The debate regarding preferred audio format, between vinyl, CD, and MP3 as the three most popular medium today, usually comes down to two factors: Convenience, and Quality. Naturally, MP3s will always win out the convenience factor as the most portable format available. D’uh. But when it comes to quality, there are shades of differences and conditions that usually throw LPs and CDs into a mix between good and bad, but MP3 is generally regarded as the lowest quality of audio reproduction due to its high compression and excessive volume. And some people like it that way.
According to a study at Stanford University, there is a trend among the newer generations of audiences who prefer the quality of an MP3 over that of CDs and vinyl records. Professor Johnathan Berger has surveyed his students for the past six years by offering music samples to them on different formats varying in quality. The study has found that every year there is an increase in favor of Mp3s. Professor Berger claims that younger listeners are used to what he calls a ‘percussive sizzle’ — a distortion commonly heard in most MP3 copies — as an assumption that this is what the music is supposed to sound like. Similarly, Berger hypothesizes that with the rise of Internet Radio along with sites like Pandora and Last.fm, the preference in music quality is assimilating with the convenience factor; listeners are adjusting to the fidelity they are most used to due to the format that they are more likely to listen to.
While this is of no particular shock to me, I was surprised when I read that the preference for highly compressed MP3 is highest for rock fans.
On one hand, this is perhaps a result of rock’s general trait to rely in distortion anyway. If audiences are used to the distortions of MP3, what difference would it make compared to music that’s already heavily distorted? Similarly, as pop music today is becoming more similar to dance and techno music, are digital glitches noticable when the music is based in electronic distortion anyway? It can be argued that, thanks to hip-hop DJs, we’ve grown accustomed to glitches in our music as they innovated scratching, skipping, and tone shifting. Furthermore, with more people listening to music on their computers’ internal speakers, we’re tolerating the tinny, lower-quality or so the trend suggests.
Yet it’s a disturbing trend to me to hear that rock fans are not hearing what they’re supposed to be hearing. While producers are relying on increasing the volume for the sake of the low quality of MP3 player headphones, artists who actually work hard on their compositions suffer the differences. Even while Billy Corgan’s stuff has always been amongst the more heavily distorted rock out there, the guitars are still layered in such a way that shows his craft of noise itself. The same goes for artists like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Autolux, Sonic Youth, and other experimental bands.
The tragedy to me, however, is that more fans are missing out on the subtleties of music that is naturally more quiet and relies on layered compositions. Imagine Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” without the motorcycle-steady bass line, because the MP3 quality tends to highlight the highs of the saxophone and rhythm guitar. Even the subtleties of Television’s guitar work, especially in “Marquee Moon” would be completely lost, even as it depends on distortion and effects. But a world without the jazzy approach of Love’s “Forever Changes?” Not a world I want to live in.
Each format, and their flaws, have their charms, but where appropriate. Many people who prefer vinyl over all other formats usually cite the ‘warmth’ they feel in hearing the dust and crackle of an LP as one of their favorite qualities about the format. Naturally, this is usually an effect you’ll hear on a dusty needle on a record that’s been played a few times. For example, when I play a record that’s never been released, there’s no click or hiss like there is with my older albums. But if someone were to reproduce their vinyl into a digital copy — an increasingly popular activity among vinyl lovers who would like more portable copies of their rare albums — the glitches of the record being reproduced into the high compression of an MP3 becomes unnatural and more noticable. For instance, I recently picked up a compilation from The Weeds, released on WayBack Records. Comparatively, I also picked up “Too Much Noise” by We the People, released on the Sundazed. Both of these bands have never had music available on compact disc before, and were previously only available on vinyl. Anyone who’s bought a Sundazed record knows that Bob Irwin, the label’s owner, painstakingly produces each CD copy of these albums so that they sound as clean and as fresh as if they were just opened for the first time and played with a clean needle. His work can only be described as immaculate. Comparatively, the Weeds record on CD is clean in most parts, but in others, the producers let laziness get the best of them, and decided to keep the vinyl distortions — a constant crackle and hiss, as if the record was warped in one part. As a result, the album is more of a challenge to listen to, simply because I’m not used to the lower quality that I don’t expect on CD.
Perhaps the lesson here is that we’re willing to tolerate lower quality for various reasons, and that more serious music lovers and audiophiles will go out of their way to hear everything in the highest fidelity possible. This has always been the case. However, as a trend, it is disturbing to hear that more people are willing to trade lower fidelity for the music they supposedly love and appreciate, especially among college students who thrive on the consumption and absolute immersion of culture and media.