Thursday, November 08, 2007

I don't believe you, and you're going to be mad

The format wars rage endlessly on but now it's less about mp3 versus flac or even the classic analog versus digital than it is about spitting out numbers and complaining about quality.

Sorry, but I'm calling bull shit on the indie audiophiles.

I challenge anyone to tell the difference between a a 320, 160 and 128 file played over a regular pair of computer speakers like the ones that come with your HP, Dell or Apple. (I realize most of my readers have perfect pitch and exceptional hearing, so I'll follow this post with an experiment you can try on lesser humans at a later date)

I'm not saying there's not an actual difference, because I believe it can be heard even by the average Joe -- but not on crappy computer speakers or headphones.

I'd also bet most people couldn't tell the difference on their iPod ear buds or with their Zune plugged directly into their car or into their Sony bookshelf systems above their TV.

I firmly believe part of the reason that so many people feel strongly about the differences is because they are consuming music from file sharing service where there is no quality control. Someone rips a CD with their crappy software and out spits a file, somebody else loads that into their version of iTunes, maybe converting it to another file format, sample rate, etc.

The kps Nazis are essentially trying to enforce some control -- but they kind of have it backwards -- the problem isn't all in the format or the files. 320 or lossless or whatever really is a signifier in the peer-to-peer world that the 'uploader' took a little more time and put a little more thought into the enterprise. But I'd argue that's its more a suggestion of the quality of the file rather than the guarantee of quality. The science behind the higher quality files is sound, but I don't believe most people have the equipment, the ears or the desire for it to make a difference.

Why? Because in part, a lot of this music is still being ripped from CD at high rates of speed and have plenty of errors. Even many of mandatory kps people don't know what they are doing or take the care to check the files they create against the source.

Not to mention that most mastering engineers didn't work to the new formats in mind -- likely they also worked towards creating a CD. CDs, where much of this supposedly high resolution music is still sourced from has a relatively low quantization and sample rate (16 bit and 44.1 sample rate). Most music recorded digitally today is captured at 24 bit and 192 sample rate (although the sample rate in particular is definitely far from universal) and I'm told that this should lead to better CDs as well, though the format it self still has many limits. You can get a great sounding music file from a CD, but without processing it to fake it -- you can't add resolution, clarity or low and particularly high end transients that aren't there to begin with.

By contrast, I've heard many people say, "That Radiohead album sounds really good for 160kps files." No shit, they worked with Nigel Godrich and high-rent mastering engineers to make it sound good. I don't think they just through the mixes in iTunes or Win Amp and let them go out.

I think consumers can and should demand high resolution music, but that doesn't mean it will make most music sound better because the playback equipment simply won't translate the improved quality. Most people's car speakers, home stereos, computer speakers and iPod ear buds are not particularly high quality and they don't care -- the mass of content in my opinion fits with the mass of consumers.

The rock revolution was built on transistor radios and LP players with crappy built in-mono speakers. The iPod and the Walkman before it revolutionized music consumption, but arguably degraded the sound quality that proceed them. The stereo high-fi revolution of the late 50s and FM radio are arguably the only notable mass market improvements in recorded sound to ever take hold. LPs, cassettes and CDs were all considered to downgrade the sound quality that came before, though each offered greater conveniences to the user before completely unavailable. Each of these formats also got dramatically better as time went on and better techniques were developed.

But the bottom line is that convenience makes the world go round, not quality.

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Anonymous Jasper said...

I won't argue about who can hear what on what system. That's pointless.

But I will say that ripping at 320 is also pointless. You're creating an unnecessarily large file for no reason. And that's another reason us Nazis get bent out of shape. We want the best quality while keeping the file size manageable.

So we try and beat in into people that they should be ripping with LAME V0 setting, or at least V2. This analyzes each "bit" of the file and decides the best compression option for that piece of data. So the two seconds of silence at the beginning/end of the song are 96kbps, while the fuller parts get around 300kbps.

It's sound quality AND file size done properly. It's not a lot to ask for and everyone benefits from it. Set up your encoder the right way once, and your set for life.

All the applications you need are free downloads. How convenient is that?

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Jasper said...

Sorry, "you're" set for life.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Yale Bloor said...

Hey Gorilla If can't tell the difference between good music and bad I guess bit rates are the least of your worries....

11:25 PM  
Blogger Gorilla said...


9:21 AM  

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