Listen to the Music, not the Audio Nihilists

The trade offs that made digital music possible, when storage and bandwidth were scarce, are no longer quite so necessary through much of the developed world. Some brave services are trying to take advantage of this technological advance by offering higher quality music on demand. They face considerable obstacles, and oddly, a chorus of voices shrieking ‘snake oil’ and calling the whole endeavour a con. We should listen to the music, rather than the audio nihilists. Here’s why.

A little compression is very hard to notice; unsurprisingly the more sound that gets removed the more likely the listener is to notice a degradation. This is only a small part of the story however. The best and most professional do everything they can to ensure the end product is as good as it can be, right the way through the recording and production chain. But they have a low target to hit, and nobody can easily justify overspending in a tight market. Many of course deliberately take short cuts in order to save time and money. Now that nobody can plead necessity, having a higher final target would be likely to raise standards generally, and this would be a good thing for music fans.

Not all ears are equal, but recording and compression by their nature target a mid point of hearing acuity. And now the discussion becomes a bit speculative. Higher pitched sound is harder to compress, but is important both for the complexity of timbre as well as locating a sound in space. Location in a stereo signal is a bit of a fake anyway, as obviously a single audio source needs to be converted to two separate sounds to be perceived as either to the left or the right in a normal listening environment. In nature, as well as tiny time and level differences, it’s the wrinkles in your ears that subtly reflect and modify high pitched sound in ways that you have learned to associate with position. Because of this complexity the recording or sound creation process has already made many compromises in order to sound mostly OK to most people, and compression adds another layer of compromise.

But still, as many experts say, most people can’t reliably tell the difference between the source and its compressed version, and express no preference either in listening tests. Surely depriving them of what they can’t hear does not hurt them!

Sound, however, is not music, and hearing is only part of perception. Nor can simple tests really hope to discover the immensely complicated ways we respond to music, nor how that might be affected by the ways we experience the sound. We all know this of course. Our imaginations fill in the missing parts of familiar instruments, so that even a sketchy recording of a violin shares some of the wonder of a platonic Strad. We are continually exposed to newly imagined sounds, which we fit into our own personal collections of virtual instruments and performances. Musical training even alters the structure of the brain, it is that affective. Even if the audio testing equipment says that the sound you hear now is exactly the same as the one you heard five minutes ago, your perception of it has been irrevocably altered by both memory and imagination. We create what we hear as much as perceive it.

So for these reasons we should not let the audio nihilists deprive us of the opportunity to create and experience a world of sound and music that could take us far beyond the standard fixed by the CD and then compromised by compression to fit the business needs of the late 20th century. We should and can encourage a music industry that can really stretch our ideas of what is possible in audio perception.

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