Monday, June 15, 2009

Musical Chairs

I have always tripped out on people who prefer vinyl records... I always dismissed them as being "stuck in the past." Apparently I am wrong (not the first nor last time). There is indeed a difference as transcribed below. Apologies to Dave for "borrowing" his most excellent explanation...

***My problem, WRT digitalization, comes more from recorded music. And the world of recorded music provides us with an opportunity to foresee the problems an all-digital distribution system of literature may have.

When the CD was first introduced by Sony and Philips in the 1980's, it was touted as having "Perfect Sound Forever". It was an immediate success. And yet many people (such as myself) still prefer to listen to LPs, in spite of the extra effort and expense required to do so. Why?

Well, first I'll bore you with the technical details. The standard CD uses a sampling rate of 44kHz, or 44,000 samples per second. But keep in mind that this is the *sampling rate*, not the frequency response. Take the standard orchestral tuning pitch of A, which is 440 Hz. This pitch is used because it's in the range of virtually every instrument in the orchestra. At a sampling rate of 44kHz, you have 100 pixels to draw this sound wave (with all its attendant overtones) in such a way to distinguish a bassoon from a violin from a human voice. Now, for reasons I could explain much more simply with pictures, electrically amplified and distorted instruments (electric guitars, voices through microphones, etc.) produce much "simpler" wave shapes (due to electronic "clipping", or cutting off the top of the sound wave) than do acoustic instruments. SO for most commercially produced popular music, digital recording is adequate. But there is a reason that whenever Sony (which owns Columbia Records) came out with a new audio format (CD, SACD, DVD-Audio, etc.) the first two recordings they trotted out were Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" and Bruno Walter's stereo recording of Beethoven's 6th - those two 1958 recordings are the best recordings Columbia ever produced in terms of sound quality, and intervening technology has only made recordings cheaper and easier to distribute, not better sounding.

But then the ubiquitous MP3 format came along. The absolute highest sampling rate of an MP3 file is 32kHz (less than 75% of a CD), but most MP3 files streamed on the internet are in the 12.8kHz - 19.2kHz range. At these rates, you're down to 30-40 pixels to draw an A(440) wave, and far less as you listen to higher frequencies (pitch increase is exponential instead of linear - going up one octave doubles the frequency). This just makes most treble clef instruments sound screechy.

The result of this is that most people who listen intently to recorded music find digital recordings quite fatiguing. I can listen to my classical LPs as long as my attention span lasts, and then throw on some jazz LPs for dessert. By contrast, my limit on a CD is approximate a Mahler symphony. But I will admit that I listen to music differently from someone who uses music as a soundtrack to their run, so while LPs are my preferred music format, I don't view that preference as universal.

At first the recording industry loved the new CD format - production costs went way down while at the same time retail prices went way up (remember in the mid 80's transition a CD would be priced at twice what the same LP would cost, even though the CD cost less to manufacture). CDs required less retail space in a store. Playback equipment was cheaper and required less maintenance. Profits soared - for a while. But then something happened.

Not only can LPs produce more accurate sound, but they used to be distributed with great covers and liner notes. Glenn Gould's liner notes on Bach's Goldberg Variations are as good as any published in those journals Chuck complains about. The RCA 1956 recording of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe is embossed with a 16 page booklet about the ballet illustrated by a young Andy Warhol. The stereo set of Brahms symphonies conducted by Bruno Walter and issued posthumously in 1963 contains an illustrated biography of the composer written by his daughter. And I've found some LPs (Otto Klemperer's Bach Orchestral Suites and two symphonies by 20th C Dutch Composer Henrik Andriessen) which came with full orchestral scores. Meanwhile, with a CD case you got a little pamphlet with abbreviated notes in microfiche that anyone with eyes over 12 years old would need a microscope to decipher, which is still a far cry above the MP3, which is usually just a sound file with no extra material. And the RIAA wonders why they cannot achieve the level of sales and profits they had a generation ago. To me, it's quite obvious - they've devalued their product and turned it into a commodity.

How this relates to the publishing industry remains to be seen. Newspapers are already on life support, and for perhaps good reason (why wait for stale news to arrive at their whim when you can get it fresh online)? And clearly, many people like the immediacy and portability of digital books. Then again, the same arguments can be made in favor of MP3's. And for popular light summer reading this distribution method might work (people rarely complain about the sound quality of MP3's when listening to rock or pop music). But what about those books that you would want to take a bit more seriously; that you would prefer to read in bed or in your favorite chair without interruption? I'm not so sure I would want my only access to James Joyce to be electronic (if nothing else, it would make it difficult to use "Ulysses" as a door stop). But industries like economy and efficiency, so they will eventually prefer to move all of their publishing to a single channel, and digital is cheaper and easier for them. What will we lose? I don't think we know yet. For the vast majority of people immersed in popular culture, probably nothing (just as all but a few people consider the CD's replacement of the LP a good riddance). But for connoisseurs, there is a tangible loss that is hard to explain.

Dave Frederick***

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