Sunday, June 02, 2013

No surrender to MP3 ... but a peace agreement

Yeah, yeah, okay.

Your blogger swore eternal enmity with compressed sound files. Quote: "... the worst invention of the new century, the Satan-inspired MP3/iPod system. It has nearly destroyed the appetite for quality. Ten out of 10 audiophiles agree that owning an iPod should be a crime. The iPod is a step backward in music reproduction, and its devotees are Cro-Magnons who should devolve as fast as possible into amoebas."

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of sound files available on the Web use the MP3 coding. Over time I encountered many downloadable recordings that I would have liked to listen to at a convenient time and place or, in some cases, burn to CD for keeping. Eventually I asked myself: was I being dogmatic? After all, I hadn't actually heard many MP3 files, and those were played on poor equipment.

So I began to explore the world of MP3 downloads. I needed to learn how to burn an MP3 file to a CD -- that's how ignorant I was. Before long I had to admit that MP3s played through a good sound system don't necessarily sound awful, and that there is a lot of worthwhile material available no other way.

Don't get me wrong: I am not a new convert more Catholic than the Pope. You won't catch me with wires running out of my ears to an iPod held in my lap. I don't have any funny MP3 playback gear like the ones you wear around your wrist like a watch. My listening is via my regular home sound system, or sometimes my car's CD player.

Lossy (compressed) software such as MP3 is less accurate than lossless software -- that's a fact of life. What we're talking about here is how much less accurate, and how much it matters in listening to various kinds of sources.

To keep things simple, let's categorize sources as speaking (not singing) voice, electronic music, and acoustic music.


Voice. Plenty of interviews, discussions, and dramatic readings can be downloaded ... mainly, I am sorry to say, from the dreaded BBC, particularly Radio 3 and Radio 4. The compression is not a problem; the sound of the voice may not be accurate, but in almost all cases, who cares? The only time it might make a scrap of difference is if you are hearing a John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, or any other great actor whose nuances of speech are part of the performance.

Electronic music. This is a deliberately broad category that comprises rock, electronica, trance, anything that passes through an amplifier or tonal processor. The compressed files are less close to the original sound than with uncompressed files, but the difference is meaningless. I know what an unamplified violin or guitar sounds like, but an electric guitar (let alone a synthesizer) is capable of a Texas-sized range of auditory effects.

Here is where MP3 is most valuable. I've discovered a number of web sites with downloadable music (uncopyrighted or with a "creative commons" license), so it's perfectly legal to copy music from them. Particularly interesting is the live music archive of the Internet Archive. Apparently any musician(s) can put their stuff on this site, and you can listen to it in streaming format or save it to a compact disc, your hard drive, a flash drive, or any other storage medium.

Not surprisingly, a vast percentage of the performers and bands are unknown unknowns. I've listened to some, and most are decent but undistinguished, although I expect there is gold in them there hills if you are willing to expend the time to find it.

But a few "name" bands are represented. Naturally, the Grateful Dead (8,691 items, presumably all or most being complete concerts). Here is the modern equivalent of the cassette tapes Deadheads passed around to one another in the '80s, the main difference being that digital recordings can be reproduced any number of times without losing any fidelity, while cassette sound degenerated with each generation of copying.

I still have mixed feelings about the Grateful Dead, incidentally. When they were at the top of their game or anywhere near it (mostly in their earlier years), they were hypnotically captivating (and band members wrote some damn good songs). The Dead were about, among other things, improvisation -- then and now, rare among popular groups. They were a jazz ensemble wrapped up in a rock band.

But when their hearts weren't in it -- and let's face it, no matter how much they enjoyed playing, by their 6,000th concert some of the thrill had to be gone -- a certain sameness and playing by numbers crept in. Still, it's marvelous that their career is documented and available at this site.

Also represented are The New Riders of the Purple Sage (391 items), originally an offshoot of the Dead that took a turn toward country. And it seems they're still going strong, with concert recordings from as recently as 2009. None of the original members are in the band, but their replacement personnel are cracking fine musicians in their own right and sound a lot like the early New Riders without slavishly copying them.

Another useful site is NPR's Live in Concert series. Many of the "concerts" are only tasting menus of three or four songs, but some by well-known performers occupy an hour or more. The only drawbacks are (1) the between-numbers chatter from the stage and (2) the yelling, whooping, and loud obnoxious behavior of the audiences.

For lovers of the truly esoteric, there is, which seems to be based in the U.K. Their musical offerings are classified by descriptions such as "noise."

This posting is long enough for one go, an indication of what's out there for downloading -- and of course there are many sites I haven't mentioned. I'll save the final category, acoustic music on MP3, for the next entry.

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