Friday, September 19, 2008

High Fidelity

Last December, Rolling Stone magazine published an article entitled "The Death of High Fidelity". It describes the various ways in which music in the digital age is tweaked to sound louder at the cost of clarity and subtlety. This is easiest to hear when comparing original tracks with so-called remastered tracks. This kind of interference isn't even as bad as it gets. Does your band have a drummer who can't quite keep time? No problem, Beat Detective will take care of it. Tone-deaf singer? Auto-Tune to the rescue. It's a travesty. Such micromanagement of sound, especially with a keyboard and mouse, kills the soul of music.

From the article:
"With the Beatles or Rolling Stones, they'd be a little sharp or flat, but no one would care — that was rock. Now if someone's out of tune or out of time, they treat it as a mistake and correct it."
— Ted Jensen, mastering engineer

I like to think that my favorite modern bands wouldn't stoop so low, that they have enough talent and pride to only cut authentic songs. I know for a fact that couple of bands I enjoy listening to have used analog-only recording techniques on all or most of their albums, giving them a distinct low-fi sound (The White Stripes and the lesser-known Rust Belt blues rock duo The Black Keys). One of my favorite albums of all time, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is purposefully distorted in a way that makes you want to check your speakers at first, but I later learned to relish. I have trouble believing that much indie music is changed in the way the article describes, and hip-hop is an entirely different department. I imagine (or maybe just hope) that this phenomenon is confined to the kind of stuff you hear repeated endlessly on MTV.

MP3s haven't helped this situation much. Sure, over your average person's computer speakers, or through the low quality headphones that most people have, bitrate and compression probably don't have much of a noticeable detrimental effect. But plug your iPod into a hifi system worth something, or a good pair of cans, and suddenly 128 kb/s doesn't cut it. I use in-ear headphones, ER-6i's from Etymotic. They are a small Illinois-based hearing aid company that made the jump to really outstanding products for music. The ER-6i's are designed with the iPod in mind, which means they boost the bass a little compared to their other offerings, which are aimed at a professional crowd. I can say without a doubt that no other electronic product that I own has brought me so much joy. They passively block out almost all noise, and then reproduce sound in a way that I have only ever heard with a really high quality hifi system. I remember how amazing it was to listen to my favorite music when I first got these - I heard things I had never heard before. The soft shake of a maraca in the background of a song, whispers between the band members, etc.

Alas, the exceptional quality of these headphones came with a major drawback. They are so good at what they do that no detail goes unnoticed. The clicks and pops inherent to mp3s that have been encoded with shoddy software are more apparent. Low-bitrate finally meant something other than diskspace. Buying these headphones turned me on to the substantial audiophile community that exists online. I learned to use software like EAC to extract music from CDs, and LAME to convert those .wav files into mp3s that I am completely unable to distinguish from the originals. I.e. there is a way to do things correctly, we can have our cake and eat it too with enough effort.

To keep music sounding good as we convert to a completely-digital music marketplace, artists, music distributors, and listeners are going to have to take part. Don't mix for the radio, use high bitrates, and invest a little in headphones. Once you have heard your favorite music 'the right way', it's impossible to go back.

No comments: