The debate of digital vs. analog still rages on. I’m pretty much neutral. Either can be very, very good if done well, though they rarely are even done adequately. Instead of worrying about whether something is digital or analog let’s start demanding better quality of both. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear direct dubs to CD off of analog master tapes and they kill what is available to us on commercial CD’s.
I believe that one of the most damaging changes to music that is perpetrated by the record industry is dynamic compression. Dynamic compression is the reduction of the volume difference between the loudest and the softest sounds on a recording. Record companies feel that an album or song that is consistently louder will “punch” through other songs on the radio, thus increasing sales. However, other record companies are doing the same, thus it has become an arms race of sorts. The losers of this arms race aren’t the record companies but us, the music buying public. We are forced to suffer music that is uninteresting and uninvolving to listen to, a relentless assault on our senses. Removing dynamics can destroy the nuances is the tone or volume of a singer’s performance, taking away one of the tools in their arsenal to convey emotion to the listener. This removal of nuance also affects every other musical instrument. For the most part Classical and Jazz haven’t befallen this same fate as they don’t rely on air play for sales.
However, we the consumer are not blameless in all of this. Not only do we buy these flawed recordings, many of us do further damage by knowingly or unknowingly digitally compressing the music when we add them to our portable music players. This compression is a different, but far more insidious manipulation. Instead of reducing detail it is obliterated. Information that is judged to be “inaudible” or “unimportant” is simply disguarded in an effort to save space. In effect, many are saying that they are will to sacrifice quality for an increase in quantity.
Unfortunately, Apple is contributing to this wholesale reduction in quality. The iPod isn’t the problem, it’s a tool that can either be used or misused. However the iTunes store sells music at one of the lowest bit rates possible, setting the bar disappointingly low. The iTunes software is also complicit in the affront to music lovers. Out of the box the setting to the software is optimized to maximize storage space, effectively minimizing sound quality. Changing these settings is fairly straight forward. Go to the “Edit” pull down menu, then select “Preferences” from there go to “Advanced” tab and select the “Importing” tab and select either the “Apple Lossless encoder” or “Wav.” Wav is an exact bit for bit copy of the CD. To reduce the space of the files but without losing sound quality select the “Apple Lossless encoder.” It is purported to reduce the file size by half without a loss in sound quality. In practice the new file is slightly larger than half, but tests have shown that when uncompressed for playback it is in fact bit perfect. The only down side of apple lossless files is that they can only be played by iTunes and iPods.