The MP3 may not be the perfect medium, but music has survived on far, far worse...
A new 20-minute documentary called Distortion Of Sound premiered in July at the Grammy Museum, and it purports to chronicle the descent of music from the pristineness of vinyl to the debasement of lossy codecs. That narrative is passed, like a football, between Quincy Jones, Manny Maroquin, Slash, Snoop Dogg and Hans Zimmer, among other producers, engineers and musicians who, over the course of the film, are portrayed as progressively angrier about the state of music distribution and consumption. Their collective ire is focused on the MP3.
The film draws on the familiar lines of contention: that MP3’s lossiness tosses out overtones and partials with the bathwater of redundant data; that convenience and portability have trumped sonic quality. It makes use of the itinerant TED-like presentation assembled by producer/engineer Andrew Scheps entitled ‘Lost in Translation: Audio Quality in Streaming Media,’ including appearances by Scheps himself. Also in the film are commentaries by Sean Olive and Chris Ludwig, both notable pro-audio industry names and both employed at pro-audio icon Harman (Olive as Director of Acoustic Research and Ludwig as Chief Engineer of Acoustic Systems). That’s worth noting because Harman also hold the film’s copyright. Further, Harman have a consumer division that markets Clari-Fi, a technology that purports to “restore the rich, original sound of music that gets lost during the digital audio compression process”. Clari-Fi might be described as a ‘contour’ button (remember those?) for the digital age.
However, the documentary on its own raises some issues. For starters, it didn’t take long for online forums to call the film out for its haziness in distinguishing data compression from dynamic compression, positioning images of brick-walled waveforms adjacent to diatribes against the MP3’s lossiness, leaving viewers who are not aware of the difference between the two types of compression with the sense that the narrators are talking about the same thing.
That’s important because this film is aimed at just that audience. They are also treated to A/B comparisons of instruments played with (data) compression toggled on and off, with the ‘on’ sections so overly and obviously decimated and distorted as to make one think they were special effects in a ‘50s Japanese monster movie. But instead of seeing the guy in the rubber suit you can virtually see the engineer’s hand over-modulating the encoder. The filmmakers — the director is Jacob Rosenberg but it’s clear that this is a consortium effort — are distorting more than the sound; it’s reality that’s being twisted. If you present data-compressed music as the obvious villain in a cheap play, nuance disappears; if an MP3 doesn’t sound absolutely terrible then it must sound good, and most of them aren’t anywhere nearly as sonically miserable as the ones portrayed in Distortion Of Sound. And by not making the distinction between the two vastly different types of compression, the film misses the opportunity to discuss how loudness also hurts sonic quality. (Kudos to the online chorus, who pointed out that Scheps mixed Metallica’s Death Magnetic LP, considered the poster child of the music-loudness wars.)
This is not all to suggest that a search for higher-quality audio isn’t a worthy pursuit, but it’s one better suited to Cervantes than Conan-Doyle. Let’s remind ourselves that whatever passes for the modern music industry was largely conceived in the back seat of a car with an AM radio and a three-inch speaker. So much of the music of the industry’s formative era was distributed through technology platforms that make an MP3 file sound like an object of worship by comparison. Car radios (pre-Bose), transistor radios in general, turntables with integrated amplifiers and speakers... These comprised an entire music distribution infrastructure for the better part of three decades, yet the music only got better. I watched Distortion Of Sound on a MacBook Air and had no problem discerning the movie’s ham-handed attempt at contrasting compressed and uncompressed audio. In fact, I’ve been known to listen to music over one of those, too, when I’m too lazy to walk across the room for a pair of headphones. I may just be listening for the song rather than the sound, and sometimes the aural shortcomings of this approach actually let the song do the same thing it did in a car 40 years ago: transcend its environment.
I attribute the film’s fuzziness on compression and other issues to inexpert editing and a lack of erudition (Rosenberg’s previous docs were on the land speed record and skateboarding) but at the end of the day I’m left wondering what the ultimate point of Distortion Of Sound is. Was it intended to preach to the converted, or convert the sonically unchurched? I’m not sure Slash and Snoop alone have enough celeb juice to pull in a critical mass of acolytes, and many of the rest of the cast are stars only in the control room. And does it matter? At this point, far larger forces will determine the course of music as a business and a culture.
At worst, however, Distortion Of Sound encourages an idealised creation myth, suggesting there once was a time where music sounded perfect all the time. It overlooks those crappy one-piece turntables and the fact that, before CDs, music formats were inherently self-destructive. That material on the end of the Q-tip used to clean cassette tape heads? That’s music. Or at least it was. Making and listening to music before the turn of the last century was often a down and dirty enterprise, but music itself turned out just fine. So yes, pursue higher-quality sound, and yes, even market some magic beans that, if they don’t actually interpolate missing data, at least induce some extra serotonin into the brain as it listens. But beware of rewriting history. And don’t forget that good music can survive damn near anything.