Archive for April, 2010

April 24, 2010

Format Over Function

by George

If you went over to your friend’s house and asked him/her to put on some music, what would happen next?  Would they dock their MP3 player into a home sound system or click open some files on their computer?   Would they drop a needle onto a large, spinning black piece of plastic, or open a little clear case and load their stereo with a few silver discs?

Today, there are three major formats (probably in order of descending popularity) used for consumption of audio: MP3s, CDs and LPs.  While most people don’t give much thought or have much preference about which they use, others are very particular & calculated about their choice.  Which is the superior format is a topic of great debate amongst music listeners.  This arguement typically boils down to a few key issues: cost, availability, ease of use and sound quality.

It’s pretty apparent why downloading digital media is the most popular way of getting your hands on some tunes. It’s hard to beat digital music in terms of cost, portability and availability.  An internet search for an album/artist will quickly yield links to websites/torrents to download music (illegally) at no cost.  Many times, you can get an artists whole discography within minutes and not spend a penny.  And if you’re one of the honest ones who is willing to pay a whole .99/1.29 cents for a song on iTunes, it’s even easier.  You click a few buttons, wait a few seconds and you can be rocking the newest Miley Cyrus song in no time (just threw up in my mouth).  My experience has been that illegal downloads are a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to quality.  Most are ok but there’s a good bit out there that sounds like it’s been recorded with a Playskool boombox and put on the web.  Pay programs (iTunes, Napster, etc.) not only have standardized audio file quality, but you know that when you click to buy “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin you won’t get “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar…great googly moogly, what a travesty that would be!!!

CDs and LPs are a pain in the ass, in comparison.  Not only do you have to get up and go to a record store, but you run the risk that they may be out of or not even carry the album you’re looking for.  This may be a common occurrence if you listen to any music too far off of the beaten path, especially since record stores are becoming harder to find and stores like Best Buy are cutting way back on their selection.  You also don’t have the choice of buying just one song…you have to (gasp!!) commit to buying a whole piece of music.  Physical media is also typically more expensive (especially LPs) than digital media and since a book of CDs or a box of LPs is way bigger than an iPod, they’re nowhere near as easy to take with you.

This, for me, is the saving grace of the digital format…portability.  It lets me take my entire music collection with me wherever I go.  At any moment, I can switch from Queen to Queens of the Stone Age;  Black Sabbath to the Black Crowes; the Dead Weather to Death.  You can almost instantly change your music to match your mood, time or location.

Ahh, but there is a flipside to this that makes it worth the extra effort for these soon to be dinosaur formats;  you don’t get any tangible product for your money with an MP3.  Nothing.  Unless you sit at home and yourself draw some cool picture or write the song titles on the front of a burned CD of MP3s, there’s nothing to hold.  This bums me out immensely.

What is cooler than awesome album artwork??  It seemingly makes the music BETTER!  It’s part of the allure, message and image.  With CDs and LPs you get artwork, liner notes and other imagery that the artist wanted associated with their album…and on an LP it’s HUGE.  Plus, the bands that do issue their albums on vinyl seem to be putting extra effort into the package: unique and collectible colored vinyls, expanded artwork/picture discs…many even come with a code of a download of the album.  Best of both worlds.

While it’s not true of every piece of music ever recorded, some are composed as cohesive thoughts…like one long sentence.  This has become more evident to me when listening an album I’ve heard to before on CD or MP3 as an LP.  It makes me think that the format has maybe not influenced, but been a complement to this ‘concept album’ idea: Side A starts off with a bang that eventually settles on Side B (and perhaps rises and falls again on the subsequent Sides C & D).  It’s definitely more epic and engaging…you’re listening, getting into it and then the music stops, like intermission during a theatrical performance or concert.   The listener can take a break, grab a drink, use the bathroom, then flip over to Side B for the remainder of the performance.  While this seems jarring, I believe that more artists are aware of this aspect of the listening experience and it’s impacting their track sequencing.

The ever-rising popularity of digital music implies that most people don’t care as much about album art, liner notes, etc. as they do convenience.  I totally understand, but it’s consumer laziness at its best (or worst) and ultimately depressing & difficult: not only is the concept of a complete package lost on most people but the more popular MP3s become, the less incentive for record companies/labels/bands to want to put their material out on CD or LP and they become even harder to find.

Sound quality, though, may be the greatest debated aspect of the format discussion among audiophiles and one where I feel digital media (and CDs to some degree) takes the biggest hit and it’s because of compression.  Part of digitizing a piece of music is compressing it down to a particular file size.  This compression means that you can use less information to convey the same sounds and the result is that many nuances are oftentimes lost.  An analogy is writing with 250 words instead of 1000; yeah, you can understand the main idea that the author is trying to get across, but the detail  and nuance is lost.  These details are what differentiate one writer, musician, person from any other and are what music fans take great pleasure in.

Even CDs are compressed to a certain degree…but at the same time, they greatly reduce the signal noise that you hear on an LP and this increase in overall dynamics yields a greater perceived clarity by the listener.  But for devotees of the LP format, this noise is a small price to pay for the character that is found in a vinyl record.  While the hiss and pops associated with LPs are generally thought of as detractors from the music, some feel that they allow the listener to ‘feel’ the music, something that is rare with the other formats.  Even during sections of silence (intentionally by the artist or otherwise) you know that you are listening to an LP; you hear and feel it.  The speakers are still moving air toward your body.  This character and ambience is present during the entire record, even as the music plays.

I think (and hope) that in the end, all that matters to most music listeners is the actual content…the music.  Plus, someday we’ll all get albums downloaded to the hard drives implanted in our brains.  I guess I’ll have to buy ‘Abbey Road’ AGAIN.


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