Before I go on about how little you hear and how much you miss when you listen to your music on MP3 or AAC files — the skinny remains of recordings — let’s share a coffee break.
Not very long ago, a good many people started their day with something called instant coffee. It looked like coffee in your cup, but the resemblance largely ended there. It had no aroma. It had no body. It tasted like water flavored with coffee. It was only a facsimile of the real thing, but people thought it was good enough. Millions loved it and enjoyed it every day.
Why? Because instant coffee was convenient. Back then, in order to enjoy the real thing, you had to use a percolator or go through the trouble of boiling water. Both were time consuming and messy in comparison to instant. Then in 1972, a couple of guys from Cleveland invented a faster way to make real coffee; a machine that dripped heated water through coffee grounds into a pot. They came up with the genius name of Mr. Coffee and hired Joe DiMaggio to hawk it on TV. I remember Joltin’ Joe smiling at me from a 19″ RCA even before I was old enough to drink coffee.
Mr. Coffee’s brew wasn’t very good by today’s standards (though they’re still on the market), but it was miles better than instant, and just about as convenient. It didn’t take long for consumers to remember what real coffee tasted like, and by the end of the decade, Mr. Coffee owned half of the U.S. market. Imitators and surpassing technologies soon arrived. Real coffee became as convenient as instant. Today, there’s a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts everywhere you look. Hardly anyone drinks instant coffee anymore. Why would they? Would you?
That’s pretty much how I feel about lossy music like MP3 and AAC. Why would you listen to it if you had a choice and could listen to the real thing, with no loss in convenience?
Convenience is good; it’s nice to have your music collection immediately accessible, even from your pants pocket. It’s also nice not to have to fumble for a disc that you haven’t filed properly. It’s especially nice to not have to flip a record every 25 minutes or so. But just as real coffee became more practical through technology, real music recordings — the full monty, all the stuff that the artist, the producer and the engineer signed off on — are now practical and convenient through hi res audio.
What about the CD, you say? Isn’t that the real thing? Well, yes it was (and continues to be), but in its way, the CD was very much like the invention of Mr. Coffee. You could get the real thing more conveniently, and for many people, CDs were (and continue to be) eminently satisfying. But like Joltin’ Joe’s java machine, there were (and are) limitations to the CD. The musical brew simply isn’t as full and rich as it can be.
Mr. Coffee didn’t (and doesn’t) really give you all the flavor of coffee; not all of the grounds you put in its paper filter get used. This is a big reason why it no longer owns half of its market. People wanted its convenience, but also wanted a better end product; thus the rise of Cuisinart, Krups and a hundred others.
CDs can be fairly described in the same way. The format captures most of the music, but not really all of it. CDs were designed to make playback more convenient, and with fewer drawbacks. No more flipping records. No more scratched or off-center LPs. No more pops or crackling in the vinyl, no surface noise, or if you liked cassettes, no more tape hiss. In exchange for these benefits, people were happy to dump their inconvenient (yes, they’re inconvenient) LPs and cassettes and replace their music collections with CDs. The music industry happily obliged.
With the Internet age, new challenges for music. Napster (1999) and legitimate successors showed us how easy it could be to click your mouse and get music delivered to you without a disc at all. The iPod (2001) delighted us with its convenience; your music collection could now go with you anywhere. Great advances, maybe even too advanced for those early days of the web. Back then, most of us were stuck with slow dial-up Internet connections. To get a whole CD’s worth of music could mean hours of download time. Since it would be years before fast broadband Internet service would be ubiquitous, another solution was needed.
Enter MP3, a type of data compression for media first used publicly in 1995, and its eventual refinement, AAC, which showed up 2 years later. They both performed a neat trick, reducing the size of a digital file so much that obtaining music over slow Internet connections was now possible. The trick wasn’t magic so much as simple math; to make them this small, they simply threw away most of the original data, sometimes as much as 90% of it. Fifteen years ago, when there were dial-up connections and storage was an issue, these were necessary breakthroughs. Now that fast broadband, even from your cell phone, is commonplace, not to mention gigabytes of storage and cloud services, they’re no longer needed. Or wanted, in my view.
Despite being old technology, developed to solve a problem that no longer really exists, those convenient-but-inferior MP3 and AAC music files are what most people listen to. Virtually every download service is based on one of these technologies. It’s like everyone’s stuck drinking instant all over again.
Both MP3 and AAC achieve their
brutal impressive economy by simply discarding music that an algorithm thinks you won’t miss. Depending on what you’re listening to, you might be hearing as little as 10% of the original artist’s quality. This is not file “compression.” This is file reduction. The musical equivalent of instant coffee.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t drink the stuff, and I won’t listen to it either. Now, with high resolution audio, I don’t have to, and neither do you.
In the next installment, we’ll talk about how those algorithms abuse, degrade and denude your favorite music. After all, that’s what they’ve been designed to do, only nicely. When you get a load of what’s happening to your music, you’ll see (and hear) MP3 and AAC files for the weak, watery experience that they really offer. I’m betting you won’t want to settle for them either.