Friday, December 21, 2007

Super-Compressed, DRM-Free MP3s: The Future of Recorded Music?

Here at FMC, we talk a lot about how technology and policy affect music, but not so much about what music actually sounds like in this digital era. Advances in technology now allow artists to create major-label quality recordings in their bedrooms, and the MP3 is quickly becoming the consumer audio standard. What does this mean for musicians, fans and audiophiles?

An article published in the 2007 wrap-up issue of Rolling Stone offers a hint. The piece is about how listener preference for MP3s is affecting how music is recorded, mixed and mastered. Producers (yes, they still exist) are finding themselves pushing the limits of compression for music that's most often heard on tiny computer speakers or cheapo earbuds.

For those who don't know, compression is a production technique by which a song's dynamic peaks are squashed together in order to make the quieter parts as powerful as the loud ones.

We'd love to link to the piece, but it's not available online. Essentially, the it says that MP3 + dynamic compression = compromised sound, something that vinyl connoisseurs have been claiming for years. The story includes a particularly interesting visual: a screenshot of the waveform data from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," next to an Arctic Monkeys cut. The latter looks like it's been dosed with the audio equivalent of performance enhancers. While compression certainly makes tracks "punchier," it can also rob music of its dynamics and lead to the dreaded "ear fatigue."

Mp3s, for their part, lack the complete data profile of a CD, which results in less definition in the highs and lows. This might not matter to the casual listener, but to musicians and engineers who work hard to create a rich and detailed listening experience, it can be frustrating. We're sure the folks at Tape Op have talked and written about this well before RS.

But with CD sales tanking pretty much across the board, the major labels are increasingly relying on MP3s to shore up sagging profits. Several of these companies are reevaluating their position on Digital Rights Management, or DRM — which restricts how a file can be reproduced, shared or transferred. Even holdouts like Sony BMG are flirting with the idea of DRM-free MP3s, for use in a retail "download card" promotion.

It remains to be seen whether or not consumers will become completely conditioned to uber-compressed digital audio. It wouldn't be the first time inferior technology has been adopted in favor of convenience — Microsoft Word, anyone?

Stay tuned for a closer look at this issue with technophile/producer (and rock criticism cornerstone) Sandy Pearlman.

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