Fidelity and Feeling
I wrote the draft for this a last year when the imminent release of Neil Young's HiRes PONO player was all over the interwebs. I didn't want to throw more fuel on the fire that was raging about the importance of HiRes Audio so I sat on it for a bit. This is just my two cents on the matter.
Lest you come away thinking that I don't think fidelity matters, rest assured I do; I am a recording engineer after all.
Quite a few friends of mine are champions of high sample rate playback: MP3s are verboten, 16 bit / 44.1k files are the barely acceptable, and Neil Young's PONO player is going to save music quality. Being an audio professional this should be no surprise - that is our job: to produce high quality recordings for the artist who hire us. Unfortunately, once we deliver the finished masters to our clients we relinquish all control of the final delivery format. An artist wants to reach as wide an audience as possible and to that end the lowly MP3 winds up being the de facto digital delivery medium. Yes, the physical CD has a better quality bit/sample rate but for the past few years the MP3 has vastly outpaced the CD (I won't even bother delving into the mysteries of streaming services since most of them obfuscate the quality of the stream you are listening to).
I've had hundreds of conversations with my audio peers on this subject (both on and offline) and while we bemoan the death of audio fidelity and how it seemingly negates all of the painstaking work we do to make great sounding records I increasingly feel like we are missing the greater point: the average music fan doesn't care. And this is where I sometimes break ranks with my audio friends.
You can point to studies regarding the dynamic range and frequency response of any format and argue their merits but in the long run I have always felt that the focus should always be about the music, not the medium. The incredible thing about music (and most forms of artistic expression) is how it strikes an emotional chord with the listener. Much like internet hashtags, every major moment in my life - my first kiss, the death of a loved one, etc - has a song associated with it (In this example, embarrassingly enough, The Fixx's "Red Skies" and Rush's "Subdivisions"). Whenever I hear these songs I'm transported to these moments from my past with an almost technicolor vividness. I'm in my parents house, my hand fumbling clumsily over my girlfriend's shirt, in my bedroom sobbing after hearing a beloved cousin has passed away. When I hear these songs as MP3s am I thinking "man, where has the top end gone?" (maybe), or "wow, could the mixer really limit that mix any harder?" (perhaps), or more importantly "I'm gonna interrupt reliving this memory right now so I can find a better format to listen to because that will make this experience *that* much better"? (most definitely not).
Sweet nothings from a loved one will resonate with you if it was written as an email, a handwritten note, whispered in your ear, or sent as smoke signals from a mountain five miles away. When a young child scrawls "I LUV YOU DADY" with crayon on piece of brown paper torn from a grocery bag are you going to criticize her penmanship, lack of spelling capabilities, and poor choice of stationary? Of course not. If a consumer is moved by a song she heard on Spotify hasn't the artist's intent been realized? It'd be hard to say no.
In an odd way, audio imperfections have been an integral part of my musical / emotional life. I got a copy of the Beatles' White Album in the late 70s when most major labels were pressing LPs on cheap, thin vinyl. The spindle hole was cut slight off center on the first disk and everything had this slow, fluctuating pitch to it. What I remember most was that the last chorus of "Julia" had a skip - "so I sing this song of love for Juuu - tick - uuuuu- tick - uuuuu- tick - uuuuu- tick - lia". To this day I can't hear that song without that skip and a visualization of me walking up to my Dad's turntable to gently tap the side to get past it. When I got my first tape recorder I used to make mix tapes by playing records (with the mono button engaged on the receiver) and putting a mic in front of the speaker. So many songs of the 70s in my head are peppered with various ambient sounds from around the house that spilled into the mic; my sister talking, doorbells, phone rings. More recently, when Rage Against the Machine released their covers album "Renegades" a friend gave me a copy on a CD-R. I ripped it to my iPod and had it on heavy rotation for a few months as I commuted on the subway. I was seriously impressed with Rich Costy's mixes - they were powerful and just full of grit and saturation. Bold. Crunchy. Raw. Come to find out that my friend had gotten the record from a torrent (128kb no less), then ripped it to a CD-R which I then unwittingly re-ripped to mp3. (I'm sure a few friends have just spit their coffee reading that). I've since bought an official label release but deep down I still prefer my extreme lo-fi version.
So I guess this is the point in the conversation where audio purists (sorry to use such a generic, condescending sounding term) will chime in with their argument: "but shouldn't a listener's first experience with a song be at the greatest fidelity possible so that they hear the artists true intention"? I wholeheartedly agree but unfortunately it is rarely possible given how hard it is to obtain Hi-Res files let alone getting people to pay for them. Should a person's first experience with Van Gogh's "Starry Night" be only at MoMA where it now hangs? I don't thinks so. I saw it in countless books and magazines growing up until I finally gazed on it in person. I almost cried when I did. It was beautiful. But it was surprisingly smaller than I imagined. In my head it is a huge landscape the edges of which you can't see if you're two feet in front of it. That sense of size and proportion was conveyed even in grainy pictures in magazines and textbooks. Even though those pictures were horrible the beauty of the painting was staggeringly obvious. Would you rather have people not be allowed to see it unless they made the journey to New York to see it at MoMA? How unenriched peoples lives would be if that were the case. Fortunately after seeing a beautiful piece of art in a poorly rendered photograph people will almost always want to see it in person and most likely the experience will be greater than what they expected.
Much like fine art, a musician can't completely control how an audience will first encounter his or her's work. You might hear a song for the first time on the radio, streaming service, in a scene of a movie or television show all of which compared to studio or Hi-Res playback are substandard conditions; yet the listener will make a connection to the music in some way or another and assign some kind value to it - audio fidelity is almost inconsequential. Play a song to an average person on a great audio system and they will be blown away by how good it sounds but that is not what will make them buy the record. The song itself is what sticks. The auditory experience is something completely different. As a kid my dad's music system was a mono HeathKit pre amp and amplifier connected to a JBL cabinet with Klipsh components (I'd kill to have that in my possession now) but he replaced it with a stereo system made by Lafayette (the precursor to RadioShack) after hearing his first stereo playback of "Listen to the Music" by the Doobie Brothers. The first guitar starts in the right speaker followed a bar later with another in the left. A bar later the drums execute a tom fill that pans from one speaker to the other and the band comes in in glorious stereo. In 1972, to a person who listened to jazz in mono all his life this was truly amazing. My dad played that record for days on end to anyone who'd listen but it wasn't until a couple of days later that he realized he wasn't that impressed with the song. With a shrug of his shoulders he'd say "but it's pretty cool sounding, listen to that !". I feel the same way about most CGI driven movies I see today - all style and no substance.
So in a roundabout way that's how I feel about Hi-Res recording ; unless there's substance to the song, the recording is of no consequence. I've never heard anyone gush about a technically great recording of a bad song or performance. A great recording falls flat without a great song/performance but a great performance/song trumps a bad recording every time. Most of the world's most beloved songs were recorded with technically substandard equipment but that never invalidated the performance. As a producer / engineer / mixer capturing the performance is all that really matters. I'll always use the best gear I can find to do it with and take as much time as possible to set up and make adjustments to achieve this end but I will always stop short of getting in the way of the magic that happens when gifted musicians breathe the same air and play together in a common space. As audio professionals we relish getting compliments from our peers for the work we do but it should never be the only reason why we do what we do. Our sole job is to capture the artist at his best - sample rates and bit depth be damned. On the consumer level we should try as hard as we can to expose high quality audio to as many people as possible but it won't make everyone run out and buy a PONO. They'll be impressed and nod their head in agreement "wow, that sounds great!" but most people will be happy with an MP3. People just want to hear the song they want to be transported emotionally to another place; the vehicle that gets them there is secondary. A Porche is a great car but if all you want is a car to commute with then it's a bit overkill.
So let's ease people into the concept that the music they are listening to can sound better without having to fork over hundreds of dollars on a new playback system. How about at least convincing people to try simple uncompressed 16 bit audio? Music players have much more capacity now then they did 10 years ago. You can easily fit 20 or so records on an iPod this way and the bandwidth is in place to deliver music in this format on a large scale. The problem I have with Hi-Res enthusiasts is this "all the way or nothing", "96k or bust" attitude. Consider that this is is also coming from a generation of people who grew up in their formative, taste making years listening to music on cassettes and Walkmen; the standard for portable music listening and copying at the time. Compared to cassettes, MP3s arguably sound like reference masters (I'll duck behind this table now until the smoke clears from saying this). I'd argue that the kids today have it better than we ever did.