Sunday, 4 March 2012

Music revival

There is not the slightest doubt today that music has been devalued. More tracks, faster rise, faster falls. But most of all falls in price and the destruction of the Album.

But there is another bubble bursting, quality. The vinyl disk started as 78rpm, moved to 45 and 33rpm with quality improving all the time, quality so good that many people still buy vinyl disks today and firmly believe they are better than CDs.

Then things turned digital, with the invention of pulse code modulation and the decision to sample and chop the analog audio waveform at a rate of 44.1 kHz, and store each value found as a 16 bit word. This as it turns out was a disaster, it was based on two problems. First the figure of 44.1 was based on early video tape recorders and was not the best choice for audio (it doesn't multiply or divide up well, 48/96/192kHz… would have been better) . But it was justified by the discovery of mathematician Nyquist, who found that the highest audio frequency that could be recorded and reproduced was half the sample frequency, or 22kHz. Great thought everyone, the human ear cannot hear much above 15-18kHz, so if we can handle 22kHz all will be well. Second problem is that the dynamic range of music is much, much, much larger than can be handled by 16bits of data. So all musical dynamics have had to be compressed to avoid clipping.

Whereas in reality to preserve the music as it is performed we have to preserve the sounds made by the instruments, not the limited range we can hear. The timbre of instruments depends on frequencies well above the range of our hearing. For example symbols produce harmonics up to 80-100kHz or so, trumpets are similar, so are violins. And don't forget the lowest note of an organ is just 16Hz a the low end, not the 20Hz and above that most audio systems quote but few can even do.

So the industry exploded with CDs, based on these fallacies. It was great for the recording industry, the CD was easy to make, easy to bundle as albums, easy to play and they thought it sounded reasonable. Players were poor but low cost. It was possibly an improvement on vinyl but many think otherwise, mainly due to the inability to handle the dynamic range, and to clip disastrously when the 16bit word encoded is full of bits and cannot go any higher. Recording engineers, especially for pop, always wanted to get near to the limit so their music sounded louder, so they compressed and limited sounds. Down again goes the quality, and the CD turns its first disaster.

Then a major disaster hit music, the invention of MP3. MP3 is a technique for lossily compressing the size of the CD/PCM music by a psycho-acoustic algorithm that followed up the fallacy of the CD's 16bit/44.1kHz. MP3 removes sounds that supposedly humans cannot hear, and gives a dramatic reduction in file size (about 1/10th). But when the music content is lost, it is lost and no matter how god the HiFi system you can't get it back.

Thus was born the iPod. With limited storage capacity it could store lots of music, and it could be loaded quickly over slow internet connections. Worse still as the internet got faster MP3 files could be streamed (e.g. Spotify) to users, but with yet further reductions in quality, along with reductions in price. Also MP3 was easily copied and gave rise to so called "piracy", that is getting music without paying the artists.

And this is the situation today. Low quality, low price, piracy. But finally artists are starting to revolt, against three things: the dominance of recording studios who buy up their copyrights and exploit them, by the low prices for MP3 tracks with only a small percentage going back to the artists, and by the realisation that the music sold is not the music they make, because the quality and mix has been decimated by the poor technology.

So what is next?

Two things. Apple has been very successful in providing a legal source of millions of tracks (which they claim are CD quality, which they are NOT), in one of the best lossy compressed formats known today (AAC audio). However now they are asking the studios to give them high quality studio masters (at 24bit and 96kHz) so they can do the best possible when compressing to AAC. The reality is that Apple will in the end possess studio masters. At this point hopefully the recording studios will cave in an allow them to sell them in an uncompressed format… and get us back to the music as the artist intended. At last sound quality will increase after years of decline. In addition artists have woken up now to the problem and are demanding ways to release better quality recordings of their work, known as HD Audio.

Let it come quickly, please.

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