Friday, October 03, 2014

Stop whinging about the distortion of sound and make records we like.

This has had three and a half million views on You Tube. It's a short documentary about the shortcomings of compressed music made by audio firm Harman.

It features Snoop Dog, Slash, Kate Nash, Hans Zimmer, Lianne La Havas, Mike Shinoda and other musicians, bemoaning the fact that over the last ten years we've traded audio excellence for convenience. An MP3 file short-changes us in terms of quality and we don't care. Given the amount of time and care the musicians put into their recordings, ain't that a shame?

Problem is there's no sign that we care. And there's no point bitching about our obsession with convenience or the fact that these days You Tube is the record business, the radio and the printed media all put together.

That massive movement has benefited the musicians. If it weren't for today's virtual free flow of recorded music most of those people in that film wouldn't be well-known enough to be in that film. When music was hard to find and difficult to afford there were far fewer prominent musicians. The perceived preciousness of music is directly related to its scarcity. Those days are not coming back. These people should thank their lucky stars.

Some of the greatest records I ever heard were made in spite of the limitations of the recording medium and the manufacturing technology. Lee Perry's records wouldn't have been any better if the tape had run at the proper speed and the record had been on virgin vinyl. They had the power to move and next to that sound quality is nothing.

I listen to the musicians in that film and I think that if I were to hear their recordings in the way they intended it wouldn't make all that much difference to the way I felt about them. If it's great music it will be great no matter how compressed it is. If it's middling all the expansion in the world won't make it any more than that.

This is a classic case of Hepworth's Law Of Improvement, which I developed over years of watching people trying to improve magazines. There's improvement, then there's the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there's the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.

Only the third sort is worth the trouble.


  1. Over the years, when I've had a chance to buy higher-quality equipment, I've always asked myself 'New amplifier or 100 more CDs?' More music always won. Now, aged 57, my ears wouldn't notice any improvement over 320kbps mp3.

    The music is always more important: if you're listening 'for' the music, you're not listening 'to' it.

  2. I couldn't agree more. As a youngster I was always saving for hi-fi upgrades and seeking the ultimate listening experience. It was expensive and so was purchasing LP/CDs.

    Now I have a Google Play Music subscription and a Sonos system and consequently listen to about 4 times more music than I ever did, especially freshly discovered music from new bands.

  3. This is nonsense, really. mp3's aren't different to listening to cassette tapes, tiny transistor radios, tv speakers and all the other ways people have heard music over the years. Arguably high rate mp3's are better than those sources. Of course musicians and a proportion of listeners want to hear it through high end hifi, and yes it does sound great, but a) this option is still available and b) it is, and always was, a select minority of the buying public. So spare us the bleating, and make great records - btw was a 45rpm single high fidelity? I don't think so, but they sounded great.

  4. "btw was a 45rpm single high fidelity? I don't think so, but they sounded great".

    They still sound great. As do all the mono LPs and EPs. Experts and sundry knowalls have been faffing and fiddling about with the sound of records (in its widest sense) since before Stonehenge were a lad. Enhanced Stereo anyone? And as for remastered this and that, well sometimes it’s okay, but if it’s not what we want to hear, leave the bugger alone.
    I’m all for the artists recording and giving us the best sound they possibly can, but how do they know what we’re hearing. They don’t.
    I love The Beatles but got sick to death of Lennon saying he’s like to do all the Beatles stuff again because he could make it so much better now. No he couldn’t.
    As David says, if the music’s okay, the rest takes care of itself.

  5. I never enjoyed music as much as I did when it was emanating through the tinny speakers of my red Panasonic radio cassette player. A good song is a good song.

    That said the recent remastering of Nirvana's Nevermind exchanges nuance for volume. It's appalling and utterly cynical and it breaks my heart that if you buy the album now, this is the version you get. I'm so glad that I held on to my original CD copy.