Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Higher Resolution Revolution - MP3s Are Not The Way To Do Business With Record Reviewers

"This whole re-mastering process is a result of listening to Led Zeppelin on MP3. It almost sounds as if someone has got into the master tapes and done a really horrendous mix of it," Page said of the MP3 versions in a recent interview. "It just wasn't representative of what we'd done in the first place. So many textures were missing. The whole beauty of Led Zeppelin, the air of it, these instruments coming in here and here and over here, was just totally destroyed." ~ Jimmy Page

I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I no longer have much desire to listen to mp3 files. They are a bastardization of music, and not something I wish to inflict upon myself anymore than I absolutely must.

I'm not sure where the slippery slope began, and I'm not sure that it even really matters. Somewhere along the line we all accepted a false premise and promise, and we were taken for a ride. In the desire for convenience and a deal, we lost sight of why we fell in love with music, exactly what it is supposed to sound like, and maybe more importantly, how it can make us feel. How it should make us feel.

Several weeks ago, I was given a PONO Music Player to listen to and evaluate, and it has turned into an experience that seems to me to not be unlike that of a man waking up from a coma. All of a sudden I am hearing and experiencing music in a way that is much closer to how the artists intended their music be heard, and the difference is as often as not like night and day. I'll be the first to admit that I have fallen far off the path, and that I have bought the lies and deceptions promised by those who foist mp3 files upon the world.

The entities who deal in the realm of the mp3 have promised great sounding music to go along with their convenience and cost, but in reality what they deliver is about as healthy as a Twinkie. I now realize why I have been becoming increasingly burned out by new music, but it's not the music at all, it's the delivery system.

I listen to a lot of new music - I'd guess that about forty to fifty new releases cross my desk in any given week, and ninety-five percent of those come to me in the form of mp3s. In the case of my not being able to receive a stream with which to review an album, I have often utilized Spotify, a service I abhor for their piss poor way of paying artists, but that has often came in handy when I wanted to support and write about an artist, and there was no other way that was convenient for me to access the music. I've just switched over to TIDAL High Fidelity Music Streaming for their greatly improved sound quality. I'd love to just buy a copy of everything I write about, but that is a fiscal impossibility, and a financial burden that I should not have to bear as a journalist. So, I've gotten used to mp3s. They are everywhere, and it takes great effort to avoid them. Then I literally woke up one day and realized I'd been listening to shit.

This awakening began some time ago - I had spent an afternoon with a friend near Los Angeles, sipping scotch and listening to a very cool variety of music that was delivered in high resolution. After a long period of listening to music in ways not conducive to an ideal audio experience, it was like having blinders taken off. I knew there was a huge difference, but the demands of the world quickly thrust me back into my bad habits. Then after months of anticipation I had the opportunity to experience Neil Young's PONO music player, and it was then that I became fully awake. All of a sudden I was hearing material that I had been intimately acquainted with in the past - musical details, such as the precise sound of a snare drum, or the nuances of vibrato in a singer's voice or a guitar player's notes. The tails of reverbs that producers had lovingly applied, the full effect of harmony vocals, and sometimes even the reappearance of instruments such as a Hammond organ that had somehow melded with the guitars when a track's data was just too compressed. The bass guitar became an instrument of great subtlety again after being reduced to a low rumble that often clashed with drums, guitars, and voices.

I realize that much of this proliferation of substandard sound is the bastard child of an economic situation, and I can understand and appreciate why this has happened, but I no longer feel much desire to review records in the form of mp3s. I'm not meaning to pick on anyone here, but to have to review the new Toto album based upon source material that only lets me see a sliver of what is actually there is not really a cool situation (I did it, but how can my writing exist at a quality level any better than that to which I am listening?). As someone who has to listen to a great deal of music, I don't want to be ingesting the equivalent of junk food as a main part of my diet. I don't want to be burned out when I go to listen to your record, and I want to be able to write about it from a fresh and healthy perspective - this is almost a work safety issue in my mind. Too much toxicity, and I'm not functioning as I should.

I can't tell you how many times in the past month I have listened to something again that I may have recently heard via mp3, but in a higher quality format, and I've been shocked by the difference. And, the best part of the whole high resolution premise is ultimately not just how it sounds, but how it makes you feel. To be palpably effected by music is a beautiful thing, and I'm a little embarrassed to say that I needed to be reminded of that, but like I said, this digression has slowly, and almost imperceptibly eased its way into our lives. Now it just needs to be eased out of mine.

I'm not saying that I have decided to absolutely say that I won't review records based on mp3 files, but I will definitely be much less likely to review music in this format. I'll send a link of this article to all my many friends and associates at labels, public relations firms, etc... When I do this, I will request that whenever possible I expect to be able to at least hear a CD quality representation of the material. I wouldn't want to do what is the equivalent of a restaurant review based upon leftovers, would you? I want to be able to continue to do my very best to support the artists and the music that I choose to write about, and I feel that this is the best way for me to be able to do this.

I'm not saying that mp3 files don't have a valid place in the world. For me, they are roughly the equivalent of the cassette tape of the past, and that's fine for casual listening on the go, but that's just not what I do. I've never owned an iPod, I don't listen to music on my phone, and I don't really think an artist would want me to write about their fine works in such a manner. If I'm a snob, or considered to be so, that's fine, but my love of music comes from music supplying nutrients that my soul requires, and I have recently discovered that my regular diet has left me in a condition less than optimal to do my work.

I am in a very fortuitous position - I realize that I am often entrusted with the labors of an artists work, sometimes before anyone outside the artist's own organization, and I take that responsibility very seriously, and I want to be able to deliver my opinions based upon a true representation of the work. With mp3 files, I have lost confidence in my ability to do so. I'm not suggesting that you should abandon your mp3s, but I would strongly recommend that you do some investigative listening on your own, if only to see if that original feeling and reason you fell in love with rock 'n' roll can't be again reignited - I was shocked to find out what I was missing, and I've been joyous to discover once again some feelings that had slipped away so silently in the night.

I look forward to seeing the reception this receives.  


gman said...

Hi Tony.I am not sure you can answer this but do you think that Pono hooked up to a factory car stereo would sound better than a cd by any significance ?
Also wondering if using headphones how expensive a headphone so you need to get the full effect of Pono?

gman said...

Also I agree with your stand on reviewing using mp3s

Tony Conley said...

Gman, if your car stereo has an input for an external source, yeah, I do think the PONO will sound better than a CD - mind you, it will only be as good as your amp and speakers. Even CDs that I have loaded onto the PONO sound better than they do on my iMac because of the better components used in the PONO. However, if I were you, I'd want to hear it in this format before I spent a dime. I would think you'd have to be sure. I always encourage people to try it for themselves, and not to just take someone's word.

gman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gman said...

Hi Tony.I came from a time when people who loved music spent big bucks on stereo systems.It seems that quality of sound has become less important.I do think that outside of cost, the portability of having 10,000 songs in the palm of your hand has trumped the quality aspect.I am interested in Pono and maybe it is a revolution in the music biz?