Saturday, October 20, 2012

Here's to You, MP3

The Only Sound That Matters - Band of Joy (mp3)

“There’s nothing quite like listening to music on vinyl. Best sound quality there is.”

Whenever I hear these words, I have to fight to roll my eyes, for I know then and there I am in the presence of a music snob hipster. Anyone who in 2012 insists that music cannot be appreciated without the presence of a fancy schmancy record player that costs upwards of $500-1,000 is someone with more money than sense.

Those who trumpet the sublime supremacy of vinyl love telling you how shitty mp3 files sound, how the mp3 has killed sound quality in music.

If you are a casual music fan with only casual music friends, perhaps you’ve never heard a music snob damn and degrade the mp3. Perhaps you’ve never said “mp3 is the best format” to someone and watched their faces contort and turn colors, their foreheads break into cold sweats, or their lips first smirking then smugly laughing like Uncle Joe Biden in a nationally-televised debate.

Well, dear music snob hipsters, choke on this: mp3 is the best damn thing that’s happened to music in my lifetime.

The mp3 is 17 years old or, as this NPR blog article phrases it, Midlife. (Aside: If you love music or are intrigued by the business of music and don’t keep up with NPR’s “Music Industry” blog, you're really missing out. It’s wicked good.)

Soon enough, a new format will end the mp3 reign, but that new format will not sacrifice channel efficiency for sound quality. And the sound quality isn’t nearly as bad as most snob hipsters would have you believe. Don’t take my word for it; ask an expert who wrote the book on it:
“What I would say is every medium makes compromises. So people always talk about the arbitrary — especially with digital; They say 'Well it's so arbitrary, it doesn't reproduce sound below 20Hz or above 20kHz' and those are arbitrary limits. But you could say the same thing about the RIAA curve that's applied to records, which is also a way of compensating for some of the physical limitations of the medium. So yeah, the thing about them is they sound pretty good. If you're listening on expensive speakers and paying attention, the CD version or the lossless version of something could well sound better than the MP3 version, but you also might not be able to tell, especially if you don't know what to listen for.” -- Jonathan Sterne, professor and author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format
To be clear, Prof. Sterne isn’t claiming that mp3s deliver the best sound quality, but he is suggesting that most people can’t tell a significant difference in even the ideal situations. This very unscientific test suggests as much, when even trained and music-loving ears have trouble consistently separating the high-quality sound from the crap. (There are other tests and similar findings out there, but this one amused me.) Those who praise vinyl don’t prove their point with Fisher-Price mono record players. They use high-end, expensive equipment in highly-controlled settings. But then they want to compare the resulting sound to those shitty old school 128kb (or worse) quality mp3 files. But throw on some high-quality noise-cancelling headphones and make the fight between a record player and a 192kb mp3 (which isn’t even the best), and only the best of the best music ears could tell a difference.

However, rarely in the modern world are we listening to music in ideal situations in the first place. We’re running, or we’re in our car, or we’re in our office, or we’re cooking dinner or mowing the lawn, and the music is our escape or enjoyment, soundtrack or distraction. MP3s don’t skip. A big bass thump doesn’t knock it out of kilter. The cassette deck can’t eat it. The heat can’t warp it.

Further, while that music hipster is stuck in his living room with his wall full of vinyl and cardboard, walking over to his turntable to flip the record every 15-20 minutes, I could run a marathon and listen to my mp3s the entire way, even if it took my out-of-shape ass 11 hours to complete.

I can keep my entire 11,000-song collection on one device smaller than a pack of smokes, back it up to my laptop or my deskop, and keep it in the cloud just in case. My house could burn to the ground, but my music will survive anything but a “Revolution”-like event.

So, MPEG2-Audio Layer III, I raise my drinking glass to you. You’re getting old, and those who should love you most have spent their time bullying and mocking you, but I love you, and so do millions of others out there. I hope you go out in style, and I can’t wait to see what format comes along to end your wonderful and industry-changing reign.


G. B. Miller said...

I have a vast music collection of Lp's and 45's, which basically vinyl. I also have a smaller one on CD as well.

By no stretch of the imagination am I a musical snob, but at my ripe old age (47) having seen everything come and go, I do agree with you about being able to store everything on an MP3 player.

But you do have to admit, sometimes half the fun of owning/listening to vinyl, is to find those hidden gems that are buried deep on a typical LP from the 60's thru the 90's.

Some day I do plan on coverting most (if not all) of my vinyl to CD, but in the meantime, I will enjoy my music, no matter what form it may be.

Billy said...

G.B. - Your very reasonable reply is appreciated, and you're right. If I even owned something that could play the 60-ish cassette tapes I still own (I gave my nephews my vinyl collection 12 years ago), I'd have a field day. The mixtapes alone would be savored. But anyone who stubbornly refuses to convert their older formats to mp3 because of some sound sacrifice is, in my mind, goofy. (If it's b/c the time is tough to carve out... THAT I understand.)

Bob said...

Neil Young, who seems to think about these things more than most people, says that with an mp3, you are getting 5-10% of the total song experience. He is working, based on my incomplete reading of his book, on a new format, called Purenote or something like that, that will completely enhance the listening experience. It will have the option of allowing the listener convert the sound to mp3, etc. so that they can show others what they've been missing. I hope it comes to fruition. Also, for what it's worth, when he put out the first edition of his "Archives," his suggested format was Blue-ray, which he said, for the format available right now, would deliver superior sound. Unfortunately, I have neither a Blue-Ray player or the $250 to buy that version of his early stuff. But he is serious enough about it that I have to think he's on to something, and he isn't advocating vinyl.

Billy said...

@Bob - I wonder how much of the song experience we get from live shows? Still, I like the idea. If you can keep the file size manageable, then with hard drive memory getting ever cheaper, the "Super mp3" concept seems to be the best chance at a format to knock off mp3s.