Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

The (Deteriorating) Sound of Music

In a recent review of Dr Dog’s We All Belong I wrote

On decent sound equipment the lo-fi limitations of ”We All Belong” are obvious and an obstacle to enjoying the music.  On lower quality gear it sounds fine which means that it’ll sound okay ripped to MP3 or MP4.  I expect there will be more and more of this as the record industry puts out popular music engineered to sound good on iPods even though they are capable of so much more.

A few days later I was sent an article about how recording engineers are unhappy that they are required to record music designed to be listened to on iPods.  Their complaint is that both compression into MP3 and MP4 formats and sound reproduction through the iPod’s earbuds put such limitations on sound quality that the sonic characteristics that can make music exciting and exhilarating are lost.  The article described sound engineering for the iPod as engineering to the lowest common technical denominator.  The engineer’s complaints are a bit disingenuous because popular music has always been recorded to sound good on the most popular playpack platform of the day and this has usually involved compromising the sound quality of the recording.  The difference between today and yesterday in this regard is that the sound quality of MP3 and MP4 played back through iPods is so low that music engineered for these formats sounds like a huge step backward.

In a previous post (Why MP3s (& MP4s) Suck) I examined the basic reason why compression into the MP3 and MP4 formats produces markedly low quality sound.  It’s simple arithmetic – over 90% of the musical information present on a standard CD is lost when compressed to MP3 or MP4 so it’s no real suprise that it sounds terrible when played back through decent quality sound gear.  While the recording engineers were unhappy about this general problem with music compression, they also pointed out several specific ways sound quality is compromised in order to make the music sound better on iPods.

One problem is that high frequencies that will make music sound sharp, penetrating, immediate, open ended and rich when properly reproduced from a CD sound harsh, grating and abrasive when the music is compressed and played back through earbuds.  The solution is to preferentially eliminate the high frequencies from the mix which turns music that was alive and exciting into something flat and dull. 

A second problem is that music engineered to be played in compressed formats through earbuds is equalized to play at a consistently loud level throughout.  This means that the dynamic range of the music, which is the difference between the quietest and loudest passages on the record, is reduced to practically zero.  Think about how the commercials on TV often sound so much louder that the show.  They’re not; the loudness level of broadcast material is regulated so that it cannot exceed specified limits.  The difference is that the sound in the show has a relatively wide dynamic range and the sound of the commercial doesn’t.  The commercial is engineered so that all of its sound is equally loud and at the highest level allowed.  They’re trying to attract your attention without seeming to consider that the attention they’re getting is usually of the “Turn that fucking thing off!!” variety.

The loss of dynamic range is important because it carries a good deal of emotional information to the listener.  For example, classical music is often recorded with a very wide dynamic range and the swelling crescendos of an orchestra can sound compelling and uplifting even to people who don’t usually listen to classical music.  Another example would be the quiet-loud dynamic of grunge which elicits bursts of excitement in listeners.  Imagine how difficult it would be for an actor to convey differences in emotion if every line had to be delivered at the loudest possible volume.  Elimination of dynamic range by recording at consistently high levels thoughout is done for several reasons.  Because of the extreme sound limitations of compressed formats they cannot reproduce the sound characteristics that make dynamic range emotionally compelling.  There is just too much information thrown away in the compression process for changes in dynamic range to be effective.  Also, iPods are designed to be used in public where ambient noise competes with the low quality sound being put out by the earbuds.  Unwaveringly high loudness levels are designed to drown out competing sounds from the listener’s environment.

Fortunately not all music is being engineered to such low standards.  Justice’s “Cross” and Digitalism’s “Idealism” are two dance/rock/electronica CDs that are very well recorded and sound stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks spectacular when heard through a quality sound system.  Artists and groups like Aimee Mann, Los Lobos and Cafe Tacuba have consistently put out very well recorded CDs. 

All of this leads to an interesting idea.  The music industry has been bitching and moaning incessantly about how CD sales are down and they’re losing so much money because people have been ripping music through peer-to-peer file sharing without paying for it.  The industry response has been almost exclusively to try to find a way to cash in on the MP3 format with the result that we have iTunes and all of its imitators.  As a revenue stream for the music industry this is fine but it’s hardly the only thing they can do.  An obvious idea that the music industry appears to have completely ignored is to give people something on CD that they can’t get on MP3 – high quality sound – and then promote the difference.  They have the technology but they appear to be clueless about what to do with it. 

Consider the recent SACD and DVD-Audio debacle.  Both of these formats are the mirror opposites of MP3 and MP4 compression; they provide much more sound information than a typical redbook CD rather than much less.  When played back through the appropriate equipment they sound terrific, much better than CDs and infinitely better than MP3s.  SACD and DVD-Audio also allow 5.1 surround sound playback which opens up worlds of possibility for musical good times none of which are possible in compressed formats.  So what did the music industry do?  They totally screwed the pooch.  First, they got involved in yet another format war (Do these people never learn?)  Then they completely botched promoting the enhanced formats so that most music consumers didn’t and still don’t have any clear idea of what they were all about.  Then they engaged in jaw-droppingly stupid marketing.  For example, one of the important advantages that Sony’s SACD format had over DVD-Audio is that SACD discs can contain both SACD and regular CD versions of an album.  You can give people both formats for the same price which encourages them to upgrade their sound system (by purchasing Sony’s SACD equipmeent) without penalizing them for buying CDs during the time it takes to upgrade one piece at a time.  So what did Sony do?  Ignored their advantage and shot themselves in the foot by releasing SACD-only discs that did not include regular CD mixes.  Finally the industry decided that only an older audience would be interested in the high quality formats or would spend the money to upgrade their systems so they devoted the majority of their high quality format releases to surround sound remixes of boomer bands like Pink Floyd, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and early Grateful Dead.  Like younger people don’t care about how music sounds and wouldn’t turn on to music that sounded really, really good?  This was all music that was originally designed and recorded for stereo and while the surround remixes are (sometimes) very cool, they are not half as cool as music that was built from the ground up for 5.1 would be.  Rather than abandon surround sound to the boomer nostalgia market, why not let current musicians have a go?  Imagine bands like Justice, Battles, Arcade Fire, Digitalism, Of Montreal, or Ojos de Brujo being given access to the technology and the support to produce surround sound recordings.  Think they wouldn’t produce music that would knock you out? and wouldn’t give people a reason to buy CDs?

You don’t need high-resolution sound formats like SACD to engineer recordings that sound much better than music played through iPods.  Any CD will do the trick and I’d imagine that enough people will care enough about having music that sounds terrific to buy CDs in addition to or in place of downloaded MP3 versions of the same songs.  In fact, why not release albums in two mixes?  You could have the shit-sound iPod version for download that is engineered to sound good given the severe technical limitations of compression and earbuds and the full-sound version that is engineered to sound as good and as rich as possible.  Of course, the music industry isn’t going to market the downloadable version as the “shit mix”.  They’re going to say it’s a specially engineered mix designed for your iPod and probably charge you more for it because it’s special, but so what?  The additional cost for the recording industry of producing a second mix would be minimal and you could let the consumer decide if they wanted to hear one, the other or both.  Apple isn’t likely to think this is a good idea but that shouldn’t stop anyone from small independents to the major music industry players from carrying it out.  Give us the best of both worlds and you’ll make more money. 

Being able to listen to music anywhere with an iPod is a wonderful technological development.  However, the self-interests of the recording industry and the companies that manufacture the cheap gear and cheaply operated hosting services that make this type of music possible shouldn’t obscure the fact that compressed music played through iPods comes at a significant loss in sound quality.  It doesn’t have to be this way.


09/19/2007 - Posted by | music, music tech, Music technology, Opinion


  1. […] Discussion of other issues with limitations in the sound quality of music heard on compressed formats can be found in the previous post (The (Deteriorating) Sound of Music). […]

    Pingback by Why MP3s (& MP4s) suck « Tuned In To Music | 09/21/2007 | Reply

  2. […] industry demand to record CDs so they sound good played back through earbuds in MP3 format (see The (Deteriorating) Sound of Music ).  The band makes a huge sound and this is a CD that doesn’t begin to let you hear what it […]

    Pingback by Review: Daft Punk, Alive 2007 « Tuned In To Music | 02/04/2008 | Reply

  3. You should definitely read this article. If I may differ on SACD though, my opinion on why it more or less failed is
    1) that it was marketed at a time when most people were already heavily invested in Red Book CDs
    2) most people were starting to copy CDs on their computer to CD-R in the 90’s – SACD couldn’t (and still can’t) be copied (contrary to what the music industry would have you believe, it is my opinion that copying actually enhanced CD sales rather than harm it)
    3) it wasn’t until recently that hi-fi manufacturers made offboard DSD capable DACs
    4) the catalogs were pretty meagre
    5) other formats were more promising because they actually were compatible with existing players (HDCD, XRCD etc.)

    Comment by He is correct | 10/30/2008 | Reply

  4. […] wealth of good music, we are getting music that, in many cases, sounds spectacular.  In producing music that is designed to sound good when played back in compressed formats through iPod earbuds the industry has been using drastic compression so that music will sound uniformly loud.  The […]

    Pingback by Review: Various Artists, Grand 12-Inches Vol. 3 « Tuned In To Music | 07/14/2010 | Reply

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