Tuesday, March 28, 2006

An Acquired Taste

It seems that the concept of ‘an acquired taste’ is becoming an anachronism. Instant gratification is much more appealing – and more easily marketable. Acquiring a taste for something takes time, thought and effort. What used to be a sign of maturity and cultivation is now deemed elitist and old-fashioned. Traditionally, it’s children who like sugary sweets, simple delights and crave the uncomplicated, whereas adults thrive on refinement, educated taste and the joy of plunging into the pleasures of anticipation. Such sophistication isn’t reserved for fine wines and gastronomy either, but permeates every field of the arts and most of the pastimes associated with them.

Ever since the advent of LP – and even before - there’ve been a keen bunch of music lovers [and a sizeable pack of nerds], who are more or less passionate about furthering the development of realistic recorded sound and all things audiophile. Each new technology has its detractors as well as its enthusiastic advocates – this was true with the change from acoustic to electrical recording, from LP to CD, and from analogue to digital. The relative merits of each technology have always been a source of protracted debate – until now. The classical hi-fi enthusiast has become a lost voice: overwhelmed by the welter of misinformation, publicity and hype: as far as the mainstream is concerned – the audiophile is as scarce as the paedophile is prolific. Everyone is apparently happy enough with the ubiquitous MP3 and lossy audio codecs that bleed the opulence out of high quality sound, stripping it down to the bare essentials?

The prevailing view now seems to be, “what’s the point in bothering about the quality if you can’t tell the difference?” Where are the fierce defenders of analogue who were so outspoken when digital recording muscled in and ousted the LP, and why are they silent?

Advocates of compression technology usually claim that in tests, most people were unable to distinguish between 160kbps and CD quality. So what? 8 out of 10 owners said their dogs preferred Pedigree Chum. I’d like to hear the voice of the dogs that preferred something else! What is happening to the ongoing quest for higher fidelity? We may not be doing too badly thus far, but we’re still a long way from audio-recreation that’s indistinguishable from real, live sound. If we’re ever to attain that goal we must persevere with technological improvement. And that requires investment. Yet there will be no monies to invest if we sit back and say – hey, that’s good enough - besides, who can tell the difference anyway? The prospect of future development in an already impoverished industry is likely to be severely circumscribed if we all blithely accept the standards of mediocrity.

The classical music market is of particular importance in this sector of the music industry because it has always been the leading edge of qualitative improvement – primarily because the wide dynamic range of acoustic music is so much more dependent on high quality sound than popular music forms, but also because the music is less transitory.

But leaving aside the greater good of the classical music industry, why should we trouble ourselves with the acquisition of something as insubstantial and nebulous as a taste for hi-fidelity audio? Why waste time agonising over computational algorithms when you could be enjoying the music?

I’d say that there’s pleasure to be found in the quest for something of value. Instantaneous gratification, the most insubstantial of pleasures, is fine but it seldom lasts – here one minute gone the next, usually without so much as a lingering taste to savour. The greater reward of more lasting pleasure is only obtained by effort, perseverance and serious intent. Indeed, much of the pleasure lays in the quest itself, in the anticipation rather than the result, the pure and simple. After all, the acquisition of a taste for fine wine, or gourmet food is not generally deemed to be tiresome or unrewarding.

Audio quality is notoriously difficult to evaluate. One has to devote a lot of time to listening and learning to appreciate the differences and nuances: they’re not obvious – at least, not so obvious that they’ll hit you in the face the moment you switch on. It takes time to familiarise yourself with the recorded sound before learning to distinguish the effects of data compression. Consequently, it’s very easy to say no one can hear the difference, when few people yet recognise the telltale artefacts of the technology.

The same is true of any and every new technology. We’re swept away on the first tide of awe and enthusiasm. It happened with the invention of the first popular synthesizer, the Yamaha DX7, it happened with CD players, and it continues to happen with every new piece of computer software that hits the market. Only time and familiarity make us aware of the crudeness of the earliest implementation and drive practitioners to strive with greater determination to master the technology and learn to exploit it without succumbing to easy temptation. Anyone who’s noted the way in which the Vocoder inveigled itself into 90% of 70s pop songs ought to be familiar with this problem.

The danger is more apparent to industry professionals who spend their days listening to recordings. I’ve a colleague who claims to hear almost every edit in every CD. It’s no idle boast, but a source of regret that detracts from his pleasure of recorded music. The point is that what is inaudible at first, becomes apparent after some time. Therefore, to state coolly and equivocally that it’s impossible to hear the difference between high-resolution recordings and compressed audio data files is as narrow-minded and luddite as denying that recent technological advances have revolutionised the listening experience for millions of music lovers.

Acquiring the taste for, and the ability to appreciate high-quality audio, takes time and experience: not because it’s difficult or requires the hearing of a bat, but because its not easy to know what to listen for. I can’t begin to explain how to evaluate audio quality, except to say that it’s no longer a question of spotting the arcane resonance of early 78rpm recordings, or the hiss and crackle of the LP. Classical music engineers endeavour to capture the space that surrounds the musicians and to re-construct the 3-dimensionality of live music performance. Such qualities are often the first casualties of data compression. Nevertheless, their absence is not that easy to spot – you don’t know what you’re missing, particularly if you have no comparison! But what I can say is that without the benefit of good hi-fi and the best possible media, we’re ill equipped to judge the efficacy of engineer’s work.

Monday, March 20, 2006

...oh and another thing.

In the last blog I forgot to mention one of the finer Parisian acoustics - The Auditorium de la Sorbonne.
But it was otherwise 'occupied' this weekend.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

New Symphonic Halls in Paris

As Mr Downey notes in a recent blog, Paris is to be graced with not one, not two, but three new - or newly renovated - concert halls: The Salle Pleyel, due to re-open this September, a new concert hall for Radio France, and yet another at Cité de la Musique.

Such investment in the arts is very welcome and one hopes that the best-laid plans are not laid to waste by the black art of acoustics.

We’ll discover what’s become of the Salle Pleyel at the end of the summer, but the existing concert hall at Cité de la Musique is acoustically utterly unremarkable, and the Salle Olivier Messiaen - the largest studio at Maison de Radio France - has the musty, tired, characterless sound so common to radio studios - although I can see the benefit of having a sort of blank slate – it's like a fashion model - not very interesting, but adaptable.

However, one might have hoped that more would be made of the Salle Gaveau, (click here to view) which has only 15 concerts in March, 6 in April and 5 so far in May. If it were run along the lines of the Wigmore Hall, it would be a real boon to chamber music in Paris.

Even the Salle Cortot, designed by Auguste Perret, [architect of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées] and which according to Cortot, “sounds like a Stradivarius” has a busier season – although as part of the Ecole Normale de Musique it seems to be tied up with student activities much of the time.

top left - Salle Pleyel 2003 (going on 1970) ~ centre left - Cité de la Musique ~ bottom right- Salle Cortot

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Has anyone noticed the similarity between The Beaux Arts Trio logo and Homer Simpson?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Silence is a sounding thing...

...To one who listens hungrily” - Gwendolyn Bennett

How long will it be before I can download silence to listen to on my iPod? I want silence – I like it – I am not afraid of it, or of myself. But I can’t have it: Sonic assault abounds. In bars, restaurants, supermarkets, shops, busses, and now, thanks to the ubiquity of the tizzy leakage from insufficiently well plugged ear buds, on trains too. Background muzak has wafted into our lives just as smoke has drifted out. And in my view, passive listening is just as bad for one’s health.

It’s not the apparent ceaseless need to listen to music that worries me: but that I don’t really believe most people are actually listening at all. We’re inured to media bombardment on all fronts; advertising is almost continuous in one form or another, and it is into this corporate realm that music now tempts and teases us.

Microsoft’s refrain (with its annoying, poorly executed fade) at PC start-up and the repeated jingles on commercial radio are the more overtly irritating anti-musical strains that violate our sensibilities. But the vast panoply of music that is produced, owned, and distributed by giant corporations and which assaults our senses and insults our intelligence is commercial branding, designed to be inescapable rather than listened to. Music provides a backdrop and the soundtrack to the increasingly idealised lives that we are encouraged to buy into. It is not, for the most part, created to stimulate, nor to encourage thought or engagement, but to pacify, calm, soothe and inevitably, to sell.

Popularity’s proximity to conformity encourages and enhances this effect. No doubt the world is brimming with original musical acts, but those who achieve mainstream commercial success will seldom threaten the status quo. This is truer now than ever before – thanks to the rapaciousness of contemporary commercialism, where record companies prize saleability above originality. This quest for popularity for its own sake is conceited and culturally stultifying.

The same insidious conformity threatens classical music too. If we want to know why audience numbers are dropping and fewer people are buying classical music recordings, we would do well to look a bit closer at the products that advertise musicians: namely CDs. The shackles of potent commercialism force classical music into an invidious position. Popularity and demanding art forms are rare companions.

A recording used to be representative of a musician’s concert performance. Indeed, it is widely assumed that the objective of a good classical recording is to re-create the sense of a live performance. But the way records are made has changed; recordings have assumed unwarranted influence, and in doing so, have altered the way musicians perform and, to a lesser extent, the way audiences listen to concerts. CDs - impeccably honed, unthreatening, perfect and as stylised as a supermodel - have become the standard by which musicians are assessed.

It is astonishingly rare these days for musicians to release live recordings. Sure, there are plenty that claim to be live, but they usually involve editing between a number of performances and a series of post-concert patches. The concoction that results from this elaborate hoax is rarely more than a cheapskate substitute for a studio recording bearing few of the human qualities present in real live performance.

Accuracy is of course something of a prerequisite to a fine performance but it is not an end in itself. If a performance – or a recording – is merely accurate, it might at best be considered impressive. If it has no other, more inspired and inspiring qualities, it is worthless because it will communicate nothing. Herein lies the problem. Classical music, like all demanding art forms is not easy, either to perform, or to listen to. But like any human communication, if it is to convey something, it must have humanity: it must have soul. CDs rarely do: they exist to be sold. And in order to appeal to the widest possible public, they must be unthreatening and conform to the norm. Consequently, they commonly have little to offer beyond the academic. This is not because the musicians are soulless or incapable but because they are entangled in a vicious circle that compels them to equal the idealised performances enshrined on disc. As a result, performances are in danger of becoming constrained and narrow: when risk becomes too risky - conformity rules.

We can reclaim music from the corporate giants if we so desire. But we need to use our heads, and we need to give ourselves space to think - and to listen. Once we re-establish listening as an active pastime we’ll have come some way toward this goal. Listening is not doing nothing. Music need not be – and should not be merely background. We can pod-to-our-heart’s-content while we’re 'multitasking', but lets not fool ourselves; distraction is not listening – music and musicians deserve our full attention.

Read Barenboim's The Phenomenon of Sound

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

£ per Kilo

Given that record companies are avoiding many of the costs associated with CD sales [blank discs, pressing costs, artwork printing costs, some of the distribution costs etc] is it not reasonable to expect music downloads to be cheaper than CDs? Well, if the labels were seen to be sharing profits more equitably with artists, I might say no. If they were investing in whopping servers with unimaginably broad bandwidth in order to facilitate faster download times of larger files, I might say no; charge us the full price and keep up the good work! But as neither of these, nor indeed any other real qualitative improvements are apparent, I think yes – they are too costly.

Clearly the price of recordings has little to do with the cost of production – at least, not on an individual basis, otherwise one might reasonably expect an orchestral recording to cost substantially more than a solo guitar record. It wasn't so many years ago that the cost had some bearing on quality – the quality of a performance, and the calibre of the musicians imbued a disc with added value: Decca and Deutsche Grammophon for example were among the bastions of recorded classical music. Nowadays, one is just as likely to find a first class performance on Naxos at a third of the price.

The arrival of the high-resolution formats, DVD-A, SACD and their ilk, were supposed to persuade us that it was worth paying a higher price for improved technical quality. And now, at 99 cents for 2½ minutes of music, we’re paying for a full price CD, but what we get is an impoverished squashed file squirted into our computers with the assurance that is near CD quality.

My concern is whether people really know what they’re getting. If they do, and don’t care, then that’s up to them, but if they’re having the wool yanked down over their bulging eyes while a shiny new slim line iPod is stuffed into the clammy paw, then I think they might prefer to be better informed – or at least - not to be misinformed. Naxos’ claim that

CD Quality sound (128Kbps; broadband required) and/or Near-CD Quality [at] (64Kbps)
is, quite frankly, risible, but they are not alone in promulgating such misleading misinformation.

The British Federation of Audio stuck in its oar this week.

"The UK's specialist AV consumer electronics trade body has come out saying it's concerned that consumers aren't getting the enjoyment they could from their portable music devices or hi-fis, with today's music fans happy to download and listen to low bit-rate music files - which often don't come even close to CD quality. Listening tests carried out by various members of the Federation reveal what most of us already know, namely that the standard recording rate of around 128kbits per second is audibly inferior to CD by a wide margin. And although higher bit-rates of 256kbps and above deliver a far better performance it's still not as good as that from CD."

It’s not so surprising that quality is not of great concern when most listening involves portable media players with ear buds, or in an environment that is far from ideal.

“Among 1,031 adult respondents to a consumer-behaviour survey published last year by the CEA (Consumer Electronics Organisation), 34% said they listened to music at home primarily on a PC, compared with just 26% who said they used a stereo or surround-sound receiver as their main home listening system”

We can only hope that as hand-held players become integrated into home hi-fi systems high-end audio components will reveal the inadequacies of compressed file formats.

I can understand too that the importance of quality depends on the type of music. Eric Dahl of PC World claims that in tests he made with colleagues

“Most of those 192-kbps files were indistinguishable from files that used lossless compression. And not just to my ears: in the audience we had an acoustical engineer from NHT (Now Hear This), in Benicia, California, and the owner of Audio High, a high-end stereo store in Mountain View, California. But we found that as you drop below 192 kbps, the difference in quality becomes noticeable pretty quickly.”

I wonder though, what sort of recordings were used for the tests – not acoustic classical music with a wide dynamic range I’ll warrant? Anyhow, I’ve fired off an email to ask. As I pointed out in an earlier posting, classical music and other acoustically recorded music are heavily dependent on hi-fidelity to give the best representation of their wide dynamic range. Modern pop, in contrast, has almost no dynamic range at all – what little remains after recording and mixing is generally expunged in the mastering process.

Contrary to what might be imagined, loud music does not necessarily require more data than soft music to create a faithful representation. The following chart shows a screen shot of iTunes lossless downloads of Vaughn-Williams’ A Sea Symphony. The variable bit rates for each of the movements adapt according to the demands the music makes on the data compression system. What is interesting is that the softest movement (track 13) requires the highest bit rate for adequate representation. Consider then the mastication that must inevitably occur under higher compression.

Self-styled pundits are too quick to dismiss the idea that it is possible to distinguish compressed files from their full bandwidth originals. Blind tests – notoriously difficult to set up accurately - are conjured to convince us of the efficacy of data compression techniques. I have yet to see evidence of either the techniques or equipment used to carry out these tests, or what recordings were blessed by being chosen. As the BFA point out in their press release,

“Customers eager to take advantage of the excellent home entertainment options now available – particularly plasma TVs, are spending an inordinate amount on the TV monitor – several thousands of pounds in some cases - yet will only spend a small sum on the audio section, especially the loudspeakers, of the system. Perhaps this explains why test comparisons reveal little. No mention of the hi-fi components or quality is ever made. It’s now assumed that any system is good enough.”

What connoisseur would be at ease making a rash evaluation of a fine wine after taking one gulp from a dirty goblet whilst chewing on a mouth full of peanuts? How can we be so certain of what is - and what is not good enough, after evaluating an MP3 on ear buds in the metro?

I doubt neither the integrity nor the earnestness of those who carry out such tests: just the ease with which they reach their resolute conclusions. I know from my own experience that it is very, very easy to mislead oneself and, how extremely difficult it is to reach definitive conclusions. However, I am also quite convinced that extended listening over many hours to high-resolution audio is rather less tiring than listening to poorer quality sound; a view confirmed by at least one blogger. Quite why this should be the case, if there is no discernable difference, suggests to me that the subject may at least merit somewhat more protracted consideration than it presently receives.

Not all music is transitory. Not all recordings are perishable goods. Classical music might, one would hope, have a rather longer life expectancy than most pop music, which is by nature here-today-gone-tomorrow. For this reason alone, we ought to preserve our recordings in the highest quality available – those at least that are important to us. Once a file is compressed with a lossy codec, it is irretrievably altered: it is impossible to recover the jettisoned information. As Randall Stross pointed out in his article in the New York Times last March,

“… we should be looking out 5 years, or even 50 years, and that's why, when we are building collections from scratch today, we should have the option to collect with true CD quality.”

I like his naïve notion of ‘true CD quality’, but even CD quality is no more than a step in what should be a continuous quest for improvement; not some absolute, beyond which it is impossible or inadvisable to venture.

In the mean time, isn’t it about time we started paying for our downloads by the Kilobyte? Then we’d know that we were getting what we paid for.