Format Wars

Came across this article on the series of tubes not too long ago:

It’s a reasonably comprehensive explanation of how various music media (CDs, tapes, vinyl, mp3) are mastered and why each format sounds slightly different. Today’s music producers must have a hell of a time figuring out how to master a recording, because the music has to ‘pop’ in various situations (iPod, radio, CD, at the club, etc.).  I read an article a long time ago about Jeff Tweedy while he was trying to mix and master one of Wilco’s records (I think it was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).  His trick was to dump the master tapes to audio cassette, then go driving around Chicago in his beat-up Honda Civic.  If the songs sounded good through his car stereo, then he knew he had the levels right.  I’m sure he’s not the only producer to (literally) road test a mix.

From my own experiences, I would say that I like the sound of my high-resolution CDs the best, but they are VERY scarce.  I don’t fully understand why the so-called “super audio” SACDs never caught on.  It’s probably because there weren’t very many consumer-grade CD players around that could play them, and they never reached a critical mass where the price of discs came down.  Somewhere, in a very dark crevasse, SACD players are probably having a pity party with Betamax machines, drinking too much rye and wondering where it all went wrong. 

Next on the list I would put vinyl.  Now that I’ve heard a proper turntable set-up through nice speakers and fresh, new 180g records I see what all the fuss is about.  Despite a pop here and a crackle there, the music does sound a little more alive and natural.  I especially like the way that bass notes sound “rounder”, and analogue just sounds more musical.

CDs are fine.  They’re crisp, they’re clean, they can hold over an hour of music, and you can change tracks from across the room.  These are all very admirable quantities.  You have to listen really closely, but the limited “red book audio” sampling rates that were chosen in the 1980s (44 kHz, 16 bit) now sound a little archaic.  I took a digital processing course back in university, so I have a rough idea why interpreting a curvilinear sound wave as a step-wise square wave is only ever going to be a digital approximation.  In theory 44 kHz is enough frequency range to capture the 20 kHz sounds our ears can actually hear, but there’s just something missing in CD recordings.  This was a far bigger problem when CDs first came out, and the original recordings had been mastered for vinyl & simply ported over to CD as quickly and cheaply as possible.  Remastering has made a huge improvement of many of the first-wave of CDs, but it’s still not quite the same as analogue.

mp3s are wonderful for their portability, but I wonder why the mainstream has never demanded better than the 320 kbps (or lower) typical rip rate.  I realize that the larger the file, the less you can put onto an iPod.  And if you’re listening through a basic car audio deck or through crappy free-in-the-box headphones at the gym I suppose sonic perfection may not be your first priority.  But the lossless digital audio formats (AIFF, SHN, etc.) just haven’t made an impact on the typical consumer.

Cassette tapes are at the bottom of the fidelity list.  Way too much tape hiss, even with one of the various Dolby noise reduction schemes.  It’s a good thing tapes were portable and relatively cheap, because nobody ever bought a tape for aural pleasure.


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