Never Mind the Vinyl, Here’s the Bollocks: The Emotional Void of Compressed Audio
Tune in, turn on, drop out. While many years ago that notion held one meaning, today, the same could be applied to our listening habits. According to a recent study, science has proven that listening to music via highly-compressed digital means causes something called ear fatigue, and it drains the emotional life right out of the listening experience.
"When you're through listening to a whole album of this highly compressed music, your ear is fatigued," record mastering engineer Bob Ludwig told NPR back in 2009. "You may have enjoyed the music but you don't really feel like going back and listening to it again." Ludwig has handled mastering of countless releases from Jimi Hendrix to Radiohead to Tony Bennett. "People talk about downloads hurting record sales, I, and some other people, would submit that another thing that is hurting record sales these days is the fact that they are so compressed that the ear just gets tired of it."
Since then, and despite a fashionable resurgence in all things vinyl, the way many these days listen to music is via compressed formats, like MP3s or streaming audio. According to Music.mic, a recent study served up by audio researchers at Dolby Laboratories found dramatic differences in the brain when exposed to these different audio experiences. One group listened via Spotify's default setting of 96kbps, (kilobits per second, a measure of data transfer speed), the other group was tuned into a 256kbps system. The results claim that "the responses in the brains of the group listening with the 256kbps audio were 14-perecent more powerful on metrics measuring memory creation and 66-percent higher on pleasure responses." It is then pointed out that vinyl records play at an estimated 1000kbps.
"Those sorts of heightened emotional responses of pleasure and enjoyment and satisfaction come in a way that is counter to rapid, quick streaming and constant exposure to a lot of different things," said Poppy Crum, senior scientist at Dolby. "True love or appreciation for a piece of music comes with depth of knowledge of that music," she added concerning the constant stop-start listening habits of the streamers.
The argument on much of this started with seemingly each new release and remastered CD being much louder than the previous one to the point of replacing dynamics with loudness by compressing the hell out of the recording during the mastering process. Check the levels on CDs from the '80s or early '90s and compare them to more recent releases and it's instantly obvious how different things are. Somehow the idea that compressing everything into one big lump of sound, and in the process, taking away the inherent dynamics of any given song in an attempt to make it more uniform, became the rule of law.
In a way, this too, is nothing new. Going back to the days when the 45 RPM record ruled the roost, some producers would push the levels up so high as to make that record jump out of the speakers in order to catch the attention of radio programmers. The result was, at times, a record mastered so hot that the tone arm on a cheaper player couldn't even stay on the record!
Meanwhile, where we would once upon a time plant ourselves in front of the stereo, place an LP on the turntable, and immerse ourselves in that moment of full mind and body listening as we examined the LP sleeve in detail -- the entire concept of that sort of experience has been compressed. Streaming audio takes that experience and squashes it down to nothing, thus removing any of the emotional attachment that was once so much a part of that moment in time.
On the other hand ...
Is that even really a new concept? For many years we got our music transmitted to us via these little boxes, not a whole lot bigger than a smart phone. The transistor radio was king for ages. You could take the music with you, listen to it under the covers at night so as not to wake your parents. You could hang it from the handlebars on your bike. It was music on the go, and it was, in some cases, all we had. It was also, very far from a full on listening experience. Now fast forward to the digital age, and we are, essentially, doing the same thing via smart phones and streaming, which has, in a sense, simply replaced that radio.
The real argument here should simply be that we can't let streaming replace the full, genuine listening experience. If it has become a substitute for radio, so be it; after all, video didn't kill the radio star -- it was a suicide. To that I say, bring on the stream, but the more we move away from any sort of hands-on involvement in our listening ritual, the farther we remove ourselves and our souls from it.
In more simple terms, there will always be those who want to lose themselves into that other world created by slapping on an album (or CD) and truly diving into that pool, while for others, music in general is a much more casual thing both emotionally and sonically speaking. For them, streaming is perfect. They aren't looking for a long term relationship here anyway. It's more like casual dating. One tune, then on to the next -- hell, some might get the axe before they even get to the chorus! Too bad for them, but they're not in it for the long haul anyway. For the rest of us lifers, we still want our music to sound as good as possible.
As the compression debate continues, streaming may be convenient but it is certainly far from state of the art. Then again, if it gets new music out to the people, isn't that in the end what we all really want?