Choosing convenience over quality

Matt Hill is a musician, music educator and The Echo's CD reviewer.

The other day I heard that Neil Young was on his crazy high horse again, complaining about digital music, particularly the MP3 format and how poor it sounds.

"The MP3 only has 5% of the data present in the original recording… The convenience of the digital age has forced people to choose between quality and convenience, but they shouldn't have to make that choice," Young said. He urged young fans to stage a grassroots movement, calling it 'Occupy Audio'.

Young's battle against digital goes back a long way. In 1992 he said "from the early 1980s up till now (1992) and probably for another 15 years to come - this is the darkest time ever for recorded music. We'll come out on the other end, and it'll be okay, but we'll look back and go, "Wow, that was the digital age. I wonder what that music really sounded like."

The arguments over superior audio formats go back well beyond the current digital vs analogue, vinyl vs CD vs MP3 era. In his recent book Perfecting Sound Forever, Greg Milner provides a wonderful history of recorded music. In the early 1900s the battle was between Thomas Edison's phonograph (a cylinder) and Emile Berliner's cheaper gramophone (a disc). Berliner won that battle on a commercial level but then things moved on to acoustic vs electrical recording and later to 33rpm vs 45rpm formats, 16-track tape vs 24-track tape in the studio and eventually on to CD vs vinyl or cassette.

In the early 1980s major record companies like CBS and A&M vehemently opposed the introduction of the CD. The boss of the major record label CBS told the Japanese manufacturers (Sony and Philips) that they would only build a CD making plant if the Japanese would first buy out their cassette making factory. The message from the record labels was that they were tired of being led up the garden path by format changes. By the early 1990s the CD had taken hold and the record companies grew fat again by virtue of people replacing their old tape and vinyl collections with CDs. Then they started crying foul when illegal downloading started up with the MP3.

Looking at this history it seems to me that convenience always wins over quality. However I think it's a bit elitist to dismiss cheaper, more convenient formats. High quality audio is like organic food, or maybe a new car. Once you've tasted the quality it's hard to go back. But you may need to re-order your priorities so you can afford it, and for many people that's just not an option. Neil Young has spent a lot of time in recording studios with some pretty expensive high quality equipment. If your benchmark for listening is a $20,000 set of speakers in an acoustically-perfect room, what hope do you have enjoying music coming out of some iPod earbuds while you're on the train?

There is always going to be a small corner of the market that will buy quality audio, just as there is a market for high quality in most things. Evidently there are some folk who are happy to pay $35,000 for a car, or $60 a month for Pay TV or maybe even $20 for a kilo of blueberries. My priorities include listening to good quality audio when I can, so I forego the fancy car, the Pay TV and the boutique blueberries. I'm grateful that Radiohead offered their latest album for download in both MP3 and higher quality WAV format.

If I have to complain about MP3s it is more about the loss of the musical piracy skills that I learnt as a kid. There was dedication involved. You had to know which blank tape to buy, how to set the levels, how to cue up a tape, how to avoid the sound of the needle drop on your recording. Then there was the mysterious art of putting two complementary albums on the one tape so you weren't always rewinding one side, or selecting just the right tracks in just the right order for the perfect mix-tape. Then there was the laborious task of writing out the tracks on the cover, the fiddly stickers, taking out the tabs on the cassette to stop you taping over it. Now you just click download and you're away.

Come to think of it, I don't miss the old piracy ways at all. Just bring on the NBN so downloading a WAV file won't take so long.


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