The technology that made music fast food, why digital music sounds bad


Technology is changing our lives, this maxim does not raise the slightest doubt, and it is implied that these changes are for the better. The past is perceived through the prism of the present, then we were young, and many things happened for the first time. But over the years, technology has changed us, our environment and our perception of the world around us. From the world of things created for decades, if not for centuries, we quickly moved on to disposable things: used and thrown away without any regrets. The heyday of fast food is a reflection of the transience of our century, your time is scheduled down to seconds, and you need to pour fuel into yourself in order to function quickly and efficiently. It seems that we have never had such opportunities, such a variety of entertainment, but often it turns into fast food, which fills the stomach, but does not bring satisfaction. Fast food technologies gradually penetrated into electronics, our perception changed and became completely different: black became white, and white became black. It’s good to look at this transformation in terms of music and how sound quality has changed, how electronics have transformed this industry and you and me. But first, try to remember some musical group, performer that appeared in the last ten to fifteen years and became a discovery, who can be called defining new directions, to match the giants of the past. Nobody comes to my mind! A survey of friends, buddies and online strangers showed only one thing: many are not friends with numbers and name those who appeared twenty years ago or so (yes, time flies inexorably). There is a ringing emptiness in modern music, and we should thank the technologies that gave us cheap music that is available anywhere in the world.

In hindsight, trying to figure out when things went awry, I can’t pinpoint one particular day or even a year. As often happens, this is a set of events, each of which was presented as a technological breakthrough and a blessing directed at you and me, but being in the future, we can already say that a lot has gone completely wrong. But nobody thought about it then.

In the 90s, the Internet begins to develop, all the habits that are characteristic of ordinary life are introduced into the network. This is uncharted territory, and pioneers quickly conquer vast areas, empires emerge out of nothing, the dot-com boom begins. The Internet is not only a network as such, it is also computers that are needed to access and view various resources, the development of technologies is increasing, the very pace of this development is becoming frantic. Prices for equipment are falling, competition is intensifying in each of the possible areas, corporations are entering new markets for themselves.

How did we listen to music in the 80s? Cassette recorders are widespread, a mass product, cheap and reliable. Cassettes can be copied from friends and are relatively inexpensive. The quality of the recording is highly dependent on the original cassette, but the records have been ousted from the market, they feel anachronistic. Revolutionizing the Walkman from Sony, the compact box lets you take your music with you wherever you go – for a walk, jog or just listening to music on the way to work. The sound quality is worse than that of home systems, but you can turn a blind eye to this, your favorite music is now with you anywhere.

In the 90s, a new idol on the mass market is CDs. Music recorded digitally sounds clean and always the same, there are no artifacts associated with the way information is stored. People are conservative by nature, many sound aficionados talk about how CD is a dead sound, as opposed to the warm, tube sound of old systems. This dispute is not resolved today, everyone chooses something of their own and proceeds from their habits and experience. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that the same CDs are exactly the same sound that was recorded in the studio, and it is the same in every playback, depending on the technique on which you listen to the music. There is always a heterogeneity of reproduction in analogue storage media, which is so appreciated by fans, they consider it an achievement. As for me, this is a matter of taste, which is not worth controversy. Someone loves photographs that convey the real world as it is, someone adores pictures with HDR or other filters and considers them correct, reflecting the surrounding reality, this is a matter of education and perception.

The technology that made music fast food, why digital music sounds bad

The Internet is becoming the main driving force in the 90s; it is not a toy, but a real life-changing force. Music comes to the Internet almost from the first days, but the problem is low connection speed, small size of computer hard drives. The music industry and CD sales are not threatened by the Internet, it is simply not able to compete, the managers of music labels boast that their sales are unrivaled and only children need the network. This is reminiscent of the 1943 phrase attributed to Thomas Watson, chairman of the IBM board of directors: “There will be five computers sold on the world market.”

The appearance of the mp3 format in 1995 changes everything. The music coding technology developed at the Fraunhofer Institute is able to build a psychoacoustic model, remove from the source file those sounds that a person does not perceive. In theory, the sound quality of an mp3 file does not greatly distort a piece of music, but the size of such a file is 75-95% smaller than on a CD. It is ideal for storing and distributing music in the internet age. The popularity of mp3 is growing gradually, at first it is the ability to store your favorite music on your computer, the quality of speakers and playback leaves much to be desired. This is not about quality, but about the ability to listen to music in the workplace.

It is impossible to overestimate the revolution that the mp3 format has made, people are beginning to encode CDs into digital format, this turns into a universal hobby. The boom of digital music is taking over everyone, it’s a gold rush where everyone creates something of their own. In 1997, the WinAMP application appears, it is a simple but nice player that allows you to play music on your computer. It is distributed free of charge, and it quickly becomes a standard player for Windows computers. This is a success story on the rise in popularity of the mp3 format.

The technology that made music fast food, why digital music sounds bad

My collection of CD-discs in 1997 has several hundred titles, discs are expensive, it is not always possible to find what I like. On Novy Arbat, in the House of Books, half of the second floor is reserved for disks and videotapes. Every Saturday I scour the ruins to find something new, something that I want to listen to. My musical tastes are varied, but the limit is the amount of money that can be spent on CDs, money is always scarce. Therefore, many discs have been listened to repeatedly, this is a different mood, an opportunity to choose something of your own from the collection. Digitizing and downloading discs to a computer is a fashion, but also the ability not to get up and not turn on the music center, which is in another room. Music on a computer is just a background, akin to radio, and you don’t expect any quality from such playback. Therefore, mp3 and music compression do not bother at all.

The first digital players appeared in 1997, these are several models, while they are still expensive exotic. But the popularity of the digital format of music is gaining momentum, students are leading this revolution, they are digitizing everything they can reach. The problem is how you can exchange such recordings, de facto this is copyright infringement and theft of music. 1999 is the year Napster flourishes, a P2P technology for sharing music. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is reacting with lightning speed, with court appeals pouring in one after another. As Napster fights off the RIAA’s claims, something is happening that is accelerating its transformation, with Radiohead’s new album, “Kid A,” hitting Napster three months before its CD release. The group has never entered the top charts of America, it has not attracted public attention. Millions of downloads on Napster create an ad campaign that Radiohead has been lacking. In October 2000, when the album went on sale, it reached number one weekly sales on the Billboard 200. Napster lost the courts, in 2001 the service ceased to exist, his name will be used later, but the original Napster is dead. But he has already done his job, music has firmly established itself in the network, it has become a part of this space.

In 2000, the rise of digital music did not go unnoticed by electronics manufacturers, Steve Jobs began the creation of the first iPod at Apple, and Siemens was developing the first phone with support for mp3 files. In 2001, both products appeared on the market, both became bestsellers and attracted maximum attention.

Siemens SL45 has a 32 MB memory card, as well as the ability to synchronize music with a computer. The memory can hold about 8-10 songs, the company advertises the first phone with an mp3 player as being able to store one album. The transfer of these files takes an hour and a half on average, and the process is slow and requires patience. Mp3 files larger than 7.5 MB are not supported, the same can be said for high bit rates. But this does not bother the buyers of the phone, it is a fashionable device, a reflection of the latest technologies – there is no mp3 player anywhere, but Siemens has one.

The technology that made music fast food, why digital music sounds bad

The bundled headphones look more like tweeters, but the combination of the two most important technologies of that time – the telephone and digital music – fascinates. Countless articles explain that all products will be in the future, but it seems like a dream to buyers, it seems that individual digital players are more designed for this task.

The sound quality compared to CD is worse both on computers and in telephones and digital players. The mp3 format itself does not imply a similar sound, but this does not bother those who choose such devices. For buyers, this is convenience on the go, the ability to listen to music anywhere. And the quality? You can donate to it, as the music is always with you.

Apple is reinventing the wheel and relying on the AAC format, which takes up even less space than mp3, and provides similar sound. These two formats are becoming the main ones and remain so today for most of the music services and technology.

Fashion, the popularity of new devices quickly removes the question of how music sounds. There is always a need for a starting point, for those who were fond of music before the advent of digital formats, these were quite expensive systems, the average level of which is noticeably higher than those used to play digital music. The difference in direct comparison is not just noticeable, it is overwhelming. But the popularity and progressiveness of digital music cancels out these shortcomings. Most importantly, for the first time ever, music becomes publicly available and inexpensive, Apple is revolutionizing the way they persuade labels to sell music on iTunes. The price of digital music is several times lower than what you pay for buying physical media. The main argument in disputes with labels from Apple is that the music is lower in quality and therefore should be cheaper, and CD sales will not suffer from this. This is the trap that most labels fall into. In the early years, iTunes sales provided additional revenue for record companies, and CD sales continued to grow. But then the Internet makes physical media less necessary, more portable devices appear, and CD sales decline.

Digital music playback devices are convenience, but not the best quality. This is beneficial to manufacturers, since in compact, portable players there is no need for expensive electronics, you can choose inexpensive headphones. It seems that an old idea lives on: at home you listen to quality music on a good system, on the road you are ready to sacrifice quality for the sake of choosing your compositions. But the idea itself is already obsolete, a generation of those for whom digital players and telephones have become the only reference point is growing, they have never heard music on other equipment. For them, it is the sound of mp3 compositions in standard and inexpensive plugs that becomes high-quality sound.

Since 2005, we have conducted a study in Russia of how people perceive the sound of music on their phones, how important this parameter is for them (MRG data). The overwhelming majority of those surveyed claimed that this is one of the main parameters. The interviewer asked to show what exactly people were listening to, looked at the file format and their quality, entered everything into the questionnaire. But the main thing that he noted was what kind of headphones a person uses. And that was the most interesting finding in the study. People who said they were sensitive to good sound used the inexpensive headphones that came with the box (85% of those surveyed). Including such headphones were used by those who abandoned mp3 in favor of lossless codecs, which preserve sound quality. It seems paradoxical only at first glance, it is just that people have changed their assessment criteria, they have never heard a high-quality sound. Many did not have other audio equipment with which they could compare the sound of their phones or players.

Comfort has triumphed over quality, and this has become the leitmotif for the development of the entire market. Music today is generally available and practically does not cost anything, many services charge a nominal fee for access to huge catalogs that you can listen to non-stop. But the quality of this music is lower than that of CD, the digital revolution has brought convenience, but removed the sound quality. This does not mean at all that there is no choice. There are many solutions on the market for Hi-Res audio (a term from Sony, but it perfectly describes what it is), there are even services for buying and renting music in this quality. But due to their high cost, they remain the lot of a small handful of fans of high-quality music. The mass client of music services is an audiofast food client, he claims that the sound quality is important to him, that he is a fan of the “right” sound. But his choice of technology, headphones, streaming services speaks exactly the opposite, quality is not the main thing here, comfort of use and the cost of music are important.

Is it good or bad? The score depends on your preference, which camp you belong to. I like the comfort that phones give when listening to music, the ability to download your music anywhere in the world, and the quality fades into the background. But sometimes you want to start your system in order to feel every sound, every note and hear how good the music sounds, how it penetrates the space. It’s just a completely different experience, and it’s good that I have the opportunity to take the best of these two worlds.

Please note that another rejection of sound quality occurred during the transition from wired to wireless headphones, the latter are unable to provide a comparable playback quality. The exception is the minority of headphones that support LDAC or AptX HD. History repeats itself, only at this stage we choose the comfort of wireless headphones, for example, the operating time on a single charge, the presence of additional functions. Manufacturers try to hide imperfections by adding equalizers, changing settings to mask imperfections in the original digital material and subsequent distortion. And the same noise canceling headphones are a great option to crank that trick.

Most of the audio market has become fast food, and this cannot be changed. Computer technology has matured to the point where you can create different sounds without human intervention or with minimal involvement. And tech fast food quickly morphed into one for music in general. The question that I asked at the very beginning about who you can remember from the performers who will be on a par with the great bands of the past did not arise out of nowhere. Such groups do not exist today, the market has shrunk. The average lifespan of performers is shrinking, names are constantly changing, the consumer is used to new products. Novelty has become a quality that the performer sells; other qualities are no longer needed. The recipe for success is simple and straightforward: take something popular as a basis, change a little, and now the hit is baked. The lifespan of such a hit is short, since it does not catch on, does not force you to listen and sing along for days on end.

There are thousands of performers on my phone, they are just a couple of clicks away from the menu. But every time a recommendation comes up with something new, it’s just a rehash of what I already know. And there is almost never a desire to listen to this music over and over again. The very presence of a huge library is discouraging, I can always reach the music, and there is no reason to listen to it now. The same incident happens to people who live near some world-famous museum and always postpone their visit until later. Where will he go? Here he is standing nearby, and it is better to spend time on something that is difficult to achieve and is not close at hand.

It is expensive to listen to quality sound. Moreover, this is the cost of not only funds, but also your personal time, the need for a quiet place at least. But the alternative to fast food has always existed, and it still exists today. Popularization of music through digital formats has brought millions of people to this market, which is a definite plus. But the sound level suffered at the same time, a new reference point arose. This is not bad, because in the next round, if the mainstream consumer wants a better sound, we will see technology take off and the sound will change. This game will be forever – two steps forward, one back.

What sound is important to you? What and how do you listen?

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