I received an email from one of my former students this morning. His name is Rob Marshall and he was an exceptionally talented and motivated audio student while studying at CSU Dominguez Hills, although he had already had considerable experience and was somewhat older than the rest of the students. He wrote to tell me about a documentary that he recently worked on entitled “The Distortion of Sound”. It’s a documentary on the state of the music industry, the downward spiral in fidelity caused by highly compressed music (MP3), and the fact that artists and producers are unhappy about the sound of their productions as played in portable devices and ear buds.
The film features a bunch of very high profile artists, audio professionals and music producers including Quincy Jones, Slash, Snoop Dog, Hans Zimmer, Mike Shinoda, Lianne La Havas, Kate Nash, A. R. Rahman Dan the Automator, Manny Marroquin, Andrew Sheps, Neil Strauss, Dr. Sean Olive, Greg Timbers and Chris Ludwig. The film lasts about 22 minutes. It was sponsored by Harman and will become part of the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. You can watch the film at on YouTube or at the film’s website (Click here).
It’s definitely worth watching. The focus is on celebrities lamenting the loss of emotion and soul in reproduced music AND the blame is clearly put on the data compression techniques that reduce the file size of a music file by as much as 90%. Algorithms like MP3 and AAC remove parts of the overall sound that won’t be missed by the average consumer…and no technology yet devised can get those components back.
The second part presents a brief “history of recorded music” and takes us along a timeline starting the 60s with vinyl LPs, to 8-tracks in the 70s, to cassettes in the 80s and finally CD in the 90s. Then the MP3 arrived in the 2000s, portability became important and music quality suffered. The communication and emotional link between the artist and consumer was severed when the music business switched from physical media to low fidelity highly compressed files.
I was somewhat dismayed when they attempted to make the point about “compression” and changed the focus from data compression technologies (MP3 etc) to amplitude compression. As singer/songwriter Lianne La Havas sings one of her songs, the lower third of the screen has a moving graphic showing the uncompressed waveform of the associated audio. After a few moments, the compressor is turned on, the waveform goes almost completely flat and the perceived volume is suddenly lowered. The second example does the same thing again only this time the music is rock and roll with crashing drums and loud guitars. The “compressed” example is crushed, hugely distorted and almost unrecognizable as the original uncompressed version.
Figure 1 – Screen grab from the film “Distortion of Sound” showing amplitude compression being applied to tune.
They lost me right there. It was not an accurate portrayal of what happens during the recording production process. The Lianne La Havas tune was lovely in the uncompressed format but would never be released like that. The normal mastering process would have brought the peaks down and brought the overall volume up. As for the rock tune, they went so far off the mark; it takes away from their message. Too bad. The opportunity was there and they bent the truth to make the “distortion” clearly obvious. It might have been better to play a low bit rate MP3 vs. a CD spec version. Think back to the “Mosaic” articles that I wrote recently.
I should download an album by any of the artists represented in the film and evaluate the dynamic range of their creations. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the usual highly mastered, flat tunes that they say they don’t want.
Kate Nash delivers the question that we’re left with at the end of the film. She says, “I don’t want my name associated with low quality things. If I were in control, I would want it to be the highest quality possible. I don’t understand why it isn’t, really. Why isn’t it? Who’s got the answer to that?”
The film asks the question but doesn’t provide the answer to that question or any of the other ones posed in the 22-minute film. There are answers…and it’s squarely on the artists, producers, engineers and labels to “bring sound quality back”. This is not a problem of MP3 compressed files anymore…it’s the standards that the labels demand that is destroying fidelity.