Join Date: Jan 2015
CRAPPY SOUND FOREVER
Early CDs, like the MP3s that followed, didn’t sound all that great. Dr. John Diamond treated psychotic patients with music, but by 1989 he sensed that it had all gone wrong. He claims that the natural healing and therapeutic properties of music were lost in the rush to digitize. He believes that certain pieces of music can help soothe and heal, if they are the entirely analog versions, while the digital versions actually have the reverse effect. When his test subjects are played digital recordings, they get agitated and twitchy.
Throughout the history of recorded music, we have tended to value convenience over quality every time. Edison cylinders didn’t really sound as good as live performers, but you could carry them around and play them whenever you wanted. LPs, revolving slower, didn’t sound as rich as 45s or 78s, but you didn’t have to attend to them as much. And cassettes? Are you kidding?
We were told that CDs would last forever and sound squeaky clean, but they really don’t sound as good as LPs, and the jury is out regarding their durability. The spectrum of sound on analog mediums has an infinite number of gradations, whereas in the digital world everything is sliced into a finite number of slivers. Slivers and bits might fool the ear into believing that they represent a continuous audio spectrum (psychoacoustics at work), but by nature they are still ones and zeros; steps rather than a smooth slope. MP3s? They may be the most convenient medium so far, but I can’t help thinking that the psychoacoustic trickery used to develop them—the ability to cause the mind to think and feel that all the musical information is there when in reality a huge percentage has been removed—is a continuation of this trend in which we are seduced by convenience.
It’s music in pill form, it delivers vitamins, it does the job, but something is missing. We are often offered, and gladly accept, convenient mediums that are “good enough,” rather than ones that are actually better.
Where does this road of compromise end, and does it really matter if we lose a little quality along the way? Isn’t the quality or accuracy of a recording somewhat irrelevant to music’s use and enjoyment? We laugh out loud at antics on fuzzy, grainy, and atrociously low-resolution YouTube postings, and we talk to our loved ones on mobile-phone networks with voice quality that would make Alexander Graham Bell roll over in his grave. Information theory tells us that the amount of bits needed to communicate certain kinds of content—what someone is saying, or the antics of a cat, for example—can really be much lower than we think. If we only need to understand the verbal content of someone on the telephone, then the quality can be surprisingly bad and we’ll still know what our friends and family are saying. It doesn’t seem to matter that so much is missing.
Maybe “good enough” is okay.
Or maybe not. Reacting to this tendency, some musicians have decided to go back to analog recording, and some have perversely gone out of their way to make their recordings sound as lo-fi as possible—as bad as they can get away with. They want to get as far from digital cleanliness as possible. Why would bad quality, fuzziness, and distortion imply that the music is more authentic? The idea is that if one accepts that crisp and clean recordings are inherently soulless, then the opposite, dirty and rough, must therefore be straight from the heart. That might not sound logical, but that’s the way we think. It’s all part of the recurring belief that conflates new technologies with being inauthentic. Bad—even fake bad, in this way of thinking—means good. It’s confusing, because most digital music does not sound “bad.” If anything, it sounds conventionally good—clean, spotless, with a full range of frequen- cies. Though it is actually less rich sounding than previous technologies, it fools the ear into believing that it sounds better. It’s this shiny, glossy quality that is considered suspect by many music fans. In response, they overvalue the easily audible drawbacks of a previous era—the hiss, crackle, and dis- tortion. In my opinion, realness and soul lie in the music itself, not in the scratches and pops of old records. So, while the cleanliness and “perfection”of much current music is not a guarantee of a moving musical experience, neither is their opposite.
If, following the lead of the phone company, we find ourselves talking about communication and information transmission when we talk about music, then maybe some of the sonic richness of LPs is indeed superfluous and can be eliminated with no serious loss. Could this work with speech as well? Yes and no. Music has more going on simultaneously than speech, for starters. Looking at a reproduction of a painting is certainly not the same as standing in front of the real thing, but an awful lot of the emotion, intent, ideas, and sensibility can indeed be communicated—even via a cheap repro- duction. Similarly, I can be moved to tears by a truly awful recording or a bad copy of a good recording. Would I be moved even more if the quality were higher? I doubt it. So why bother?
There does come a time, however, when the richness of the retinal or aural experience is so diminished that the communication—in this case the enjoyment of the music—becomes unintelligible. But how can we define that? I first heard rock, pop, and soul songs on a crappy-sounding transistor radio, and they changed my life completely. The sound quality was atrocious, but that tinny sound was communicating a wealth of information. Though it was an audio transmission that carried the news, it was the social and cultural message embedded in the music that electrified me as much as the sound did. Those extra-musical components that got carried along with the music didn’t demand a high-resolution signal—good enough was good enough. I’m not saying that tinny sound should be considered satisfying or desirable, or that we should never strive for more than “good enough,” but it’s amazing how much lo-fi or lo-res information can communicate. Live concerts don’t generally have perfect sound either, but they can move us deeply.
Now I begin to ask myself if the fuzziness and ambiguity inherent in low- quality signals and reproductions might actually be a factor that gives the viewer or listener a way in. I know from writing lyrics that some details—names, places, locations—are desirable; they anchor the piece in the real world. But so are ambiguities. By letting the listener or viewer fill in the blanks, complete the picture (or piece of music), the work becomes personalized and the audience can adapt it to their own lives and situations. They become more involved with the work, and an intimacy and involvement becomes possible that perfection might have kept at bay. Maybe the lo-fi music crowd has a point?
David Byrne, How Music Works