Thoughts on Sound Quality in the Digital Age

Here's an interesting exercise to try out if you get the chance. Take a listen to an album recorded back during the heyday of vinyl on it's original vinyl and then more recent remastered releases... or even early CD releases and newer remastered versions. I did this recently with a few albums, including a recently release of a Led Zeppelin classic (check for a comparison on that in the future), and the results are pretty interesting to my ear. I'm no audiophile, but I have started to notice a distinct difference between my mp3s and the original CD recordings. What's interesting about this exercise though is that I think I actually prefer the originals in many cases, but not all... raising some questions about sound quality in the digital age.

Sound quality is something that many music enthusiasts might never really think about. Just like so much else in music, the sound quality of a recording is a very subjective thing. Some people hear it and some people don't. Still, I would think that with all this incredible technology we possess, sound quality would be improving to the point of near flawless sonic clarity. It isn't though... instead it seems to be getting worse. Part of this degradation is surely due to the overuse of digital effects as digital sterility is something that plagues many modern albums, but there is more to it than that. High quality formats like SACD aren't taking off while lossy compressed ones like mp3 at lower than desired bit rates thrive, but also there seems to be a change in the way things are mixed recently.

I'd read articles on the overuse of compression in modern remixes for a while now, but I didn't really think it was a bad thing, nor did I actually here it until recently. When I first noticed how pronounced a difference there is, was when I took a listen to three different versions of one of my favorite albums, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. One version was my copy of the 30th anniversary released in SACD. the second was the original CD release and the third was a treat... on vinyl. All three sounded different, but where it was most noticeable was on the opening to the song "Time", where all the clocks chime after the alarm clock goes off. it was subtle, but as the releases got newer (as in vinyl to original CD to SACD) I noticed that that first alarm clock ring seemed to get quieter. Listening to the albums a little more I realized that is isn't the loudness level that's different. It's the range between the loudest moments and the quietest... the compression.

Now in some cases this might be a serious degradation in quality, as dynamics are such a major part of what makes music so expressive and when you over compress things, you lose dynamics. In this particular case though, I thought it was acceptable because the effect is subtle and in the original release that alarm clock can be a little ear piercingly loud. I took a little through some of my other albums and discovered a few other cases where the effect is subtle and a few more where the compression and overall mix is just awful in terms of dynamics. You combine this with digital processing and the lossy compression of mp3 and the effect is astounding as to how lifeless the music can become.

Of course, this effect is subjective and not everyone will here the difference, but it really got me thinking that I might want to convert my music collection into a digital format that is a little better at maintaining the sonic quality to at least eliminate one part of that equation.

This exercise raised a question in my mind as well... Why is the sound quality of music so bad in an era where we have the tools to make it so good?

I don't know why mixing techniques have changed so dramatically... perhaps an attempt to add excitement to rock albums and make them harder/louder/intenser. In the end though, they sound more lifeless though. New releases are being over processed before they're even released, old releases are being processed to "improve their sound quality" but are coming out worse, and then we all covert everything to mp3 and lose half of the sonic range anyways. The driving factor behind sound quality seems to be the market. If the market dictates higher quality, more dynamic range and better sonic reproduction then that is what companies will provide. Right now though, the majority of people seem satisfied with their medium bit rate, over mixed mp3s so it's not a good time to be an audiophile.

There is hope for those who aren't though. New high quality formats are being developed all the time while the current ones get better and better and more and more bands are going back to the mixing/recording/mastering techniques of the past. Still, it seems like in the age of digital clarity for TV, video and other media, that music (and a few other art forms as well) are suffering from quality degradation.

I am definitely leaning towards converting my music to a better format, but there are many factors to consider and so I haven't completely made up my mind yet. If you're an audiophile already, then I'm sure you probably think I'm crazy for even listening to my collection in anything but the original versions at all, which is fine because I stand by my previously stated opinions about audiophile grade equipment and musical reproduction: sound quality is subjective just like musical composition quality. If you've never done this kind of comparison before though or just never really thought about the sonic quality of your music, try this little exercise if you can. You might just find that those old mp3s aren't up to your standards either. Especially try this out if you're in a band and mixing some of your own music as you might find that your old mixing techniques just aren't cutting it for you anymore.

In the end if you don't hear it, then thats fine too. I know I'm hoping that the digital age brings about higher quality music reproduction in the future.

This concludes this rant on sound quality in the digital age.

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