Musical Enjoyment and why Quality Matters
There’s a number of incredibly important issues within sphere of music distribution that have sidestepped the general public consciousness in recent years. The advent of digital music began a convenient decline into some very sub-par sound standards across the popular music-listening world. One topic, the drastic limiting of dynamic range across recorded music – compression – was detailed in a previous article on our former site. The other top music format concern is one of fidelity. Mp3s are ubiquitous now. Many artists (including myself) no longer consider the compact disc a significant audio format. What does this mean for those of us who listen to music, casually or otherwise?
A-B tests, what are they good for?
Producer Allen Farmelo has recently written an article in response to a lot of the criticism that has recently been leveled at Neil Young’s recent venture into high quality audio distribution. A significant reason why lossy audio formats like mp3 took hold so quickly and easily was the fact that many if not most listeners could not tell them apart from the CD format – the conclusion being that mp3s were just as good as CD’s. So Neil Young’s development of a “studio quality” high bit-rate music player and file-type would be completely unnecessary, right?
The coffee analogy
Mr. Farmelo takes issue with the idea of the A-B tests that are used to compare different file sizes, but not the issue you might think. He doesn’t doubt the veracity of the test. Most of us can’t tell the difference between a 256kbps mp3 and a 1411kbps lossless wav file when blindly switching between the two. As is often needed when using words to discuss audio, he explains his position by way of metaphor:
For example, when I started living with my partner I introduced her to what I call “good coffee.” At first she kind of shrugged it off as my snobbery at work, and she couldn’t really taste the difference. But then, after months of drinking the good stuff, she found herself to be a bit of a coffee snob, too. She could taste the difference because she had, simply, spent time with the good stuff. The coffee revealed itself to her, slowly and subtly. Her palate developed. And the thing about good coffee is that it holds more detail, nuance and, therefore, interest.
But it takes a while to become aware of that depth and complexity. Had she done a flip-flip-flip A-B and made her choice to only drink the cheaper stuff because, “you know, they’re basically the same,” she’d have missed an opportunity to develop her palate.
I think the same thing can be said for the resolution of music, and it breaks my sonic heart to think of the A-B tests out there designed to convince someone that because they can’t tell the difference today they won’t tell the difference in a month or a year. A-B tests may be designed to show that subtle differences don’t matter, but what they really do is shut down the possibility that those subtle differences could be the key to someone’s aesthetic awakening.
Yeah, I get that analogy. Not only am I a coffee drinker, like many others, I was a Netflix subscriber when they introduced the online-streaming component to their service. Over the period of many months I enjoyed watching movies in this format, as convenient as it was, to the point that mailing and receiving DVDs seemed an unnecessary chore. My enjoyment of the movies had suffered – something I only noticed when after many months I put in a DVD and was immediately immersed in the content. Living with the two formats for long enough, I realized that the sound quality constraints of the online format, while objectively minimal, were defeating the intended experience.
Living with the guitar
We run across the same idea when playing a musical instrument. I’ll often recommend that an aspiring student spend as much as they can budget on their first guitar (the opposite of the conventional wisdom). Why? Because a quality instrument will teach you how to play it. It rewards you with a resonant vibration and airy tone when it being played well. It will scold you with clinically distinct buzzes when your technique is poor. We are playing a long game with our music. While you may not know the difference between a cheap plywood guitar and the nicer solid-wood quality instrument in the guitar shop today – both the enjoyment you receiving from living and playing that guitar for years, and your own musical skill, will be all the greater for it.