The Kids Are Alright (and so are their MP3s)


Vinyl Fetish
I spent four semesters of grad school as a teaching assistant for History of Popular Music, 1950s-Present. The class had a tendency to dwell on the first thirty or so years of the proposed sixty-five-ish, causing the last weeks of the semester to get juuuuust a little compressed*, but the professor always saved the last day for his traditional farewell lecture: an invective against MP3s and YouTube compression. He would give a brief description of analog audio recordings vs digital, rail on Apple ear buds, play a variety of samples to showcase different degrees of YouTube compression, and show the hazards of wanton ripping/compression, among other things.

Of course, the end goal of this “scared straight” style presentation was really to get students thinking hard about audio fidelity. Many of them were raised listening to heavily compressed music on YouTube and/or ripped MP3s of dubious quality. But perhaps there were more important questions to pose. How did we arrive at the particular media formats that are in wide use? What is audio fidelity to the people manufacturing new types of media? Or how about, as Jonathan Sterne asks in MP3: the Meaning of a Format:

“In an age of ever-increasing bandwidth and processing power, why is there also a proliferation of lower-definition formats?”

These questions have many ways to be answered because there is no grand narrative of media formats. Formats do not simply edge closer and closer by degrees of mediation from reality. Nevertheless, we see this type of thinking all over the place. Especially in regards to branding and marketing for new formats and platforms.

and Playstation 1 begat Playstation 2, Playstation 2 begat Playstation 3...
…and Playstation 1 begat Playstation 2, Playstation 2 begat Playstation 3…

Mediality and Compression
This brings us to the concept of mediality. Sterne describes this as “a quality of or pertaining to media and the complex ways in which communication technologies refer to one another in form or content.” Essentially, it means that media formats naturally cross-reference one another in a variety of ways and that each medium is shaped by a unique history that involves aspects of both technological and cultural practices, among other things. Sterne presents the 74-minute compact disc as an example; sources claim that the design and storage capacity of the CD were meant to mimic the size and portability of the then-popular cassette tape.

How exactly does this relate to the proliferation of the MP3 (and other lower-definition formats)? Well, without going into a tremendous amount of detail, the MP3 can be situated within a tradition of compression. That is, the development of ways to spread information efficiently to the widest area possible. Lossless compression involves redundant data stored in a sort of shorthand that is read by an encoder and reconstructed without any, well, loss. Lossy compression does the same thing, but also permanently cuts out information that is deemed to be of lesser importance.

This is where my old professor’s lecture comes in. Audiophiles freak out about MP3s because you are actually losing aspects of the performance (such as dynamic range), as well as occasionally introducing artifacts (such as pre- and post-echoes). Still, you can’t complain with how nice ‘n’ svelte these files are!

The Bright Side of Things
So, perhaps my professor was right about some things, but isn’t there a way to add a more positive spin to his lecture?

To again borrow from Sterner:

“Compression also allows media content to proliferate in new directions, where it might not otherwise have gone. Innovation in digital technology tends towards finding new sites, contexts, and uses for file compression, rather than eliminating them.”

There we go! Compression led to innovations like streaming on Netflix and putting annoying MP3 ringtones on our phones. Or how about the wild success of YouTubers or Twitch streamers? These new forms of broadcast content can quickly be produced on the cheap, receive feedback, and be tweaked accordingly. [Is this starting to sound like a lean startup methodology pep talk for creative types?] A high quality video that is five minutes long could easily be around 50 gigs in size, so downloading would be a chore; compression algorithms can reduce this file to a tiny fraction of this size and make it easy to stream.

The GIF also provides some wonderful examples: Reaction GIFS, cinemagraphs, and other types of GIF art (such as the output of Peekasso). In the case of the Reaction GIF, the practice became so widely adopted that Facebook now allows users to directly embed Reaction GIFs in messages—and there is even a small discovery platform that allows one to search for an appropriate GIF and view ones that are trending.

Whither MP3?
So why hasn’t the MP3 been supplanted yet? Perhaps, it can simply be attributed to people enjoying the various artifacts that appeared on the formats that were popular in their formative years. Each of these artifacts—the hiss of vinyl, the flatly compressed sound of 4-track recorder demos passed around by grunge bands, etc.—are now rich with meaning and referenced by new recordings. Why should it be any different for MP3s? Or perhaps it is the fact that MP3s are so widespread and people just don’t feel any pressure to switch to something else. This makes me think of Eppink’s history of the GIF and how he states that attempts to one-up the GIF have failed because companies often fail to understand the affordances that made the GIF successful. Could this be why people aren’t flocking to Jay-Z’s Tidal service? Why people aren’t going nuts over Neil Young’s PonoPlayer (which, judging from the list of Most Requested Resolution Upgrades, seems to attract only listeners who reject anything that doesn’t fit comfortably on a Classic Rock Commercial-Free Power Hour)? Who knows what the future may hold.

10 Replies to “The Kids Are Alright (and so are their MP3s)”

  1. Sterne talks a lot about how MP3s are basically boring and everywhere, without actually referring to them as infrastructure. But maybe that’s why MP3 haven’t yet been replaced, or acquired the kind of nostalgic aura that goes along with scarcity: They’re infrastructure that isn’t broken enough (yet???) for people to notice. Except the professor you worked with! Whose points about audio fidelity might be easily lost amid “old man yells at cloud.”

    1. Good points! That makes me wonder if the MP3’s connection to telephony will come back to haunt researchers in the future. There are technological innovations cropping up that allow today’s researchers to coax previously hidden information out of old artifacts (or high quality digital surrogates, if you don’t want to risk damaging the original), but could the lossy-ness of MP3s have thrown too much information out the window? Paraphrasing Sterne, psychoacoustics posits that perception and meaning can be disentangled; that’s a pretty non-musical consideration for a format being used to spread a lot of music.

      Well, maybe the MP3 won’t haunt all researchers–maybe just music historians interested in studying various aspects of this era’s music.

      1. Infrastructure is a good word. We are perhaps too invested in MP3s to see them go away yet. Over the years, I’ve collected records, tapes, CDs, and MP3s – I’m not sure I’m ready to start collecting music for the PonoPlayer. So yeah, maybe it’s not broken enough or we’re all just too tired to bother?

        You mention the lossy-ness of MP3s and the possibility of throwing too much information out the window. It reminds me of a photographer I know who saves every single one of his images from assignments as raw camera images. He accumulates terabyte, after terabyte of information on hard drives. Most of these photos will never be looked at again by him or anyone else. So, not to start any fights, but maybe MP3 files will be okay down the road for most things? Or maybe those music historians will be really ticked at us.

        1. Thinking a bit more about what will be of use to future music historians and users, I would be more concerned about preserving access to the working files used in recording studios, both professional and home (much in the same way that Pixar wanted to preserve the working files for Toy Story in that reading from waaaay back at the start of the semester). The majority of people use commercial digital audio workstations (DAWs) with tons of plug-ins when they create the initial work. Those DAW sessions could hold all the data that MP3s cut out, though there might be lots of preservation challenges down the road due to their commercial nature, plug-ins, etc. Still, lots of musicians might just be working with MP3s (mashup artists and such) or simply are not bothering to record in higher fidelity. I suppose that if there is a best site to obtain both high fidelity audio and the context in which many creators are doing their creating, it would be DAWs. But, as you say about your friend’s vast amounts of photographic data, there’s always a good chance that nobody will ever look at/listen to this stuff again!

    2. Asking if formats are infrastructure is really interesting. I think it potentially opens one of the things I still have trouble wrapping my head around. That is, formats are functionally more like protocols or rules, and in that way they are more like the specification for something than a thing themselves. That is, to see if something is correctly formatted is to validate that it meets the specifications for a format. So, where a bridge is a piece of infrastructure, the rules and conventions for far apart the white dotted lines should be for the road on the bridge are more like a format. I’m not entirely sure what I am saying is useful or helpful, but it’s part of my continued attempt to parse the differences between media, formats and platforms.

  2. What I found interesting about the MP3 discussion was how little it focused on the other factors – specifically earphones/speakers, as your professor has pointed out. I’ve been fighting a battle with my portable stereo system regarding some Paganini violin concertos. I listen to the same MP3s through the same headphones at my home that I am trying to do on the metro, but the quality of the head phones can’t overcome the ambient noise of the train. It falls directly in line with the discussion of telephony and what can the human ear recognize. However, most people would say that its because I’m trying to listen to classical music and classical music is bad on MP3 despite that these are new recordings engineered for the format. In effect, the file format is getting a bad reputation because generic quality headphones can’t handle ambient noise.

    1. Jeez, I can’t think of much that can overcome the ambient noise of the metro. I’ve definitely destroyed part of my hearing by gradually cranking the volume of my headphones to compete with the train, passengers, intercom, etc.

      On a side note, your mention of violin concertos and formats made me recall an interesting read by Mark Katz. In a Chapter from his book Capturing Sound (I believe Sterne referenced this book once or twice in our reading), he posits that violinists in the early twentieth-century adopted a continuos vibrato in their playing in order to have their performance be better captured by a phonograph–a machine that, like many others we read about this week, was not initially designed with music in mind. Though it can’t be proven 100%, it still is another interesting example of the influence that a format may have upon what it is documenting.

  3. This is an interesting subject, I think that the underlying argument here is quality vs ease of use/transfer. MP3s might have a lower quality that a CD or even a record due to compression but they do not even compare in the ease of use/transfer. A MP3, and compressed files as whole, allows you to carry, access, and transmit so much more information, audio, video, etc., than the alternatives it is kind of ridiculous. The question do you what good quality music/video or literally hundreds/thousands of songs or videos? For most this isn’t even a question worth asking. If loss-less quality supporters want to make any headway the need to close this gap.

    1. Formats have been created to improve upon some of the issues that MP3s have, like the Ogg Vorbis (.ogg) which is supposed to have better sound quality, small file sizes, and is patent-free. However, it has never really caught on, possible due to the hassle of collecting and playing music in a different format than the rest of the world.

      The ubiquity of the MP3 allows people to not buy their music over and over again every few years as technology changes and provides some stability and uniformity to music preservation efforts. Who knows how long things like Tidal and PonoPlayer will be around?

  4. Ah, I know the professor and the rant. He gets particularly angry about students willing to listen to music on YouTube.

    I think it’s interesting to come at this from both the perspective of an audio engineer who would record everything in 96kHz/24-bit if I could, and also an ethnomusicologist… who values what MP3s have done to our musical listening culture as a whole. First, I think you could argue that MP3s *are* being supplanted. I don’t have music downloaded to my phone anymore (just this sentence already brings up so many issues of how we store/listen to music, but I digress); instead, I have Spotify. I have Pandora. Perhaps this is apples and oranges… MP3s are file formats, and streaming software is… a platform? Maybe? Maybe not. I’m not exactly sure what types of files are stored on the servers of Spotify etc., but I would imagine that they’re WAV/AIFF files.

    But I think, with cloud computing, this sort of practice is only going to grow… until of course, Spotify gets hacked and all music it has is lost forever. Then I suppose the question will be what types of files we replace those with.

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