Does Sound Quality Matter?
MP's editorial philosophy is frequently and trenchantly expressed: pro - new music, unrecognised performers with something to say, great performances of the past, good writing, including good polemic; anti – exhaustiveness for its own sake, minute comparisons, technophilia.
Hiss on the master tape, a slightly better transfer at a higher bit level? So what? Music matters, not the carrier. We would rather hear Lipatti on a 50 yr old LP, or even Cortot from the 1930s, than a SACD recored last year, but with a characterless performer. Do we prefer Engineer A to Record Producer B? Again, technical standards are very high these days, whether the performance has character is far more significant. Why then, should sound quality matter? Answer – only when it's about compression .
I offer two very simple ways to understand this. First and simplest- just switch the radio on in a noisy environment (such as on the motorway in a car) and compare the sound from Classic FM and Radio 3. Second - if you store music on your computer, compare the size of a normal CD (typically, 400-600 megabytes) to that of the same music on mp3 – much smaller.
The signal from Classic FM is intentionally compressed; the most obvious effect of this is that the range of loud to soft is much smaller. This makes it less ‘true-to-life.' But in the less-than-ideal environments Classic FM is expecting you to listen – the portable radio in the kitchen, the M1, say, it is a positive advantage to have a steady signal. Most of Classic FM is ‘bleeding chunks' with nugatory programming information; what it delivers is consistency of product- classical music without spoken word drama, world music or jazz. Radio 3 is the only uncompressed BBC station, it is intentionally higher fidelity, but on a motorway, I have to turn the volume up and down; and even more will I be likely to do so for –say- a CD of Mahler 8 with an extreme dynamic range. You cannot say either radio station is better than the other, only that they have different aims.
Now consider the mp3 file on the computer – it is literally a compression of the audio information. So what has been lost? The more you compress, the more information you do lose – irrelevant for speech (and probably electronic-based rock music), but significant for classical music, and especially in terms of getting something that sounds as if it varies only between mf and mp . Compression techniques are improving all the time, but for the moment, the ‘traditional' CD still beats a compressed version of its sound information in another format.
Personally, I accept that recordings of the past have their technical defects. It is interesting to hear about audio restoration techniques, which after all have enabled many otherwise ‘lost' recordings to be heard, but the carrier medium is a means to an end. However, that does not mean for me the transition to purely digital media should therefore be indiscriminate. For a few months more at least, CD still rules….
Is Sound Quality declining?
In today's lead article of the excellent weekly Guardian technology supplement (2 Aug 2007) Jack Schofield points out that technological improvements in the quality of audio are going nowhere in market terms.
Sales of SACDs run at one thousandth that of ‘normal' ones, though they may be a little higher as hybrid SACDs/CDs are not included. Schofield makes the clearly correct point – hardware manufacturers thought that SACD (and its DVD equivalent) would cause a new generation of upgrading much as people have bought CDs to replace their LPs and tapes. Instead, as we know, the market has gone in the other direction – towards downloaded music and mp3 tracks, which offer lower quality but much greater convenience. Music as fast food, Schofield concludes.
How does this affect the classical listener, who is, as usual, at the mercy of market forces in a larger and quite separate sector of music? Of course, most classical works, let alone operas, do not divide neatly into short tracks the way rock songs do, so the album-length format (CDs to you and me) has a quite different importance. Personally, my allegiance also remains to the 16 bit 44 kilohertz standard for CDs.
Nevertheless, many of the same trends apply. People DO download classical music (though statistics probably include crossover), and they accept the diminished quality of mp3 (MP's editor has commented his iPod gives very satisfactory results) more than they seek after the additional enhancement of SACD. Given that many of the exciting ‘new' CD issues are in any case historic recordings with intrinsic limitations of audio quality, only the audio enthusiast, perhaps with an interest in engineering, is really in the market for yet better sound.
The rise and fall of formats is unpredictable. Betamax and Minidisc are just two that seemed to have everything necessary to succeed, then fell by the wayside. By allowing us to live increasingly virtual lives, the Internet has changed how we work…. and play. Just as the new hot topic is web-based applications (so you don't need to keep programs physically on your own computer, they can live on servers elsewhere), so we now think of movies, let alone music, as something we can access on demand, not pick off the shelf. This flexibility, equivalent to doing research through Google instead of visiting a public library (or one's own) and physically turning pages, has proved far more important than qualitative changes in sound.
Ultimately, the democratisation of sound is a similar phenomenon to the democratisation of recordings. Technology has made it much easier to make recordings, technological change much harder for large companies to keep up; the market is more confused than ever, and brings its own difficulties and challenges.
The harsh lesson is that classical music learns, yet again, it is merely a backwater compared to the mainstream of leisure and culture. The brighter side of the coin is that, though all the much-reported stories of those who have found fame and fortune in the new climate are in rock or crossover, these fundamental changes in how we live offer opportunities to classical artists too.
BBC radio Listen Again, and their trail downloads of Beethoven symphonies, record companies' digital delivery of new releases, audiences being able to buy a CD of the concert on their way out of the hall, even MySpace - all of these are not a dumbing down of quality, but an evolution as yet incompletely understood.
Depressing? Exciting? Your choice.
Musical Pointers has not succeeded in efforts to obtain a promo-SACD player for review purposes from companies approached, so readers have to rely upon our impressions of quality from "ordinary" players.... [Editor]
© Peter Grahame Woolf