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.

1 Comments:

Anonymous ross stensrud said...

While music is in a temporarilly sits in a state where the quest for quality has been subsided by the quest for convienience, eventually people will get their heads back on straight. Once you can get any piece of music anywhere at any time, people are going to rediscover that quality is important. The end solution will be quite extrordinary. High quality music delivered in a convinient way.

Monday, May 22, 2006 8:59:00 pm  

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