A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports how audio engineers are lamenting the proliferation of low-quality mp3 files as the primary format for consuming music. Although even a Compact Disc may contain far less ‘data’ than the original master recordings, mp3 represents a further loss – much information is discarded in the encoding process. The principles of psychoacoustics are used to determine what data can be removed without being easily detected by the ear, but as the bitrate decreases, the sound will inevitably suffer…
It seems, however, that for the general public, convenience is more important than sound quality. The success of mp3 is not due to its sonic brilliance, but to its portability – mp3 files can be sent over the Internet, emailed, downloaded, carried on a USB flash drive, listened to on a wristwatch-sized player or on a mobile phone. Yesterday I mentioned (once again) the dangers of overcompressed sound at the production stage; such recordings, combined with low-bitrate file compression, can lead to a fairly impoverished listening experience.
The article by Joel Selvin quotes Dr. Robert Sweetow, head of the University of California-San Francisco audiology department, who implies that reduced audio quality fundamentally changes the way the brain experiences music: “With different neurons, perhaps lesser neurons, stimulated, there are fewer cortical neurons connected back to the limbic system, where the emotions are stored.”
Regardless of alleged physiological or neurological responses to inferior sound quality, it cannot be denied that listening to a song on decent reproduction equipment is a far more pleasant experience – and at least one still has the option of encoding mp3s at 320kbps rather than 64. On the other hand, it seems somewhat pithy to suggest that up to 50% of the ‘music’ is lost via compression codecs – a great song can move you even if you’re listening to a third-generation cassette copy through a single headphone on an ancient walkman you found in a pound shop bargain bin. It seems that audio engineers may sometimes forget that music is much more than sound…the essence of music can take a fair amount of fidelity abuse before it becomes unlistenable.