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My Love/Hate Relationship with “The Distortion of Sound”

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The Distortion of Sound

I feel like I’ve just stepped off a roller coaster. Or perhaps that’s not the best analogy, because I genuinely enjoy the ups and downs of thrill rides. I’m at a loss, though, for how else to convey the stark contrast of highs and lows, the shouts of “Yes!” followed by groaning “No!” after “Nooooo!” that I’ve uttered over the past 22 minutes and change.

What’s all the fuss about? Over the past week or so, a film entitled The Distortion of Sound has been making its way around the internet, especially those corners of the web populated by audio enthusiasts. It’s a lavish production, starring such talented and diverse artists as Slash, Hans Zimmer, Kate Nash, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg, Lianne La Havas, et al. The premise? That sound quality has diminished as an important factor for most modern music listeners.

And that much I agree with.

The problem I have with the film? It points toward lossy music compression (like mp3, aac, and other similar formats) as pretty much the sole culprit in the decline of musical fidelity. And the argument it makes is so flawed as to be entirely uncompelling, in my opinion. Or, I should say, the argument that it makes against lossy compression is uncompelling. Along the way, the film does manage to make some good points. Check out the trailer for a taste of what I mean:

You can see from that short clip that all of the participants are passionate about music and passionate about sound quality—passions that I absolutely share—but even in the trailer, the Frankenstein mixture of laudable and laughable arguments is positively cringe-worthy. “A lot of care is taken in putting that all together,” says Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, discussing the delicate mixture of art and science that goes into making music, “and then it turns into an album and somebody streams it in the worst possible compression format or listens to it on earbuds or … laptop speakers.”

On the latter point, I absolutely agree. The earbuds that probably came with your phone are atrocious. Laptop speakers are about as low-fi as it gets. The means by which most people casually listen to music these days absolutely robs it of its nuance, its detail, its full impact.

But is mp3 really to blame? I’ve written about this topic before (and drew a good bit of criticism for the views espoused in that article). So it goes without saying that I already have a particular bias when it comes to this subject. But let’s explore the arguments made against mp3 in the documentary, and all of the reasons that I find them less than persuasive.

If you’d like, you can go ahead and stream the full film below (or at the Distortion of Sound website).

First things first, I take serious issue with the way lossy compression is described in the film. It’s stated that “compression removes up to 90% of the original song,” and that it’s like removing the vowels from a paragraph—yes, your brain can still decode the meaning of the words, but it takes more brain power, and something is genuinely lost.

I seriously disagree with all of that. It may be true that my preferred method of compression (256 kilobit-per-second variable bitrate mp3, encoded with the LAME v3.99 encoder) may result in a file that’s only 18 percent the size of a fully uncompressed CD rip, but I guarantee you that 99% of listeners wouldn’t hear 1% worth of difference between the two when played back through good audio equipment. I’m not saying that there aren’t substantial differences between the information housed in the files. I’m saying that those differences are all but inaudible with most music, through even the best playback systems.

And I’ll give you a perfect example of that. I recently used LAME to convert some uncompressed live recordings from FLAC to mp3 for a friend of mine who is rather lacking in hard drive space at the moment. (For the record, the tunes were live Grateful Dead soundboard recordings that blow away 90% of commercially released live albums in terms of dynamics, detail, and overall clarity). When the conversion was complete, I played back selections from both the uncompressed FLAC originals and the compressed 256 VBR mp3 rips through a $2000 preamp/DAC and $1000 custom earphones. I absolutely could not hear a difference between the two, after hours of closed-eyed listening.

Now, granted, that wasn’t the case ten years ago. I have some older mp3s that I find all but unlistenable. But contrary to views of the participants in The Distortion of Sound, audio compression technology has improved incredibly in the past decade.

Other erroneous “facts” in the documentary include the elimination of high-frequency information in compressed music. While that may be true at ultra-low bit rates (we’re talking the 64-to-192kbps bitrate employed by streaming services like Pandora), it isn’t the case for higher quality mp3. Need proof of that? Consider this: Starting at about 12 minutes in, the documentary plays examples of “uncompressed” audio and dull, dingy, diluted compressed versions of the same sound clips back-to-back. The differences are strikingly audible, aren’t they? The problem with that: You’re hearing them both through 192kbps compressed aac. So they’re using highly compressed audio to demonstrate to you just how much better uncompressed audio sounds.

Hmm?

There’s another interesting comparison made a little later in the film, that there’s a trend for people to adopt any technology that makes TV look better, but that consumers aren’t doing the same for music.

The irony here? The technologies that have made TV look better over the past couple of decades have all relied on compression. The typical Blu-ray disc “throws away” more than 80% of the information in the original uncompressed 1920x1080p video file. And the HEVC codec essential to 4K Ultra HD (streaming or not) compresses the original video file to an even higher degree. And you don’t hear people complaining about how Blu-ray and 4K rob film of its emotion. If a Blu-ray looks bad, it’s because it was mastered poorly, not merely because it was compressed.

But intertwined with all of these horrible arguments, Distortion of Sound also includes so many excellent points that I can’t dismiss it outright. There’s the point that vinyl is almost something of a fetish object, that the process of physically putting on an album, of paying attention to music, changes the way we listen to it. “It’s sort of magic.” And yeah, that’s true, except for the fact that magic doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean that vinyl sounds objectively better. It doesn’t. In fact, in terms of fidelity, it’s pretty horrible. But despite that, I love my growing vinyl collection because I love the ritual of playing it.

There’s also the point that the easy accessibility of music these days makes music easier to dismiss, more disposable. And that may be true. But it doesn’t mean that easily accessible music must necessarily sound worse.

There’s a lot we can do as music lovers to improve the quality of the sound we hear. Better digital-to-analog converters are essential. Better preamps and amplifiers are crucial. Better headphones and speakers are a must.

But more than that, what we really need are better, more consistent music masters. I recently opined to a friend of mine that the new Led Zeppelin re-releases are the first remasters I’ve heard in ages that sounded better than the original. Most remastered albums these days are sadly tweaked to sound better and more impactful on those crappy earbuds and laptop speakers that Shinoda and I bemoan. And that, to me, is a far greater problem.

One last example to illustrate that point and I’ll end my rant.

Nirvana’s Nevermind is, to me, one of the greatest albums ever released. Not the pinnacle of fidelity or anything—you certainly won’t hear it pouring out of $50,000 speakers at the next Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. But I’ll take it any day over anything Diana Krall every released.

The album was recently remastered by Bob Ludwig and put out in 96kHz/24-bit digital form. Which, of course, I purchased on immediately. (I may not have a grudge against mp3, but I love me some high-resolution music, too.) Compared to the original CD release (ripped in my preferred 256VBR mp3 format), though, the new high-resolution remaster of Nevermind sounded flat, lifeless, dynamically compressed. There’s not a speck of detail in that 4390kbps file that’s missing from its ~256kbps counterpart. The higher resolution file is, on the other hand, missing a lot of the punch and range of Butch Vig and Howie Weinberg’s original CD (and resulting mp3 rip). The mp3 is sonically superior in every way. And the difference is the master.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about The Disortion of Sound. I absolutely agree that fidelity has taken a backseat to quality when it comes to the way most people listen to music. And I agree that it’s enough of a problem that there should be new documentaries made on the subject matter on a weekly basis. But let’s stop picking on the poor mp3 format, okay? It’s improved leaps and bounds over the past decade, and when it comes to crappy sound, it’s the least of our problems right now.