Manic compression: it's killing rock'n'roll -- but the kids like it
They say you know you're getting older when you notice how young the guards look. Similarly, in music, nothing shows up the generation gap more than one's approach to new technology.
When vinyl found itself outmanoeuvred by the shiny plastic charms of compact discs in the mid-'80s, some music-lovers lamented the demise of the needle, and the damage done by the new digital age of laser-guided melody. Where was the static that gave vinyl recordings so much of their personality, wondered the phonograph fanatics. It had become just a handful of dust.
Now the unstoppable rise of the MP3 has widened the gap still further, so it's the turn of the CD to feel like Cinderella's arthritic granny, while anyone still waxing on about the 'v' word seems, like, so last millennium. Get with the format!
The debate came into sharp focus last week when a music professor in America published a new study which revealed that today's iPod generation prefers the trebly, reedy sound of digital music to the fuller, grainy sound of vinyl. Jonathan Berger, an academic at Stanford University in California, conducted an experiment where he noted the preferences of his students for the different music formats over the course of eight years.
Berger concluded that young people who have grown up with the iPod as their main music player, and who regularly download music files from the internet, prefer the tinnier sound of MP3s. "I found not only that MP3 were not thought of as low quality, but over time there was a preference for MP3s," he said.
Previously, it had been thought that iPod people were quite aware of the superior sound quality of high fidelity vinyl, but were willing to compromise for the sake of convenience. Given that so many of us now listen to music while we're on the move, conventional wisdom had it that we were willing to do a deal with the digital devil in the full knowledge that we were missing out on the bells and whistles.
But the fish that has never seen the sea thinks the well a fine ocean. A whole new generation of people is emerging who have no vinyl skeletons in their cupboards. Having had so little experience of hearing music with the low-end and high-end frequencies still intact, they find that they have no appetite for it when it is dished up for them.
Musicologists have pointed out how the scrunched-up digital compression of MP3 files flattens out the see-sawing waves of sound that vinyl accommodates, in favour of a straight horizontal line. This means that subtle variations in the texture, tone and timbre of the recorded music are lost. What we're left with is homogenised splodgy gruel. Hearing a musical masterpiece in this format is, as one critic put it, like visiting Venice in fog.
The consequence is that today's producers record music differently than in the past, so that it can fit easily onto an MP3 file. It's a case of "honey, I shrunk the frequencies". This allows the studio boffins to record at higher volumes, so they invariably turn it up to 11 as matter of course. Just listen to many of today's high-profile rock albums -- certain records can leave you feeling exhausted after only a few songs because the recording levels are so high. The listener just feels like he's taken a pummelling; it's a case of numb and number.
As ace producer Stephen Street -- who's worked with everyone from The Smiths to Babyshambles -- put it: "There's a constant race to be louder than other people's records. What you are hearing is that everything is being squared off and is losing that level of depth and clarity. I'd hate to think that anything I'd slaved over in a studio is only going to be listened to on a bloody iPod."
Street's fear is, I suspect, an everyday reality. As for me, my vinyl collection is stored in my parents' garage, like a saint's bones in a mausoleum. I just don't have the living space for it any more. But I can't bring myself to part with such a cherished part of my formative years.
I still remember the thrill I got when accompanying a friend, who was scouting for a new stereo system, into a hi-fi store. He wanted to test out the shop's dizzying array of amps, turntables and speakers for himself.
I brought with me a vinyl copy of one of my favourite albums from that time -- Gladsome, Humour And Blue by Martin Stephenson and The Daintees -- for the shop assistant to play on the respective turntables in the store.
It was a marvel to hear how the same song could sound so different depending on the different makes and grades of stereo; this one bright, that one accentuating the bass. Then we reached the top of the range -- this time the stereo appeared to separate all the instruments from each other so that it felt like the band was actually playing in the room. And I was hearing nuances in the music that I'd never heard before. I stood there open-jawed.
In iPod-land, we're half a world away from the purity of that musical experience. The new-fangled MP3s are by comparison pale, sickly and neutered. But this new study has shown that the kids wouldn't have it any other way -- when offered the best dish on the menu, they respond "Let us eat cake!" It's a funny old rock'n'roll world.