[Note: This post has been updated (2) as of 8:41 AM Eastern on 14 Aug. See below.]
Apropos this San Francisco Chronicle article which concerns itself mostly with digitally recorded pop (rock, C&W, etc.) music, my instant thought was, "How much the worse for classical music!"
The article begins,
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.
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."
And the man was talking about popular music where — let's be honest here — it doesn't make a whole lot of difference to the understanding or appreciation of the music whether it's heard in severely compressed MP3 format or in all its minimally compressed, standard CD format glory. I mean, it's only pop (rock, C&W, etc.) music after all.
Not the case when it comes to classical music. In that case, dynamic nuance, nuance of timbre, and acoustic accuracy, among other such matters, are sine qua non, and even the very best existing CD format is incompetent to capture all that needs to be captured.
And then there's the problem of playback. Even given the very best existing CD format, hearing the playback of classical music so recorded through the earbuds of, say, the ubiquitous iPod is simply a joke. An insidious joke. A most insidious joke indeed. And the joke is on us — all of us. It's no mere bon mot to say, "You can get used to awful" P.D.Q., most especially when one has no point of live reference or too infrequent experience of it as is the unhappy case today overwhelmingly where classical music is concerned.
And with classical music the problem goes even deeper than that.
As I wrote in an August 2004 post on Sounds & Fury:
I'm old enough to have been present at the birth of hi-fi in the '50s, and its subsequent development into stereo in the '60s. I immediately became what's (politely) known in the trade as an audiophile, and at one point in my life invested more than $30,000 (1980 dollars, the equivalent of approximately $75,000 2004 dollars) in an audio system which comprised the most accurate electronics and loudspeakers available at the time, all of it installed in a room acoustically designed (more mega $$$) to permit it to operate at its utmost potential.
I provide this information not to wow you, but to assure you I'm hardly one to pooh-pooh or sell short recorded performances. I love them. Nay, I cherish them, and couldn't imagine life without them. Lots of them.
But experiencing a recorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert. And by that, I don't mean merely that playing back a recorded performance in a home environment can't equal the acoustic experience of a performance in a concert hall, even given a superbly recorded performance, superb reproduction equipment, and the most elaborately and carefully prepared listening environment. I mean the two experiences are two different musical experiences, exclusive even of the shared communal experience of a live concert which I here disregard entirely for purposes of simplicity, and to maintain focus on a more central aspect of the question. One hears music differently in a live performance, and that hearing simply cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good the reproduction may be in both recording and playback.
Many audiophiles who are also experienced concertgoers will dispute that claim (I, for instance, used to be one of them), but there's a largely unrecognized (or willfully unacknowledged) psycho-acoustic phenomenon at work in this business. Experienced, long-time concertgoers unconsciously "graft" the experience of a live hearing of the music onto the experience of the hearing of it via a reproduction, and imagine they're hearing and experiencing the music via the reproduction just as they hear and experience it in live performance.
But imagine is the operative word here. It's but a psycho-acoustic illusion; one that requires a long-time experience of live performance to create and maintain, consciously or unconsciously.
Is it any wonder, then, that I cringe, even get royally pissed, whenever I read on the blogs of those who should know better and who ought to be setting an example for the Great Unwashed of the iPod Generation, the iPod People, their proud trumpeting of their iPod playlists of the day (or week, or whatever). Such iPod playlists don't make the compilers of those playlists non-elitists, one with The People, and eclectic way-cool guys as some may imagine they do, but serve merely to mark their compilers as a very real part of the problem when what those compilers ought to be working toward being is a very real part of the solution.
But perhaps that's just me being supercilious and tilting at windmills again.
In a pig's eye it is.
Update (5:49 PM Eastern on 10 Aug): On responses to the above, see this post.
Update 2 (8:41 AM Eastern on 14 Aug): For what appears to be a necessary clarification of this post, see this post.