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Important Please Read: MP3 music - it's better than it sounds

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Old Quad Guy

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I'm posting this article that just came out last wednesday by long time San Francisco music writer Joel Selvin (he's the guy interviewing Steve Miller on the "Fly Like An Eagle" 30th anniversary disc) so that we might all drop him a line and let him know he forgot to mention DVD-A and SACD and that they might want to rerelease those titles again as well as the Quad masters and that this is the future of music. He's totally hooked up with the music industry and has clout. He might be able to help us. We already know this info! But I thought it was good of him to write about this subject in a Big Newspaper read by many.
His e-mail is: jselvin@sfchronicle.com

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/08/08/DDEJR7KN11.DTL

MP3 music - it's better than it sounds

Whether you know it or not, that compact disc you just copied to your MP3 player is only partially there.

With the CD on its way out and computer files taking over as the primary means of hearing recorded music, the artificial audio of MP3s is quickly becoming the primary way people listen to music. Apple already has sold 100 million iPods, and more than a billion MP3 files are traded every month through the Internet.

[ MP3: Just because it's digital, doesn't mean it sounds good.]

But the music contained in these computer files represents less than 10 percent of the original music on the CDs. In its journey from CD to MP3 player, the music has been compressed by eliminating data that computer analysis deems redundant, squeezed down until it fits through the Internet pipeline.

When even the full files on the CDs contain less than half the information stored to studio hard drives during recording, these compressed MP3s represent a minuscule fraction of the actual recording. For purists, it's the dark ages of recorded sound.

"You can get used to awful," says record producer Phil Ramone. "You can appreciate nothing. We've done it with fast food."

Ramone, who has recorded everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Rolling Stones, was a musical prodigy who graduated from Juilliard at 16. He won the first of his nine Grammys in 1965 for the classic album "Getz/Gilberto." He is not alone in the upper ranks of his profession in decrying the state of audio, even though millions of dollars have been spent building high-tech digital recording studios.

"We're pretty happy with what we send out," says engineer Al Schmitt, winner of 15 Grammys for records by artists from Henry Mancini to Diana Krall. "What happens after that, we have no control over that anymore."

These studio professionals bring their experience and expensive, modern technology to bear on their work; they're scrupulous and fastidious. Then they hear their work played back on an iPod through a pair of plastic earbuds. Ask Ramone how it feels to hear his work on MP3s, and he doesn't mince words.

"It's painful," he says.

MP3s have won the war of the formats because of technology, not because of their audio quality. "It's like hearing through a screen door," says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin of McGill University, author of "This Is Your Brain on Music." "There are lines between me and what I want to see."

But what is the price of inferior audio quality? Can poor audio touch the heart as deeply as better sound? John Meyer, who designs and builds some of the world's best speakers at his Meyer Sound Labs in Berkeley, doesn't think so.

"It turns you into an observer," Meyer says. "It forces the brain to work harder to solve it all the time. Any compression system is based on the idea you can throw data away, and that's proved tricky because we don't know how the brain works."

It could be that MP3s actually reach the receptors in our brains in entirely different ways than analog phonograph records. The difference could be as fundamental as which brain hemisphere the music engages.

"Poorer-fidelity music stimulates the brain in different ways," says Dr. Robert Sweetow, head of UCSF audiology department. "With different neurons, perhaps lesser neurons, stimulated, there are fewer cortical neurons connected back to the limbic system, where the emotions are stored."

But Sweetow also notes that music with lyrics may act entirely differently on a cerebral level than instrumental music. "The words trigger the emotion," he says. "But those words aren't necessarily affected by fidelity."

Certainly '50s and '60s teens got the message of the old rock 'n' roll records through cheap plastic transistor radios. Levitin remembers hearing Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" on just such a portable radio, an ancient ancestor of the iPod.

"It was crap, but it sounded great," he says. "All the essential stuff comes through that inch-and-a-half speaker."

Levitin also says that Enrico Caruso and Billie Holiday can probably move him more than Michael Bolton or Mariah Carey under any fidelity.

"If the power of the narrative of the movie isn't there," he says metaphorically, "there's only so far cinematography can take you."

Most of today's pop records are already compressed before they leave the studio in the first place, so the process may matter less to artists like Maroon 5 or Justin Timberlake. Other kinds of music, in which subtlety, detail and shaded tonalities are important, may suffer more harm at the hands of the algorithms.

"When you listen to a world-class symphony or a good jazz record," says Schmitt, "and you hear all the nuance in the voices, the fingers touching the string on the bass, the key striking the string on the piano, that's just a wonderful sensation."

How much the audio quality is affected by the MP3 process depends on the compression strategy, the encoder used, the playback equipment, computer speed and many other steps along the way. Experts agree, however, that the audio quality of most MP3s is somewhere around FM radio. The best digital audio, even with increased sampling rates and higher bit rates, still falls short of the natural quality of now-obsolete analog tape recording.

EMI Records announced earlier this year the introduction of higher-priced downloads at a slightly higher bit rate, although the difference will be difficult to detect. "It's probably indistinguishable to even a great set of ears," says Levitin.

How good MP3s sound obviously also depends greatly on the playback system. But most MP3s are heard through cheap computer speakers, plastic iPod docking stations or, worse yet, those audio abominations called earbuds.

The ease of distribution means that MP3s are turning up everywhere, even places where they probably shouldn't. Schmitt, who has won the award more times than anyone else, is incredulous that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences posts MP3s of nominees for the best engineering Grammy. "As if you could tell anything from that," he sneers.

For digital audio to substantially improve, several major technological hurdles will have to be cleared. The files will have to be stored at higher sampling rates and higher bit rates. Computing power will have to grow. New playback machines will have to be introduced ( Ramone thinks high-definition television is the model for something that could be "HD audio"). If the Internet is going to be the main delivery system for music in the future, as appears to be the case, Internet bandwidth will also be a factor.

"The Internet is in charge now," says Ramone, "and it has all kinds of wobbles. You have wires hanging out of windows and things like that. That's just the way things have to be because the Internet is in transition."

Meanwhile, most music listeners don't know what they're missing. They listen to MP3s on shiny chrome machines and plastic earpieces, and what they hear is what they get. But what's being lost is not replaced by the convenience.

In effect, sound reproduction is caught in a technological wrinkle that may take years to straighten out. "This is a transition phase," says McGill's Levitin. "It's having an effect on the culture, no question, but it's temporary. ... (But) it may be around for a while."



--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A glossary of digital audio terms
A glossary of terms that describe different types of digital audio :

MP3: What has become a generic name for compressed audio files was originally taken from a set of video and audio compression standards known as MPEG (Moving Pictures Experts Group). . There are many codecs, or compression programs (Apple converts CDs to an AAC file on iPods), but most reduce the file to about 6 percent of its original size.

WAV: The standard computer audio file stores data at 44,100 samples per second, 16 bits per sample (although recording studios are commonly equipped with 24-bit technology). WAV files are uncompressed and written to compact discs in Red Book audio, which adapts the file for compact disc players.

AIFF: Most professional audio is saved in these large files that use about 10 megabytes for every minute of stereo audio.

FLAC: This codec, favored by Grateful Dead tape traders, stands for Free Lossless Audio Code. It reduces storage space by 30 to 50 percent, but without compression. A full audio CD can be burned from the file, unlike from MP3s.

- Joel Selvin

E-mail Joel Selvin at jselvin@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
 

Old Quad Guy

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For digital audio to substantially improve, several major technological hurdles will have to be cleared. The files will have to be stored at higher sampling rates and higher bit rates. Computing power will have to grow. New playback machines will have to be introduced ( Ramone thinks high-definition television is the model for something that could be "HD audio"). If the Internet is going to be the main delivery system for music in the future, as appears to be the case, Internet bandwidth will also be a factor.
See this is where he screwed up in the article. We don't need to clear any technological hurdles, we already have great sound with DVD-A and SACD!
We need to clue him in, he could help us.

E-mail Joel Selvin at jselvin@sfchronicle.com.
 

timbre4

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Phil Ramone needs to stand up on principle for the high resolution 5.1 mix of Graceland completed but never issued.

Sorry, I respect his body of work but tired of missed opportunities for industry heavyweights to educate the public and not using their clout to get their work released.
 

ssully

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Typically half-assed 'journalism' about audio. Ugh.

The worst offenses:

The author aconfuses the two meanings of 'compression', and then seems to conflate mp3 audio bitrates with digital audio sampling rates generally.


The fact is, most people -- including the unnamed 'experts' cited who think digital isn't good enough, period -- would NOT be able to tell a WELL-MADE mp3 from source. That's the ten-ton gorilla in the room that isn't addressed by the article. And Dr. Sweetow's intriguing comment about 'low fidelity' doesn't specify whether he means, audio that is *perceived* as low-fi (such as the transistor radio audio praised by Leviton) or audio that is objectively 'low fi' but not necessarily audibly lo fi (mp3).
 

Old Quad Guy

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Joel Selvin blew an opportunity when he failed to mention DVD-A and SACD in the article. He writes fairly knowledgeable about the history of the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. Perhaps he might do a follow-up story on DVD-A and SACD if we clue him in. While not a sound expert, still he and others in the music industry should know better.
 
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DennisMabry

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I think the writer has a few misconceptions, but for the most part he conveys the fact that MP3 files are inferior to the CD and certainly to analog, which is big news to most readers who haven't got a clue. So I applaud anyone's efforts to educate the general public on this subject. We need a cultural revolution to reverse the present course. Yes, he completely omitted any reference to advanced resolution formats or surround, but one step at a time. First people need to know that MP3 is NOT quality sound, and only a fraction of CD quality. It is however very convenient, and presently all the rage. So next, they need to hear that audio is much, much better on vinyl, and in surround on DVD-Audio, and SACD. Then (if they are not asleep yet) let them know there are emerging formats on the HD players in the form of DTS-HD MA, and Dolby True HD.

Actually my last statement sums up the problem completely. If you throw too many acronyms at folks they get all swimmy headed and confused. The reasons why the CD and DVD were so successful, was because it was easy. Just throw in the disc and it worked. (Most people don't even know that the DTS tracks on their DVDs [typically] have better sound quality than the Dolby Digital, even when they have a surround system and the capability to choose). I have tried to tell a few friends this, and at some point they get all glassy eyed and just shake their heads like they get it. :mad:@: I digress.

I find the article very interesting in the section that pertains to the way the brain is stimulated differently by "poorer fidelity music" and that "It forces the brain to work harder to solve it all the time." BTW, I guess I get the analogy about transistor radios. But, how could it be crap and sound great? That's not how I remember those times. IMO it just plain sounded like crap, however it did make music listening portable, which was a novel idea at the time and still is. I have said it before, MP3s are fine as files on portable hard drives, but to make them the industry standard is so wrong on so many levels.

Anyway, to wrap things up, I hope I read a thousand articles about how there is great sound to be had, and enjoyed if folks would just have the tiniest bit of vision to reach beyond MP3 for something better.

Dennis :sun
 
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ssully

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I think the writer has a few misconceptions, but for the most part he conveys the fact that MP3 files are inferior to the CD and certainly to analog
Except, subjectively, whenever it's bee tested, they usually aren't -- if the mp3s are well made, and if the comparison is done fairly (blind). If I had to bet on it, I'd bet you couldn't either.

Similarly, they can't tell that analog is measurably inferior to digital.
 

jaybird100

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I just sent Mr. Selvin a rather lengthy note, expressing the point of view that we all tend to have here. I hope he has the clout that he's believed to have to help get the word out to the record company bigwigs. I doubt it, though; we're small in numbers compared to the rest of the music consumers. Maybe?
 

solaris

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Hey a mono mp3 is much smaller, and with a low bit rate you can fit all recored music on a single 1TB hard drive. Then all you need is a garbage can to place it in. Then just mail you money to the record companies, they have a new tithe system for payments.
 

w.a.reid

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is mp3 bad for my receiver?
i have never been able to turn my receiver up to 11 with the radio signal - it just sounds horrible ..... is it also bad for my receiver to jam mp3 recorded crap? the sansui qrxX001 decodes a stereo input - if there is less "input" from an mp3...then is it easier or harder or just LESS to work with? i am not making sense to myself right now - but if you can decipher what i just wote....school me mates.

cheers
w.a.reid:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin
 

Old Quad Guy

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It's interesting, going back to see what one was doing almost exactly 5 years to the day. And to consider what was happening with Hi-Rez in general.

If I wrote about this today, I would have tried to add more context and let folks know about Joel Selvin and his impressive bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Selvin

He is a very good guy. His expertise was in writing about music, musicians and their stories. AFAIK, he has certainly been to just about every concert around here in the last 40 or more years and is friends with the musicians here. He recently helped Sammy Hagar write his Bio, a real entertaining read. He was also the proper person of course to interview Steve Miller in the documentary part of "Fly Like an Eagle" 30th anniversary edition.

In all fairness, Joel was not an audio guy. Still was surprised though, shocked even, that he did not mention DVD-Audio and SACD at all, when both formats were readily available throughout all the Music stores he would have presumably been to on a fairly consistent basis. Today, it's still an unconscionable omission, especially if he was aware of the formats. A few lines of info would have been very helpful at the time. Unfortunately, many musicians and music fans are clueless about what they're missing - to this very day.

Back then, one could still buy the David Bowie SACDs at either retail or a fairly reasonable price. So my attitude and comments came from the frustration to see both DVD-Audio and SACD start their descend into an uncertain future. Now ironically, Warner is doing SACD and Sony DVD-Audio. Both formats have survived to this day by their inherent greatness and by a grassroots interest by music fans from all walks of life.

Unfortunately, the San Francisco Chronicle is not what it once was, as is most Newspapers these days. It's had to lay off most of the old staff or folks were forced into early retirement. It's gone from costing 50 cents a day and where one gets a thick heavy newspaper, to costing a $1.00 and getting a few sheets of info. Glad though, that they're still around in some form. The Newspaper consistently lost money because it failed to innovate in the internet age. Which is highly ironic since they're hip to Tech being here in the Bay Area and covering in great minute detail Silicon Valley, just slightly south of San Francisco. Joel retired from the newspaper a couple of years ago. His articles will be sorely missed.

Anyway, fairly certain Joel is friends with Neil Young. Perhaps Neil has clued him into Hi-Rez Stereo/Multi-Channel by now.
 
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fredblue

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a very interesting article indeed!

As much as I'm a huge fan of Hi-Rez, I still maintain "garbage in = garbage out" is as big a part of music & perceived sound quality as just about anything, delivery medium included!

A well-recorded, well-mastered album in an mp3 @256kbps (pref higher, 320 and you're very close to CD sound really, imho) can sound very good indeed.

A poor recording, or one that's brickwalled to death and you're stuffed.. even if you stick it on a DVDA @24-bit 192khz (stereo, of course) it'll still sound terrible!

..on a (related) tangent, a few years ago on a TV show here (The Gadget Show) they did some listening tests, to see if their audience could tell the difference between an mp3, a CD and an LP.

During the tests they used excerpts from "Dark Side of the Moon".

They failed to mention if they used the SACD layer for the tests, although the CDP was a Denon SACD capable unit -- which angered me no end at the time!

The end result, however, was rather interesting..

http://www.sa-cd.net/showthread/35716/35765
 

jaybird100

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is mp3 bad for my receiver?
i have never been able to turn my receiver up to 11 with the radio signal - it just sounds horrible ..... is it also bad for my receiver to jam mp3 recorded crap? the sansui qrxX001 decodes a stereo input - if there is less "input" from an mp3...then is it easier or harder or just LESS to work with? i am not making sense to myself right now - but if you can decipher what i just wote....school me mates.

cheers
w.a.reid:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin:smokin
I have both SQ and QS recordings on my iPod; most of the QS I encoded myself from discrete sources, but when played through today's home theater receivers that can accommodate an iPod dock, the sound is amazing. QS decodes accurately, and SQ comes pretty close, when using the PLII music mode.
 

Old Quad Guy

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Q8

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Can you decode matrixed quad from decent bitrate MP3s?
 
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