Tuesday, October 13, 2009

sound advice

Last February, I summarized a lively discussion between three bloggers about the sound quality in MP3 files -- the format used in the oh-so-ubiquitous iPods.

In the spirit of Lieutenant Tragg (who always required his memory to be refreshed by Perry Mason), you can find part of the discussion at
let me help you with that, little lady.

The gist of the conversation was that some people are willing to give up sound quality for the ease of music portability.

I am not one of those people. And that was one of the dilemmas I faced in moving to Mexico with my limited space for my possessions.

I was raised on live music. There is something about a live, non-amplified performance that cannot be reproduced electronically.

Add a microphone, the sound changes.

Record it in analogue, the sound degrades a bit.

Digitize it, more of the sound disappears.

Then compress that digital version into an MP3 file, and much that was magic in the live performance is simply gone -- as if it disappeared up Mandrake's sleeve.

I added the analogue step to simply note that I was a late adopter of CDs. My vinyl collection provided a far richer sound -- even with the occasional nick.

But I eventually switched over to CDs in the late 1980s -- fully realizing the limitations of the medium.

I have not been able to switch over to MP3 players, however.

When I moved to Mexico, I left behind my Bose 901 surround system. Instead, I have a small Sony system attached to my laptop. But, I did bring all of my CDs and DVDs in their full formats.

In August, I told you in
the devil wore behringer that my friend Jordan had purchased a full set of Behringer studio monitors. (That is him at the top of the post standing next to one of the speakers.)

He brought the full set to my house to let me experience them for the two weeks I was in Oregon last month. If I could get the full set down here, I would have bought a set for myself. They are great.

But, as good as the speakers are (or because they are so good), we could easily hear the damage that compression causes with MP3 files.

On Monday afternoon, I drove to Manzanillo to pick up my mail. I purposely dug out several CDs of music from the 1960s -- the same music I had originally purchased on vinyl. The two hours I spent in the truck, I simply enjoyed cranking up both the stereo and the air conditioner -- and driving at least 20 miles an hour too fast.

It felt great. And the music sounded real good.

Something must have put me in an almost giddy mood (and I suspect I know what it is). Because when I came home, I slapped on a Latin-themed piece of music from Epcot (Fountain of Nations), and rumbaed my legs off in my boxers on the balcony. That should give the neighbors something to talk about.

So, where is the theme in this little essay?

I guess it is as simple as this. It is possible to get just too sophisticated and jaded with life. I love analyzing and deconstructing. And very few things most of us enjoy can withstand that type of scrutiny.

Sometimes, it helps to simply put down the tools and enjoy life with its simple pleasures.

I certainly did that on Monday.

Of course, it would look a little less awkward if I actually had a dance partner.

Applications are available in the foyer.


Simply to prove that I have not abandoned every shred of pretension, you can hear an extremely compressed MP3 file of Fountain of Nations by clicking the link. You may get a feel for the beat, but not the beauty.


Anonymous said...

It's impossible to pinpoint why some music can give me chills and another style or song can make me run to the aspirin bottle. My father once said that I was a typical little kid (could'nt sit still in church) until the choir began singing. Immediately I was like a bird dog focused on the source of that beatiful sound. He said he realized that day that I would love music. It has been the most enjoyable intangible in my life. Playing it and listening to it. I'm with you, give me vinyl anyday.

DanaJ said...

Need a visual of the dancing legs.

Constantino said...

I always knew that you were enamored with minutia. But is there salvation finally in your future?
There might be a slight flickering ember that may surface to a raging fire, if you continue living in Mexico.
Is it possible that you are slowing down and sloughing some old priorities?
Now you are even probing the thought of not dancing solo?
Surprises are overwhelming today, I don't know if I am ready for any more.

Calypso said...

Oh boy a subject after my own heart - I won't bore you with any technical jargon but it is true that converting complex wave forms to digital and then back and THEN compressing the digital to save space has been a rather tragic turn in the music arena - that and turning almost all music into a video spectacular or melodrama - et al has really put a damper on the music itself.

I liked music when it stood on it's own feet and the sound went through no conversions.

But alas signal to noise ratio and duplication quality as well as cost became more important issues as well as the TOTAL entertainment show.

Happily as we get into terabytes and mass storage perhaps one day music will have the audio quality of the vinyl again - but we are not there yet.

Then to your point about just enjoying some happy music - I have a too long story I like to tell about getting my nose too high in the air about sound quality - but suffice it to say at the end of the day - it is about the music.

Larry in Mazatlan said...

In his underwear? I certainly hope not!

Arnie B said...

What you are desribing is known as the MP3 effect and its influence goes far beyond music.


Check out the study at Stanford University. People are slowly getting used to (and prefer) MP3s over traditional music.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder about enjoying the simplicities....needed to hear that today.

Islagringo said...

The quality vs non-quality of MP3 music could be debated until the cows come home. I'm just glad that it is now possible to take my music with me in something less than a boombox!

But the most important thing here is that it sounds like you are finally learning to let your hair down and just go with life. I love that you drove over the speed limit (which is merely a suggestion in Mexico anyway). I love that you danced by yourself, just letting the music channel through your body.

Andee and I are so proud of you!

- Mexican Trailrunner said...

Ah, good post on the comparisons of musical technology.
Nyyow, could we get back to the part where you said, and I quote, "something must have put me in an almost giddy mood". . .
Perhaps you'd like to expand a bit on that?????

Babs said...

OMG, the visual image of you dancing on the patio.......will stay with me for a while.
I want to be sure to know where you are moving to so that when I spend the month of January in Melaque, my windows don't face your balcony....or maybe I do. ha......

Ron said...

When I import music from CD's into iTunes, I use Apple Lossless formet.

It is not compressed, I don't believe and the file sizes are roughly 10x the size of the compressed files.

My ear can't really tell the difference. We bought some Bose computer speakers and a computer is now our stereo. I would not do it any other way - Of course we have good, multiple back-ups of the music library

Anonymous said...

Steve, nice post - as temperature and humidity go down spirits rise -

As far as music goes when uploading your CDs to your computer, itunes will let you choose what format you like. The "apple loss less" format has always been quite good.

I store my CD's on my computer and not as MP3s or MP4s - I store them at the actual bit rate they are on the CD - as WAVE files. It takes a lot of space but my ipod is an 80GB so there is room. That way I can have my CD collection at full fidelity in my pocket.

BTW some of the compressed itunes even at 128kb can still sound quite incredible if wearing the ipod earphones. I will listen to songs that I have heard on vinyl for 40 years and when listening on the ipod it is stunning, like the singer is sitting in my lap!

Itunes is now selling their download albums and songs at 256kb which they claim is full CD quality.

Remember the famous quote by Neil Young:

"the saddest day in the history of recorded music was the advent of the CD"


glorv1 said...

Enjoyed listening to your happiness and also to the link. Great beat. Life is good. Take care.

Steve Cotton said...

Francisco -- Music is perhaps the most visceral of the arts. Our bodies are musical instruments. Of course, that does not mean there is no such thing as bad-sounding music. There is. But it is also easy to find the joy in almost all music -- even the polka-inspired music of northern Mexico sung by your maid. (As long as you ignore the narco-praising lyrics.)

DanaJ -- The words are about as visual as this post gets -- most times.

Constantino -- As I was conducting an encore performance on the roof while putting out the laundry, I remembered that one of my pre-Mexico dreams was to dance on the balcony of a house I once wanted to buy in La Manzanilla. Interesting how dreams come true -- but not quite as we intended.

Calypso -- It is about the music. There are times we can just get too tied up in the sophistication -- that means nothing to most listeners. In the words of that great Swedish philosopher: "Thank you for the music."

Larry -- His? Mine.

Arnie B -- For the same reason we have to accept frozen dinners as being good food. Thanks for the link.

Anonymous -- Glad to hear I did my good deed -- at least for today.

Islagringo -- There could be no higher praise.

Mexican Trailrunner -- A gentleman must be discreet with some parts of his life -- unless I can figure out how to turn it into a juicy post.

Babs -- Not patio. Balcony. A balcony where people can see me from a good portion of the bay. And on the roof today -- for anyone who missed the earlier performance. No cover charge.

Ron -- I was amazed how much difference we could hear while tuning the studio monitors.

Rick -- I tend to agree with Neil Young. But vinyl is gone -- and soon to be followed by live music. Once listeners are accustomed to hearing digital music, there is little need to waste money on union scale. To bad.

Gloroa -- I am glad you liked the piece. Sharing the joy is why I write this blog.

Anonymous said...

I've got to know re: Tejano and Polka....when did Poland invade northern Mexico?? It sounds like the same beat to me.

Anonymous said...

Hola Steve,

So why exactly can't you have a nice stereo in Mexico? I mean it's just a matter of swallowing hard and paying the import duty. I'm not sure how they treat used/old equipment, but I'm sure you could find out.

As for formats, I love SACD (Super-Audio CD, a format developed and launched by Sony in 1997). It sounds FAR more musical than regular CDs, and lacks the annoying noise of LPs.

I buy as many SACDs as I can. And I use the Apple lossless encoding format for cds on my iPod, which are fine for listening to in the car, where the subtleties of fine audio are lost to road noise.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we have a fantastic used classical music store that sells LPs as well as CDs and SACDs.

jennifer rose said...

When the LP gave way to the CD, which gave way to the MP3, we knew that hard times would be ahead. Life just would not be the same. There was nothing better than an LP album cover to clean pot, sifting out and separating the seeds from the weed.

Steve Cotton said...

Francisco -- There are various stories about the entry of the "polka" element into Mexican music. The one accepted by most academics is that Czech and German immigrants to northern Mexico brought their music (and beer)in the late 1800s. Mexicans are experts at incorporating other cultures into their own. The echoes of Munich are never far away.

Kim -- The big issue is size. Until I settle in one spot, I need to be able to fit everything into my truck. Jiggs's death has opened up some space, but not enough for the system I would like to have. If I follow Jennifer Roses's advice, I will put down roots soon -- and then bring a good system down.

Jennifer -- The 60s cling.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer Rose:

Your comment had me laughing out loud. Thanks.

Kim G
Boston, MA

Anonymous said...

Seriously, you can't fit a good stereo in your truck? I have a pair of 5-foot tall speakers, a tube amplifier, and various other obscure components, and it'd all fit into a truck nicely with room to spare. Would I want to pack it up and move it? No, especially the speakers which weigh a ton each.

But if I were in your position, I'd grit my teeth and do it.

Nothing like a nice tiled Mexican house to really hear the subtleties of your stereo.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we are eternally grateful we can blast the stereo without the neighbors hearing.