Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Management of Digital Music. Part 1: The Good Old Days

Vinyl long playing (LP) records: remember them? These are just a few that survived from my  collection of the 60s, 70s and early 80s

Once upon a time, music replay was easy.  All that was needed was a record turntable, a simple stereo amplifier and a pair of speakers.  Even half-decent budget equipment gave an excellent performance. In my youth I acquired such a system and then endlessly played vinyl LPs by the likes of Jethro Tull, Curved Air, Fairport Convention, Deep Purple, Quintessence and Blodwyn Pig in my undergraduate digs.  Roland Kirk, John Coltrane and Django Reinhardt also found they way into the mix and on occasions I would roll out Bach, Beethoven, Handel and even Stravinsky albums to demonstrate that I was a well-rounded and cultured fellow.  Despite its modest budget, my system was more than just a stereo, it replayed genuine high fidelity music. Not exactly audiophile level but pretty good quality by any standards.  Most of my friends owned similar setups and as a peer group we became used to a relatively high standard of music reproduction. Just for the record (pun intended -sorry!) my own rig comprised a 20W per channel Leak amplifier, a pair of Sykes & Hirsch speakers and the ubiquitous Garrard Sp25 MkII turntable. The latter were so common it seemed like they were issued to the entire (mostly) male population of the UK in the 18-25 age range.

My first Hi-Fi: a Garrard SP25 Mk2 turntable (with Goldring cartridge, I think), Leak Delta 30 15w per channel stereo amplifier and a pair of Sykes & Hirsch spherical speakers (almost a cliche of sixties design). Pics all borrowed from the internet

Well unedergaduate and postgraduate days flew by.  My hi-fi system was upgraded and my vinyl collection expanded considerably. I was quite content with this arrangement and also proud of my LP collection which by now occupied several shelves and had a 'cultured' appearance. Then came the 1980s. Sony and Philips collaborated (conspired?) on one of the best confidence trick known to Western Civilization: they convinced us that digitally encoded music on the newly introduced Compact Disc was so superior to the old analogue vinyl record (not to mention, audio cassettes, 8 tracks and reel-to-reel tapes) that we should replace our LP collections with their glitzy technology. And we did. I went along with this piece of genius marketing like everyone else. No more clicks and pops. Scratched records were a thing of the past. Music was bright, clear and flawless (well it wasn't actually, but that's a story for another occasion).   To facilitate playback of these nice mirror plastic circles, I added a CD player to the array of boxes on my music sideboard.  Once again I was more or less content with the status quo.

The New Millennium saw the emergence of a hitherto upstart computer company, Apple Computer, into the music business. In January 2001 they introduced the now ubiquitous iTunes music management software and then on 23rd October of the same year they launched the iPod: a digital Walkman that could hold hundreds, even thousands of tunes. This was the beginning of yet another chapter in the Music Format Wars. The MP3 digital music files used by Apple were already quite popular: portable personally players were quite common but digitized music had been brought into common awareness with the peer-to-peer  music sharing system, Napster. Napster was wildly popular  and music encoded as MP3 files were exchanged across the globe. It didn't take long for the moguls of the music industry to shut down Napster but by then we were all pretty familiar with MP3 files. The rise of the MP3 file was helped immensely by the availability of instant downloads: iTunes and the iTunes store made everything so convenient.

Convenience became the watchword and throughout the "oughties", CD based music libraries were gradually replaced by iPod or computer-resident music. Hi-fi systems were invariably exchanged for sound docks and self-powers speakers. We started to carry huge libraries of songs, sometimes numbering 10,000 or more, in our pockets. Almost any track could be downloaded in moments and elaborate, long customized playlists could be cobbled together with ease. Fantastic!

However a downside started to become apparent, especially to the old fogeys brought up with analog systems. When the music was played back through anything other than ear bud type headphones it sounded lacklustre and highlighted the limitations of this approach. First of all MP3 files and their AAC cousins, are highly compressed (to facilitate ease of downloading and reduce storage space) and are missing detailed information. Typically an MP3 song is a tenth of the size of its counterpart on a CD. Needless to say sonic quality suffers: high frequencies are lost, bass responses become muddy and there is overall distortion in the sound. Ian Corbett has written a detailed technical discussion of the limitations of MP3 files here. The problem is compounded by the fact that sound docks and computer speakers are of vastly inferior quality to the "stereos" of yesteryear, but as the millennial generation had no points of reference (mostly they wouldn't be seen dead playing an unfashionable CD) and acceptance of mediocre quality music became the norm.

Sadly, and as someone who should know better, I found myself falling into the same trap, particularly with regard to instant downloads. Then one day I played CD and MP3/AAC tracks of the same song through my old Hi-Fi and the difference was amazing  -or shocking, depending on whether or not you're a glass half-full/empty kind of person. So I decided to build a system that would accommodate modern digital music yet retain sonic fidelity.  Despite being quite familiar with music technology I found this task quite difficult to do: in my next post I'll describe the equipment I put together and my reasoning behind my choices. Hopefully it may serve as a useful guide to anyone else contemplating such a project.  I'll post it up in a week or so...until then please be patient.

To be continued...

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