A few years ago, you’d think I just found out Santa wasn’t real, when I discovered the process of auto-tuning vocals for music recordings. This is when a questionable vocalist can just tinker in the studio to make his or her vocals sound pitch-perfect. A process like this, and the whole Pro-Tools revolution of modern music production, took the way artists made albums into a whole new (synthetic) world. But, now, the revolution of MP3s has taken things even further down the rabbit hole. For a recent Rolling Stone article, Robert Levine makes an important thesis: “In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever.” From his very informative research:
Just as CDs supplanted vinyl and cassettes, MP3 and other digital-music formats are quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. That means more convenience but worse sound. To create an MP3, a computer samples the music on a CD and compresses it into a smaller file by excluding the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don’t reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, “you don’t get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord.”
But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, “it’s like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there’s a 10-megapixel image of it,” he says. “I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn’t look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on.”
Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. “You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3,” says producer Butch Vig [pictured above], a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind. “Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things.” Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.