Friday, May 11, 2007

High Fidelity: the death of classical music?

I have never owned an ipod. I never will own one because I prefer to use my portable CD player when I want to listen to music--either through headphones or through speakers. I used to kind of want one, until I heard someone play a baritone aria (I think it was from Faust) from an iPod on one of those "speaker docks." The sound had no depth. I couldn't hear any of the inner string voices, and I couldn't even recognize the voice of Bryn Terfel, my favorite living baritone, because the "stuff" that makes his voice interesting for me was compressed out of existence.

Young people seem to be perfectly happy to listen to popular music on their iPods (they also, I have been told, are happy to watch movies on tiny ipod screens). I imagine that pop recordings are engineered to work with the qualities of iPod-type-sound the way that country music recordings are engineered to sound clear and strong when driving down a highway at 60 miles an hour. (Did you ever notice that the tempo of most country music songs also seems engineered to go with the rhythm of the "road?")

For me the iPod does not spell the death of classical music at all. Actually, as musical compression becomes more the norm, the difference between listening to live music and listening to mp3 files will become greater and greater, kind of like the difference between eating home-made soup or soup from a fine restaurant, and eating soup from a can. When the CD and the SACD started making the recorded listening experience more pleasurable (at times) than hearing live music played in real acoustics and in real time, I started to worry about the future of live music. I no longer worry about that. I predict that the ipod will eventually make more and more people crave the real thing in real time, when it comes to listening to classical music.

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Anonymous said...

your experience about music inspire me :)

Michael Leddy said...

In a culture in which so many people use music only as mere background, as something to sort-of listen to while doing something else, it makes sense that high fidelity and detail have become less valued. 'Tis sad.

Les said...

Your experience of bad ipod sound probably had a lot more to do with the speakers than the encoding.

Some mp3s sound terrible and others sound good and it's not just because of differences of how the song was engineered. Not all mp3s are created equal. some were poorly or overly compressed and lost valuable data. Others can sound pretty good. Also, there are several other compression formats including AAC and AC3, both of which contain much more information than mp3s do.

CD files are not compressed, 44.1 kHz, 16 bit. This corresponds directly to the WAV of AIFF format, both of which are supported by the ipod and some other portable players. CDs hold 74 minutes of sound in 650 mb. The sound quality you get from your portable CD player vs an ipod has to do with hardware quality of the digital to audio converters. In my opinion, the ipod ones are quite good, but others can suck. some CDs players really really suck, but others can also be very very good.

Which is a way to say that if you like uncompressed audio, you can still carry around hours and hours of music on a hard disk or flash rom device like an ipod.

All of this is just a long way of avoiding figuring out what's going wrong with my latest piece. Alas, it's not the compression.

Ben said...

Yeah, Les is pretty much on the money here. Pop can hold it's own against much higher compression than classical, which has a much wider range of timbres and sonic contrasts.

Pretty much all of the docking stations are gonna sound crappy though, even with 256kbps encoded files you just can't produce decent sounds with those tinny little speakers. A decent pair of earbuds (but not the pair that comes with the players, something like the Sony MDREX51L's) is gonna make it sound way better.

And there's hope yet - EMI are starting to release albums encoded at a higher bitrate. As the capacities of the players goes up I think this will become more commonplace, and classical audio bought online will sound way better.

Personally, I absolutely love listening to my classical music on my little MP3 player, and with a bit of tweaking it sounds almost as good as my nice music system at home.

oceanskies79 said...

I prefer listening to music live. There is something nice about live music.

Par said...

Well, I don't think the young uns listening to Top 40 on their iPods were going to be interested in classical music anytime soon anyway, so there's nothing lost :)

People's hearing also varies. What you might find to be a terribly compressed MP3 might not sound that much different from the CD for someone else.

I listen to pop & classical music & I really like the portability of such audio players. They also help prolong my CDs' condition, since I am a klutz and often scratch/crack CDs when carrying them around away from home.

I do hear that a lot of very layered, complex music such as classical sound terrible when overly compressed in a lossy format. So for that music I usually just use FLAC (a compressed but lossless format which produces files identical to the CD). The files are much smaller than WAVs but larger than MP3s, and I have enough space in my 60GB player (I don't find it necessary to cram thousands of hours of music into it, so I never worry about space). I find it to be an easy solution because tweaking MP3 settings annoys me.

A good pair of headphones/speakers also makes a big difference. Of course live music is a totally different experience, I love it. Actually, many people I know who love their iPods see live music a lot. It's just a completely different experience and I think most music lovers still know that :)