NOTE: In 2008 and 2009 I abandoned my resistance to the mp3 revolution, and now offer 7 of my 21 recordings on iTunes and a number of other legal digital download services, including Rhapsody, Spotify, Amazon MP3 and Napster. I need the exposure and the money they offer.
Apple Computer has made quite a splash in the music world with its download music store selling billions of songs and becomiong the world's largest retailer of music, with the iTunes music player and iPods that are being touted as a revolution in music. It probably does little good, as a somewhat obscure folk musician to speak a slightly unflattering opinion on the subject in today's world where the loudest and most persistent voices seem to prevail and are taken as truth, but I shall.
In case you have stumbled onto this on a web page-- I have released 21 successful CD's and have made my living performing and recording acoustic music for over 30 years. I know what music is supposed to sound like, and I have the tools to record and listen to it carefully. And I trust my own judgements a lot more than some "tech writer" at Wired Magazine who might proclaim how awesome mp3's sound. Perhaps this entitles me to expound with some authority on this subject, and I encourage you doubters to try to build a case against my credibility on this subject.
It's been a couple years since I have listened carefully to mp3's and compared them with CD's for sound quality. Last time I did so, I found them still lacking, and I recently took a hard listen to the music that Apple sells on their web site for 99c a song (technically these are mp4's, being the next generation of compression after mp3), and to what they call their "Lossless" music compression system that comes with the iTunes software. I bought some songs off the Apple web site last night that I was already familiar with, from CD's that I already owned, in order to be able to compare the quality. It was very fast and convenient, and in a few minutes I had the downloaded songs lined up in my iTunes window. I then loaded in a sound file from the CD, and made a third computer file version of the song using what Apple calls their "Lossless" converter, which they brag can shrink the size of a music file by 1/2 with no discernible loss of quality.
As I write this I am listening intently and comparing on the same headphones that I have mixed and recorded many CD's. I have chosen the 3 versions of Jackson Browne's "Farther On" , Cormac McCarthy's "Light at the Top of the Stairs", John Gorka's "Down in the Milltown", Doc Watson's "Midnight On the Stormy Deep", and Eliza Gilkyson's "Beauty Way." I chose these songs because there are sections in each of them when the singers voices raise the hair on the back of my neck every time I hear them. Its not the words or the beat that raise the hair-- it's the tone and the richness of the sound. I wish I could have bought Nic Jones "Canadee-i-o" or a Dick Gaughan song but Apple did not sell them on the their web site. "Canadee-i-o" was the song I used to test mp2's and mp3's a few years ago when they burst on the scene and the front page of Newsweek to see how they could possible throw away 90% of the digital information without affecting the listener's experience. The quavering richness of Nic's guitar and voice have thrilled me for almost 25 years, and the last thing I want if I can help it is to listen to a watered-down version of what moves me.
Well I have made my mind up again, and reached the same conclusion as before-- folks, your music experience is still being cheapened by covenience. They have done a better job of compressing, and Apple's engineers should be commended for being able to take a 30 megabyte file and squashing it to 10.4% in size to 3.2 meg (the 99c version I bought was this small) and making it sound as good as it does. A few years ago, the files that sounded this good were considerably bigger, and they have made progress in making the squashed files sound better. Their "Lossless" version of the song was 61% of the original size, and sounded in-between the other two in quality, but not what I would call "Lossless." If I were a consumer right activist I would be tempted to challenge their use of the word "Lossless". They have improved, but don't believe they are the same. If all you listen to is throw-away pop music with computer drums and electronic instruments, heavily processed and compressed, it won't matter as much and you'll be a lot less likely to notice the cheapening. It's exactly like looking at a digital photo on a web page that has been shrunk in size. If I were a visual artist I would probably notice that the colors are cheapened, and I guess that I should realize that other people can enjoy cheapened versions of music, while I can perhaps enjoy cheapened versions of digital photos more than the photographer would who took the pictures.
The two things that annoy me about the erosion of music quality that is endemic in downloaded music files are: 1) those who squash, sell and promote the compressed music behave as though it is the same as the original, and the press just lap it up like milk and do not challenge their claims. (I have never seen it in print that mp3's are not identical to a CD, and the truth is that they are not.) 2) Our appreciation of music is being cheapened, and we are not told about it, and are missing some of the vital, hair-raising elements of the music without even knowing what we are missing. This is what has always bugged me about mp3's and their ilk-- they seem to be fine, and in non-critical situations like a car or a small computer speaker they are as good as the real thing. If you listen to just the compressed version you can't imagine what is missing until you compare it with the real thing. The iPod believers are never going to do this, since they have a lot of money and convenience invested in the new technology and I doubt they would ever feel the need or have the ability to make the comparison. And what is missing? The integrity of the very parts of the music that give me a thrill are cheapened. It's not blatant, but it has been cheapened, and subtle erosion is still erosion.
It's OK that the compressed music doesn't sound quite as good as the CD-- you would expect that. What is not OK is the tacit assumption and sometimes blatant claims by the buyers and sellers of the music parties that it does. I see this as a sinister type of deception, sort of like the way beverage containers were shaped with concave bottoms to they look the same but held less liquid, or they way they started shrinking candy bars and putting cardboard spacers in so they looked to be the same size as before.
If you like music where the richness of tone is an integral part of the experience-- classical, folk, bluegrass, jazz, for example, then you are not getting the whole experience if all you do is listen on an iPod. (I have yet to test the iPod headphones, but I suspect they are not telling the whole story either.) The entertainment industry historically has let consumers have lousier technologies like cassettes, VCR's, mini-discs and now iPods, because they are cheapened versions of the original. Remember what happened when the DAT machine came along and really was capable of copying a CD exactly? They flipped out and sued everybody and soon them made illegal.
I am also a bit disturbed by the agreement that you have to agree to when you participate in iTunes and buy music. It is 80,000 words of legal fine print !!, that would take even a fast reader hours to read even if it were not complex legal jargon. I would venture a guess that not a single person who has bought music from iTunes has actually read and understood this document. This is clearly not fair and reasonable.
If you buy one of my CD's, for example, you'll find that the real songs cost less than 99c a song-- the last time I calculated it was 80c a cut on a single CD and only 62c a song if you buy one of my 2 CD sets. Plus you get unlimited use of it (Apple will not allow you to move your purchased iTunes music to more than 4 computers) and you even get photos, extensive liner notes and a full-sized jewel box, and it is already burned onto a varnished CD that will not scratch like home-burned ones, with printing and attractive art work on the disc, with a listing of all the song titles and times.
I will probably soon yield to the pressure from the future, and allow my music to be sold on iTunes as downloads, but I will do it only in the hope to make money, and in no way do I endorse the sound quality of it. In fact I will try to think of ways to encourage you listeners to try to learn to listen for more rather than less sound quality. HARVEY REID (York Maine March 2005)
©2005 by Harvey Reid
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