Get Smart: An audio engineer talks Mp3s

by DGO Web Administrator

In the finale of our series about audio formats, audio engineer Scott Smith, owner of the recording studio Scooter’s Place, tells you about algorithms, production values, and other things you pretend to understand.

CDs are a step up from vinyl, so Mp3s are a step forward again?That’s a step back. Mp3s are the cassette of the vinyl days, although cassettes sound better. It’s all about the portability of it; we’re talking about storage and devices that we take with us. Basically, there’s 650-800 MB of information on a CD, and a song is roughly 5-10 MB. When you make it into an Mp3, you’re shrinking that song down into a 1/10th of that. Now, you’re able to store more information on a device. That’s what makes Mp3s so appealing – portability in the form of storage. So now you don’t have to take a stack of CDs with you on your road trip, you take your iPod. The downside is that you’re losing tons of information in the name of that storage. Your listening experience is portable, but the quality of the sound is extremely degraded. You still have frequency response, the highs and lows and whatnot, but you get this thing called smearing. There’s an algorithm scouring the data that says, “There’s so much of this that’s alike, and we don’t need to retain it, we just need to say that it’s there,” and then gets rid of what it deems to be redundancies. When you listen to an Mp3 that’s a little unclear, or sounds washy, that’s what you’re hearing – something that should be there, and was supposed to be, but was deemed irrelevant. (The) playback system has a lot to do with how much of that missing information we’re going to notice, as well as our environment. If you’re listening to music in a noisy environment on a crappy system, you’re not going to notice that it’s missing a lot of detail and clarity. But if things are quiet, if you’re focused and listening with a nice playback system, “Whoa! What’s going on here? That doesn’t sound right!” That’s the trade-off. You’re on the go, you’ve got your iPod and earbuds with you on the subway and you’re thinking, “This is awesome!” But at home, when you really want to listen, you’re probably going to want the CD.

So it comes down to convenience or quality?Unfortunately, portability and convenience won out. People don’t want to buy a CD because the Mp3 is more convenient and the quality is OK enough. Whether we’re thinking about it or not, every time we buy an Mp3, what we’re saying is, “I can deal with this.” And I get it. I own an iPod, too! It’s excruciatingly portable. Storage wise, my entire music collection now fits on a hard drive instead of a wall. But, and this is why I think vinyl is experiencing a resurgence, there’s no experience with an Mp3. It’s excruciatingly easy. I don’t have to do anything. “Alexa!” (laughs) Or I can randomize my library and listen to it for the rest of my life! I’ll never have to stop doing anything else, and I’ll constantly have music. I’m glad to see that people are starting to say, “I want to listen to music.” They want to stop, they want to sit down with it and take it in. It’s like learning to play an instrument – you have to learn and think and do. If you really want to get into music, you have to do the same things.

Is that why live shows are experiencing a boom as well?Yes! Not only is a concert a live, physical experience where you get to see what’s going on, but you’re there with friends, too. You’re doing something. You’re going to see a band. You can be in the elevator and have music. In fact, most of our lives we’re experiencing music that we’re not even aware of. You’re not enjoying it, it’s just there. The bank, the grocery store. It’s like the people who leave the TV on in their house, “I just need some noise, I don’t really care what it is.”

What does “Mastered for iTunes” mean?That means that the artist has taken very particular care to understand all of the algorithms that are going into their playback format. It’s like mastering for vinyl or for a CD. Apple went through and developed an algorithm that says that if you put your album through these steps and these things, it will sound best when played back on our stuff. It’s trying to get the best out of that format – so it’s actually a good thing.

How has the Mp3 affected the creative process?For the consumer, it’s made things excruciatingly available. You’re on the beach, you’re in the woods, and you’re listening to your music – that’s pretty amazing. From the artist’s standpoint, I think it’s devalued their art. You pay 99 cents for a song that took years for an artist to make. How much time and effort went into just the physical product? Not to mention when you think about all of the work that went into that song – the years of practice to get good, the years of honing performances and writing songs, then the recording and mixing and mastering, the artwork! The convenience of things has won out and ruined the outcome of everything. We no longer long for an experience, we just want the end result, but we’re unwilling to even pay for the end result and so we’re not left with anything. That goes for anything that we consume, buy, or partake in. Even food – we’ve gone so far with creating convenient, inexpensive food, that we’re – well, that’s another thing. Shut up, Scott. (laughs)

Cyle Talley does a really good David Byrne impression. Or so he’s told. If there’s anything you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]

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