What happened was, I kept catching videos and radio spots by The Civil Wars and liking them. I thought maybe I should buy some, so I visited their Web site and noticed with pleasure that they sell uncompressed FLAC, not just MP3, so I snapped up Barton Hollow. It’s good. But am I fooling myself in spurning compressed music?
Harmony · The Civil Wars are all about that special thing: girl voice and boy voice sing together. Human vocals don’t ask that much from an audio system; the notes don’t go that terribly high or terribly low, nor is the dynamic range huge. Production techniques are simple: use a good microphone, put the vocals somewhere near the center of the soundstage and mix the instruments in behind them. What you get depends on the song and the singing; which is as it should be.
So it’s not obvious that The Civil Wars’ music benefits from my insistence in paying the extra disk space FLAC costs. Some would go further, and argue that no music does.
Bitrate Horror · Coding Horror is the handle of Jeff Atwood, whose accomplishments include stackoverflow.com and a lot of really good blogging. He thinks 160kbps MP3 is plenty good enough, and attempted to prove it in The Great MP3 Bitrate Experiment, which is worth reading if you haven’t already.
He actually provided some audio samples at a variety of bitrates and invited people to pick the best. Most couldn’t. So he must be right, right?
I went and got them, and listened carefully on my audio system, which is moderately high-end. The bits come out of a Mac via USB into the highly-regarded Benchmark Audio DAC, into an old but very good Linn Kairn preamp, another old but very good Simaudio power amp, into not-that-old and really excellent Totem speakers and subwoofer, playing (and this really matters) in a large rectangular room with a hardwood floors and enough doors and bookcases to control standing waves; I’ve measured the response and it’s really not bad.
I couldn’t tell Jeff’s samples apart, except for I could tell the “worst” one (128kbps) was subtly different; not sure whether better or worse. So, Jeff must really be right, right?
I actually don’t know. I’m prepared to believe, especially given the advances in encoders tuned to human hearing capabilities, that there’s a huge fall-off in perceptible quality at some point on the bitrate curve, and that it might be somewhere around 160kbps. But Jeff’s samples are not an effective tool for investigating this issue. They are the opening minute or so of Starship’s We Built This City. It’s bad music that no human with good taste would actually listen to for pleasure, on top of which, as far as audio quality goes, it’s a turd.
There’s no deep bass and no illusion whatsoever that real musicians are in a real space. The voices are heavily processed and the instruments are a big cheesy splodge of 80s synth noise. Now, as for the drums; listen to when they come in, there’s this big pan across the sound-stage, right to left. Do you think this is the drummer working his way around his kit, with painstakingly-set-up mikes to catch the sound moving in space? Me neither. It’s either some sort of primitive drum machine or a mono capture, and the guy at the mixing board is twisting the pan knob. That mixing board, given the date, is probably an eighty-channel monster, each channel having like ten different cheapo controls. Not exactly audiophile values.
After a few painful minutes with Starship, I switched to The Civil Wars and Barton Hollow. The difference was epochal; I was hearing acoustic instruments reproduced with a lot of soul, actual human voices including breath and chest subtleties, and solid location of the voices and instruments in horizontal space. Oh, and songs that touched me.
I’d call Barton Hollow competently but not brilliantly produced. The voices are mixed a little too far behind and among the instruments; they deserve better highlighting. And any echo from the walls of the studio is brutally suppressed, the voices and instruments are surrounded by deep black digital silence. It sounds good, but not like being in a real room with real musicians; no you-are-there there.
Anyhow, if Jeff had extracted samples from something produced at least as well as this, and I still hadn’t been able to spot any difference, I’d be starting to line up with him on bitrates. But given that the music was recorded at much lower resolution than that of a decent home-audio system, I can’t believe any useful measurement occurred.
Things I believe · About audio reproduction:
Music quality trumps audio quality; some of my favorite records sound like dogshit.
For example, on Barton Hollow the best song by a mile is the title track, even though the guitars and some vocal parts sound kinda compressed. Because the words and music clutch at your heart. Well, mine anyhow
The most important link in the audio-quality chain is in the studio; the initial recording and production phase. If you produce a stinker like We Built This City, nothing down the chain is gonna save it.
There is a lot of snake oil and bullshit in audiophile circles. Many of the claims are in the ridiculous-to-physically-impossible range.
A solid high-end system, carefully set up in a decent room, sounds dramatically, stupendously better than ordinary big-box packages, on both well- and poorly-recorded music.
It’s really hard to isolate why high-end sounds better, because the claims of its proponents are often bullshit, and this has irritated the skeptics so much that they tend to dismiss the whole pursuit.
It’s a good idea to buy and keep uncompressed music, because when we actually get a good engineering handle on whatever it is that makes high-end systems sound good, we can maybe optimize for that and get more out of the signal, unless you’ve thrown too much of it away by compressing it.
I have a medium-large music collection; eleven and a half thousand songs, 33.5 days of music, and it’s almost all uncompressed. It occupies less than 250G of disk space, the cost of which is negligible. Why would you throw away musical data that might prove to be useful, to save pennies?
Musicians who want me to open my wallet should operate a competent Web site with a store that offers uncompressed downloads.
That Boy-Girl Thing · If you like it as much as I do, you might want to check out any of the records of elderly Greek folkie Georges Moustaki. Also, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons on Sleepless Nights, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan on Another Cup of Coffee, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young on Wrecking Ball... spot a pattern?
Happily, the form is not dead, as witness The Civil Wars. Also, catch this 2009 YouTube of Feist and Wilco. Feist and Tweedy are remarkable; their unison is so exact that it sounds not like harmony, but one voice with two parts. There doesn’t seem to be a well-produced uncompressed version online... but anyhow it’s the music that matters.