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Sunday, July 27, 2008

To compress or not to compress

There's been quite a lot of talk this week about data compression of digital files. Good old Neil Young has weighed in pretty heavily on how compression spoils the fidelity of music...and Yahoo has pulled the plug on its digital music market, leaving everybody who downloaded music from them high and dry if they didn't back up copies of the songs they "bought".

I was never a big fan of digital downloading to begin with. The convenience factor has spawned a market where quality is sacrificed. I am glad that people are listening to music on their portable music devices, but I cringe at the thought of how much quality has been sacrificed to make that happen. If you compress the music using a codec such as mp3, you lose the upper harmonics which are so important to the sound - you destroy the deep complexity of what the audio engineers and producers have crafted through their art. The more you compress, the more you lose.

Compression was initially a convenient way to reduce file size when this was necessary - to store or to email large amounts of data. Now we have the storage capacity to take larger files, but people still compress to squeeze more into their available space. I would guess many people do not have a clue about what data compression does to the sound, and they are listening to something that has had much of the life sucked out of it. Do you know how much music you can get on a 160GB iPod in uncompressed format? The answer is way more than you're ever going to need to go on your jog round the park, anyway. Squeezing to save space is ludicrous - the next generation of portable music devices will have 10 or 100 times that storage capacity, and people will rush out to buy them on the day they're released, just like they did with the original iPod and now the iPhone. Apple's desire to sell, sell, sell, has left us with an uneducated consumer market, and a greed to pack in as much as we can without regard to quality.

When you download music from the internet you don't "own" it. You have purchased the rights to listen to it at your own convenience. You haven't got the right to duplicate it for your friends or to publish it on your web page. You can't kick up a fuss if the company who made it available to you pulls the plug. In this digital age, you should have learned to back up your files. The architecture of data storage is still more brittle than the demands we put on it - it is an inevitability that your hard drive will crash.

Go buy music on CD or even Blu-Ray- it's way better quality than a download. Don't compress your files unless it's necessary, and only if you have an uncompressed copy to go back to. Always record to CD quality (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) or higher if you can. And go check out Neil Young's "Living With War" website -


Amy Burns said...

Hi Richard,

I like your new blog. I have added it to my blog roll.

Great post. My husband is an engineer in audio and post video production. He is passionate about files not being compressed for the sound and for the artistic qualities that you wrote in your post.

These are great posts. I look forward to reading more in the future.


Richard McCready said...

Thank you, Amy. It's good to know that at least one person sees it the same way I do.

Richard Blenkinsopp said...

Richard, my response is somewhat too big for the comments box, and its also a work in progress. But I thought I should give you a link so that you can respond to my points if you wish.

I work as an engineer (mostly classical) and as a composer, and I don't completely agree with you, or rather, I think there's much more to the MP3 format than you're telling in your post.
Sorry I'm so late responding!

Despite a disagreement here, I'm enjoying your blog.


Richard McCready said...

Your comments are excellent, Richard. I love your argument about engineering for the highest common denominator. I try to teach my students that mixing and mastering are arts, and we must aim for the highest quality possible for arts sake. It is out of our control if someone listens to it at a compressed bit depth, just as it is out of Leonardo da Vinci's control if someone looks at the Mona Lisa with their sunglasses on. But we must aim for the listener that listens at the highest possible level when we create music, even though that will be a very small percentage of our audience.

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