(Editor's note: The Star's Books Editor, John Mark Eberhart, occasionally posts here about music technology. Here's his latest, which he subtitled, "In Which the Nerd Formerly Apologetic for his Addiction to High-End Audio Has a Change of Heart and Eviscerates mp3s.")
I'm hoppin' mad.
Not long ago I wrote that I've pretty much accepted the idea that high-end audio formats such as DVD-Audio and SACD aren't making it. Still, I listen to the stuff I've purchased in those formats; still, I marvel at the sound quality, the cleanness of the music, the spaciousness of the mixes.
I'm a geek, though. Most people - especially younger people, of which there seems to be an ever-increasing supply - have rejected high-end, multchannel audio in favor of the dreaded, inferior mp3 format.
Look, I understand we're a mobile culture now. I grok that sitting in an overstuffed chair listening to overstuffed music on overstuffed, expensive audio gear isn't considered hip. But if we're going to hear our music on iPods and the like, isn't there a better format out there?
Every mp3 song I've ever heard sounds soggy and syrupy to me. There's a blandness to these things that just infuriates to me, a flatness that ... OK, OK, you get it. One reason for that involves something called "lossy compression." The meaning is evident from the phrase; it basically means that, as a data file is compressed, there is some unavoidable loss of quality. This can be true of images, such as photos, as well as audio.
The mp3 format uses lossy compression. The advantage of this is simple: Given a small hard drive on a small playback device, you can stuff a few thousand songs into your pocket. The disadvantage is that each and every one of those songs will not have the bounce and verve of the original recordings.
I have a pal who works at a major music label who explains this pretty well. Like me, he's no fan of mp3s; he'd rather crow and glow over a lush audio mix in a higher-end format. I can't reveal his name, so for the purposes of this post we'll call him "Deep Gloat." Here's how DG explains why mp3s stink:
"What you're doing is compressing the signal. It's like when we used to have VHS, with its different recording speeds. If you used 'SP' to record, you spread the information out over a larger space, over more of the tape. If you used 'EP' -- extended play -- you'd put that same information on a smaller part of the tape, and that would lead to problems with the image and sound quality."
So while mp3s are digital instead of analog, the same concept applies: You're shoving more information onto a smaller area. As a result, Deep Gloat says, "There's not enough space for things to breathe, to sound spacious. The dynamic range is narrower."
Of course, there are several variables to consider. I'm a Mac guy, and my home computer uses iTunes to store and play songs. I no longer own an iPod (the darned thing broke, and I don't care) but when I did still have the iPod I experimented for awhile with storing everything in iTunes on mp3, so that my music library on the computer and on the iPod took up the same approximate space. iTunes allows the user to import songs into mp3 form in several different levels of quality. Of course, the better the quality, the more space they consume. I used the highest setting for mp3s, and when I played those songs back through my cheapo computer speakers, they didn't sound so horrible. When I made an mp3 disc and tried it in the car or on the home stereo, though, the dingy nature of the sound was exposed by the higher quality of the audio systems in question.
Translation: I tried to listen to mp3s on my "big boy" systems and said to myself, "This sucks. I decry lossy compression." OK, I didn't actually say that second sentence then, but I say it now.
By contrast, "lossless compression" does not suck. But the drawback with it is that files cannot be compressed as much as with lossy.
We can wrap this up, though, with a geeky and cynical but appropriate observation: If you don't like technology, just wait. It will change. I'm convinced something will come along that offers both portability and better quality than we're getting now. I'm also convinced that, when it does, it'll cost us more than we want to pay.
Dang, listen to me; I need cheering up. I now excuse myself to listen to Neil Young's "On the Beach" in pristine DVD-Audio. Stubborn ol' Neil gave us only a two-channel mix on that disc, but right now I love him for being such a hard-headed geek.