Thorne at the Stereo Society
Thorne at the Stereo Society
Delivering The Music (All Change)
Introduction: Music Depends
Lots of fancy essays and five-dollar words are written about media and how different formats influence performers and audiences. Different surroundings transmit differently and vary the music’s impact on the audience. When innovation arrives, such as DVD or the Internet, there will always be an exciting but confusing settling period while standards are defined and habits form. Since large corporate interests will be competing for the new turf, it takes time before a balance is struck between the different parties’ interests. We are now living in a transitional period, with many quiet battles for supremacy engaged. For music creation, as for any art form, there are really two intertwined issues: the music’s carrier (such as the audio compact disk) and how music might be changed when it is created for a new environment with new rules and possibilities.
The music that we make evolves in tandem with delivery methods just as, more obviously, it does with machines for its creation. We can see a similar interdependence most easily in the way live music performers adjust to different environments. In a very reverberant acoustic, such as a cathedral, a musician will play a piece more slowly than in a drier acoustic such as a recital room, because the notes take more time to be perceived. Reverberation enhances a sound by giving it depth, but too many combinations of reflected versions of the original sound smear it and reduce its definition. It takes us longer to identify our sound than in a ‘dry’ acoustic with fewer confusing reflections. Appropriate tempo choice becomes an artistic call. Similarly, changing the delivery mechanism of recorded music encourages it to adapt for maximum effectiveness and to take best advantage of its new surroundings.
We have already seen music sounds and styles evolve through technological change. In the mid-seventies, disco became enormously popular and provoked the biggest dance craze since the era of the big bands, enabled by the increased power of club sound systems which were now capable of moving stomachs as well as eardrums at a reasonable price. Old sixties Motown records, even the heavier ones, were not enough to fill this new environment and the now-familiar heavy bass and kick drum sound evolved, very simplified and noticeably different in sound and tonal color. The arrival of electronic techniques helped refine the sound further. Extended mixes became routine, since the dance floor wanted to move continuously and never stop. Very enjoyable the music still is, but the looseness of the bass sound would not be universally tolerated now. In the nineties, techno and related electronic music forms went a dance step further. The newer dance music increased the tempo, and the reverberation on most recordings was reduced, following the way that a performing musician might react if wanting to play faster and had control over the surrounding acoustics. Dance clubs became more specialized and focused than in the seventies, and the music they developed became a kind of dance utility, typically expecting attention about half way between what you’d give it in an elevator and a dedicated music room. This is not music for reserved, attentive listening. At home, you might do the dishes to it, although some artists, especially in the techno area, could move in quite a rarefied artistic space. Sound systems became gargantuan. Then, just as in the earlier disco era, pop music co-opted the style that had developed in the club hot-house and grafted it on to the tight, economical pop-song format. Hello establishment, goodbye underground.
Music playback formats are the battleground of large corporations. The market advantage of defining a standard is enormous: Philips still receives a royalty on every CD sold worldwide. A memorable marketplace shakeout, typically not in the best long-term interest of consumers, was very publicly and brutally engaged between the video standards of Beta (Sony) and VHS (Panasonic). It took several years before the technically superior system succumbed to shorter-term economic forces. The balance between affordability and quality is always delicate. A similar fight took place between the Microsoft and Macintosh computer operating systems and, again, the best man didn’t win. The present competition in online music streaming and download formats has yet to resolve itself, as has that for writableDVD disks. Even with players appearing in stores, the full standard for the DVD platform (‘digital versatile disk’, a clumsy name-change from ‘digital video disk’ after it was pointed out that more than video would flow from the new-style disks) is still incomplete, following eight years of negotiation and software development.
Government regulation is another selection process, often cumbersome but needed as a brake on the pro-active marketplace and powerful commercial interests which often have priorities conflicting with those of the general population (such as pursuit of a monopoly). Often hampered by the technical ignorance of legislators, this process may take even longer than the shake-out through market competition. The debate about digital and high density television formats is only now showing signs of resolution in the US after more than ten years of deliberation and corporate maneuvering. Standards in Europe remain a confused mess. With the globalization of the communications and entertainment industries, negotiations between self-interested governments increase the complexity of any agreement, possibly to the point where achieving a useable universal standard is impossible.
After a standard is accepted and defined, we have to wait before related products are adopted by the public, and we should never hold our breath. The compact disc was introduced in 1982, but it was 1994 before there was a player in more than half US households. (There are still some conservative vinyl holdouts, often in unusual sectors such as by dance club DJs whose vocal appreciation of vinyl and its sound can verge on mysticism. Vinyl disk sales actually increased in the US in 2000.) Inevitably, large population sectors are left behind by a music media switch. Since vinyl record sales are a tiny fraction of the total, it follows that up to half the households in 1994 were not buying too many records, preferring to stick with their old Doors and Stones albums rather than upgrade in convenience and quality or (of critical importance to the contemporary music industry) investigate contemporary artists. Their musical desires are clearly fulfilled, possibly for a lifetime.
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Although our media environment is always changing, once we have accepted a particular device for delivering music, film or whatever, we take it completely for granted. Such is the weather and the sun: we admire the sunset on vacation more than where we live. We appreciate our big-screen TV for a while, before it sinks into the background. However, we never take for granted the stuff that comes at us through the machine. In music, as with any expression, we build strong, unconscious assumptions about what sounds good and what doesn’t, about what makes us respond. These become big issues for the record producer. There is no point creating a recording which only sounds good in one environment (and it certainly ought to in the studio where you make it). If you don’t take this into account, you might as well record for eight speakers and enjoy it even more floating in the middle of that unique, precious cube, but you’ll be an audience of one.
For the listener, the music environment is always a very specific place: a club, an elevator, a living room, a car, on hold on the phone, a dance club, headphones, a restaurant jukebox, or a room containing $10 000 worth of audio equipment capable of thrilling but also of exposing any sonic deficiency. In a recording production, one size must try to fit all. The single album is expected to work in all these environments and deliver a musical message which at the very least (in the elevator) sets a mood and at most (in the high-end listening room or the dance floor) flattens you against the wall. This is an alarmingly large set of target environments. Fortunately, there is one completely undefined characteristic that they all have in common.
Over years and generations, an unspoken consensus has developed about the tonal balance we prefer in recorded music. We find a quite precise balance between treble and bass frequencies to be acceptable, and if it goes one way or the other we label it ‘shrill’ or ‘muddy’ without really thinking why. This balance hasn’t remained the same, nor will it. It isn’t directly related to the real acoustics of a piano or a symphony orchestra, although at some point it diverged from them. For example, in 1997 (more than in 1967) we expect our recorded sound to emphasize extremes. A recording must have more treble and more bass than we expect to hear from the real thing in the same room, or we will be disappointed and wont get the same kick from the music.
Perhaps this change in aural ideal was forced by the CDs sounding superior to vinyl, perhaps by the dramatically increased quality of cheaper sound systems, but it has evolved noticeably over the last 30 years. A similar tonal assumption applies in an elevator; we don’t expect the same bass as in a dance club, not the same high-end brilliance as in a dedicated listening room, but we expect our muffled Muzak to provide a slight but unobtrusive distraction – and it’s also clearer than it was 30 years ago. All these environments point to a very specific, underlying tonal balance in the original material. We might reasonably ask that this be defined and measured, but unfortunately we would need more than a graph of frequency against volume. This is a cultural issue, and it depends critically on the cultural message, which we call music, that we’re trying to pass on.
What defines this tonal balance, and how did it become so stable? This didn’t come from a committee report of wise people, but evolved from several things: the original acoustic sound, the sound characteristic of the reproducer (speaker), and the acoustic environment (room). All of these interact with each other – a modern studio piano is generally chosen for the brightness and punch of its sound rather than for warmth and color, since that makes it easier to deliver the more extreme, enhanced recording that the listener has come to expect. There was no single, conscious decision. As with any evolutionary process, many small steps, each accepted or rejected, gave us the sound that is our current standard. Over time, hardware manufacturers sold speakers that sounded best with contemporary recordings, and record producers delivered sound that worked best with available speakers. Hand in hand, they walked down the Yellow Brick Road to a place which is not quite real.
Gradually, we change. We don’t have to be condescending about the sound on cylinders, or even 78s, for they worked just fine for people experiencing them for the first time, often the stimulating marvel of the day. We can see the change quite clearly in our time of unusually persistent popular music, where 20- and 60-year olds will be listening to the same Doors or Stones CDs. It’s still a shock to go back 30 years and hear the difference between a carefully engineered vinyl album from the sixties and a contemporary equivalent. When old albums are remastered for reissue, the adoption of newer treble/bass balances can sometimes, curiously, change the subjective impact of the music (as engineer Carl Beatty comments in his interview here). You can’t define a clear path in evolutionary processes. We still don’t know where we all came from; far more simply, we can’t measure the tonal balance we prefer, which will continue to be a moving target.
Playing With Vinyl
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Like broad genres, small gestures live and die by new technologies. The Beatles’ one last surprise, backward sound recorded in the run-out groove at the end of the vinyl Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club disappeared with the LP. I used a related trick on the run-in grooves of Live At The Roxy (now deceased in all formats). This was a very successful live recording in early 1977 at London’s seminal punk club, then the only venue in the capital for such music, a small but intense scene. The punk era depended enormously on the spirit of place and the close relationship between audience and performer. The audience was happy to think that they too might be up there if they had something to say, and the performers’ spirit of do-it-yourself-if-you-have-something-on-your-mind started a whole New Wave of record-making attitude.
A live punk record definitely needed a device to plunge you instantly into the club atmosphere, not least because the music itself was less than polished. The energy and the event were the thing. I used a lead-in recording of around half a minute of audience noise and conversation, mixed from hidden mikes around the tiny two-floor club on Neal Street, and recorded throughout the lead-in groove on both sides. You put the stylus down on the record, and you were instantly there, and not at a predictable place. There was no ‘cue fade-in’, so the album did not feel so canned, and thus communicated some of the raw unpredictability of the venue.
This sort of media trick was worth taking further. A track by the Adverts, who were to have some moderate success over the coming few years, ends side one. At the end, the drummer, Laurie Driver, kicks over his kit, a Keith Moon invention which was revived for mid-seventies punk.
After the clatter, you hear the guitar amps, one on each side being disconnected, then the hum of a trailing lead (a very familiar sound at the Roxy), which then continues to the inner groove. But then it was only at the cutting stage, where a reference disk was cut for a home listening test, where I realized that the pitch of the hum increased because the angle of the groove changed as it spiraled out towards the final closed circle and increased the speed of the groove past the stylus. So we left the hum running, opened up the distance between grooves only slightly, and made the closed final circle farther out. This had the additional benefit that automatic players would not lift the stylus, because the diameter of the run-out groove was too large to trip the lever. (Perhaps they’re humming still, even though the Roxy Club is now a clothes shop. Be warned, though. The UK rerelease of the album on CD omits much of the atmospherics of the original.) These tricks are all gone now. The best we can do is hide a track at the end of the CD by recording a lot of silence in between. We had a brief period of larking around in the mid-nineties when music CD-ROMs seemed about to be a going concern, but with those multilayered devices the hidden tracks usually remained just so.
The final moderately expensive twist on the Roxy album provided an compelling ending for the second side. One of two cubicles in the men’s toilets had been locked with an official-looking out-of-order sign and an authoritative mop and bucket. We thought we might catch some loose conversation in the men’s room that we could use on the record. (Earlier, we had recorded some very satisfying sounds of the partial demolition of the ladies’ following on several theatrical haircuts.) One of the club regulars, in a clearly altered state, got impatient with the patron hogging the toilet. After banging for a while on the door (recorded nicely), he climbed up to peer inside. The very last sounds on the record: ‘Oh, they’re not fucking bugging us . . .’ It was Shane’s gift to the project, and vice versa. That short recording was worth the £80 cost of the microphone’s replacement.
The demise of vinyl might have left us short of production tricks, but it was indispensable in the club DJ arena. DJs play the crowd using inspired segue from one track to another, and by catching the disk on a clutch, catching or pushing it, or ‘scratching’, moving the stylus to and fro along the groove. With two copies of one record you can spin a popular cut as long as the dance floor desires. Great spontaneous performance depth can come from a few unmanipulated tracks, a far development from the straight sequential playing that was pretty universal until the early eighties. We might as well have been wearing polite tuxedos when we spun records then. Completely eliminating vinyl would eliminate too many possibilities for creative physical manipulation, so the format persists almost unchallenged in club land. Expensive attempts in CD players to emulate these effects have not really caught on. Spinning and scratching together are really a primitive form of random access to, and processing of, stored music, but the boundaries of the material and of the performance now start to merge after being held apart for many years. It was the composer John Cage who famously observed that a recording is really a piece of electronic music.
Advanced DJ technique has spilled into the studio for several years, and there’s an obvious parallel between the technique of sampling, where sounds such from such as a vocal phrase to loops of a few drum beats are combined to make a fresh new piece of music. The club DJ is doing the same thing, but in real time and with larger samples (otherwise known as tracks). From this aspect, an album of a DJ ‘performance’ presently looks like a very crude sample-based composition, sometimes unsatisfactory in comparison with loop-based recordings where a loop (typically of drums) forms the foundation for a piece as a steady acoustic rhythm section used to. We will not really combine convenience with creative presentation until we have true random access and real-time processing available.
The compact disc makes for convenient cataloguing, great sound and ease of use, but the boundaries of its musical contents are far more rigidly defined. In a culturally confused twist, DJ’s release albums of their performances, often giving a strange, frozen version of a spontaneous party turn which originated very much in the moment and may have been unforgettable if you were there. Like jazz, spinning is a live form and doesn’t always translate so well to a documentary record which can be replayed precisely, and so both forms are hard to pull off on record. Setup and surprise work best when the performer is in close sync with an audience and can finely judge delivery and timing, as any standup comic knows.
The Rise And Fall Of The Single
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Sometimes, changes in the delivery vessel affect musical possibilities drastically. The perverse artifact that the twenty-first century single has become is the latest twist in a long process of evolution. When 78s were the only carrier, popular songs were written to fit a side, or a record side was arranged to contain a typical song. You would not expect any audience’s interest to survive flipping the disk just before the third chorus. Songs were short and sharp. A brief bit of competitive market silliness just after the second war by Columbia (advocating 12″ discs turning at 33 1/3 rpm) and RCA (multiple 7″ discs) resulted in the compromise that was our vinyl single and album.
The 45rpm single allowed songs to lengthen, since it could be longer than a 10″ 78 rpm disk, but it threw the form into higher profile because it was cheaper to manufacture and, thanks to its durability and lightness, easier to transport in bulk. Suddenly, singles were big business. Not only that, they began to replace live covers of contemporary hit songs as radio’s raw material. Thus, radio insinuated itself into the record promotional loop. Records began to be produced with an acute awareness of radio play compatibility. However, long-term economic factors outside any company’s control, deriving from economies of scale and distribution, started a long decline of the single format.
The rise of the album in the mid-sixties as the primary artistic and economic unit began to marginalize the single’s profitability, although not its role as a promotional tool. Economic pressure on the album grew for it to contain tracks which could be played on the radio, often placed at the start of a side (although, thankfully, this pandering to programmers’ short attention spans was also the best way of getting an album off to an accessible, lively and seductive start). With very few exceptions, the single’s length, although rising to four minutes, became linked tightly to radio programming formats which frowned on anything longer (although every producer must have submitted the 3’ 65″ single at some point). That the public was happy with a long record which worked outside these limits was demonstrated by a few fluke best-seller escapes: Maggie May (Rod Stewart) was a large scale pop song, but some like Private Investigator (Dire Straits) and Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) were strikingly different in sound and structure. But, if not word of mouth, the main mechanism for our music discovery remained radio. Singles sales began to wither.
Since record industry wisdom will never let go of a winning thing whose time has passed, there was an awkwardly blind transfer of the promotional single principle to cassette: two or three tracks (typically the ‘single’ coupled with one or two second-rate album rejects) on a short audio cassette, the clumsily titled ‘cassingle’. Losing their position of driving the business that had been established 15 years earlier, singles almost without exception started to lose money, becoming particularly weak in contrast with the huge margins on a single record album which cost little more to physically make than the increasingly elaborately packaged single which was necessary for more effective promotion. The public, quite reasonably, were more inclined to pay for music rather than for physical bulk, a correspondence which applied only when an album meant more music than a single. But the pressure for this creative format’s survival remained.
The compact disk eventually became the dominant music carrier, sweeping to its present dominant US market share. Economics became even less favorable for the single format: today, even though they are a specialist item, a 12″ vinyl club single can be pressed for $1.40 to retail at $6.99. For the tiny band of retro holdouts, 7″ singles can be pressed for about $1.25. The corresponding figures for a short CD (CD-single or CD5) are about 90 cents and between $1.99 and $4.99 depending on the level of promotional subsidy and the lavishness of the packaging. In contrast, a well-packaged CD album can be physically manufactured for under a dollar in large quantities. (The difference between this and the wholesale price only gives the large corporations significant profit with sales figures of hundreds of thousands, since marketing, promotion and distribution costs dominate, hence their exclusive focus on broadly appealing styles.)
The single has arrived at an evolutionary dead end, even though the trade magazines feature singles charts and reviews prominently. Radio, and the preselection of an accessible representative track, still matters crucially for big music. Far fewer singles than albums are now sold. Singles cost almost as much to manufacture as albums and lose money, yet business momentum pushes them onward. They continue to be issued, and music continues to be bent into their shape, simply to supply the radio promotional conduit which has stayed much the same for 40 years. Since recordings don’t go away, but rather accumulate indefinitely, radio has a constantly increasing library of material for its use. The record industry is now subservient to radio, a turnaround from its cheerful exploitation of broadcasting before radio bit back.
The broadcast industry has grown to be very successful and powerful, this content disseminator moderating the output of the content creators and restricting products to its own narrow requirements. These are rarely those of the artist or consumer, between whom is the basic music buy/sell contract underlying the whole business. Clearly, there is a need for a new format to stimulate awareness of new music that permits music itself to change and evolve, to deliver the freshness and novelty which used to be the selling points of popular culture in general and popular music in particular. Unwittingly, the cable divisions of the broadcast industry may have provided for music’s escape, and the jailer could be handing over the keys.
There has always been ill-informed talk about the delivery of music (and other media). In late 2000, loose talk and fuzzy business thinking resulted in bankruptcy for many over-inflated companies floated on one cool idea. One of the grandest and best-funded online ventures, EMusic, saw its shares sink below 50 cents after just over two years in business before they were bought out in April 2001 by Universal, one of the Big Five corporations. Many dubious business proposals were floated only to sink under the weight of other people’s money. Much of this bedlam can be by-passed through appreciation of a few basic, non-technical statistics about the life of data. The Internet can reasonably only be used now for atomic music delivery (CD sales). The mail is still the most efficient way of transmitting large amount of data reliably into the home.
Any media may be delivered through the Internet: words, sounds, still and moving pictures. Some are more amenable than others. We take text transfer for granted. We can receive the words for a 300-page novel in a few minutes (at the highest dial-up modem speed). We may read it on the screen or, more pleasantly, print it out in a format and typeface we like. After we have the book in our possession, it might take us six hours to read it. Three minutes of applied technology gives us six hours of entertainment, and we can also preview quickly and simply online.
Still images (such as photographs) raise the bar, and are usually the limiting factor in viewing a Web page after requesting it from someone’s server through a link. Since digital cameras became affordable, we enjoy instant picture gratification again, since you can see what you took almost immediately and process it any way you care in your personal digital darkroom or effects suite. Pictures look more vibrant on the screen, and a hard drive is more convenient than a shoebox. We can find a specific image much more easily, and storage of at least 500 high-resolution photos to a CD-R perhaps three for a cent. You can erase blurry visions of Auntie Mae from the neck down only. For high resolution on a typical computer or television monitor screen, we need several minutes of transmission per picture. For 100 happy holiday snaps, even with compression it takes significantly longer to download the material we want to enjoy than the time we might spend with it.
Music makes matters much worse. A four-minute recording at CD quality will take over three hours to download, without allowing for sporadic computer crashes and internet disconnects, an excessive application of technology for just four minutes of entertainment. It’s no consolation that video, potential online sales of which has provoked institutions as disparate as Time Warner and Hong Kong Telecom to experiment with delivery technology for video-on-demand, is even more massively data-intensive. Strictly for offline amusement, we calculate that four minutes of digital TV in the looming, high-definition format would take over two weeks to download via dial-up connection should you be so perverse. Video data is always compressed, except in some professional studio computer operations, but acceptable fuzzy TV quality always needs much more room than does audio.
In the mid-nineties, there were many attempts to compress audio signals to lower the data burden. The majority, of which Liquid Audio’s is the most notable survivor, incorporated a tag that would limit playback to one designated computer, thus preventing unauthorized copying and sales-threatening dissemination. Consumer broadband internet access (which is now through cable TV and DSL phone connections) was limited in 1995 to a few local experiments. The speed of transmission of a copy limited its dissemination, and the record business’ panic about copying would have to wait until the year 2000. However, the millennial upheaval was being readied at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. The MP3 format is a computer playback format, the success of which has encouraged dedicated hardware players as well as a plethora of computer applications. In reducing the data needed to a ninth, quality was reduced, but not critically. Mp3s may be played anywhere and copied indefinitely.
The most radical impact of MP3 is obviously its potential to compromise the copyright owner’s income, but the format has very supportive role for marketing and distribution. The MP3 has become the new single, able to be duplicated and distributed at minimal cost. As promotional enticement, it is very elegant, giving artist and record company the means to give away a sample without incurring the distribution costs which severely tax the atomic (disk-based) business. If the consumer is hooked by the free track, the sale of the whole CD is a distinct possibility. It remains to be seen whether the mp3 will become the dominant dumbed-down music carrier format for collections (still quaintly called ‘albums’ when offered for sale online). Something in the water still suggests that we might just hang on to our physical CDs. Everyone who was there regrets the passing of the 12″ LP sleeve and its contraction to the CD booklet.
New Atomic Formats
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So far, commercial applications using compressed audio on physical disks have failed, and there is now less reason to reduce the data demands of a physical carrier when even hard disk storage runs five cents a megabyte. The audience may not always be upset by a lower quality than that which it takes for granted from a CD, but there’s often a perception that it is being short-changed if delivery is on a hard medium such as disk. The CD itself is an antique, but it is a world-wide standard and it is here. Preliminary discussions are lumbering along between the large music corporations, largely initiated by a technically innovative proposal by Sony (Direct-Stream-Digital, DSD, which has now morphed into the Super Audio Compact Disc, SACD) and a rival Toshiba/Time Warner proposal (DVD Audio, DVD-A). These are aimed at introducing new, higher-quality, more interactively controllable, multi-channel music standards, but it will be some time before the results are presented to the consumer public with a suitably wide range of repertoire (there was an acute shortage at the roll-out). No concrete action is worthwhile before the new audio playback standards are settled and accepted.
The rapid evolution of music and its environment has been confusing enough, but now the boundaries between the media themselves are melting. New technology jargon has been buzzing around for some time now, as media based on interactive, non-linear principles (CD-ROMs) refuse to take off significantly in the marketplace. We’ll leave discussions of media convergence for later, but note now that eventually a single disk type holding more data than the present CD is expected to be universal, based on the DVD platform.
The new, high-quality audio carrier on 12cm discs (DVD-Audio application, resting on the DVD platform) is now is showing signs of causing as much standards combat as the new DVD video format decision (which stopped privately, again just short of another public standards war in the marketplace between Toshiba and Sony). This platform will carry different media with different formats, but the physical disks will be the same for all. This could be truly the end of a very constructive evolution, finally to have one carrier for all our physical media needs. We can devote a disk to one format, or combine them all, interactively or otherwise. We had better get it right. Ironically, the first DVD proposals were argued in 1994, and the carrier’s standards are still not fully agreed and finalized, the delay making it potentially obsolete on its universal introduction and wide adoption. (In the computer field, the situation is quietly even more confusing, with several mutually incompatible writable DVD formats. The market leader, DVD-RAM, looks set to lose eventually, thanks in part to its painfully slow writing speed.)
Many of the arguments about DVD-audio will be about aural quality. When we first heard the compact disk, the sheer convenience of use and cleanliness of sound encouraged us to overlook some relatively minor sonic deficiencies. Most of the time, the sound is limited by the recording, by sound engineering rather than by the carrier itself. The arguments of the purists will not impress the large-scale audio business. The general public apparently does not care about quality beyond a certain point. Since it was happy to use hissy, distorted and wobbly cassettes, the quality threshold is probably far short of that delivered by the CD. The stronger force for change may be inclusion of other media elements, and the relative ease with which they can be assembled (compared with the present agonies in creating a CD-ROM on a disk which, on its original introduction, was not even intended to hold raw data).
If sufficient home theater systems have sufficient multichannel sound systems, we will finally hear multichannel, surround music in the home, which has been a faint promise since the unqualified technical and commercial disaster that was quadraphony in the 1970s (which used a speaker in each corner of the room). For me, basic sound quality is no longer an issue since domestic players and converters (the electronics which convert the signal between digital and analog formats) have improved dramatically, in contrast with the earlier, occasionally harsher and grittier CD days when players did not sound uniformly good. I enjoy a well-engineered CD, although that’s not a majority experience. Most of the time, though, the music carries me, as it does the rest of the world. There is no compelling reason to suppose that the great popular ear will be educated further, and that is always our reference point when making music.
Perhaps sound quality in the home is a battle won. We now know that there is significant sound that we can sense outside the accepted convention (of 20-20 000 cycles per second), and it’s worth noting that some people who suffer from asthma can routinely hear as high as 35 000 cps. But is the expense, for all concerned, worth the little extra? The resolution will be economic, related to how much the public will pay for extra clarity and superior audio quality. A public increasingly used to mp3 playback may not bother.
We always have to maintain perspective in our expensive pursuit of high fidelity in the music studio. Surround sound, using the two million or so home theater installation systems, seems to beg for adoption, but a sound ghetto mentality may hinder. One producer recently pronounced that the speaker layout is (surely he meant ‘should be’) different for DVD-Audio, which makes you wonder what sort of home he lives in. Great sound by itself will never sell records. Records have the privilege of carrying music, which is what we all want, otherwise we might offer beautiful recordings of Pollini at the piano playing only scales and arpeggios. That said, I have experienced the difference in impact a pure improvement in fidelity can make on a lay listener. It’s not necessary for the listener to articulate the difference, only to feel it.
In 1982, when mixing Parting Should Be Painless, a solo album for Roger Daltrey, Harvey Goldberg and I experimented for the first time with digital stereo on a Mitsubishi X-80 tape recorder. To our surprise we noticed considerably better clarity in the reference cassettes we were taking home. Even though previous references had been made from carefully made analog stereo masters, and the fidelity of the cassette was obviously way below that of analog and digital master tapes, we heard a striking improvement. We didn’t hear much of that album on the radio, unfortunately, but with later digital productions we did. Whether or not the public can describe the difference, I’m sure that the higher quality of the master tape enhanced the effect of the music, even at low fidelities.
Over To The Internet
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Sound quality used to be limited by the rate at which you could retrieve data from a disk or tape. We now find similar compromises thrust at us when we want to access media online, requiring a conscious quality and convenience sacrifice. Pay per view is a creaking early example of what might become our habitual means of accessing a bigger media library than even the obsessive atomic media collector enjoys today. Since we can only import data into our homes up to a certain typical rate, what quality can we achieve that we might listen to our choice of music in real time exactly when we choose?
Companies such as Liquid Audio, Xing Technology and Progressive Networks utilize real-time audio technology (click on a button on a Web page, and you hear music). You see a player on your screen which enables you to fast-forward/reverse and pause. However, it’s kind to say that the sound quality through a dial-up connection falls short of mono AM radio. Audio stretches conventional telephone line limits to breaking point. Video using conventional phone lines is even less satisfactory, limited to tiny pictures and jerky movement with no room for improvement.
Hope is in the brochure. New digital technologies for phone and cable lines can dramatically increase the data flow into the home which might be used for delivering music and other media. We can now consider downloading our four minute recording, or a whole album, for later enjoyment. The new connectivity means that downloads can take significantly less than the program running time. Employing emerging new phone-line technology (DSL), four minutes of CD-format stereo music takes about 68 seconds to arrive in the home. A typical ‘album’ download therefore takes around 14 minutes, is a similar length of time to that spent to contemplating and completing a purchase in a record store. Internet access using cable can be even faster. Ultimate geographical freedom is promised by satellite Internet access, although reception depends on having a dish and a view of the southern horizon (in the northern hemisphere), and independent of the distance from a switching center that limits phone and cable transmission. Unfortunately, a second connection is still necessary, since it is not possible to send data to the satellite, and for this we’re back to a dial-up phone connection.
We will eventually arrive at the point where the only issue for music’s home delivery is its quality (reflecting the standard chosen and therefore the data transfer needed per minute) and the patience of the would-be listener. Already, broadband (cable and DSL) Internet is accessed by some 10% of wired US households, and their download speeds are amazing to people accustomed to the current phone standard. You develop a whole different way of using the Web and handling media. However, with media-on-demand we hit another, more personal problem. We prefer to store our music in our own library. For whatever atavistic reason, we are not always comfortable relying on someone else to provide delivery precisely when we want it, even if that enables us to draw on a much wider range of music than we could ever physically own. This idea of paying for actual listening time is not new, but has been usually been resisted.
We like to have control over our software stuff, and it seems that it has to become our possession before we embrace it as integral to our psychic space. Should someone else control our access to the music we wish to hear, on their data server, we can become uncomfortable. We can see network service going badly wrong in other social environments. In large business computer applications, networks are the norm. For a suffering employee, the issue is sometimes cost control versus mind control, as personal routines are directed by those above. For an individual relying on an Internet provider such as America Online, a server shut-down eliminates contact that is increasingly taken for granted, and is very frustrating. We like our self-reliance, and a data outage becomes just as disruptive for us as a power failure.
Like other parts of our life, we like to control our media environment as much as possible. Physically holding the music container in our hands takes us closer to an ideal. We can never tolerate a power failure, and are rarely obliged to, but online server companies seem to be a lot more casual about our convenience and their reliability. So we may usually want to store our music at home, since we have bought it and we will want to gloat over it. The music’s channel becomes more constricting than you might gather from the futuristic fantasies we have been relayed blindly by technically-cosseted journalists. On receipt, music has to be stored on another physical medium, most cheaply on a writable CD, which presently costs about $1.00 for a blank. A fast recorder writes at perhaps twelve times the music’s running time (after the user has set it up). Promised salvation will not come easily through Internet delivery, but there will be new platforms for music to stand on, and new ways for music to develop.
It emerges, therefore, that popular music’s development is presently held back by its economic reliance on a delivery mechanism long gone, whose format is sustained by the promotional apparatus on which the mainstream business relies. Similar but different constraints have hobbled the classical music field. Recorded music is a much more fluid form than would seem from what is brought to our attention by the mass media. The Internet provides access on demand to information about the new music, and its most powerful liberating potential is to provide an alternative to the hegemony of radio and TV.
The bastard child ‘Internet radio’ provides streams of audio in pre-programmed fashion, with the difference that this radio program on demand can be accessed with a button click at any time, and at any wired place. It will seduce media magnates by being close to a standard, proven business model, but it breaks down the strict content linkage which controls and limits us. We need that crazy guy with an opinion and a home studio in late-night Bakersfield. It’s one thing to flip stations on the chance something more interesting is broadcast simultaneously elsewhere, quite another to go somewhere to enjoy a closer approximation to your taste of the moment. Music that you don’t know may be selected for you by intelligent software agents, following your answering a questionnaire. They’re often human, even. And you can take it or leave it. Or change it.
You will listen through the Internet as if to a radio controlled by you, to music which has been presented on a Web page by people interested in selling it to you (which you can take or leave). They will give you much information about any music that is there, taking you back to the days of the sixties mom-and-pop store where you leaned on the counter for ten minutes and asked earnest, critical questions before settling on your purchase, or you retired to the listening booth that smelled of chewing gum, hot dogs and damp. You will select from a wide range of recorded formats, probably delivered by overnight mail-order. Simultaneously, you will enjoy radio, a very well-appointed record store, and a multi-media magazine.
Eventually, you will escape the restrictions associated with those physical environments. And music itself will broaden and blossom as it evolves new forms that can be economically sustained by appealing to relatively small groups of people, free of the radio and television’s severe filtering process. The audience supplies its own filtering. Little niches will be self-sustaining, and will always have the chance of growing into something much broader. The possibility is there now, it is applied in some intense Web places (like the Stereo Society) and it is spreading steadily. It will be fascinating to see how people’s music itself changes as new formats open new possibilities and impose new limits.
So much for Utopia. In the practical present, we choose between two types of vessel that hold our music. One is very familiar and long-lived, the extension of the CD to DVD with the media forms such as video and surround audio. The alternative Internet option consistently inspires journalists to flights of fancy soaring far above immediate practical possibility, but it already suggests freedom and flexibility that atomic media cannot offer. Blurring and retarding both are the mouting layers of restrictions placed on access by the media business and its own cumbersome inertia, which reflect the enormous value of generations of creative music production. More than ever is at stake here. The outcome for delivery of the mysterious data that make us laugh, cry or yawn is not clear, but we salute a new pretender to the throne. The war will be waged for a while.
– MT April 1999