While wandering the Web recently, I was surprised to find a link to a 2013 article on NPR titled ‘What Does A Song That Costs $5 Sound Like?‘ Intrigued, I clicked the link to learn more.
In 1997, the first single was purchased online — “Electric Barbarella” by Duran Duran. At the time, Marenco was working for Liquid Audio, one of the first companies to offer commercial music downloads. Marenco says no one she knew even got what she was doing. “My artist and label friends looked at me like I was talking about things in a crystal ball. ‘Music on the Internet? Are you crazy? How is that even possible?’ “
Marenco and Liquid Audio were offering compressed audio downloads in formats like MP3 and AAC, which is what iTunes uses now. Even though she’s a musician herself and could hear that MP3 was lower quality than CDs, she thought MP3s could change the industry in a way that helped artists.
. . .
MP3s were lower quality audio because they had to be. The files were small and moved quickly over a slow speed Internet connection. Marenco now says she feels guilty for helping to make MP3s popular.
. . .
These days Marenco is back at work as an engineer in a studio she built in her home. She takes great care in the recording process. During one session, she had four musicians in the studio and none of them wore headphones the way they do in most recording sessions. Marenco prefers they play together as if they were on stage, a process she believes makes the sound more authentic.
About three years ago, as most people got faster Internet connections and bigger hard drives, Marenco decided to make her DSD music files available for download. At the time, Marenco’s customers could only play DSD on one device — a Sony PlayStation 3. Marenco charged $5 a song and $50 an album. It didn’t sound like a formula for success. But, she says, “we were shocked. Thousands of people came to download. What was interesting to me as a business owner is they never asked me to lower the price. They asked for more content.”
. . .
Music fans are ready, according to a study done by the Consumer Electronics Association in 2011. It found 90 percent of consumers say sound quality is the most important part of a quality listening experience. And the industry may finally be ready to give it to them.
There’s more at the link.
This sounds potentially very good; but there’s a huge fly in the ointment, one that’s bugged me ever since I ran into a high-end audiophile in my days in the computer industry in South Africa. This guy had just spent the equivalent of $20,000 on a turntable to play old-fashioned vinyl LP records. One turntable – no amplifier, no speakers, no cables – one turntable. For $20,000. My mind boggled. He swore you could hear the difference between it and his previous turntable, which had cost him a mere $10,000 or so, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell their sound quality apart. (He took great delight in demonstrating them to me one evening over a Scotch or two.)
(If you’d like to read about a modern audiophile who takes it to extremes – as in six-figure extremes – try this article. Your mind may well boggle too . . . )
The thing that bugs me about all this is that the range of hearing of the human ear is very accurately known. It’s between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. Basically, if someone offers to sell you a sound system that can accurately reproduce sounds between (say) 4 Hz and 44 kHz, you’re being sold a pup, because you won’t be able to hear more than half of that sound spectrum. It’s physically impossible.
I accept that common MP3 files are low-resolution; that’s why, when I download them or burn my own CD’s onto my computer, I specify the maximum possible sampling rate to ensure the best audio fidelity. I can hear the difference between the files when I do that. However, when working in other formats promising much higher frequency response, I often can’t hear much difference between them and a high-end MP3 file (particularly given my aging ears, which have lost much of the sensitivity they once had – loud, repeated gunfire will do that to you, and there isn’t always time or opportunity to insert hearing protection). I think mixing the sound is much more important than its frequency response – getting the balance right between instruments, vocals, etc. and balancing bass, treble and other notes.
I can’t help but think that much of the emphasis on higher-frequency recordings is just hype, nothing more. What say you, readers? Is there more to it than marketing? Or is it just another way to separate us from our money?