Listening to Music in the Digital Age.

I have an iPod, an iPhone, a MacBook, and a number of PC’s. So I admit music is my business and have a recording studio (thus all the computers and devices). When digital music was in its infancy what I heard sounded cold and grainy. It was nothing like tape or vinyl. As time progressed so did the sound of CD’s.

A well recorded CD on a nice sound system began to be equal or better than vinyl. Then a few different innovations entered the equation.

The MP3 codec
The small music player
And the loudness wars
These factors, to me, were the game changer in the evolution of digital music. The first is the MP3 codec. A CD contains WAV files. It takes about 10 megabytes of disc space per stereo minute. In the early days of the internet data transfer small was slow and drive space was small and relatively expensive. Along comes the MP3 format and you could accomplish a stereo minute of music with about one megabyte of storage space. Even now a “High End” MP3 requires about 2 megabytes per stereo (two channels – left and right) minute of data space. This allowed much smaller files and transferring songs over the internet became much quicker and storing them cheaper. So how does an MP3 do this? It compresses the data by eliminating the detail of the music so what you hear is only what is in the forefront of the musical recording. Comparing an MP3 file to a WAV file is like comparing the old TV format to the new high resolution HD TV. The MP3 has its place in the scheme of things. When quality is not an issue like emailing an MP3 is appropriate like sharing a song for the sake of just sharing the song. But with the use of the MP3 we’ve lost sight of the wonderful quality of sound that can be accomplished in the digital format. We have created a whole generation of younger people who have only heard MP3’s of their music. During the early stages of digital music I must admit I didn’t enjoy the quality of the sound. But now twenty- something years later digital music can sound as rich and warm as analog recordings just like high resolution HD TV’s look like you’re watching film. The enemy here is not the digital format but the MP3.

With the advent of the MP3 came the iPod and other small listening devices. Convenient and portable it could hold a gazillion songs. It took to the music fan like bread and butter. At first devices tried to challenge the iPod but due to Apple’s ingenuity the brilliance of the iPod won out. Along comes iTunes and the combination of the two creates the world’s largest music distributor. The concept of the audiophile is out the window. No chance to download WAV or AIFF files. Apple lossless has not really caught on and who takes the time to do it? And does it really sound the same as a wav file? But that’s just part of the issue. With the iPod are these dumb ear buds. Personally I don’t like putting anything in my ears. But it’s a world consumed with portability. I can dig it. I was one of the first to buy a Sony walkman (remember the small portable cassette player). But between the MP3’s, the iPod, and the ear buds, hearing the music as it was recorded is impossible.

The third issue is what is referred to as the “Volume Wars”. It’s this trend to make all digital music as loud as possible. Of course, this is done by applying ungodly amounts of compression (a process that squeezes the dynamics out of the music by lowering the loud parts and raiding the soft parts and turning it all up as loud as the digital format allows) Ugh! “Louder is better”. “Bigger is better” . And on and on… It’s like having to listen to a person with a loud, screechy voice who never shuts up. I can remember being in this exact situation and as the saying goes “You’re so loud I can’t hear a word you’re saying” I remember watching to see when she would take a breath. Don’t remember if I ever figured that one out.

So where am I going with all of this? First off, it’s obvious I want to share all the music. That’s why you can hear every song streamed in high quality MP3’s. But there’s more that I want to share. You see, on my iPod, my iPhone and my computer I only listen to WAV files (or AIFF) for the pleasure of listening to music. And there’s another element involved. For my iPod (120 GB classic) I have a set of Beats by Dr. Dre. I’ve transferred a number of my CD’s as Wav files, each CD contained in a playlist. The beauty of Dre’s studio model is it has an amplifier built into it (uses batteries). It’s totally portable and audiophile. It’s not that I’m listening to any particular genre, I’m listening to the music with all the detail with the bass and treble not hyped (as is normal because the iPod amp is just powerful enough to push the ear buds but with over ear headphones there’s just not enough power to amplify all frequencies equally). With my iPhone I use Dre’s solo model. Not quite as good as the studio model but for some reason the iPhone amplifier drives these headphones pretty well plus the cable has a mic to take phone calls. Being a 16 gig device I find I change the playlist but that’s a breeze. I also have a pair of Bose Triport headphones for a portable CD player and a computer. I’m sure there are other candidates out there that I don’t know about but this is what I’ve found that works for me. In my studio I have Genelecs amongst other speakers but that’s my workspace.

Of course there’s no substitutes for a wonderful stereo system in your home (or car) that has full range audiophile speakers and high powered amplifiers but I sense that I should primarily address the portable systems. And yes, there are high end ear buds but I find their sound depends on how far you insert them into your ears and being prone to ear infections from precisely this reality they’re not a candidate for me.

I share my listening habits with you to give you insight into what’s possible in the digital domain. When I teach I often wish I could share with my students the joy of listening to an album’s sound as well as the music. Most people don’t know that you can import WAV files into your iPod or iPhone. Sure, it takes more space but if that’s an issue keep your files on your computer and change out playlists. And now that downloading WAV files doesn’t take much time I offer all these ways to obtain the music at MusicalDreams and go to great lengths to explain and encourage hearing the music the way it was made and meant to be heard. Digital is not the issue but how we use it. In fact, I recently retransferred my album “Where the Sailors Go” from the master tapes and the sound is so good (thanks to Randy Leroy at Airshow Mastering) I can honestly say that it sounds warmer and richer than the album. I’m so sure of this that if you get the CD/album package and don’t agree I’ll be glad to give you your money back.

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