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On CDs & MP3s (& Other Old Formats)

Young and fresh on the scene, you were the best thing ever and we all loved you.

Young and fresh on the scene, you were the best thing ever and we all loved you. But as time went on, they tried to replace you with some dazzling new competition. You bravely held on for decades, but today they talk about you as if you’re over, finished … and it’s true, your time has passed. And look at what’s replaced you: some cheap and easy floozy, who doesn’t even hold a candle to you!

Lossy/Lousy — Waiting for MP3’s Ultimate Replacement
I’m not talking about an aging starlet … I’m talking about the beleaguered CD and her more popular successor, the MP3. I’ve tried and tried to embrace lossy data compression (with its easy distribution and time-saving compactness), but I can’t. I don’t care if they’re smaller, I don’t care if they’re faster, I don’t care if they’re easier: MP3s sound bad, and I’m sick of hearing them.

The thing is, I’m an audio engineer and I only care about sound quality. If I don’t, no one will — it’s my job. I don’t care nearly as much about the music industry, or faster uploads or instant worldwide distribution. My focus calls for maximizing sound quality and the wonderful emotional effect a killer recording has on minds and hearts.

MP3s sound so lousy that you can tell them even on radio, despite FM’s limited dynamic range, narrow bandwidth and prevalent distortion. Don’t try turning to satellite radio for hi-fi relief: They’re using lossy compression there, too — sometimes with reasonable success, more often than not with those telltale compressed abstractions: a lack of distinction and separation in the bottom end, that modulating “chirpy” distortion on hi-hats or that veiled murkiness across the high mids (not to mention the oddly distorted vocal sibilance evidenced by poorly encoded MP3s).

I was hoping that “the cloud” revolution held promise, but it seems to be just more of the same. With Muve Music, Spotify (the latter of which uses 320 kbps data rates, an effort towards quality at least) and others, I can surf through vast oceans of music, always wondering if “the kick is supposed to blend with the bass like that” or “is this veiled ‘color’ that I’m hearing ‘in-the-mix’ or in the encoding?”

I’ll end this particular rant with the satisfaction of knowing that in time, the MP3 will be remembered as a briefly transitional format. As our data pipelines get bigger, processors get faster, hard drives evolve and the public hungers for something new, we will find uncompressed data, “premium audio” soon widely sold. The good ol’ stereo CD wasn’t supplanted by superior DVD-A, SACD or surround sound, as those formats all required new equipment and expense.

The format of the future will be easy/breezy for pampered modern consumers: 24-bit, 44.1 kHz (or higher) WAV files, no data compression, no physical media, whether streamed or “in the cloud” or “in your box” and compatible/sync-able with all your devices. Hi-fi with low hassles. Then finally, there will be a worthwhile successor to the CD.

I’ll Miss the Compilation CD
As we enter the second era of the prevalence of “the single” — with the advent of music streaming as the preferred means of music consumption and the social-network swapped “playlist” as the vehicle of that consumption — the relevance of the CD rapidly diminishes. In particular, this obvious trend makes me realize how much I will miss the compilation CD.

The aforementioned playlist will nicely replace the comp CD for insight into national trends of style and shifts in production methodology, but it’s the local comp CD that I find particularly useful to modern-minded engineers and producers. For those of you with broader production realms (those who generally produce for national and international consumption), there may be no local element to your work or success. Yet for many others, working with local and regional musicians is our bread and butter. Many studios and engineers now court and acquire business from all around the globe (this is increasingly prevalent amongst mastering engineers), but a local scene presence is still a useful, if not necessary, ingredient for post-recession survival and success.

I occasionally get to mix and/or master such local comp CDs, which are a treasure trove of valuable information. One might think that a lot of production work all sounds the same today, with the omnipresence of quantizing, pitch correcting and sound replacement; yet, quite to the contrary, the breadth of diversity out there is staggering. The sheer number of styles and subgenres that peacefully coexist, with each one taking only a small slice of market share in the big picture, is so much higher than ever before. The profoundly different audio balances and tonal diversity, even when comparing copatriots within a single narrow genre, is surprisingly varied.

Some folks are pumping up bottom end like you wouldn’t believe, unrestrained by vinyl groove limitations or tape saturation. Others have top-end sizzle and a lean bottom that requires diving for EQ controls in comparison. And mids? Don’t even get me started. They’re all over the place!

But everybody has slamming mix levels, right? Nope, not even close. Some superstars have volume and clarity that you’d guess was 2 dB hotter at peak than everybody else (which is, of course, impossible with zero dBFS being the limit). Conversely, some masters are all dense and dynamic range reduced, but with max peaks at only -6 dB FS! Are such engineers trying to match average levels with traditionally less dense productions? Are they trying to not overload consumer DACs on playback? Are they relying on the “average level matching” often used by streaming distributors and broadcasters? Curious, isn’t it? Rarely, I even see songs that peak at zero but are entirely dynamic and wildly unrestrained. Who would’ve thunk it!

Even though careful inspection of the audio on these comp CDs with real-time spectrum analyzers, precise meters and polarity reversal may raise more questions than answers, the study of such variety and diversity is an important aspect of modern audio awareness. (You’d be shocked at the amount of phase cancellation often found in reverb returns and multiple-miked instruments.)

While you still have the chance, check out a local comp, using the sounds contained within to stay informed and relevant of your place in your own audio scene.

Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording and a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.