The Death of Audio Fidelity

I just started another semester at the College of Southern Nevada and because this very blog was started as an assignment from one of my classes, I’ve decided to post an editorial I had to write for my PHIL 102 (Philosophy) class. It’s about the death of audio fidelity, or how people just don’t give a shit how their music sounds anymore. Enjoy!

Audio fidelity, the sound quality of music or recordings, evolved through time becoming valuable to consumers and not just audio purists, the “audiophiles”. But over the past 15 to 20 years audio fidelity has all but evaporated in the consumer realm and the public seems to not care at all. Coming from Edison’s cylinder, 78 RPM Victrolla’s, 33 1/3 Long Play vinyl records through to cassette’s and then Compact Disc’s, audio fidelity improved as each new technology took hold. Music lovers used to the scratchy and tinny sound of 78’s of the 1930’s & ’40’s rejoiced when the Long Play vinyl record brought with it improved sound quality, longer selections and a more durable format. Similarly, the listeners of the 1980’s stood gobsmacked when they heard the seemingly miraculous improvement CD’s were over LP’s; lifelike, digital sound was available on a shiny disc with instant, random access. For many fans CD recordings are the best they’ve ever heard their favorite music sound. CD’s sounded great to most and held strong through to the end of the 20th century.

Something strange happened as the new millenium dawned. CD’s receeded as a format to, for the first time ever, technologies that provided lesser sound quality than the format before it. MP3’s, Windows Media Files, Apple’s iTunes format and other digital file scheme’s have decreased audio fidelity with compression algorithms and other techniques that smash as much information into the smallest file space. In turn, for the sake of convienence and quantity, audio fidelity has evaporated. While some, including myself, bemoan the loss of quality and availability of music that “sounds good”, the majority of people don’t seem to mind-especially the younger, record buying public. They’ve been raised to not know any better, getting their first taste of music through an iPod or other device that inherently will never have good audio fidelity. In addition, cheaply made earbuds that have extremely low quality drivers and sound quality are the main monitoring devices being used. Some even use their cellphone’s ‘speaker phone’ speaker as their main way of listening to music!

The problem for music lovers who love their audio fidelity too is that more and more artists are just releasing their music via MP3’s and other file formats only. Having a choice of CD or special issue vinyl helped us who loved great sounding recordings for a time but as the record labels fade into obsolescence they’ve ceased putting out multiple formats of an artists music. If you don’t use iTunes or something of that ilk, you won’t be listening to that song that’s bored itself into your head on anything that has great audio fidelity. The majority of people have become used to it. But many like myself are truly mourning the death of audio fidelity. It does not need to be audiophile quality, just with all of the great technology at our disposal today the fact that sound quality is actually decreasing is insane to me. Another culprit is the mastering being done to records in the recent past where all dynamics are squashed by extreme compression and limiting. It is supposedly done to make CD’s, MP3’s, etc. louder to cut through extreme radio and TV compression. Also it’s the old “louder sounds better” and if a digital master can be manipulated to stay right below “digital zero”, the 0db limit of digital recording, why not do it, right? No, wrong, it sounds like shit, whatever the reason.

Together with the “Loudness War” phenomenon of the past 10 to 15 years and the turn to digital formats and streaming, maybe expecting good audio fidelity is a moot point. It is now what it is going to be. The shame is that it’s just not new music that is affected, it is also the historic catalogs of the greats from the previous century who with constant reissues and remastering are equally robbed of their former sound quality. Some remastered albums are done very well, where a small level increase from a previous analog vinyl era mastered CD is very welcomed. Also minimal EQing and subtle noise reduction in older material can work wonders, done tastefully in small amounts. The difference between George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” releases come to mind in this regard. The original CD release was from a safety copy of the original master, again made in and for the vinyl age. Stylus jumps, distortion and EQ curves were all worries and considerations of a labels mastering house. The mastering engineer and disc cutters for vinyl pressing were mastering for the only mass market delivery system that mattered for decades, vinyl.

The new millennium version of “All Things Must Pass” was much different. Being sourced from the original analog mixes, it was truly digitally remastered with slight level increase and noise reduction. It would be heard on a variety of formats, files, CD’s and yes even a vinyl reissue. But the digital formats sounded great, not jacked up and robbed of dynamics and air. Some remasters aren’t so lucky and suffer from current mastering trap of loudness for loudness sake, remasters from Pink Floyd’s catalog to Dylan’s being victims. An article that goes into much greater detail is on the Sound On Sound site at this link.

Recording technology is so advanced now that any laptop with a USB audio interface and one of many DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) programs is as powerful as any professional studio was just a few years ago. Aside from the acoustics of the studio, excellent microphone and vintage gear selection and an assistant engineer, the tools are now available to every musicians who wants it. My recording history is written about in the Features section but I will say that the four track cassette Tascam 424 PortaStudio I began on in the early 1990’s was NOT the state of the art, current or past states! But I could work to make the recordings sound the best I could and not let the technology or lack thereof stop me from recording demos of my songster best I could. I continue that same attitude now recording digitally now, years later. I hope that artists and producers get hep to the fact that the false loudness and autotune take away from the humanity of the recordings…humans make mistakes and sometimes they feel and sound good. I also hope that the tech companies and public strive for better listening experiences and fidelity, even if the tech is made just for a perceived smaller consumer base. Neil Young is attempting it with the Pono Player without a lot of success but it’s a start. If this is just the way audio fidelity is going to stay and we’re all going to be listening to music on our smartphones can at least the speakers start getting better?

Just one cats opinion….be cool.

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