I'm old enough to remember when the first iPod came out. I couldn't wait to get one because up until then, I'd spent thousands of dollars on CDs (and before that tapes, and to a more limited extent, vinyl when I was a kid). And whether it was records, cassettes or compact discs, it was always difficult to cart your music around with you. I scratched many a CD in my car when I changed albums mid-drive, and I'm still not really over the fact that when I was 23, hundreds of CDs that I had collected from all over the world (plus ticket stubs to the hundreds of concerts I attended), were stolen from my car. My entire music collection was gone in minutes.
So to this music fan, the idea that I could download thousands of songs to a tiny device that I could always keep with me seemed like the best invention of all time.
I was early to the digital music scene, but it was only recently (when I spent time at a friend's house listening to records) that I started to wonder about what I have been missing. Listening to her record of an album I had on my iPhone, the experience was richer and more enjoyable. Sure, her speakers were better than my headphones, but still, what have I not been hearing when it comes to my favorite music?
The MP3s that we all listen to today were designed in the early 1990s by the Moving Pictures Experts Group as a way to simplify and encode highly complex music files when bandwidth (and storage) was much more limited than it is today. According to PhD student Ryan Maguire, who studied this issue on his site, The Ghost in the MP3, explains: "Listening tests, primarily designed by and for western-European men, and using the music they liked, were used to refine the encoder. These tests determined which sounds were perceptually important and which could be erased or altered, ostensibly without being noticed."
Video: moDernisT_v1 from Ryan Patrick Maguire on Vimeo.
Maguire looked at the Suzanne Vega song, "Tom's Diner," (which he chose because it was one of the original control files engineers used to compress files to MP3 in the early '90s). He put it through the same process used to create MP3s, and found that there were audible sounds missing from the original recording, sounds that you can hear in the "ghost" version above. While this version isn't entirely accurate — since it has lost some of its own sounds during compression to create the video — it gives you an idea of what you're not hearing in the song if you have it on your phone, or listen to it on a music-streaming service versus a CD or record.
Maguire writes, "Despite its highly touted performance in listening tests, the MP3 compression codec does generate audible artifacts and remove perceptible sonic information, especially when implemented at low bit rates."
The example used here is what I would consider a sonically simple song; Tom's Diner is a great tune, but as a fan of jazz, grunge, classic rock and classical music — all of which have more instrumentation going on than Vega's song — Maguire project makes me think that my observation about sound quality after listening to records at my friend's house isn't so crazy after all. If all that sound above is missing from a (great) singer-songwriter tune, what am I missing out on when I listen to Smashing Pumpkin's "Gish" on MP3 vs. that ancient CD in my basement?
It also makes me think that while upgrading my home system with great speakers will make some difference, and it will certainly sound better than my headphones. It seems strange to me that sound quality will still be lower than the very good record player-and-speaker set up I grew up with. If it's 30 years later, I'd like both convenience of storage and great sound quality, not one or the other.
While audiophiles work on the problem of making music files larger to include all the sound complexity there is, I'll be compromising. For new albums going forward, I'm going to start buying vinyl, which generally comes with a free download as well. So when I'm at home, I can listen to albums that will definitely sound great (I just love the particular sound quality that records provide), and when I'm elsewhere, I'll have the awesome convenience of 10,000 songs on something the size of a cassette tapes.
Related on MNN:
- Why do you we like listening to sad music?
- Scientists make music for cats
- 10 reasons why making music is good for your brain