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