Monday, 7 January 2008

Lo Fi Fo Fum

Andy did a post fairly recently about the declining quality of digital music. While I take no issue with his desire to enjoy music in as true a form as possible, I think that his central analogy could use some work.

He says: "if you think of music (well at least good music) as art, then using quite heavy data compression on a piece of music is similar to going to a art gallery but only being able to parts of the paintings and sculptures etc. because parts of it have been removed to reduce storage space".

In reality, though, surely, it is more analogous to looking at a digital photo of the Mona Lisa, and being unable to fully appreciate her smile, because of the resolution of the image.

What an outrage. Why should a computer have the right to alter a work of art in this way? The answer being, of course, that the digital image of the Mona Lisa is not the art, it is simply a representation of it that allows us to experience something of the feeling we would experience from looking at the real thing, without actually having to travel to Paris. In the same way, listening to an mp3 gives you a representation of the experience of listening to a live performance, and while the mp3 itself is not the art, it is opening up the accessibility of that art to a much wider audience.

Ultimately I don't think that it is important whether people are listening to music on cd, digital or vinal, or through headphones, good quality speakers or live at a concert. I think the important thing is that we are able to make the choice between the different ways we consume media and are able to pick the type best suited to our situation.

Personally, I have no interest in listening to high quality music on my computer. I listen to very little music for enjoyment, and generally will only have it on in the background whilst doing something else. As such, I don't really need expensive speakers, and the 4MB mp3s I generally deal in are perfectly acceptable to my ear. For people like Andy, who clearly care about the quality of the sound more than me, I think it's great that there are other options, but really they are specialist options, and should be approached in a specialist manner.


joebloggs said...

Just to throw a spanner into the mona lisa thing... "listening to an mp3 gives you a representation of the experience of listening to a live performance" isn't entirely true. Many recordings aren't intended to be representations of a live performance at all, they are the art, created in a studio, using effects that are impossible to recreate live. Agreed, many recordings (in particular classical, jazz, musical theatre, and to an extent rock) are intended as represtations of a live show, but equally, many aren't. And there you're argument doesn't necessarily hold. If the only way you can ever hear the huge soundscape of a wonderful piece of electronic music is in 128kbps, it's like looking at the taj mahal through mosaic glasses from a mile away. As such, high fidelity audio is very important indeed as without it whole genres of music would become a lot less meaningful.

TheTelf said...

Well, in the case of recordings that are the art themselves, just replace that sentence with "listening to a 128kbps digital recording gives you a representation of the experience of listening to a 1mbps digital recording".

And I think my argument does stand up. I'm not saying that 1mbps recordings are not important, I'm suggesting that 128kbps recordings are just as important in the distribution and accessibility of art.

In terms of looking at the Taj Mahal, I suspect that my only experience of it over the course of my life will be via a digital representation (ie. via photos), but I can still appreciate that it is a beautiful construction, without actually taking a trip to India to see it for real.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

Hello people.

I shall weigh in (not sure if that's the right kind of weigh/way for this situation, I'm assuming a boxing metaphor of some sort) a little.

Firstly as the title suggests my opinion is mostly elitist, ie. most people will disagree because they're not that bothered.

My analogy (whether central or slightly skewed to the left) is mostly flawed, I admit, I came up with it kinda quickly. Yours is much better.

For me the problem is that it's not easy to get high quality music, especially with the increased popularity of downloading music from iTunes etc.

Incidentally, after reviewing that post (and making a few changes) I've decided it's mostly rambling around a point, I'll try to be more coherent with posts in the future.

Anyway more to the point, for most people the quality of music doesn't really matter, but for some it is very important. It seems however that the trend is towards lower quality music meaning that it may become less possible to get high quality music if you want it (if it isn't already). Think of Betamax, a supposedly superior technology to VHS but it lost the battle due to lower popularity.

Anyway as long as I can still have high quality music in 20 years I'm happy, if not then I'll be a miserable git.

Again more rambling, hurrah.

TheTelf said...

But then by the same token, no one bemoaning the demise of Betamax as being downshift in video quality could have forseen the era of DVD, BluRay and HD-DVD.

Technology is always striving towards higher quality and better accessibility. Sometimes the balance shifts more towards one than the other, but in general both are improving year on year.

In five years time we could well be looking at internet connections able to easily handle much higher quality music files, at which time, perhaps, that will start to become the norm.

Until then, elitist interests, by their very nature, are difficult to satisfy.