Listening to Music in the Digital Age – Revisited

I remember the enjoyment of listening to a new album for the first time from beginning to end. Today’s listening is more like a continuous run of soundbites. It’s like reading a chapter at a time from many books. The story never begins, the story never ends. There is a lack of fulfillment in the way music is presented. It’s like an endless world of commercials, a catchphrase in a short amount of time. And the only way I can explain it is that we are going so fast that we don’t take the time to enjoy the moment. The album was not portable. You had to take the time to sit in front of your stereo and that led to immersing yourself in the music and the whole experience of the album. It became a traditional moment. Maybe life was slower then but we took the time to enjoy the moment in a world that had fewer distractions.

I remember hearing a CD for the first time. It was back in the time when you had specialized high-end audio stores. There it was, the first CD player I had ever seen. With all the hype preceding the release of the CD format I can remember being very excited. Here was the next level of music and sound enjoyment. I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was cold. It was grainy. It left no emotional imprint. At least one that was enjoyable. It was then I realized that the music format was in the hands of technical engineers and bean counters. It was quite obvious that the direction of music enjoyment was not in the hands of artists and musical sound engineers. Sure, it was more perfect with less surface noise than an album but the warmth and the emotional impact was missing. I truly couldn’t believe what I was hearing because the sounds of the 70s brought you to such an enjoyable level as compared to the sound of the 50s. It’s not that the music was better or worse but over time the sound of the music was just as important as the lyric and the melody and the performance and all the ingredients that got you to respond. And the CD is also more durable and portable.

Through the 80s the music in the digital format started to sound better. The equipment that we listen to started to improve. It was definitely a format that we thought was going to end the era of records and tapes. I remember as time went on enjoying well-made CDs on high-end stereo equipment. I felt we were on to something as the improvement, while not perfect, was listenable and I was starting to enjoy the music again. But the digital age was unstoppable. There began a race to create smaller files as digital storage was at a premium. The group behind the idea that the MP3 was a listenable format had nothing to do with the artistic side of music creation. It amazes me that the powers that be thought that the smaller file format was the answer but to the sound and enjoyment of the music it was the problem.

Of course, this led to rampant piracy of music throughout the Internet. I know students that I teach who have never bought a song in their lifetime. I wonder what the world economy would be if every third automobile didn’t pay for its gasoline. And I wonder what happened to our moral compass when downloading music for free became a right and wasn’t considered a crime. Again, if we don’t pay creators of artistic content then the quality will slowly diminish.

But that is another discussion for another time that seems to go on endlessly to no fair end.

Now for the good news. I remember reading Neil Young stating that he hated the sound of digital music and it wasn’t until the quality was at a sampling rate of 192 kHz and at a bit rate of 24 bits that he started to enjoy it. As I deal with my students teaching them about audio recording and the creation of music I work hard on giving equal value to the heart of music and the beauty of excellent audio. My voice is heard by only one classroom or one student at a time but it’s what I can give back to this generation about the impact that good music and good sound gave to me.

With the release of the Pono, Neil Young has spearheaded a wonderful reality for the world to experience. I feel that this has started a trend that will only continue. It gives the listener a chance to experience music and be portable at an entirely new level.

Now, I’d like to get a bit technical and explain what Neil has really done. If you haven’t heard of the Pono, Google it and get an idea of what the device is. Yes, it brings the level of listening up a notch but hidden in this wonderful portable device is so much more. Consumers use devices and listen to music through a single stereo wire that is in the format of what we call unbalanced high impedance. In the wire that goes from device to device are three conductors, one for the left side, one for the right side and one that is common called ground.

In professional Recording Studios, as in mine, all wiring uses what we call balanced low impedance cabling. Consumer audio, being unbalanced, operates at a voltage or volume that we call -15 dB (decibels). In the professional world of audio we use balanced wiring that operates at a volume of +4 dB. A decibel is a unit of volume that is actually a ratio between silence and louder sounds. This volume is created by the voltage being carried by the cables and varies between a plus and minus cycle to create its waveform and define its volume.

For the first time there is a small listening device that is portable but also studio quality which gives the listener a chance to experience very high-end audio. Where the Pono is brilliantly designed the real treasure that it offers is to listen to music through a balanced format with headphones that are not hyped in the bass or the treble. Balanced headphones for the time being are rather expensive so my friend, Mark Longley, founder of Xkitz took two pairs of Audio Technica ATH M 50’s for us and rewired them so that they were balanced.

It has been a long time since I wanted to listen to music through headphones simply for the enjoyment of the wonderful experience this combination has brought into my life. It has become part of my day to listen to music that I am not actually working on in my studio. I find myself relaxing and listening to music where the detail and fidelity is simply amazing.

It’s not the CD that is the problem. I am transferring my CDs to the Pono. Its technical standard is 44.1 kHz at 16 bits. Sure, music that is in the 96/24 HD format sounds a little better. And so does music recorded at 192/24. But it is the music presented in an honest and unaltered way that I search for and my listening experience on the right equipment such as we’re describing here makes for a wonderful enjoyment of listening to music. It’s like revisiting my existing music catalog and experiencing a whole new level.

Mark is in the process of posting his conversion and you can get a better understanding by visiting his website, Xkitz.com, and reading his post.

Hats off to Neil and his crew. Hats off to Mark. And what a wonderful direction I see portable digital music taking. I feel like we’re getting our music back. And I am at the forefront of recognizing and enjoying this wonderful event because I see a void being filled with what has been missing for much too long in the world of entertainment.

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