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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Digital Era of Music: Quantity over Quality

Convenience is a highly valued attribute for any product, but often comes at the expense of sacrificing quality.  Portable music started with the Sony Walkman during the era of cassette tapes, followed by the Discman after the introduction of the Compact Disc.  The digital era arrived at the dawn of the mp3, which allows users to carry a much larger variety of music on smaller devices like the iPod or other mp3 players.  The trade-off for this innovation in portable music is sound quality, and unfortunately the majority of today's users are so desensitized by the convenience they no longer care about the dramatic loss of sound they're experiencing.

The mp3 is a compressed audio file generated from a computer algorithm that basically removes portions of the source audio in order to maintain a smaller file size.  This allows the user to store more songs on their portable media device, thus putting more value on quantity over quality.  The highest quality attainable with an mp3 file is a 320kbps sampling rate which probably means nothing to most people unless compared to the uncompressed sound of a CD with a sampling rate of 1411kbps.  Even without an explanation of what those numbers mean, it's clear that the rate of the mp3 is significantly lower, and that translates to a greatly diminished listening experience.  Streaming music on Pandora and similar sites is no different, because the music is presented in a highly compressed format so that playback is smoother, mostly to account for various Internet connection speeds.  The best analogy for this is the difference between hearing the same song on a high-quality sound system vs. a cheap pair of speakers or earphones.  For those who prefer a visual example, it's like the difference between standard definition and high definition TV.  Standard Definition (cable TV) is displayed at 480p, while High Definition is displayed at 1080p.  The same image is presented through both outputs, but obviously High Definition presents it with far more clarity and color depth.  If you apply that concept to music, it's easy to imagine how much more dynamic and rich your favorite music sounds if listened to without compression. 

The film "Distortion of Sound" provides an in-depth look at the sacrifice of sound quality in portable audio, from both mp3's and streaming music, much to the dismay of artists who regret having their music heard with significantly compromised quality.  Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park discusses the frustration in pouring time and effort into his music only to have it heard through poor quality mediums that compromise the work that went into creating it.  I consider that film to be a great companion piece to another film, "Sound City", which focuses more on the recording process but shares the emphasis on quality.  Both films are equally important for educating people about just how much is being lost in translation as listeners become more detached with the importance of music and the experience it can provide.  Meanwhile, they're less concerned with the quality of the music they're listening to despite the amount of effort being made by artists to put their best work in the hands of their fans.  Hip Hop artist Snoop Dogg and Rock guitarist Slash discuss the overall musical experience that has become significantly devalued in the digital era as physical media like CD's and vinyl have been all but forgotten except by audiophiles (people who value and appreciate hearing music as intended).

Beyond the loss of audio quality, music as an art has become horribly devalued in the digital format.  Listeners rarely purchase an album and listen to it from start to finish, taking the journey the artist was on while creating it.  The convenience of buying individual tracks has replaced the immersive experience of holding the physical album in your hands and turning the pages of the liner notes as the album plays.  While illegal downloading has been the undisputed catalyst for the hobbled music industry, a great deal can be said for those who stopped appreciating music as the most powerful and unifying form of art it always has been and will continue to be.  Music cannot be truly appreciated when it's not heard as it was created by the artist, and the proof is in the sound.