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Harvey Reid's MP3 Essay

WHAT IS MP3? (This was written and posted in 2000)
There has been a flurry of press devoted lately to the MP3, which is a new type of computer-based music compression algorithm that is supposedly going to revolutionize the way recorded music is distributed, sold and broadcast. A typical song in CD format (called 16-bit audio) contains about 40-50 megabytes of information, which still is quite a chunk of data even by today's standards. (My first hard drive I bought 10 years ago had 20 meg total!) An entire CD can hold 700 megabytes of information, and even at the fastest modem rate of 56k, this is still many many hours of time to transfer over phone lines. Shrinking it by a factor of 10 (to 5 meg) makes it 10 times easier to transmit, and this has now reached the "do-able" level for people (especially college students) who have fast internet connections.

In all the press I have seen, people talk as though the MP3 files sound just as good as the real thing. I have been suspicious of this, since it is hard to believe you can throw away 90% of the information and not lose anything. As a musician who records and produces acoustic music, I did a lot of careful listening and experimenting with some MP3 encoding programs and have come to some conclusions. First of all, MP3 does not sound identical to a CD. Period. MP3 in my opinion is about like a cassette in quality. (I actually prefer MP2 to MP3 for the kind of listening I do.) The 10% size compression sounds pretty good, maybe quite good, but not awesome. At the highest quality that these encoders can do, I can shrink the files to 18% of their size, and they do sound very good, and I enjoy listening to them quite a bit, and if you were not comparing them to the real thing you might not know they weren't. At the lower settings of MP3 fidelity, they sound thin and harsh to me.

As a serious musician who wants my recordings to sound as good as possible, I am more interested in ways to get better sound quality than CD's offer, not worse. Audiophiles have felt since the beginnings of CD's that the digital standards for CD's were too low, and now we are trying to make them a lot lower to make them easier to send over wires. Personally I am not excited by this very much. Do you want to listen to Pavarotti on MP3? George Jones? It is my belief that if you are listening to music where the richness of the tone is vital to the music, then MP3 will deliver you less richness and cheapen your listening experience. I find it to be sort of sinister when I compare MP3 to CD music. You can't put your finger on what's missing. You ask yourself: "Is the bass still there? The treble? Midrange?" and it is still there, but the music does not sound as rich. I worry that people will listen to my guitar and not hear the richness of the tone and not even know what they are missing. Do you want to look at prints, photocopies, or computer pictures of Van Gogh? Of course not. Well, the internet versions of music are simply not as rich as the CD versions, and even the CD versions are barely good enough. MP3 is a step in the wrong direction.

In my opinion, techno and pop music sound better on MP3 than does acoustic music, where the tone is more vital to the message. When a throbbing drumbeat and some outrageous lyrics are the message, that comes through in the lower fidelity of MP3 better than does the sound of an acoustic instrument or a beautiful voice. This is why you don't hear the classical and jazz and audio buffs raving as much about MP3. You want to hear Perlman's violin or Marsalis' horn in the best fidelity you can. When the original sound is a computer drumbeat, electric bass and electric guitars, digital keyboards, what is the point of listening in high fidelity anyway? The only thing on most pop recordings that is even recorded with a microphone is a rhythm acoustic guitar (usually played without much skill) and the singer's voice. The other 30 studio tracks are typically all synthetic and electronic anyway, and heavily processed electronically after they are recorded. Add to this the fact that almost all popular music has been heavily "compressed" in the recording studio, and you will understand why MP3 compressions of pop music sound fine to most people. Audio compression does not change the size of the data file, but makes the dynamic range or volume much narrower. There are no quiet or loud parts in a compressed piece of music, and record producers have found that they can make their songs "louder" than other songs by compressing them. When you eliminate the peaks that would red-line the tape machines, you can boost the overall level of the song higher. Technically, this is called "limiting", and compressing is when you also boost the quiet parts. Music that has been already compressed in the audio sense will be easier to compress in the digital data without losing the fidelity. When you are listening to something rich like a jazz piano or a bluegrass band, you want all the fidelity you can get. It's my belief that MP3 is a logical consequence of the trend in popular music away from capturing a recording of a real-life sound, and toward creating them in the studio using various types of electronic instruments and machines. It's sort of poetic justice. Audiophile CD's of real musical events are not going to be replaced by MP3, and throwaway pop CD's generated in a computer just might be.

Supposedly the big record companies are afraid they are going to lose control of their music, and they and many of the artists are worried. There is no question that a lot of people have been getting rich from ownership of music copyright and from selling CD's, and there is no question that the landscape of how this happens is going to change also. Some of the high-profile artists have been backing MP3, saying that they don't get any money from record sales now, so they don't care if they don't make money in the new system. This is a reflection, no doubt, of some of the bitterness they feel toward their record contracts. We may end up with a world of music sales where the middlemen get removed, and there may be no more radio stations, record stores, or record companies, or record distributers before the digital dust has settled. The latest controversy about Napster (a web service that lets people trade MP3 files with each other through a central server/library) and Gnutella (a similar service where people can trade any kind of computer file with each other, without a central server/library) may even lead to a world where big corporations who are used to making huge $ from ownership, licensing and distributed copyrighted art have to find another way to make money, which they no doubt will do if they need to. The copyright gold mine has been operating for quite a while, and it has been cleaner, safer money than operating a real gold mine. The fact that millions of college students now feel that recorded music should be free does not bode well for the future of companies that make money from selling music. (Like me!) This is very large stuff that is happening lately, and it's anyone's guess whether the cops or the robbers will win.

I make MP3 files out of my favorite music, to listen to on my laptop in hotel rooms when I travel, and in the rental car stereo (where I can wire the headphone jack of the laptop into the tape deck of the car.) I enjoy listening to it very much, and to have 6 or 7 hours of music on 1 CD is really convenient. I see MP3 as the AM radio and jukebox of the next few years, since it sounds good enough for the non-critical listening you would do in a car or over a small speaker in a store or office. We may soon have MP3 players in our cars, but I find it hard to believe that we will all get rid of our CD collections, or have one big computer in the house with all our music on it. I'd hate to think that a hard drive crash could cause me to lose my whole music collection. I love my LP's and enjoy holding Cd's in my hand and reading them and carrying them to another room. I spend enough time in front of the computer, I don't need to do that to listen to music.

I may release some "legal bootleg" recordings in MP3 format only, possibly over the Internet only as downloads or as limited-edition CD's with no printing costs. I could also include promo and catalog information on the CD's very easily. I have a lot of stuff in the vaults, such as outtakes, extra things I found in my live-CD project, (such as funny songs...) some live Christmas concerts, etc, that I like a lot, but have never wanted to spend the money and time to do all the packaging and the graphics and release as an "official" artistic statement, and distribute to radio stations. I like the fact that the stuff will be not-quite as good as the real-thing, but good enough to listen to, since that is consistent with my feelings toward the performances or the recordings themselves.

Remember that it has been possible to transmit the text of a book over the internet for years now (it's not that much data and only takes a few minutes to transmit.) Are books obselete? Are bookstores obselete? Not yet. It may be that for these very same reasons CD's will not become obsolete immediately also. People like books and they like newspapers, even though they could get their content online. I am sure the Bible is on the web somewhere, but wouldn't you like your own bound edition by your bedside instead of a computer screen or sheaf of computer printout?

Harvey Reid August 2000

5 Fernald Ave York Maine 03909  USA
phone (207) 363-1886

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