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I heard complaints from Neil Young recently about the quality of audio files - mp3s and the likes - and wondered does it really matter? I think that beyond an acceptable level of reproduction nobody cares much about sound quality other than audiophiles and snobs. The extent to which fidelity is a factor in the appreciation of recorded music drops off sharply at a certain point and is of little importance thereafter. Audio technology has long since reached that drop off point. The differences between this sample rate or that one, between higher and lower bit rates, between an mp3 and a wav, are relatively subtle. They are differences that few are fussed about or even notice.

Few care or notice because music is about so much more than sound. It’s about a lot of things not least emotion, imagination, identity, connection and shared experience. In other words it’s about a myriad of cultural and personal factors. The sonic content itself is only a part of the broader context in which music operates. The quality of audio reproduction plays an even lesser part. So when Neil Young goes on a mission to improve the common sound file he takes on an unimportant task. So does iTunes when it offers up a service allowing mastering engineers to make allowances for file conversion losses.

We are informed that when you record at a high tech spec, say 24/96 in the jargon, by the time it goes to a CD the sonic content reduces to 16/44.1 which, I read the other day, amounts to only 15% of the original. A further conversion to mp3 and it’s down to 3% apparently. Now, it seems an outrage that a carefully crafted work could be so compromised. One might start to wonder how incredible sounding was the original for it to have been so diminished to a fraction of its former self. Actually it would not have sounded that much different. The 3% figure is misleading. It may be mathematically true but not true experientially. File conversion is intelligent and is designed to reduce file size while maintaining the integrity of the original. Only the fussiest of audiophiles are bothered by that. It looks worse on paper than it plays out in practice.

Fussiness is fine for the audiophile. It’s his stock and trade. But too much of it can be problematic for the music-maker who has to know when to stop perfecting. Fine-tuning to the nth degree becomes like a seismometer: so sensitive that the slightest movement registers as a tectonic shift. You have to back off from that. Studio people - producers, engineers et al - need to have flexible ears not all of them requiring attention to detail. Having an instinct for the overall aesthetic of a music recording along with a feel for the context within which it is engaged is just as valuable. These other aspects are every bit as crucial, maybe more so, as sample and bit rates.

When music recordings leave their domain - what Neil Young refers to as “further down the donkey” - a different set of values kick in that are both complex and unpredictable. Technical perfection is then less important. Depending on the circumstance there is always a degradation in the fidelity of a production compared to the studio master. Cassette tapes, back when they were ubiquitous, were unfaithful to their pristine originals; the early quality of gramophones would be unlistenable now. Yet neither of these factors prevented previous generations from having full appreciation of the art. The difference between the original and the copy these days is so much less than before and exists to a degree that is inconsequential.

Of course I’m not saying that audio professionals shouldn’t themselves work to the highest technical standards. I’m not suggesting that the meticulous, detailed work done by caring studio folk is irrelevant. I’m one of these people myself and spend an awful lot of time fussing over sound. I am hugely admiring of engineers both technical and musical whose contributions are of the essence. And not to forget the sound designers down the decades who have made audio recording possible, that near miraculous medium through which most music is accessed. These people are salt of the earth and I can’t praise them enough. I’m just arguing here for a proper perspective and I suppose also having a little dig at hi-fi snobs and their air of superiority, a pose which contributes very little either to the art or its appreciation. And while I’m having a dig, I may as well dig some more. If I positioned any average music lover blindfold in front of a pair of high-end monitors and played the same recording in all the various formats used today the person would not be able to tell the difference with any degree of consistency. I’ll stick my neck out further and say that the audiophile probably wouldn’t be able to tell either.

As for Neil Young, I love his music and have done since the golden years of the early 70s. Actually I think his lasting appeal might be partly due to his being a bit rough at the edges. That his great records aren’t exactly works of technical perfection either sonically or any other way is some of their attraction. In that sense, perhaps Neil is more of a 16-bit guy, more lo-fi than hi, more about feel than techy excellence. Personally I wouldn’t care much listening to After The Gold Rush whether with the vinyl crackling, the cassette tape hiss, or the mp3 degradation. It’s not what’s important. The medium is only the carrier, it’s not the work itself. It’s not what matters to the 99% of us outside the elite of audiophilia.

written 2012 after Young announced he was going to be

involved in the manufacture of a new high quality audio player



music • 25.02.12