The MP3: an impoverished musical experience

We have many “wonderful” tango DJs on the scene these days, or at least that’s what all the marketing on FB pages tells us. In reality more often than not what I see is something like this: the “wonderful” DJ plugs the audio device into the headphone jack of the laptop (ie., no external DAC); and then plays the music from MP3 files. The music that results is downright depressing: thin, muffled, low energy, lacking in space or transparency, basically a dying corpse. If that wasn’t enough the DJ then attempts to resuscitate the victim by amping up the volume to ear-assaulting levels.

tango vinyl djIt took me a while to figure this out and now I can spot the mediocre audio setup almost the moment I enter the space. In the early 2000s this was understandable as little was understood about tango music and its requirements, at least outside of Buenos Airs. Today, however, we have access to online DJ lists and tandas, quality transfers to high resolution audio files on websites like TangoTunes which also provides ample information about tango music, and any aspiring DJ can find information on how to get acceptable sound of these in terms of the computer software and digital-to-analog converters or DACs.

Despite all of this we continue to be subjected to really awful sound at most milongas (really “practilongas”) organised by dancing teachers who are clueless about DJing themselves or about hiring competent DJs. Apparently the costs are too high and one place where these people are comfortable skimping, apart from the audio equipment, is the music files. Apparently, MP3 music files are perfectly adequate because “most people can’t tell the difference anyway”.

I’m old enough to have spent a decade or two listening to music on vinyl and then CDs using fairly good quality Hifi equipment: NAD amplifier, Harman Kardon CD player, Mordaunt Short speakers, Dual turntable. So I was a bit of a hi-fi buff. When the internet came around and you could download mp3s I was excited about the possibilities. But I noticed the clear difference in the quality of the sound compared to the CD. Clearly a 320kbps sounded better than 128kbps, but it did not sound anything like a CD.

More recently I decided to look into music reproduction for tango and in the process learned about the most recent developments in computer hi-fi or “computer audiophile”. The rules of the game have changed quite radically in particular because the traditional source of vinyl or CD was replaced by the sound or audio file (MP3, ACC, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC). Consequently where in the past one had to consider a good quality turntable and/or CD player today you must consider the audio player software (iTunes, Traktor, Audirvana 3, JRiver Media Center, etc.), additional sound processing software or “filters”, and the digital-to-analog converter or DAC (DragonFly, Chord Mojo, Chord Hugo 2, etc.)

Generally speaking the discussion of a computer audiophile setup as it relates to classical music will also apply to tango although tango might have some special considerations. Not all classical music is recorded in the same manner. I found that classical orchestras that use period instruments have a similar sound to tango recordings. These orchestras use instruments that would have been in use when the music was originally composed rather than their more modern versions and therefore tend to be recorded in a way that tries to capture the timbre and ambience of the individual instruments rather than just the content of the music as it emerges out of the whole orchestra.

In other words, we want an acoustic image where there is a clear separation of the instruments that captures the characteristics of the various instruments whether they occupy the space in the low, midrange, or high range of the acoustic spectrum. If find that the EDO recordings also preserve the timbre of the instruments as it would have been immediate to the players and audiences at the time. With a good recording you can clearly here the separation of the bandoneon, the violins, the piano and the bass in their respective place on the spectrum. All these acoustic instruments emit complex sounds that are due to harmonics, so that a given note played on an instrument is actually a collection of several notes. So in the process of recording and reproduction you want to capture the richness of the acoustic signal as much as possible.

Now, when the audio industry was transitioning from analogue formats such as the vinyl record and the tape to the digital medium of the compact disc it was decided that in order to capture the maximum amount of information the ideal format is 24bit/96kHz. I have a vague understanding of what this means, but basically this format samples most of the information that is audible to the human ear. Some advocates of high resolution or HiRes audio argue for higher, and the CD is able to contain more information, much more than the vinyl record. But 24/96 was considered adequate even for most audiophile purposes.

Now, when the first computer audio files were brought out the purpose was to be able to transfer sound over what was at that time very slow internet. An uncompressed sound file takes up more than 10Mb of space and at that time hard drives were small and the internet was slow. This would take hours to download. The MPEG standard was developed for compressing music files. As Wikipedia tells us:

In regard to audio compression (the aspect of the standard most apparent to end-users, and for which is it best known), MP3 uses lossy data-compression to encode data using inexact approximations and the partial discarding of data. This allows a large reduction in file sizes when compared to uncompressed audio. The combination of small size and acceptable fidelity led to a boom in the distribution of music over the Internet in the mid- to late-1990s, with MP3 serving as an enabling technology at a time when bandwidth and storage were still at a premium. … With the advent of portable media players, a product category also including smartphones, MP3 support remains near-universal.

MP3 compression works by reducing (or approximating) the accuracy of certain components of sound that are considered (by psychoacoustic analysis) to be beyond the hearing capabilities of most humans. …  Compared to CD-quality digital audio, MP3 compression can commonly achieve a 75 to 95% reduction in size. For example, an MP3 encoded at a constant bitrate of 128 kbit/s would result in a file approximately 9% of the size of the original CD audio. (emphasis added)

So the main purpose of the MP3 format was eliminating a lot of information in order to reduce the file size while retaining an “acceptable” quality of sound. Most discussions today concern the issue of what is “acceptable fidelity” and what is “beyond the hearing capabilities of most humans”, with arguments such as that “most people can’t tell the difference”. This begs the question why prior to the MP3 the standard of music reproduction was 24bit/96kHz?

So while the original intent was the compression of the music file so that it can be more easily stored and transferred, what has happened subsequently is that new music was recorded so as to sound good even when reproduced from an MP3 file. In other words, whereas previously the CD set the standard of music production and reproduction, now MP3 became the new standard. That has meant that most people are mostly exposed to music reproduced from MP3 and rarely hear music reproduced from CDs on quality audio equipment.

Now when you compress a recording of classical or tango music to the MP3 format you effectively strip the music to its bare musical content losing a lot of acoustic  information that contributes to its atmosphere that is critical to the aesthetic experience of the listener. People who are trained in listening to music or have listened to high quality reproduction of the music are able to immediately perceive these aspects. But most people are still able to respond to these aspects without being consciously aware or being able to articulate them. The problem is that most people have become so used to MP3 that they accept them uncritically.

DJ setup Foobar 2000So the idea that MP3s are acceptable and that CD quality or high resolution 24bit/96kHz files are redundant strikes me as utterly absurd, so-called comparison tests notwithstanding. It is true that people are nowadays constantly exposed to low quality sound reproduction to the point of being unable to discriminate between acceptable and impoverished sound reproduction. It is the sad reality that we are exposed to more “music” then ever before, but most of that is really musical noise that only succeeds in blunting our sense of hearing. I reproduce below an excerpt from an article written in 2001 by the musician/composer Mark Polscher that addresses some of the issues relating to the proliferation of MP3s. I used Google Translate and did some minor editing to improve clarity.


8-bit music is produced in 24-bit studios, sold in MP3 quality and consumed through 6 channels

By Mark Polscher

Source: Telepolis

[…]

The data-compressing MP3 algorithm has the logical consequence of a general reduced perception of music

What was initially intended as a compromise and concession due to low transmission speed on the internet is establishing itself as a musical norm and not only on the sales and retail side. For many musicians and music producers MP3 has become a reference for artistic production. With growing awareness that 8 bits are completely sufficient for most contemporary music anyway the MP3 format with its tonal inadequacies represents an artistic loss for only a few. AB comparisons to prove that the difference in sound between MP3 and CD is hardly audible are proudly announced.

This is not surprising. Almost all of the music samples used were “composed” from the outset in a multi-evaluation manner and industrialized in terms of sound technology, so that a new compression by MP3 could no longer harm the production of such quality. The fact that the MP3 format was able to spread so successfully in a short time has nothing to do with the original idea of compressing music files so they can be quickly sent over the internet with low bandwidth, but with the fact that the data-compressing MP3 algorithm is the logical consequence of a general lowering of the perception of music.

In times when the decisive cultural trends emanate from the standard pop machine and an incessantly sounding data stream terrorises our world, it is not surprising that music is only used as a permanent karaoke for a universal attitude to life. Admittedly, it doesn’t matter at which tonal and aesthetic level the global soundtrack occurs. MP3 has long since mutated from the Internet file format to the sound standard.

In this light, the whole question of copyright appears like a historical apercu, where entertainment device manufacturers and consumers remain unimpressed. I am afraid that more and more musicians and music producers are constructing their music in terms of the MP3 format right from the start and are completely uncritical as to both industry standards and renewed inferior standardisation. And all without need: the Internet business with music is idle and, more importantly, the Internet is further away than ever from becoming a mass medium. There are various options for non-data-reduced archiving (storage has never been so cheap), and the commercially available CD will undoubtedly remain the medium for music for a long time to come.

But of course the whole point is not with MP3. The fact that music has already been conceived and created with reduced data in its creative phase is the result of a reduced-imagined and position-compressed stance towards the work itself and only clears the way for the standardised sound porridge of our day. As long as composers and producers continue to turn away from the essence of music and give up the creative moment in favour of a consumer-oriented fabrication the door to regression and flattening in music remains open.

All of this is also in grotesque contradiction to the efforts of the music and entertainment electronics manufacturers to blast the high-definition DVD technology in 24 bit and 96 kHz for both the musician and the listener. In the meantime, every Aldi PC has been equipped with a 24-bit converter and the countless samplers in children’s rooms in the western world process their audio snippets in DVD quality. The manufacturers promise the music producers a sound engineering paradise and the music consumer consciousness-enhancing sound experiences in front of the television. On the one hand it is rather uncomfortable to see how you have been trying to define various DVD standards for years, and once again solely and exclusively favor economic and political rituals with this or that technique, on the other hand it is a sad pleasure to experience, how the advertisement suddenly discovered sound and depth as the highest quality feature in music. But what kind of works are they supposed to be? The hit parade in 24 bit and 6 channels for breakfast television?

I doubt that the benefits of DVD and other new sound carriers can be conveyed to music consumers. The system blocked the access itself – and the sad thing is that the musicians, composers and interpreters, who actually concern it the most, contributed to it themselves with their humility towards the phono companies.

MP3 may have been a political move

The fact that the manufacturers of music reproduction equipment and home electronics still get their money’s worth can be attributed to McLuhan’s phenomenon “the medium is the message”: 8-bit music is produced in 24-bit studios, sold in MP3 quality and consumed in 6 channels. When the movement started a few years ago, after some hesitation, I decided to put two of my works on my homepage as an MP3 download. Still intoxicated by the utopian idea of digital democracy and excited about the technical possibilities of having alternative publication and distribution channels, I thought that this was an artistically adequate way of presenting my music to a wider public.

Regardless of the unsatisfactory sound results in the MP3 encoding of my pieces and always hoping that this algorithm was only a transition format, which will soon be replaced by an acceptable further development, it was also important for me to be part of this movement to be and take a position against the phono empire. But that was of little interest and the low audio quality quickly met the demands of both producers and consumers.

In doing so, immensely important musical information is lost during coding: the criteria used in information technology processes for data reduction, redundancy and irrelevance are both used in MP3 technology. The lossy coding of audio material uses the effects of frequency and temporal concealment and forms the basis for reducing the depth effect, dynamics and spatiality to a minimum or eliminating them completely. But these are essential parameters that serve to clarify music and coordinate multi-layered perception for musical deepening.

The fact that there are only a few musicians involved and only a few listeners can and want to perceive this is sad enough, but to say that this is not relevant musical information is simply stupid. The fact that one wants to do without these artistic expressions fits all too well into the one-dimensional thinking and feeling of our day. If music is produced from the outset according to the new industry standard, it certainly says something about the quality of the creative process. If the composer can’t or refuses to perceive losses in coded audio this says something about his sensitivity. If you find this sort of music, you should avoid it.

I have now decided not to make any further MP3 encoding of my music and for the two works “are there two? Are there more than two” and “vme” expressly on my homepage to point out that the recordings, similar to the Real streaming format that I also offer, are only a reference to the studio production, for which an appropriate sound carrier is required. Incidentally, when I download one of my MP3-encoded pieces, I no longer have any copyright concerns, because it is not a digital copy of the work, but only an incomplete reference to it. MP3 could have been a political move. Composers and interpreters could have assumed a high degree of responsibility and self-determination. Instead, however, they again prefer to continue to allow the industry regulate our aesthetic and economic future.